When I created my theater, I made it a rule for myself to only perform for the audience effects that were my own invention. This was of course a difficult obligation to fulfil, but thanks to my persevering research — and, I must add, much hard work — I succeeded for the entire duration of my performances in unfailingly following the path I had laid out for myself.
—It is true that I had a powerful ally in physics, especially dynamic electricity. This science, to which today we owe the transatlantic telegraph, was then known only to a very small number of researchers. I applied it to my routines, and its amazing qualities made several of my effects even more wondrous since the method could not be discovered.
—I need not remind you of the additional resources offered to me by mechanics — my favorite science — and conjuring, for which I had always had a true passion.
—The eight effects I am about to describe will show how indebted I am to these three combined elements. …
Robert-Houdin’s theater, a recreation
The Robert-Houdin House of Magic
‘Located in Blois, France, the Robert-Houdin House of Magic is the only public museum in Europe bringing together magic collections and permanent live performances. On the facades of the House of Magic a six-headed monster, lady of the house, emerges from the windows every half hour and seems to inspect the entrance, as though to bid you welcome.
‘Imagined in 1998 by Michell and Jean-Pierre Hartmann, the 58-meter sculpture incarnates the audacity of a wish to confound dream and reality. Put your foot in the front door, and let yourself be carried away in a universe permeated with magic and legends.
‘On five floors with a total area of 2,000 m², discover the history of magic, the life and work of the celebrated magician Robert-Houdin, novel exhibitions and optical illusions of all varieties. Replete with opportunities for discovery and family entertainment, the temple of magic will propel you from one surprise to the next.’
The Inexhaustible Bottle
—This effect is one of the most brilliant I ever performed. It was always warmly applauded.
—I walked onstage with a small bottle filled with Bordeaux. I completely emptied it by pouring its contents into a number of glasses, then rinsed it with a bit of water, taking care to drain it well.
—This introduction completed, I walked amongst the spectators and, still holding the upside-down bottle, offered to pour out any type of alcohol they might wish.
—My offer was unfailingly welcomed with great enthusiasm. From all sides, requests were called out by people who were anxious to confirm both the reality of my effect and the quality of the drinks.
—These beverages were served as soon as they were requested. Whatever the drink, whether a spirit or a liqueur, from whatever country was specified, it was poured out with the greatest generosity.
—The service ended only when the audience — fearing that they could not consume everything poured from the bottle and also finding that the longer the routine lasted, the less clear their reasoning would be — finally decided to halt their requests.
—To end the effect in a spectacular way, and to prove the inexhaustible gifts of my bottle, I took a large drinking glass able to contain at least half of the vessel, and I filled it to the brim with yet another requested beverage.
—The Inexhaustible Bottle was performed at my theatre for the first time on December 1, 1847.
The Fantastic Orange Tree
—This mechanical piece was preceded by several magic effects which motivated its introduction onto the stage.
—I borrowed a handkerchief from a lady. I rolled it into a ball, which I placed beside an egg, a lemon, and an orange arranged on my table.
—I then magically made all the objects pass within one another, and when they were finally all nested within the orange, I used the fruit to create a magical liqueur.
—To do so, I pressed the orange between my hands and reduced its size, displaying its various stages from time to time, and I eventually reduced it to a powder which I poured into a flask containing spirits of wine.
—My assistant then brought onstage an orange tree without blossoms or fruit. I poured a bit of the elixir that I had just prepared into a tiny vase, set it on fire, and placed it beneath the plant, and as the fumes reached the leaves, one could see flowers blossoming on the tree.
Upon a wave of my wand, these flowers were replaced by oranges, which I handed out to the spectators.
—A single orange remained on the tree; I commanded it to open itself into four parts, revealing within the borrowed handkerchief. Two butterflies, flapping their wings, grasped the top corners and unfolded it as they rose into the air.
—This effect was my creation.
The Ethereal Suspension
—In 1847, one may recall, everyone was talking about ether and its marvelous applications. I thus thought of taking advantage of the public’s fascination and applying it to a routine, which received great acclaim.
—“Gentlemen,” I said with the seriousness of a Sorbonne professor, “I have discovered a marvelous new property of ether.
—“If one has a living person inhale this liquid when it is at its highest degree of concentration, the body of the patient for a few moments becomes as light as a balloon.”
—Following this introduction, I proceeded with the effect. I placed three stools on a wooden bench. My son stepped on the middle one; I had him extend his arms so I could support him with two canes, each of which rested on a stool.
—I then simply held under the child’s nose an empty vial, which I carefully uncorked, while backstage an assistant poured ether onto a very hot iron shovel so the vapor would waft into the audience. My son immediately fell asleep and his feet, which had become lighter, began to rise from the stool.
—Judging the operation a success, I removed the stool so the child was supported only by the two canes.
—This strange balancing already evoked great surprise among the spectators. It grew even more when they saw me remove one of the two canes and the stool that supported it, and it reached its peak when, after having raised my child to a horizontal position using my little finger, I left him sleeping in space, and to defy the laws of gravity, I also removed the feet of the bench at the base of this impossible edifice.
VERY RARE : excerpt from a French TV film, last aired in 1971.
—The most basic of natural laws states that the container must be larger than the contained; here it is the opposite. One might thus call this effect Impossibility Realized.
—Thus, I carried onstage under my arm a portfolio for drawings which was no more than a centimeter thick and which I set on thin supports positioned completely isolated in the center of the stage. I then removed, in order:
—1. A collection of drawings
—2. Two charming ladies’ bonnets decorated with flowers and ribbons, as intact as when they first emerged from the hands of their designer
—3. Four live turtle doves
—4. Three enormous copper pots, one filled with beans, one containing a crackling fire, and a third full of boiling water
—5. A large cage filled with birds flying from perch to perch (The inventor of this effect is one of my good friends, Monsieur Bouly of Cambrai, a distinguished attorney, author of several highly respected works on archeology, and devoted aficionado of arts in general, particularly conjuring. The cage removed from the portfolio is entirely his invention. The other feats which I added to his effect do not in the least minimize the value of his original idea.)
—6. Finally, after the portfolio has been closed one last time, my youngest son, the star of The Ethereal Suspension, raised the cover, showed the audience his smiling face, and emerged from this narrow prison.
The Light and Heavy Chest
—The amount of tricks I invented for his theatre was extensive, but one of my most remarkable ones was the Light and Heavy Chest.
—I took advantage of the infancy of the usage of electricity, especially the then novelty of Hans Christian Oersted’s discovery of electromagnetism, to my advantage. I brought on a small wooden box about a foot wide. I said that I had found a way to protect it from thieves. I asked a spectator to lift it, usually a small child. The child lifted it with ease. Then I brought an adult male up from the audience and asked him to lift the same box. Even though he used all of his might, the adult male was unable to lift the box!
—What made this trick even more incredible is that I used this (among others) to help squelch a rebellion.
The Pastrycook of Palais-Royal
—You see a charming little automaton. At the command of its master, he comes to the threshold of his door and — as polite a businessman as he is a skillful pastrycook — he bows and awaits the orders of his clientele. Warm brioches straight from the oven, cakes of all kinds, syrups, liqueurs, ice creams, etc. are served as soon as they are requested by the spectators, and when he has filled all the orders, he helps his master with his magic effects.
—A lady, for example has placed her ring into a small box which she has locked and holds in her hands. Instantly, the pastrycook brings her a brioche in which she finds her ring, which has vanished from the box.
—Here is another example of his intelligence.
A spectator gives him a gold coin in a small basket and tells him the change he would like in francs and centimes. The pastrycook goes into his building and no matter how difficult the mathematics, he calculates and brings out the correct change.
—Finally, a comical raffle is held, and the pastrycook is asked to distribute the prizes.
—As interesting because of its complex mechanisms as the amusement it brings to the audience, this piece was in the best taste out of all my effects and always brilliantly ended my show.
—The Pastrycook of Palais-Royal was performed for the first time during the opening of my theatre.
The Triple Magic Clock
—-My Triple Magic Clock was suspended by two thin cords with a glass bell below. At my command the hand moved back or forth to any number a member of the audience might suggest and the bell would then sound out the relative hour – either loud or soft – as requested.
—-The mystery lies in the movement of the clock’s hands. The workings are hidden from view, so the hands appear to move on their own. I used various optical tricks in my mystery clocks, including a rod that ran up through the ornate clock base and along the right of the top of the case, attaching to a screw that was connected to a second, invisible glass dial that turned behind the visible dial.
—-This feat was achieved using electricity, a subject that fascinated me for years and which lead to my close association with the eminent clockmaker Constantin Louis Detouche with whom I patented an ingenious electro-mechanical escapement.
—I gave this automaton the name of Diavolo Antonio, the famous acrobat, whose perilous movements I attempted to replicate, except that the original was a man and the copy had the size and look of a mere child.
—I carried my young wooden artist onstage in my arms as I would have with a living being. I set him on the bar of the trapeze and asked him several questions, which he answered by moving his head.
—“Are you afraid of falling?”
—“Are you ready to perform your exercises?”
—Then, upon the first notes from the musicians, he gracefully bowed to the spectators as he turned to all parts of the audience, then hung by his arms and, following the rhythm of the music, swung himself quickly.
—Next came a moment of rest during which he smoked a pipe, after which he performed some amazing feats on the trapeze such as raising himself with his arms and standing upside down while he moved his legs in various directions.
—To prove that his mechanism was self-sufficient, my little Diavolo released his hands, hung by his feet, and then jumped completely off the trapeze.
—This automaton appeared for the first time in my theatre on October 1, 1849.
* Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805 – 1971) is often credited as being “the father of modern magic”. Before him, magicians performed in marketplaces and fairs, but Robert-Houdin performed magic in theatres and private parties. He also chose to wear formal clothes, like those of his audiences. Many magicians today mimic this by wearing tail-coats. He lived for magic, constantly conjuring new ideas and performing even on vacation. His wife was often involved in his extremely clever and innovative tricks, which he had to admit were ‘deceptions’ to authorities, to avoid prosecution for witchcraft.
Intro to an intro
Marie Antoinette automaton restored by Robert-Houdin
ROBERT-HOUDIN A Magician’s Life
RESTAURATION DE LA TOMBE DE ROBERT-HOUDIN
p.s. Hey. ** Jack Skelley, Cooperstown feels brand spanking new to me, Jackalope. Big news? Coffee the fuck up then, man. I don’t know precisely what your placing on the SPD chart means, but it means something good. Autofiction event, eh? Every literary event in France is an Autofiction event. What’s the deal with Ottesa Moshfegh? That person’s name seems like it’s everywhere these days. Secret news! Ron Koertge!!!! If I’m not there and can’t go, tell him he’s the greatest for me. Ha ha, that was like a Poetry Flash squib. Does Poetry Flash still exist? I’m getting so close to seeing you on Zoom, it’s almost scary. ** Tosh Berman, Don’t forget Manic Street Preachers too. Helluva double header. And thank you kindly about my thing, sir. ** Dave Barton, Thank you! ** Dominik, Hi!!! You can’t insert emojis? Or maybe you fear my reaction to seeing an emoji? 😢 My friend did seem to be very delighted by his present, yes! Victoire! I suggested he shoot them off on a roof, and I hope he takes my advice. That legged skeleton is the coolest being in the ether, so thank you. Love making everything as escapable as Houdini made everything escapable until that last stunt that offed him, of course, G. ** Sypha, Never reject the nudging powers of a blog post. That’s a golden rule. Yes, I would definitely be interested in that guest post, and thank you very much for wanting! When does the book come out? The blog is likely be on vacation for two or three weeks during October, I’m not sure when, so it would need to launch after the end of the away time. But, yes, and thank you again! Great! ** _Black_Acrylic, Thanks, buddy. If you didn’t see Dave Barton’s A.M. Homes suggestion, here it is in full: ‘Black: I would highly recommend A. M. Homes’ book of short stories THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS as a gateway drug to the rest of her work. Terrific read. The film version is also good.’ Oh, no, another absurd delay on your pad?! Man, it’s like veritable pulling teeth, for fuck’s sake. I hope that gets righted ASAP, needless to say. Urgh. ** Jamie, The feeling of goodness is very mutual, sir. Thank you about the gif work. I’m not working on gif works right now partly because I’m swamped with the film stuff and writing some short fiction when I’m not. I found new form for the gif fictions in my last gif novel ‘Zac’s Drug Binge’ that got the work away from the scrolling format, which excites me, and I’m taking some time to think about how to move forward. But I’m excited to work on the gif fiction again. Oh, you did a course with Chelsea Hodson. How interesting, and how great that it whipped your writing game. Fantastic about your resurrecting the novella. Yeah, the short fiction I’m working on is mostly older things that I never finished for one reason or another, and now think whatever roadblocks I saw aren’t as blocked as I thought. Or something. Anyway, I’m very, very happy to hear you’re writing! Yes, I’m floating on air at the arrival Autumn here. It still feels like a blessing. Uh, the film stuff really just eats everything, so I’m not up to too much else. Seeing art and films and friends and stuff. Trying to plan a soon-to-be trip to LA to, again, work on the film. Yes, the band you are inquiring about is called Yellow Tears. They’re defunct or were the last time I checked. Panoramic IMAX love, Dennis ** Billy, Thank you very, very much, Billy! xoxo. ** Tea, Hi. Yeah, I’ve had that level of writing addiction, but luckily only for relatively short and thankfully productive periods. But, yeah, it can derail as much as help. Cool: fiction and nonfiction. I mean, you know, my work has a lot of wish fulfilment in it as well, so I hear you. Well, yeah, whenever you want to share your work, I’m both patient and highly interested. Thanks. Have the happiest Friday that’s doable. ** Right. I don’t remember why, but I ended up thinking about Houdini the other day. And I remembered I had made a post about him for the blog years and years ago, but when I went back to check in on it, it was pretty crappy, so I made a new one. So, if you can find it in your curiosity and imagination to think about Houdini for whatever amount of time over the next 24 hours, the blog’s got you covered. And if not, oops. See you tomorrow.