Chapter 4 - Consistency

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In order of importance, the quality which probably ranks next to Unity is that of Consistency. Indeed, it may be said that, apart from consistency, unity cannot exist. Still, the subject is sufficiently well defined to warrant its separate consideration.

In relation to magic, the term "consistency" represents a quality which may be roughly described as propriety in necromantic details. It implies a general harmony of the various processes, actions, speeches, and appliances, with the scheme or mode of presentation with which they are associated. Its absence undoubtedly gives rise to sources of distraction; which, as we have seen, should be most carefully avoided, so far as may be possible.

Here again the importance of Rule 2 is shown. Whatever details a performer may wish or require to introduce, these should all be subjected to most intent consideration, from a spectator's point of view. The supreme question must always be:---"What impression will the introduction of this detail produce upon the mind of an ordinary spectator?" No matter how agreeable or even necessary to the performer may be the inclusion of that detail, he should always endeavor to understand how it will strike his audience. Such understanding is by no means easy to acquire. It can come only with experience and constant practice. This is a case wherein it is impossible to "try it on the dog." The performer must, in the first instance, form his own conclusions. Nobody else can do much to help him in arriving at a decision. Above all, he must have the courage of his convictions, and must boldly take the course which his own reasoning faculties and his own experience dictate.

In saying this, of course, we are assuming that the performer understands the fundamental principles of his art, and is not just making a blind guess at the thing. The man who has no accurate knowledge (and who, therefore, works entirely in the dark) can scarcely be said to have the right to form any conclusion whatever. But when a magician understands his art, he should never allow his own reasoned convictions to be over-ruled by people who know little or nothing of the subject. Stated in a practical form, the point is this. Persons attending a rehearsal (whether they are employees, friends or what not) can never represent a normal audience. Their opinions can form no guide to the views of the average spectator. From the very circumstances of the case, that is clearly impossible. Should any of those persons, however, have an amount of knowledge and experience comparable with that possessed by the performer, that person's opinion may be regarded as having some weight. But, even then, the performer must not be guided by mere opinion. He must demand adequate reason for any conclusion he may be urged to adopt. In short, given the possession of real knowledge, he himself must be the final arbiter of his own procedure. Once a presentation has been submitted to public criticism, it is easy enough to see wherein improvement is needed. And, as a matter of fact, there is always found some minor detail which requires modification. But in the hands of a true artist, no production ever needs serious revision after being presented to the public. That is one of the numerous directions wherein a true artist "scores."

Given sufficient time and unrestricted opportunity for public representation, anybody can eventually make his production a success; more or less qualified by repeated failure, in public, on previous occasions. That is to say, in the hands of a duffer, a "magical act" may be rendered presentable probably by the time it has become hopelessly discredited and, in the normal course of events, should be entirely worn out. The artist who knows "the rules of the game" and therefore understands how to make his productions approximately perfect in the first instance, certainly has an advantage, the value of which is very difficult to over-estimate.

In dealing with such questions, the performer can have no better guidance than that to be derived from the principles of consistency. And in all points of detail, one may be fairly confident that, if each action, process and so forth, is appropriate to the general scheme, and does not detract from the final effect, there is little fear of producing an undesirable impression. The general rule may be stated thus:

(6) Let every accessory and incidental detail be kept well "within the picture," and in harmony with the general impression which is intended to be conveyed.

For example, we shall suppose that the presentation is intended to convey the idea of a more or less serious reproduction of some legendary marvel, -say of a medieval English origin. In that case, everything said, done, and used, should harmonize with the ideas generally associated with that period in English history. So far as possible, everything should be archaeologically correct. Anachronisms should be studiously avoided. Allusions to modern times and modern incidents, phrases of modern origin, appliances of modern pattern, should all be rigidly excluded. The general "atmosphere" of the presentation should convey the idea of glancing backward through the pages of history and dwelling, in imagination, among scenes that have long since passed away.

That is obviously the rational course to pursue, in the case of a serious reproduction of medieval mysticism. When, however the intention is to give merely a humorous representation or parody of ancient tradition, the requirements are altogether different. In such circumstances, the more anachronisms one can introduce, the more inconsistencies of sentiment and usage one can perpetrate, the greater the contrasts of time and place one can suggest, the better will be the result. But even here the principles of consistency require to be observed. The presentation should be rendered consistently inconsistent. The performer must not at one moment throw ridicule upon ancient ideas and methods and the next moment expect his audience to adopt a serious view of medieval magic. The spectators, of course, are always aware that the whole is "make-believe." They have to set aside their critical faculties in order to enter into the spirit of the thing. That, as a rule, they are perfectly willing to do, since all they want is to be entertained. They are ready to take any point of view the performer may suggest, and to imagine for the moment that the situation is precisely as the performer has stated. But having "made believe" to that extent, it cannot be imagined that they will be able suddenly to change their adopted point of view for another which is equally unsubstantial and entirely dissimilar, without having all their make-believe thrown to the winds and their critical faculties fully revived. No, in such a case the performer's previous efforts will have been wasted. The impression sought to be produced will be entirely destroyed, and the spectators will revert to the attitude of commonplace scepticism they began with. They will have to commence their mental adaptation once again, upon an entirely new basis, and with the memory of their recently checked self-deception fresh upon them. Any procedure of this kind can only result in confusion and loss of effect.

Conversely, if a purely modern conception is presented, consistency demands that all procedure and all adjuncts shall be entirely modern in character. Were the performer suddenly to depart from his normal procedure, for instance, and adopt the style of an ancient necromancer, he could never expect to be taken seriously. He would be laughed at openly by his audience if he entertained any such ridiculous notion. That kind of thing can only be done by way of burlesque.

There is, however, one very effective method of combining ancient legends with modern ideas, which, in addition to the proof it gives of the soundness of the principles of consistency, is extremely useful in aiding the modern magician to give his conceptions a definite application. This consists in the supposed introduction of ancient magical traditions into the actual affairs of modern life, and the suggestions that the magical theory had a foundation in fact. Usually, the procedure is somewhat as follows:

It is assumed that the magician has discovered some ancient charm, talisman, incantation, or spell, with which he decides or is caused to experiment. On doing so, he finds that apparently the legendary power attributed to the particular fetish in question are really genuine, and remain efficacious even in our own age of scepticism. The possibilities of magical and dramatic effect derivable from a situation of this kind are practically infinite. This is a fact which has long been understood and frequently utilized in literature. But, strange to say, this magical idea has not been developed to any great extent in connection with the art of magic itself. In plays such as "Niobe" and "The Brass Bottle," for example, this conception has provided a basis for valuable and artistic work. And in relation to magic, it presents facilities for introducing legitimate and convincing effects, which should by no means be neglected.

An illusionary presentation, conducted on such lines, may be rendered thoroughly satisfactory with very little difficulty. The effects produced being apparently substantiated by the authority of early tradition, and the powers invoked having, as it were, descended from the age of miracles, all criticism as to sufficiency of cause is disarmed at once. The sceptical attitude common to modern thought becomes entirely out of place, and quite irrelevant to the issues involved. Material scepticism becomes subdued to the influences of that poetic and imaginative faculty which every man possesses, in a greater or less degree, no matter how uncompromising may be his professed antagonism to anything beyond the bounds of plain common sense.

In this connection, however, as in all matters relating to art, it is necessary to guard against the ever-present danger of allowing originality to be overshadowed by the attractions of blind imitation. Indeed, it is conceivable that what we have said on this present point, unless it is consistently read together with the context, may eventually create a serious hindrance to the progress of our art. There is every reason to fear that if one magician were to achieve a success with some particular development of this idea, that form of presentation would be generally regarded as the essential embodiment of the idea, from which no departure could be made. And, in answer to all criticisms, it would be said--"There is nothing to criticize. This is the very thing with which So-and-so has made so great a success."

Therein we find typified the common fault which hitherto has debased the practice of magic, and has helped to prevent the elevation of magic to the status of a fine art. Until that fault can be corrected until such slavish imitation of successful work becomes a matter for general and honest condemnation, we must be prepared to admit that after all is said and done, magic has not risen above the level of mere mechanical drudgery, the sort of work which is only undertaken by those who are incapable of doing anything better.

This must not be! In itself, magic is a profession which should yield pride of place to no other. It demands the highest abilities that humanity can bestow upon it. Magic will never-can never-debase its practitioners; but, unfortunately, history shows that too often magic has been debased by those who practise it.

On this point the first essential to be insisted upon is this: The very fact that So-and-so has made successful use of certain methods and devices should ordinarily suffice to prevent all other magicians from presenting anything which might be regarded as an imitation of So-and-so's work. If others can improve upon So-and-so's production, well and good. Let them exhibit their new devices, and show clearly wherein their improvements consist. All honor to them for so doing. But if all they have to present is a bad imitation of So-and-so's work, or merely something which appears almost as clever, let them keep such inferiorities to themselves. Or if they must needs exhibit their inferior productions, let them admit their own inferiority and give credit where credit is due.

It is quite possible that this idea of translating ancient conceptions into modern workaday life may become hackneyed. Should that occur, the magician who is a true artist would avoid that idea, as the devil is said to avoid holy water. When we find the majority of magicians actuated by such sentiments, we shall be in a position to assert, without fear of contradiction, that magic is truly an art. Until then, we must admit that the artistic status of magic, however provable it may be, has not been proved. Magicians generally must be content to earn mere money-grubbing profits, instead of gaining the fame and fortune to which they should aspire by right of artistic merit.

Among the most important considerations relating to consistency, are those arising from the natural connection between cause and effect. In real life, every effect is produced by some appropriate and sufficient cause. We are aware that in saying this we merely repeat a childishly self-evident platitude; but there are reasons. Since in real life every effect must have its cause, and every sufficient cause must produce its natural effect, similar conditions should prevail in the mimic world of the stage. Unfortunately, however, such is often very far from being the case. Too many persons appear to think that, because stage effects are necessarily artificial, the natural relationship between cause and effect can be disregarded upon the stage. Events are thus made to occur, without the slightest regard to attendant circumstances. The producer of an entertainment very commonly dictates the occurrence of an event, simply because he wants that event to happen and for no other reason whatever. He does not trouble himself as to whether or not, in the circumstances revealed, that event would naturally happen or might possibly happen. Not a bit of it! He wants that thing to happen, and for him that is reason enough. Consequently, that thing is made to happen, no matter how inconsistent with previous events its occurrence may be.

This is a fault which is extremely prevalent in modern stage productions of every class. It is none the less reprehensible on that account. On the contrary, the more often it is allowed to appear, the more culpable are those who permit such an obvious defect to exist in their presentations. Particularly so, because the fault is one that may be corrected with the utmost ease. Stage effects, being only apparently real, require only apparently sufficient causes; and such causes undoubtedly should be introduced in every stage production. The producer, of course, can do precisely as he likes in such matters. But, whenever he introduces an effect, let him at the same time introduce a valid cause. It is easy enough to do, and there is no excuse for neglecting to do it. The artificiality of stage work is always bound to cross the footlights in ample measure. The spectators are always sufficiently conscious of it, without having it rubbed in by unskilful workmanship. And whenever stagecraft is divorced from consistency, especially in the relations between cause and effect, the result is bound to represent the rubbing-in of a deleterious compound, already too liberally applied.

From these considerations a general rule, of extreme simplicity, may be deduced:

(7) Let nothing occur without an apparently substantial cause, and let every potential cause produce some apparently consequent effect.

If things occur without any apparent reason, stage work can never be made really convincing. If things are done which, although they seem likely to produce some marked result (and, by the audience, must be regarded as having that intention), do not lead to any result whatever, stage work can never be made really effective. In the former case, there is a paucity of the necessary material. In the latter, there is a redundancy of useless detail. In neither case is there the consistency which art demands; but, in both cases, there is bound to be distraction, loss of effect, and lack of unity.

That such points as these are of material importance in the art of magic, cannot be denied by any magician who aspires to the rank of a true artist. It is just these little things which make all the difference between good work and bad. They are but little things, easily attended to; yet, after all is said and done, they are the things which distinguish art from claptrap. To include them in a presentation adds but little more to the performer's efforts. Still:

"And that little more, and how much it is... And that little less, and what worlds away." --Browning, "By the Fireside."
The requirements of consistency, broadly speaking, may be summarized as follows:

Everything done, used, and introduced should be:

  1. Consistent with the "atmosphere" of the presentation.
  2. Consistent with each situation, as revealed.
  3. Consistent with subsequent events.

Everything that occurs should be:

  1. Consistent with the procedure adopted.
  2. Consistent with causes understood by the spectators.
  3. Consistent with the final impression intended to be produced.

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