Surprise and Repetition

Chapter 6 - Surprise and Repetition

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We now proceed to deal with two diametrically opposite methods of producing effect, each method being the converse and complement of the other. Upon reflection it will become evident that, as a rule, the effect produced by a magical presentation depends upon the proper employment of one or other of the two principles now to be considered. In other words, a magical effect is generally associated with some form of surprise or is derived from some degree of repetition. Since the principles involved in those two methods of procedure are mutually antagonistic, they can seldom be used in combination. Although a certain element of surprise may enter into the cumulative effect produced by repetition, it is clearly impossible to repeat a startling surprise. These examples may best be illustrated by concrete examples, familiar to us all. We shall at once, then, cite examples which we think will serve to make our reasoning clear. It must be borne in mind, however, that this present discussion has to be taken in conjunction with that which follows next--i.e., the subject of "Gradual Transition."

As our first example, we take a well-known effect which depends upon the creation of surprise. For this purpose, nothing could serve better than the illusion known as "The Vanishing Lady," invented by Buatier de Kolta, reproduced by various other magicians, and consistently mangled, for years, by duffers of every nationality. The "dry bones" of this feat, as Professor Hoffmann would say, are familiar to us all. So also is the effective nature of the presentation, when properly carried out.

If we give even a moment's thought to the question. we realize the impossibility of associating such a feat with anything in the nature of repetition. The effect produced is bound to be either a surprise or a disappointment. If the performance does not culminate in a surprise, it becomes an abject failure--"condemned to eternal redemption," as Dogberry says. No man who ever stood before an audience would be so mad as to repeat it, in the hope of doing better next time and thus saving his credit. The audience would simply laugh him off the stage in such a case.

Herein, we perceive the characteristic feature of such presentations. They depend upon the sudden creation of some mysterious change of condition or change of place. The effect must be instantaneous. There is no opportunity for cumulative methods of building up an effect, step by step.

Incidentally, the preceding paragraph suggests a general definition of the characteristic feature of any magical feat that which distinguishes magical effects from those produced by other arts. Probably no better definition than this can be found: Something or somebody is caused to pass mysteriously from one place or condition to another. That is what invariably happens when a magical feat is performed. We cannot do any single magical thing which that sentence does not broadly describe. In view of this definition, we are led to appreciate the essential limitations of the magic art. And, at the same time, we are impressed with the necessity for knowing the best means for utilizing the scanty material at our disposal. The difficulty of producing a new magical effect is about equivalent to that of inventing a new proposition in Euclid. That, however, is a matter for congratulation, rather than otherwise. The greater the difficulty, the greater the merit. It is a fact which should add much to the dignity of our art. In our present inquiry, the most important point to be remembered is this: Realizing the extreme difficulty of raising any worthy superstructure upon foundations so narrow, we have every reason to be careful in our architecture.

Turning to the second principle under discussion we may quote, for example, the well-known feat of catching coins in the air. In a performance such as this, it is evident that the element of actual surprise is practically absent. The mere fact of apparently catching a coin, once only, would produce no effect at all. In itself, the feat is so small, as compared with magicians' other works, that it would leave even the most unsophisticated spectator quite unimpressed. But by repeating the process again and again, spectators become gradually imbued with a sense of mystification. There is no surprise-there can be none; because every time the performer raises his hand, the catching of a coin is foreseen. Yet, as time goes on, the spectators are compelled to form the mental query, "Where in the world does he get all those coins?" The more of them he produces, the greater is the effect upon his audience within due limits, of course. No true artist would ever be guilty of continuing his repetitions to the point of wearisomeness.

In this typical instance, we recognize the characteristic operation of the principle of repetition, and the method of utilizing that principle for the production of a cumulative effect. We can see that, in performing a small manipulation as an isolated occurrence, the principle of surprise cannot possibly be brought into operation. But, by continued repetition of that insignificant feat, one is enabled to build up an impression of magical achievement, the magnitude of which is out of all proportion to the cause which produced it.

Thus, we may safely lay down a rule to the following effect:

(11) Always remember that a notable surprise is incapable of repetition; and that the repetition of an effect, of any kind whatever, cannot create surprise.

As a further example of the cumulative effect to be gained by repetition, we may here point out the well-known efficiency of a catchword, as a means of attaining effect. There is no walk of life in which the catchword is not a factor of at least occasional importance. Even in matters which affect the public welfare it is often exploited in a manner so puerile and so vulgar that, to anyone who understands the game, the process becomes absolutely disgusting. Still, as a means of legitimate entertainment, and in the honest fulfillment of artistic purposes, the catchword has merits which should not be neglected. Take, for instance, Dr. Lynn's "That's how it's done!" or Buatier de Kolta's "Isn't it wonderful?"' Those phrases have become classic. They have done yeoman service, not only to their respective authors, but also to many lesser men who have adopted the phrases-generally without either permission or acknowledgment. The first time such a phrase is used, it has little effect, if any. The second time, it receives just a mild appreciation. The third time, the audience may smile. The fourth time, the words cause a laugh. The fifth and all subsequent repetitions create a roar.

There we have in a nutshell all requisite proof as to the value of cumulative effect. At the same time we are enabled to understand the broad distinction to be drawn between the respective applications of surprise and repetition. We are also enabled to understand the cogency of a general rule, which may be stated thus:

(12) A minor conception ordinarily demands the cumulative effect of repetition; a conception important in itself should usually create a distinct surprise.

Here we may revert to the question of dual presentation, previously discussed. Although the antagonistic elements of surprise and repetition can scarcely be combined to produce a single effect, we may readily combine them in a presentation which comprises a dual effect. And beyond doubt that may be done, not only without confusion, but also with a marked amplification of the impression created.

From these considerations, the following rule may be deduced:

(13)The simultaneous presentation of two independent feats is permissible when one of them is associated with cumulative effect and the other results in a final surprise.

When we think about the matter, it certainly seems rather strange that, although one may have heard a full description of some magical or dramatic surprise, such foreknowledge does not detract appreciably from the impression one receives on witnessing the performance. Even though one may have witnessed a play or a magical production many times, one does not altogether lose the impression intended. Commentators have frequently noted this, in relation to dramatic performances; and, no doubt, the true explanation is that originally given by Marmontel in 1787. He says, in his quaint, old-world French--"La marche de l'action en ecarte la reminiscence: l'impression de ce que l'on voit empêche de reflechir a ce que l'on fait." We are too much absorbed in the action to think of previous information. What we see prevents us from reflecting upon what we know.

A guiding principle adopted by Buatier de Kolta may here be mentioned, with advantage. On many occasions, de Kolta and one of the present writers had animated discussions upon this and similar points. One of his most definite and unalterable opinions was that, if an audience had any idea of what was about to happen, there could be no surprise and consequently no effect could be made upon the minds of spectators. "An illusionist," he would often remark, "should never tell the public what he is going to do. If people know what is coming, they will not be surprised. If they are not surprised, there is no effect. The illusion is worth nothing--it is nothing."

In one sense, de Kolta was probably right; but, regarded as a general principle, his view of the question is open to serious doubt. His argument was based upon premises far too narrow. Given ideal conditions, of course, the position he took would be unassailable; but, in everyday life, an abstract proposition of that kind has very little relation to the exigencies of practice. With all due deference to the opinion of a magician so eminent as Buatier de Kolta, we contend that in practice one's procedure must be governed to a great extent by expediency. We have already shown that hard and fast rules cannot be prescribed in any branch of art. Contingent circumstances must always to taken into account. Theory, reduced to practice, is a useful guide but nothing more. Divorced from practice, theory becomes a mere will-o'-the-wisp, the pursuit of which is but waste of time for the average man.

The essential fallacy of the principle just now discussed may be readily shown by de Kolta's own procedure. When, for instance, an illusion is described as "The Vanishing Lady," or "L'Escamotage d'une Personne Vivante," how can one hope to conceal the fact that the lady will vanish, or that the living person will be subject to jugglery? The title itself prevents any such possibility. Yet, at the same time, the title provides more than half the attraction exercised upon the public. It would be absurd not to make the revelation, which unavoidably has to be made before complete success can be achieved.

There is, however, one direction in which, as we previously indicated, this principle may be usefully applied. Marmontel gives us the key to this, in the quotation we have made from his writings. The action in progress before the spectators is that which mainly determines the impression produced. Previous knowledge or information can have but little influence on the final result. A really artistic presentation will so largely absorb one's attention that the existence or absence of foreknowledge becomes, comparatively speaking, a negligible factor. Thus, there is obviously much reason for avoiding, so far as circumstances permit, the immediate revelation of what is coming. In fact, from the various points recently considered, we may evolve a rule of some occasional importance:

(14) Unless good reason can be shown, never explain, UPON THE STAGE, precisely what you are about to accomplish.

In effect, this rule represents the true application of de Kolta's advice. "Unless good reason can be shown"--therein lies the whole crux of the matter. But very often good reason can be shown. At times, indeed, it would be the height of folly for a performer not to explain most fully the precise details of the effect he is about to produce. A case of this kind, for instance, would arise when the effect is small in actual dimensions but very startling if completely understood. Every one of us can call to mind effects which, unless explicitly described beforehand, would never be thoroughly appreciated. An illustration of this fact is the decanter and handkerchief trick, wherein handkerchief suddenly disappears from one glass vessel and reappears in another. The common experience of every magician will prove that such a presentation loses nothing by describing the effect beforehand. On the contrary, the small dimensions of the articles employed may be said to necessitate a complete disclosure of the coming events, in order to secure their immediate appreciation.

Again, in the case of a highly important and sensational illusion, demanding close attention on the part of the audience, one may often be well advised in making a theoretically premature revelation of one's intentions. When everybody in the civilized world has heard all about the thing, there may not be much disadvantage in taking the present spectators into one's confidence. They know what is coming, and the effect may perhaps be greatly enhanced if they are told exactly what to expect. In certain cases of this kind, it is true, the performer might produce unqualified surprise in the first few audiences to whom he presents the effect. But, after that, such surprise becomes impossible. The newspapers have given full descriptions of the performance-the wires and cables have spread the information broadcast throughout the world. Consequently, the moment he begins his introduction "even the cats" know what is coming. Among the whole crowd of spectators, the only point of interest is to "see it done."

Conclusive proof of the occasional necessity for complete disclosure of what is about to take place, is provided by such presentations as that of the world-renowned "Box Trick." The very essence of the effect consists in the fact that spectators are fully informed of what is intended to be done and are allowed to try to discover the means whereby the feat will be accomplished. Without such foreknowledge and opportunity for previous investigation, the effect would be lost. They are told that a performer will escape from the box, in spite of the bonds with which it will be secured. They are told that the feat is performed by means of a trick in the construction of the box. They are invited to discover that trick, if they can. Having failed to make such discovery, their amazement when the feat is subsequently accomplished is unbounded. In no other way could the full effect of the invention be attained. Complete premonition is the only possible means for securing due appreciation of any such performance. Reticence, in a case of this kind, would be simply fatal to the ultimate effect, and therefore inartistic to the last degree. Hence in such a case the performer's best course surely must be to emphasize the salient feature of his presentation, and to impress upon his audiences the extraordinary nature of the things he intends to show them.

In this, of course, as in all other matters, one's procedure must be governed by circumstances. But we may safely say that, nine times out of ten, when a performer presents an illusion of world-wide renown, he can lose but little and may gain much by openly confessing his intentions. At such a time, his attitude toward the public, for all practical purposes, may safely be, "I am going to show you something which has startled the world, and would startle you immensely if you did not know what is coming. When you have seen it done, you will be able to imagine how much you would have been surprised if you had not already heard about it." In response to that suggestion, the audience is almost certain to adopt an acquiescent attitude of mind; and accordingly the final effect will resemble that produced by absolute surprise.

It is owing to similar causes that dramatic situations such as that relating to "Hawkshaw" remain thoroughly impressive, even to those most familiar with them. Familiarity does not breed contempt, because the action in progress diverts the spectator's attention from what he knows, and renders him interested only in "seeing it done." He is compelled to enter into the spirit of the performance, and to allow full play to his imagination.

The last sentence forcibly recalls an opinion which the present writers have long entertained, and which can do no harm if stated. At the worst, it can but cause a momentary digression. It relates to the definition of art in the abstract. In the early portion of our inquiry, we touched upon the great difficulty of answering, and the numerous attempts made to answer, the question "What is Art?" To make another attempt may be to display unjustifiable temerity, but here it is: Art is work which stimulates imagination. Be that as it may, however, there can be no doubt that it is the exercise of imagination which prevents an artistic effect from being destroyed by foreknowledge--a fact well worth remembering.


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