The Art of Deception: Magic as a Theatrical Art

Is magic a form of theatrical art or a whimsical sideshow performance?Magicians are not regarded as artists in the same way as actors, dancers and musicians are. Magic plays a modest role in the world of show business and is more aligned with sideshows and circus than with theatrical art. Most would deny magic the status of an art form as it has a lowly status in the hierarchy of the dramatic arts.1 Not perturbed by their lowly status, magicians themselves often refer to their performances as an art form.

Are magicians artists and is performing magic an art form in the same way that other forms of ‘serious’ theatre are art? Discussing whether magic is an art or not is almost futile as there are many equally valid interpretations of what constitutes a form of art.

As an art form, magic is an informal form of theatre that resides in the niches of contemporary culture. Most people rarely experience a live magic performance and would struggle to recall the names of magicians. The majority of magic performers does not appear on television or works in regular theatres. They perform in many types of venues not traditionally associated with theatre, children’s birthday parties, restaurants, the street, at conventions and so on. This unique nature of magic implies that it cannot be analysed in the same way as you would a traditional theatrical performance. This essay proposes that magic cannot be examined using the traditional concept of theatre but that it is a form of ‘epic theatre’ as conceptualised by Bertold Brecht.

Theatrical Art

Theatre is traditionally considered to be a ‘closed’ Aristotelian form of art, characterised by the unity of time, place and action.2 The objective of ‘closed theatre’ is that the audience to temporarily forgets that they are watching actors on a stage. The role of the writers, actors, directors and others is to ensure the “suspension of disbelief” by spectators. The audience is enticed to believe in the virtual reality staged in front of their eyes. Nineteenth-century French magician Robert Houdin, the father of modern magic, is famous for saying that a magician is an actor who plays the role of a real magician.3 Houdin’s definition of a stage magician matches the Aristotelian concept of theatre. In his view, the objective of magical theatre is to convince spectators that the person they are watching is a real magician, a person that can contravene the laws of physics. From this perspective, a magic show is an Aristotelean art form, assuming the magician can, at least temporarily, convince spectators that she possesses supernatural powers.

However, the closed concept of theatre cannot be generically applied to contemporary magicians. Any intelligent observer realises that magicians use devious techniques to create the illusion that he evokes magical powers. The audience is astutely aware that a conjurer cannot produce playing cards from thin air or cause balls to penetrate solid metal cups. For magic to be considered theatrical art in the traditional sense, it requires spectators to suspend their disbelief. Modern viewers are, however, not able to fully immerse in the magical world created by the magician to the same extent that they are willing to suspend their disbelief when watching a film or play.

The intellectual challenge inherent in magic theatre engenders a tension between the audience and the magician. “How did she do it” is always on the mind of the spectator. The main difference between magicians and actors is that magic performances are often about the adventures of the props in the hands of the magician, while plays and films are about the adventures of the individuals themselves.4 The lack of human interest in most magic makes it almost impossible for disbelief to be suspended. Perhaps there is another way to interpret magic performances.

Magicians and Bertolt Brecht

A significant difference between traditional closed theatre and magic is that conjuring almost always involves direct communication and interaction between the performer and the spectator. In traditional theatre, there exists a so-called fourth wall, an imaginary division between performers and audiences. The fourth wall is an invisible one-way screen placed on the edge of the stage. The audience can see and hear the actors, but the characters played by the actors, cannot perceive them. In a magic show, especially close-up magic, this wall doesn’t exist as spectators form an active part of the performance. “Pick a card, any card”, are commonly heard words in close-up magic shows and the observer participates in the performance. Traditional theatre occasionally breaks through the fourth wall when a character in a play refers to the fact that they are part of a performance. These considerations imply that the Aristotelian idea of theatre does not apply to magic, in particular, close-up magic.

German playwright Bertolt Brecht developed a view of theatre that contrasts the Aristotelian view. One of the techniques he used was the distancing effect (Verfremdungseffekt). This effect happens when an actor, implicitly or explicitly, indicates being part of a performance, deliberately breaking through the fourth wall. In Brecht’s concept of theatre, actors often break through the fourth wall and spectators are not expected to identify emotionally with the characters. In Brechtian theatre, audiences are rationally engaged with the proceedings, which he calls this epic theatre.5

A magic show cannot be analysed according to the rules of traditional theatre but are best interpreted as a form of epic theatre. In magic, there is usually no need for emotion or storytelling. Magic has an inherent story to tell, embedded within its very nature. Each magical effect contains the powerful message that reality is not what it seems to be.6 Magic performances are thus an inherently philosophical form of theatre. The magician temporarily creates a virtual world where miracles are possible. It is in this Brechtian sense that magic theatre can be considered a theatrical form art. Magic is a form of epic theatre in which the magician presents the ordinary in an unusual way. The magician indicates the horizon of reality and creates an intellectual challenge for the audience. Not a simple puzzle to be resolved, but a deeper truth about how we experience reality.

This concept can be demonstrated using two examples.

Fred Kaps

Fred Kaps (1926–1980) is one of the best magicians of the last century. Kaps, the stage name of Bram Bongers, had an inimitable performance style, characterised by flawless technique and an engaging presentation. Kaps is the ultimate conjuring actor, and his performance of The Homing Card is an example of dramaturgic perfection.

In this performance, Kaps is in constant conflict with himself as he experiences a series of escalating emotions. The first time he notices the wrong card he is surprised but ignores the issue. The second time the trick goes wrong, Kaps is embarrassed and tries to figure out what’s going on. The third time the wrong card appears he is disappointed in himself but proceeds nevertheless. The fourth and last time the wrong card appears, he even shows anger and eventually capitulates.

This performance is and example of an Aristotelian form of theatre, but not following Houdin’s concept of the actor playing a wizard. Kaps does not pretend to be a real magician, but a plays the role of a failed stage magician.

Tommy Wonder — Epic Theatre

Another Dutch magician is Jos Bemelmans, better known as Tommy Wonder. Bemelmans wrote two of the most influential books in contemporary magic, in which he thoroughly analyses the dramaturgy of a magic show.7

The spectators in this show actively participate, demolishing the fourth wall. The routine consists of several stages, with increasingly strong effects. A distinctive aspect of this performance is the appearance of the pompom and the pouch under one of the cups. In traditional versions of this trick the final climax is the appearance of fruit or bigger balls. Tommy Wonder’s performance is a high-quality piece of magic where spectators are continuously astonished. The power of the close-up magic is not the proximity between the performer and the audience, but that the audience actively experiences the magic, instead of passively consuming the performance.8).

This performance can not be analysed following the traditional view of theatre, but is a prime example of epic theatre. There is no fourth wall and the performance is not about a story, but about pure illusions. This performance creates an intellectual challenge for the audience, which is what Brecht sought to achieve in his form of theatre.

Magic as Theatrical Art

Perepectives on Magic: A book about scienctific views of conjuringMagic is a form of epic theatre as explained by Bertolt Brecht. Most magic performances are not traditional theatre, in which disbelief is suspended, but performances where the magician conveys an alternative worldview. Magic is not about storytelling or intellectual challenges but, at least temporarily about taking us back to a natural state of astonishment, the child’s world view.9

Like to know more? Read my book Perspectives on Magic for more scholarly reflections on theatrical magic.

  1. Michael Mangan, Performing Dark Arts. A cultural history of conjuring (Bristol en Chicago 2007). 

  2. Disselkoen, Dick ed., Twaalf Opera’s als Spiegel van hun Tijd (Heerlen en Nijmegen 1993). 

  3. Julian M. Olf, ‘The actor and the magician’, The Drama Review: TDR 18 (1974) 53-58. 

  4. Eugene Burger en Robert E. Neale, Magic and Meaning (Seatlle 1995). 

  5. Disselkoen, Twaalf Opera’s

  6. Burger en Neale, Magic and meaning. 

  7. Tommy Wonder, The Books of Wonder (Seattle 1996). 

  8. Paul Harris, The Art of Astonishment I (California 1996 

  9. Paul Harris, The Art of Astonishment I (California 1996). 

The Prince and the Purple Banana – Lets Go Crazy!

“Let’s look for the purple banana till they put us in the truck”, Prince sang in his 1984 song Let’s go Crazy. These nonsensical words have generated many discussions about what they mean.

One possible interpretation is that we should break away from our dull, mundane reality. But our deviant behaviour makes other people think we are crazy. Prince wants us to ignore what other people think and to keep doing so until they haul us away to the loony bin.

Contemporary society dictates that madness needs to be separated from the every-day world. Michel Foucault describes the history of madness and the development of the first asylums. In the Renaissance, the mad were portrayed as possessing a kind of wisdom—a knowledge of the limits of our world, the horizon of reason. As the ‘age of reason’ started to develop, anyone that did not meet the strict requirements of rational thought and behaviour was labelled as mad and locked up in institutions.

The song is ultimately about our personal responsibility for creating a meaningful life in an absurd and unfair world. This message is in line with the thinking of Existentialist philosophers. Prince voices this thought clearly in his song:

What’s it all for (What’s it all for)
You better live now
Before the grim reaper come knocking on your door

Prince creates meaning by not following what society deems to be reasonable and rational, advising us to go crazy and nuts. Being different is not a disease. Living on the horizon of reason is necessary to be able to live life in fullness. Prince’s imperative does not necessarily mean that we must party like it is 1999, but that we dare to be different in our thoughts, or to use a well-trodden cliché, think outside the box.

The Real Purple Banana

Banana São Tomé (Purple banana)But perhaps Prince was wrong and purple bananas are not as elusive as he thought. The Banana São Tomé is a species of purple banana.

The fact that purple bananas can exist does, however, not reduce the potency of his lyric and the existentialist message contained in this song.

Let’s go crazy
Let’s get nuts
Look for the purple banana
‘Til they put us in the truck, let’s go!

“I could have painted that”—Complex simplicity in abstract art

Abstract art: Jan Nelson (Australia 1955) Summer Collection (2004). Enamel on linen. RHS Abbott Bequest Fund 2004.20

Jan Nelson (Australia 1955) Summer Collection (2004). Enamel on linen. RHS Abbott Bequest Fund 2004.20

Abstract art is often ridiculed by the uninitiated observer—”I could have painted that” are words you often hear whispered in galleries.

This statement contains a hidden argument: This painting could have been created by me because it requires little technique. I am not an artist; therefore it cannot be considered art.

Summer Collection by Jan Nelson is a case in point. The straight horizontal lines are indeed something that anyone with a basic ability to hold a paintbrush ostensibly could recreate. But is this a valid argument against the status of this painting as a work of art?

Abstract Art

Traditional concepts of visual art are focused on skill, with the highest level of skill perceived to be the faithful representation of what we perceive to be our external reality. The history of art seems to follow an evolutionary trajectory from the early beginnings in caves to the photo-realistic oil paintings of the seventeenth century. For the casual observer, this evolutionary process is reversed in the early twentieth century when abstract art makes its entry. The strip of images shown below shows this evolution, starting with a naturalistic painting of a tree.

Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan started his career by painting impressionistic works, such as The Red Tree from 1908, seen second from the left. Mondriaan later became inspired by the cubist movement and painted The Gray Tree in 1911. He experimented further with abstracting the idea of a tree and produced Flowering Apple Tree. Later in his career he became mainly known for his compositions with strict geometrical patterns and primary colours iconic for the De Stijl movement.


Contemporary art is no longer restricted to a copy reality, but a way to interpret reality through the observation and technique of the artist. Originality and visual impact are now more important than mere skill of faithfully reproducing what is seen.

Next time when you hear somebody say that they could have painted this, simply ask: “Why didn’t you?”.

The United Patriots Front

United Patriots FrontBRIAN: Are you the True Australian Patriots?
REG: Fuck off!
BRIAN: What?
REG:True Australian Patriots … We’re the United Patriots Front!True Australian Patriots. Cawk.
FRANCIS: Wankers.
BRIAN: Can I… join your group?
REG: No. Piss off.
BRIAN: I didn’t want to sell this stuff. It’s only a job. I hate the Muslims as much as anybody.
United Patriots Front: Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhh. Shh. Shhhh.
REG: Stumm.
JUDITH: Are you sure?
BRIAN: Oh, dead sure. I hate the Muslims already.
REG: Listen. If you wanted to join the UPF, you’d have to really hate the Muslims.
BRIAN: I do!
REG: Oh, yeah? How much?
BRIAN: A lot!
REG: Right. You’re in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Muslims are the fucking True Australian Patriots.
P.F.J.: Yeah…
JUDITH: Splitters.
P.F.J.: Splitters…
FRANCIS: And the United Popular Patriots Front.
P.F.J.: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters…
LORETTA: And the United Patriots Front.
P.F.J.: Yeah. Splitters. Splitters…
REG: What?
LORETTA: The United Patriots Front. Splitters.
REG: We’re the United Patriots Front!
LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.
REG: People’s Front! C-huh.
FRANCIS: Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?
REG: He’s over there.
P.F.J.: Splitter!

The United Patriots Front – Nothing new under the sun

Predicting future behaviour from past events: A magician’s view

In recruitment of new staff an often used golden rule often is that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour. Businesses rely on reference checks or even Google searches to find out as much as they can about their potential new staff. But, is past behaviour really a good proxy for predicting future behaviour?

A magician’s view

The silent part of the American magician’s duo Penn & Teller broke his usual silence and vow of secrecy when he explained a classical magic trick to a gathering of consciousness scholars.

Teller showed that magicians can use the propensity of the human mind to seek patterns by skilfully changing the method during the routine. Teller beautifully illustrates that in human behaviour, the past is in no way a reliable approach to predicting the future.

Predicting future behaviour in recruitment

it is not logical to think that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour

We have to be careful when judging a person through second hand information gained from referees, Facebook searches and other forms of overt espionage. People are not billiard balls that operate in accordance with laws of physics. People have free will and can change their behaviour depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Most importantly, we can learn from our mistakes and grow as people by learning from them. Not hiring somebody who has made a mistake in the past could mean that you miss out on hiring a person with a high level of maturity and an ability to adapt. Therefore, when judging a person, keep in mind the words of Roman poet Horace: “Non sum quals eram”—I am not who I once was.

Tommy Wonder on Religion

Tommy Wonder (1953–2006).

Tommy Wonder (1953–2006).

Dutch Magician Tommy Wonder provides an interesting insight into the nature of religion in Volume I of his  The Books of Wonder (1996).

He gives advice to magicians on what to do when a spectator discovers—or beliefs to discover—the secret to a magic routine:

“I’ve frequently wondered why people sometimes come up with painfully silly solutions and don’t stop to realize it. If they would give the matter more thought they would quickly see that their solution couldn’t possibly work. I believe their reasoning runs something like this: The moment a spectator sees a magical effect that he [sic] doesn’t understand, he is confronted with a problem, a problem that stands square in front of him like a granite boulder … Now if the spectator contrives some solution, in a way he has enabled himself to move the problem. He can roll this boulder out of his way, so that he is no longer confronted by it. The problem seems to be solved … his mind throws a big party. He’s solved the problem!”

This observation from the every day practice of a professional magician shows an interesting psychological mechanism at work. Somebody is presented with a seemingly unsolvable problem, which creates a conflict in the mind. As soon as a solution is presented, no matter how improbable, the conflict seems to disappear. Wonder continues:

“Because his mind is dancing and celebrating its victory, it never stops to realize that it only moved the problem … it still exists in another place.”

The psychological mechanism at work is a process of cognitive dissonance. When a magician makes a ball disappear, there are two observations which seem to have no causal relationship—the ball is there and the ball is gone. It is the job of the magician to hide the actual cause—this causeless event is the magical effect. Humans are inclined to remove any tension between dissonant observations, even if this means inventing miraculous connections.

Cognitive dissonance is often used as an explanation for the emergence of religion in pre-scientific cultures. The idea being that ancient people experienced a cognitive dissonance in their experience of natural occurrences, such as the daily disappearance and re-appearance of the sun. The explanations created to relieve the tension is what we now know as religion. This is, however, only a partial explanation. Although much of religion is provides explanations for the way the world is, for those who follow it religion is also a vehicle to provide meaning to life, something that cannot be provided by science.

Does all cognitive dissonance need to be resolved? Why can we not live with the tension of not knowing—accepting that there are questions for which we do not have an answer, or for which there even might not be an answer? Tommy Wonder touches on this when he argues that magicians should aim to defuse the cognitive dissonance experienced by the spectator, creating suspension of disbelief and giving rise to a feeling that magic really exists—even if it is only for a fleeting moment, as our rational mind quickly takes over, trying to resolve the dissonance.

Theatrical Magic and the Sciences

Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring.

Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring.

The past three years I have been studying the relationship between magic and science and studied hundreds of articles about the performance of magic tricks from many different fields of science. From this I found that the relationship between magic and the sciences is bidirectional.

Firstly, magicians use the principles of science to create the illusion of magic. They use the principles of psychology, physics, linguistics, engineering and so on to perform their tricks. The second relationship between magic and science is that Scientists study what magicians do. For example, psychologists try to find out how people can be deceived, occupational therapists try to help people improve people’s lives by teaching them magic tricks and scholars in the field of gender studies develop ideas on why so few women are involved in the performance of magic.

For my Perspectives on Magic project I have created an annotated bibliography of scientific research into theatrical magic. The table below provides an overview of the relationship between theatrical magic and the different fields of science. The middle column shows the fields of science used by magicians to create the illusion of magic. The last column shows the fields of science which have studied magic performances.

Theatrical magic and science

Sciences Magic Trick Methods Study magic and magicians
Physical Sciences Chemistry
Life Sciences Health sciences
Physiology Physiology
Social Sciences Anthropology
Business studies
Gender Studies
Film Studies
Library Science
Linguistics Linguistics
Performance Studies Performance Studies
Psychology Psychology
Applied Sciences Engineering Computer programming
Occupational Therapy
Formal Sciences Mathematics
Information Theory

You can read more about the relationship between magic and science in my book Perspectives on Magic.

What can Pigeons teach us about Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction is a often debated social problem. A lot has been said in Australia about the measures in place to combat gambling addiction. Specially slot machines, poker machines, or whatever they are called in your country, are causing financial problems for many people around the globe. These machines are programmed to be addictive as they tap into foundational psychological mechanisms.

Following the theory of instrumental conditioning, our behaviour is motivated by rewards and punishments. This is the basic mechanism used to educate children, the infamous carrot and stick approach.

The Psychology of Gambling Addiction

With a poker machine, every time we press a button there is a predefined, albeit unpredictable, probability that we are rewarded for that behaviour. In instrumental conditioning this is called a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement. This method has proven to be very addictive. Even animals in experimental situations have been seen to become addicted to the conditioned behaviour. Watch the video below to see how gambling operators tap into non-rational drives to make us addicted to gambling.

We are using this same mechanism to change our cat Stinkey’s behaviour. She drives us crazy every morning in an attempt to get some canned food. Because we irregularly reward her behaviour we introduced a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement, which leads to addictive behaviour. Stinkey became addicted to begging for canned food.

We recently started to give her a little bit every night and create a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule and the obsessive begging has quickly extinguished.

Conjuring Literature: The Magic Library

Many magicians are avid collectors of magic tricks, DVDs, books and anything else related to their passion. Some are quite fanatical and amass thousands of volumes on the art of deception, like the Conjuring Arts Research Centre in New York shown in this video. Several such libraries exist in the world, including some academic libraries have also created collections on conjuring.

The Magic Library

Beth Kattelman from the department of theatre at Ohio State University published an article on one of these collections in Theatre Survey, published by the American Society for Theatre Research.1. Some notable academic collections of magic books and paraphernalia in Australia are the Will Alma Conjuring Collection at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne and the Robbins Stage Magic Collection, State Library of New South Wales.2 Some other academic institutions with a magic library:

Parallel to the literature about magic by magicians there exists a sub-genre of scientific writings from many fields of endeavour. These books and journal articles are mainly read by the colleagues of the professionals and scientists that created this work. Historians, cultural scientists, psychologists, occupational therapists, neuroscientists, film researchers and so on have deliberated on the role, workings and practical purpose of conjuring.

Most of this work is, however, locked behind pay walls and publishers charge exorbitant prices for a single ten page journal article. Over the past three years I have extensively researched this literature and created an online annotated bibliography on the science of conjuring to help unlock this vast resource.

  1. Kattelman, Beth A.  (2008) The American Museum of Magic/Lund Memorial Library and Other Resources on Magic and Conjuring. Theatre Survey (49) 2: 285-293. DOI: 10.1017/S0040557408000161 

  2. Awcock, F. (2004). Will Alma, mas­ter magi­cian. The La Trobe Journal, 74, 15–24; Gal­lacher, L. (2006). Cast­ing the spell: Magic in books. The La Trobe Journal, 78, 71–87. 

Social networks in 1796: Family Relations in an Ancien Régime village

Social networks are considered the latest development in how humans interact with each other. This is, however, not correct as a social network is based on relationships and not limited to electronic communication. Social networks are an integral part of human existence and are as old as humanity itself. The term has been popularised due to the rise of social electronic media.

Before modernity, before the rise of individualism, social networks were defined by kinship, which was mainly based on genetic connections between people. Kinship is, however more than a network of genetic relationships as it is the social language in which society is expressed. In pre-modern collective societies kinship defined the boundaries of society. In the time before Facebook, social networks in Catholic societies were recorded in church books.

I have undertaken research to determine the kinship boundaries for the Southern Dutch agricultural hamlet of Heugem, combining the 1796 census and local church records. In 1796 the hamlet consisted of 39 houses with 172 inhabitants, of which 54 below the age of 12. Almost 90% of the population was born in Heugem. The social networks of genealogical relations have been been graphically displayed using the Pajek software for the analysis of large networks. The analysis shows a high level of interrelatedness within the community, with the priest as the only person without relatives. The research also shows that the overwhelming majority of people were born and died in Heugem. As such, a high correlation between geographic and kinship boundaries was found.

Nodes for men are triangles and nodes for women are circles. Blue nodes indicate people born in Heugem, red nodes indicate those from outside the town, and white nodes indicate deceased people. Parent-child relationships are indicated with black arrows, while marriages are denoted with blue lines. Click on the diagram for an enlarged view.

Social network for Heugem in 1796

Social network for Heugem in 1796.

The preliminary results of this research will be presented at the XXXth Frontiers in Genealogy and Heraldry conference in Maastricht, the Netherlands.