Chapter 12 - Patter

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Intimately related to the foregoing subject, is that of "patter" in magical presentations. The diversity of opinion expressed upon this subject has been extreme. Some have held the view that patter is all-important in the art of magic. Others have regarded it as an entirely negligible quantity. Obviously, both views cannot be right; but nevertheless it is quite possible that both may be wrong. Indeed, one may feel practically certain that neither opinion can be altogether correct, however much be said in its support. This seems to be another instance where the truth rests midway between two extremes. The fact is that patter is entirely essential in some cases, and quite unnecessary in others. We shall briefly review the subject in its various aspects.

Firstly, as to the view that patter is the very salt of magic, and indispensable to the art. Let us see what may be said for and against this proposition. It is certain that some well-known experiments cannot conceivably be performed in dumb show; while others, even though they might be given in silence, would lose immeasurably. The former class comprises effects in which the initial procedure demands explanation. This may arise from the fact that members of the audience are required to assist the performer, or for various other reasons. The latter class consists in experiments such as those involving extensive preparation, which might prove tedious if not relieved by appropriate remarks and witticisms, and cases wherein some slight diversion of the spectators' attention is requisite. Instances of each class will readily be recalled to mind. Hence, in one case, to dispense with patter would be simply impossible. In the other case, it would be most unwise. In either case, artistic presentation demands the employment of patter, as an inevitable necessity. Thus, the performer whose repertoire is confined to silent procedure alone, cuts himself adrift, artistically speaking, from a wide range of effects which would otherwise be available for his use. This in itself provides a strong argument in favor of patter. But, at the same time, it in no way represents proof of the contention that patter is indispensable to magic, from an artistic standpoint. It merely proves the value of speech, upon occasion.

Turning to the other side of the question, we undoubtedly find not only effects which lose nothing by being presented in silence, but also a number which must actually gain in artistic value by that mode of presentation. Such are those effects which, on the one hand, include in their performance much that will attract the eye and, on the other hand, those in which close attention is desirable, on the part of the audience. In neither class can patter be regarded as an artistic essential. On the contrary, the introduction of patter where it must be either unnecessary or detrimental, could only be regarded as an advantage by those to whom the requirements of art are unknown. Anything not requisite or, at the least, not tending to enhance the effect produced, must be a blemish, artistically speaking. Therefore, we are bound to admit that silent presentation can be perfectly artistic, and that patter is not a necessary constituent of our art, in certain phases.

Most readers, probably, will remember the "Gibson Girl" case, wherein it was sought to prove that the title of "actress" could only be claimed by a lady who played a "speaking part." This contention was vigorously opposed by various witnesses whose opinion is of value. For instance, Mr. Comyns Carr pointed out that Mme. Jane May, whom he believed to be the greatest actress in the world, never played a speaking part but always acted in dumb show. That is not altogether accurate, for we ourselves have seen her play such a part, and also give very clever imitations of other artists, both in speech and song. Still, her strong point is voiceless acting; and it would be absurd to say that, when she ceases to speak and, as in "L'Enfant Prodigue," conveys every idea by action, she ceases to be either an actress or an artist.

Once again, we must remember Robert-Houdin's definition of a conjurer as an actor who plays the part of a magician. Or, if we wish to express the same idea in more accurate terms, we may say that a modern magician is an actor playing the part of a legendary magician. In any event, the artist in magic is primarily an actor. His manipulative or technical skill, however necessary to complete success, must be regarded as a secondary consideration, in relation to the artistic side of his calling. Therefore, whatever may be true of other actors is equally true of him. If speech is not essential to art in other branches of dramatic work, it cannot be so in magic. And since speech is ordinarily an adjunct of the highest importance in drama, it must be equally so in our own particular case. It follows that, so long as the silent performer does not introduce effects wherein speech is artistically requisite, and the performer who uses patter does not speak when the purposes of art would be better served by silence, each is equally entitled to rank as an artist in magic. Hard and fast opinions, in either direction, can have no weight in deciding the general question as to the value, or otherwise, of patter. That question is one that cannot be decided upon general principles. It can only be answered in relation to particular conditions. The answer depends entirely upon the artistic requirements of each individual effect, as modified by the circumstances in which it is presented. The rules already set down in this book should provide all the guidance required, at any time, in forming a just opinion in this respect.

This leads us naturally to the consideration of appropriateness in patter. just as there is the need for knowing when one may or should either use or discard patter, it is equally important to know what kind of patter to use if and when necessary. One must not only know when to speak, but also what form of speech to adopt in each instance. Further, it is requisite to know precisely what form of speech one is capable of adopting, with proper effect. One may know what ought to be said; but, unless one can say it properly, it will be better left unsaid. And it is of no use to think one knows such things. This is a case wherein it is necessary to make quite sure of one's ground, especially in relation to personal characteristics and capabilities. By study and experience, the ability to form a sound judgment on such points may be acquired; and yet, for personal reasons, the procedure known to be correct may not be the best to adopt. Nothing can be good that is spoiled by improper treatment; and, unless one can carry out the proper mode of procedure in a competent manner, it would be far better to adopt a less perfect method, but one within the range of adequate performance.

As a practical illustration, we shall suppose a performer intends to present a magical item for which the best mode of introduction would be a serious, well written, and impressive address. The points the performer then has to consider are these. Can he be effectively serious and impressive, and can he write well enough to compose the requisite address? If these achievements are well within his power, he need have no hesitation in going ahead. But if, in either respect, his personal limitations stand in the way of successful achievement, he should sacrifice something in mode of procedure, in order to bring the presentation within the scope of his ability. It is always better to do an imperfect thing well than to attempt to attain perfection and fail in the endeavor. The transition from art to balderdash may be made in a single step. The performer who, understanding his art but not realizing his own limitations, undertakes more than he can perform, is almost certain to take that step from the sublime to the ridiculous every time.

In writing patter, of course, a performer may obtain assistance. But, so far as public delivery is concerned, he is bound to do the work himself. If he undertakes to give an address which is intended to be impressive, he should be an elocutionist. If the prevailing note of his address is comedy, he should be a comedian. If what he has to say is pseudo-scientific, he should be at least something of a scientist. And so on, throughout the whole range of possible methods. The complete magician, of course, would possess all such qualifications. But the complete magician has yet to be born. So far, we are all compelled to sacrifice something of ambition, on account of our individual shortcomings.

It is here that the saving grace of good sense steps in, to protect the artist in magic from disaster. With sufficient good sense, a magician may easily steer clear of the rocks, shoals, and quicksands to which his personal limitations might otherwise lead him. So long as he knows and avoids the courses in which, for him, there is no thoroughfare, he is safe. But, directly his good sense fails him, he becomes liable to meet with disaster. The good sense to know wherein he is lacking in education or ability, wherein his physical peculiarities represent obstacles to success, wherein he is entirely competent to do what is required and wherein rests his best chance of gaining public appreciation, undoubtedly provides the best aid to propriety that any man can possess. And fortunately, it is an aid that may be gained by all who will take the trouble to "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" a few simple truths, within the reach of every normal intelligence.

The most obvious of the simple truths to which we have alluded is that the man who lacks education must either be aware of that fact, or be little better than an idiot. The corollary to this truth is that the performer who, not being an idiot, is aware of his lack of education, will take due precaution to avoid mistakes in speaking. Since he cannot rely upon his own knowledge, he will obtain the advice and assistance of others who possess the education he has not acquired. The performer who is wise enough to know that he lacks education, and yet neglects the precautions which such circumstances dictate, must be a hopelessly self-satisfied duffer. He is past praying for, so far as any semblance of art is concerned. But the performer who, lacking education, yet keeps in constant view the deficiencies from which he suffers and the need for overcoming them, may be as true an artist as though his education were of the best.

Thus, for example, the man who has not learned to speak grammatically must be a fool to speak in public, without first submitting the text of the speech to somebody able to correct the mistakes he is bound to make. The man who has not learned French cannot expect to speak French, except in such manner as to make himself ridiculous, even though he may have consulted someone who knows the language. The performer who does not understand elocution should not speak in public without having rehearsed before someone who can show him where he goes wrong. Above all, the performer whose accent is low class should never speak in public when circumstances render such an accent inappropriate.

To a man of brains there can be no difficulty in knowing the right thing to do, so far as these elementary matters are concerned. The very smallest amount of gumption serves to prevent danger from the pitfalls awaiting those who venture beyond the limits of their own knowledge. So, when a performer trips up over some obstacle which proper care would have enabled him to avoid, his reputation as an artist is bound to suffer. And it is not too much to say that of all the blunders a performer can commit, those connected with mistaken speech are the very worst. Consequently, they demand the utmost care in prevention.

In every audience there are sure to be persons to whom verbal errors are as distasteful as sour gooseberries. A grammatical solecism or a defect in pronunciation will, figuratively, set their teeth on edge. What must such people think of a performer who, for instance, calls a phenomenon a "phenomena"? They can only regard him as one whose ability is probably on a par with his education. They will think, and rightly so, that the man who has any capability at all must at least be capable of avoiding the use of terms which he does not understand. The misuse of words cannot be regarded as otherwise than direct evidence of incompetency.

No sensible man can help knowing that all languages abound in "booby-traps," for catching the unwary or unskilled speaker. Consequently, every sensible man will take good care to avoid being caught therein. But there are others; and, unfortunately, some of those others are magicians. It may be worth while to give an illustration of the kind of mess such people too often make of their native English. We shall suppose an address has to be delivered to the following effect:

"The handkerchief that covers the lady's eyes has been examined by several members of the audience, each of whom guarantees that covering to be free from preparation of every kind. Then there can be no one among those present who doubts the fact that, in circumstances such as these, the lady is rendered quite incapable of seeing what takes place around her. Between you and me, however, blindfolding and every similar precaution are alike powerless to destroy the mental sympathy and co-operation that exist between her and myself. Anything communicated either to her or to me becomes instantly known to us both, whatever severity may be exercised in the tests to which either of us has to submit."

Thus rendered the speech is, obviously, both grammatical and sensible. Let us now transcribe it as, without exaggeration, it might be delivered by some performers:

"The yankerchief tied round Maddy Moselle's eyes 'ave been ixamined be several of the audience, each of wich say it is quite unprepared or faked in the ordinary way, as usual in all performances of mental thought telepathy like these. Then everyone in the audience see at once that what we do is quite different altogether, because trickery and deception is beyond suspicion, and prevents any doubt about her knowing wot anyone of you do, and me as well. But, between you and I, blindfolding and all those kind of things makes no difference to the mental sympathies and similar influence which exists between the mind of we two. Whatever you tell us pass from each other, without any possible way of communicating, no matter what severity of difficult tests are exercised by the audience, who want to prove if every single one of our statements are not correct, but entirely without collusion or confederacy."

Thus muddled, the speech obviously becomes neither grammatical nor sensible. Yet everyone who reads these words must occasionally have heard self-styled artists--or probably artistes--make hay of the English language in precisely that fashion. Unfortunately, the foregoing is an actual type, rather than a travesty of the diction sometimes inflicted upon audiences. And, one may rest assured, the artistes who address educated people in such ruinous phrases are the very men most likely to attach the highest importance to their own achievements as "perfeshnals," and to entertain the greatest contempt for the "amechure."

To digress, for a moment, from our present theme, the term artiste recalls a memory of the late Corney Grain. In one of his later sketches, he mentioned the resentment he once felt, on hearing himself described as a "comique." Having all his life given the public genuine comedy, he had justly earned the title of "comedian," in plain English. To be called a "comique" simply implied that his artistic rank was equivalent to that of any French clown who tries to be funny. In like manner, it seems to us, the title of "artiste" adopted by, and accorded to every nonentity and wastrel who disgraces the stage-must be derogatory to the repute of any real artist. When those who cannot even speak the English they are supposed to know, seek aggrandizement by adopting titles from the French they cannot pretend to know, an artist may well consider their ways and do otherwise. Anyhow, the French terms "comique" and "artiste" have their exact equivalents in English; and, to the man whose native language is the latter, the use of such foreign words is entirely needless. For an English-speaking man to call himself an "artiste" is mere affectation of a most transparent character. He uses the term because it sounds and looks more pretentious than "artist," though its meaning is just the same; and that reason is self-evident.

Reverting to the subject of patter, here are two quotations from Aristotle. He says,--

"The excellence of diction consists in being perspicuous without being mean"; and "In the employment of all the species of unusual words, moderation is necessary: for metaphors, foreign words, or any of the others, improperly used, and with a design to be ridiculous, would produce the same effect." --Poetics, part 2, sec. 26.
That is to say, the improper use of words or phrases is just as ridiculous as though the intention were to provoke ridicule. That Aristotle knew what he was talking about is perfectly clear. Yet we, who were born some two thousand years after his death, still find among us people who do not seem to understand these simple truths. And few there are who trouble about learning the right thing to say, or how to say it properly.

That is not as it should be, by any means. The human race has existed for some considerable time. During that period, a fair amount of knowledge has been gathered and made readily accessible to all, in every department of human activity. The man who, instead of learning what has been boiled down for his information trusts to luck in finding out for himself what others discovered ages before he was born, cannot have sense enough "to come in out of the rain." Anyhow, the performer who stands before educated people with the intention of addressing them in a manner that will impress them favorably, must use the language that educated people speak. In so far as he fails to speak correctly, he will suffer ridicule and lose prestige. He should be master of his own language, though not necessarily a schoolmaster. Pedantry, indeed, is entirely objectionable; but there is nothing pedantic in speaking properly.

It is impossible to say here all that need be said upon the subject of patter. An entire treatise might, with advantage, be written upon it. But, before quitting the subject, there are one or two points to which we must refer. The first concerns the practice of making remarks calculated to bring magic into contempt. For example, a magical humorist can be funny without making fun of his art. If he says things which tend to lower the public estimation of magic and magicians, he not only degrades himself and his performance, but reflects discredit upon the whole magical profession. We cannot expect to raise the standing of magic and magicians, if the latter persist in debasing their profession by uncalled-for japes and "wheezes," which present their calling in a false light. What respect can the public have for men who do not respect their own work? The only possible sentiment that can be aroused is contempt, pure and simple. jokes in which magic is allied to humbug, swindling or chicanery of any kind, can only serve to rank the magician among swindlers and impostors.

Although patter of that kind is, perhaps, the most detrimental to our general interests, there are other forms scarcely less objectionable in practice. Among these the practice of "talking at" the audience has a prominent place. People do not like to be talked at, whether they deserve it or not. In fact, the more they deserve it, the less they relish it. When, for instance, a performer finds his audience undemonstrative the very worst plan he can adopt is to show resentment or to make remarks concerning that fact. To do anything of the kind can only result in making the spectators self-conscious, and more than ever reluctant to show appreciation. The people in front of the footlights must, if possible, be taken out of themselves-must be led to forget their own concerns, and made to think only of the performance they are witnessing. If induced to reflect upon the relations existing between the performer and themselves, and made to feel uncomfortable about what he thinks of them, spontaneous appreciation and enjoyment become impossible. All chance of pleasure in the entertainment is destroyed, both for them and for him.

In the same way, references to the hypothetical poverty of magicians as a class cannot be otherwise than detrimental to us all. Not only so, the poverty of artists generally has formed a stock subject for jesters since time immemorial. That subject has been done to death, and should be dropped entirely. The old jokes still raise a laugh, because some people can only see the jokes they know; but most people have long been sick of such antiquated substitutes for wit.

Worse still are references to the possible poverty of spectators. It is bad enough to find a performer suggesting his own familiarity with the pawn-shop, or his chronic inability to produce a shilling. But when such jests are made at the expense of the audience, the fault is ten thousand times more reprehensible. Such themes' are not agreeable to anyone. What must they suggest to (say) the man who has attended a performance in the hope of finding relief from the memory of financial troubles? Even the careless youth who has pawned his watch in order to get money for giving his best girl a treat, cannot feel very happy when topics of this kind are brought up. Surely, then, a performer will act wisely in refraining from the use of such debilitated jokes as, "I can see a good many chains, but I suppose all your watches have gone to be repaired, just as mine has." There would be nothing particularly witty about such remarks, even were they original. When let off upon an audience at forty-secondhand, they have no pretense of merit, nor can they add anything to the general effect of a performance.

Then, again, remarks concerning the suitability of a performance to a juvenile audience are undoubtedly objectionable. One often hears a magician make a sort of apology for introducing a certain item, on the ground that "so many young people are present." Could there be any readier method of bringing that item into contempt? Probably not. To present the thing as being especially suited to the mental capacity of juveniles must suggest to the adults that what they are about to see is beneath their appreciation. As to the juveniles themselves, the result is even more disastrous.

If there is one ambition more common than another to the youthful of either sex, it is the ambition to appear "grown up" so far as may be possible. Hence, the mere fact of saying that what one is about to do will appeal to children especially, is enough to set every juvenile mind against the performance. Every boy, particularly, draws a mental distinction between himself and ordinary "children." Out of courtesy to his juniors and to the opposite sex, he may be disposed to tolerate what pleases children; but he wants to believe that what pleases him really is something that is suited to the intelligence of his elders. To suggest that he requires children's fare can be nothing less than an insult to his understanding.

The fact is, children understand a great deal more than their seniors usually believe. A public performer, at any rate, should be aware of that fact, and should act accordingly. He has full opportunity for observing how very little there is that escapes the understanding of even quite young children. And if he is capable of learning from experience, he must know that to profess to bring his entertainment down to the level of childish intelligence cannot be good policy, from any point of view whatever.


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