From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism



Are You Watching Carefully?

Why write a book about magic? Not fantasy magic, but real magic. The sort that does not depend on the supernatural, but is indistinguishable from it? Some years ago I wrote a novel called The Prestige (later made into a film by the director Christopher Nolan). The novel is about the obsessive secrecy stage magicians place about their tricks, and the even greater obsessive curiosity many other people feel about the result: something that is uncannily close to the supernatural.

For me, it began during a Christmas break in the mid-1970s. I was living in the suburbs of London, and that year I was spending the holiday with friends. It was not a remarkable event. Between sessions of eating and drinking we watched a lot of television. One evening a variety show came on, and it happened to include an act by an illusionist. I watched it without special attention because at that time magic held no particular interest for me. At the conclusion of his act, the magician performed a simple but spectacular trick.

He placed an ordinary wooden chair in the centre of a bare platform, and his female assistant sat down on it. The magician threw a large cotton sheet across her and the chair and smoothed it out so that her shape could still be clearly seen. He spoke to her, and she replied.

She waved her hands to prove she was still there. I blinked. As I did so the magician swept the sheet away from her, revealing the now-empty chair. The young woman had vanished.

The magician took his well-deserved applause, and that was that. I was intrigued, although not seriously so. Whenever you see a trick performed you know from the outset that you are going to be tricked, so you set up certain mental safeguards while you watch the build-up, trying to see where and how the conjuror could possibly deceive you. In the case of this illusion there seemed little room for trickery, because everything looked so ordinary and visible. The props were simple. The trick appeared exactly as I have described it.

I would have forgotten all about it but for a fortunate coincidence—fortunate for me, that is. The following day, while I was again watching television, a different magician came on to perform some tricks. To my surprise he brought his act to a climax with the same illusion. He gave it a small extra twist by using as his assistant a well-known female singer, but in every other respect it was identical.

This time I watched like a hawk! I did not blink! The same dazzling effect was achieved with simplest of props: a wooden chair, a sheet and a young woman.

As soon as the shops re-opened after Christmas I went into the centre of London and scoured through the big bookstores in search of enlightenment. I found four books on magical methods and techniques, and after a great deal of searching I was able to identify the illusion and its method. Not the exact trick, but one which was almost the same, invented some two hundred years ago. The version I saw had been modernized into a format suitable for performance on television.

Nearly all the great illusions have been developed and refined in this way, by modifying classic techniques. The literature of magic is full of references to the great Persian, Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese illusionists. None of those masters could for obvious reasons perform a trick with (say) a cell phone or a laptop computer, but any modern magician who does would certainly be using the same principles.

As the trick I saw that memorable evening is still regularly performed, I won’t spoil anything by revealing the method I discovered. But read what I say below about misdirection, and then remember the apparently basic props that were used.

Speaking of Chinese illusionists, while I was searching through these books I came across a description of the life and work of a magician from Shanghai called Ching Ling Foo. Ching was one of the first Asian magicians to work in the West (he was born in 1854). By the use of facial make-up, and by habitually wearing an impassive expression, Ching conveyed an unmistakable aura of Oriental mystery, menace and inexplicable magical powers. He was simply a conventional magician using conventional techniques, but through stagecraft he made quite an impression.

There were in fact two major Chinese illusionists in this period. Ching Ling Foo was so successful that an imitator, called Chung Ling Soo, emerged. Chung (not Ching) became famous for an illusion in which a member of the audience was invited onto the stage to fire a loaded pistol at him—Chung would somehow contrive to catch the bullet between his teeth. One night the trick went disastrously wrong, and a real bullet was actually fired, hitting him in the chest. As he staggered back he uttered his last words: “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” He was the twelfth magician to die while performing this dangerous illusion. According to magical folklore the trick has rarely been performed since. Magicians are superstitious—no one wants to be number thirteen.

Chung Ling Soo, incidentally, was not Chinese at all. The confusingly similar name (deliberately chosen, of course) was a nom de théâtre for an American illusionist called William Ellsworth Robinson, who was one of several Western magicians who donned Oriental disguise. While reading about Ching Ling Foo (the real one) I came across a description of his own closing illusion, one that did much to create his fame. It was again simple in appearance, but maddeningly impossible to explain. As this trick is described in the early part of The Prestige, and performed in the film, I’ll leave you to find out about it for yourself.

How Ching did his trick was a revelation to me. Not the technique itself, because that is a slight matter, but the degree of secrecy with which he surrounded it. When I was interviewing a magician while researching the novel, he remarked that one of the reasons illusionists are so secretive is because if people found out how silly and simple their secrets are, few would bother to go to their shows. Ching Ling Foo’s secret was a small one, but it dominated his life.

It was around this time that I realized that I was beginning to act rather like a magician myself. I was becoming obsessed with other people’s secrets.

I let my interest in stage magic slip back into the shadows, and there it remained for at least a decade and a half.

Then, seeking a fictional story that could also hint at the art of writing fiction, I remembered the methods an illusionist uses to misdirect his audience. Misdirection is at the heart of magic, as it is in much of fiction. Without drawing too much attention to what he is doing, a magician places images and ideas and actions before the audience and allows them to make their own assumptions about what is going to happen.

An example is the moment when a magician produces a brand-new deck of playing cards, still sealed inside their cellophane wrapper. He opens the deck, tosses aside the protective seals, fans the cards to display them, then performs a trick. Most people in the audience will easily assume that by opening the deck in front of them the magician is proving two matters: firstly, that the cards were sealed up until that moment; therefore, secondly, that he couldn’t have interfered with them in any way.

This is exactly what the magician wants the audience to think, because the opposite is almost certainly the case. He has used misdirection, and the trick has been performed before anyone can think it through.

This then is one of the other themes in The Prestige: The novel sets out to misdirect the reader about many matters, never telling a deliberate lie but quietly setting forward several true facts from which the reader is invited to make assumptions. The revelations that follow are designed to show what every magician knows: You should never assume that what you see is what you get.

So there you have the way The Prestige came into being. In describing it, I have, so to speak, built a plain platform and placed an ordinary wooden chair in the centre of it. The simple apparatus of the illusion can be viewed by everyone. But as you now realize, by writing this article I have already begun to misdirect you. Try not to blink …

Editor’s Note: In the U.K. release of the film The Prestige, the line referenced in the title of this piece is “Are you watching carefully?”; in the U.S. release, the line is “Are you watching closely?” Why? We’re not sure, but perhaps it’s a clever bit of misdirection…? –eds.

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Christopher Priest

Christopher PriestChristopher Priest has written for radio and television, but is best known internationally for his novels. The Prestige has won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was made into an Oscar-winning movie.  His twelve published novels, including The Glamour and Fugue for a Darkening Island, have lead to him receiving prizes in Australia, Yugoslavia, Germany, and a lifetime achievement award (Prix Utopia) in France.  His latest novel, The Islanders, was published in September.