Chapter 9 - Presentation
In relation to what may be termed the "applied art" side of magic, the subject of presentation has not only the widest scope, but also the most vital importance of all subdivisions of the Art in Magic. Indeed, since magic is one of the ephemeral arts, which can only attain fruition in actual performance, one might say that without adequate presentation there can be no art in magic. And, apart from mechanical and speculative matters, that statement would be entirely accurate. The final purpose of the art is the presentation of its effects; and, until those effects are presented, the art itself cannot be perfected, but must remain a thing of little importance in the eyes of the world, Therefore, it is in this department of his art that the magician, as it were, puts the coping-stone upon the edifice erected by his skill and labor.
In accordance with the manner in which that final work is carried out, will depend the ultimate making or marring of the whole structure. Hence the supreme necessity, in connection with magical presentation, for obtaining a thorough knowledge of such general principles as may be derived from experience and logical reasoning. The subject is admittedly one of extreme complexity, and simply bristles with controversial details. It can never be reduced to even the semblance of an exact science, but must be dealt with upon broad lines, capable of general application. Still, even when we confine our attention to simple generalities, and allow a wide margin of elasticity in the few principles which may be established, there are many valuable truths to be ascertained by discussing the subject. We shall therefore endeavor to reason out such truths as may serve for our guidance in the presentation of magical effects.
In the forefront of our discussion, we must undoubtedly place the consideration of matters relating to the personal characteristics of a performer. A striking personality is an accidental advantage. It may be of great assistance in the practice of art; yet, in itself, it is not art but chance. There are many performers who, without the possession of attractive personality or natural distinction, contrive to make their work effective in the highest degree-to hold the attention and gain the appreciation of their audiences, completely and invariably.
Now that clearly is art. It must be so, since it is not due to the normal operations of nature.
On the other hand, there are men of charming personality who, in spite of the natural advantages they possess, can never render their efforts convincing to an audience-men who, in private, would appear to be gifted with qualities which could not fail to command public appreciation; and yet, who fail to touch even the fringe of success in stage work or other modes of presentation. This represents the utter negation of art, and is simply a misuse of valuable possessions. Instances of artistic failure of this kind will occur to the mind of everyone who reads these lines. Such instances clearly show that a striking personality, when divorced from the essential requirements of artistic presentation, may be of as little value as technical perfection which is accompanied by similar deficiencies.
In either case, there is just the one thing lacking without which success is impossible. That is, the knowledge of how to adapt personal qualifications to public service-in other words, to present what is shown in a way that will appeal to the average spectator. Attractive personality is a good thing to possess. So, also, is technical ability. But neither of those good qualities singly, nor both in conjunction, will serve to make the performer an artist. Something more is necessary. He must understand the proper method of displaying his qualifications. Given that understanding, he has every reasonable hope for success, however limited his personal advantages, natural or acquired. Without that understanding, his prospects are usually hopeless, no matter what personal charm or ability he may possess. Herein we perceive the importance of learning all we possibly can, in connection with this present section of our inquiry. The path of knowledge cannot be otherwise than thorny and full of obstructions. But every step we take is bound to render the next easier, and to lead us nearer to success.
It is clear that the object of presentation comprises two prime factors, upon which all our calculations must be based. Those factors are "personality" and "procedure." Upon the establishment of a proper relation between them-that is, their mutual adaptation to a definite purpose-the artistic success of any performer must ultimately depend. They are both variable factors; and, usually, they are variable within wide limits, though not necessarily so. The greater their variability, the wider will be the performer's range of efficiency, and the more numerous his opportunities for achieving success. Practically, this means that the higher a performer's ability as an actor, the less will his field of operation be circumscribed and the greater will be his qualifications as a magician. Conversely, the greater the diversity of procedure available in connection with a magical effect, the more readily may its presentation be made to harmonize with the personal characteristics of the performer. In this case the effect becomes more generally available to magicians as a body, because the procedure can easily be modified to suit various individualities. The main principle underlying these considerations may be stated in the form of a practical rule, thus:
(22) No magician should ever present, in public, any magical feat in which the Procedure cannot be, or has not been, adapted to his own personal characteristics and abilities.
However good an effect may be, and however desirable its inclusion in the performer's repertoire, he should reject it altogether if its presentation involves any essential feature which he cannot readily provide. If the necessary "business" includes either important details or general methods, at variance with the artist's stage presence, mentality, or personal aptitude, he should throw aside all idea of attempting the presentation. In like manner, if there is need for any form of manual dexterity, or other skill, which the performer has but indifferently acquired, he should wait until that deficiency has been made good before he tries the thing in public. If the acquisition of that essential skill proves to be beyond his capability, he should sacrifice the production unhesitatingly. However reluctantly the sacrifice may have to be made, there can be no question as to the need for making it. In any case of this nature, the wish should be subject to the will, and the latter to common sense. The performer who cannot bring himself to make a sacrifice of this kind will never justify his claim to be regarded as an artist. He may, of course, form mistaken ideas of his qualifications and characteristics, but that is another matter. As an artist, he is bound to do the best that is in him; and, at the same time, endeavor to reject everything imperfect. It is impossible that he can always succeed-but he will always try.
In every walk of life, the same general principles hold good. No two men are precisely alike in constitution or capability. Therefore, no two men can exhibit any artistic accomplishment in identical manner and equally well. This is especially true in relation to the public exhibition of ephemeral arts, such as magic. No two actors, for example, have ever played "Hamlet" in exactly the same way, or with equal success. Indeed, the character has been attempted by some who, although possessing undoubted histrionic genius, have shown themselves incompetent to represent the Dane as Shakespeare portrayed him. Their failure has been obviously due to the fact that they did not sufficiently understand their natural limitations. That is a fault which invariably brings its own punishment, sooner or later. Every living man has limitations, beyond which he becomes incompetent. The wise man, whether artist or artisan, will endeavor to learn the nature of his limitations and to keep his work well within them.
A natural gift for doing certain things with facility is a common characteristic. In addition to that, most people possess an aptitude for learning to do certain things, which are not exactly in accordance with their natural bent. Anything beyond this, however, must necessarily approach a person's limit of efficiency, at the best; and may very readily be altogether beyond his natural limitations. Ordinarily, when a man finds himself lacking in aptitude in certain directions, he acquires an unconquerable aversion to attempting that which presents so much difficulty. But unfortunately we sometimes meet with persons whose utmost desire is the achievement of success in directions which, for them, can but lead to absolute failure. Thus, we find the man who by nature is qualified to raise the process of "grinning through a horse collar" to the dignity of a fine art, is ambitious to shine as a poetic idealist. Instead of doing the thing for which he was intended by nature, he wants to discourse upon "Pictures, Taste, Shakespeare, and the Musical Glasses." Similarly, the man who has no spark of humor in his composition, cherishes the dream of becoming famous as a comedian. Such men, of course, are abnormal; but they are by no means uncommon. They may be found, here and there, among magicians. Yet, in connection with magic, there is no valid reason why any man should form a mistaken estimate of his own capabilities, or experience a moment's doubt as to what he should or should not present in public. We may state a practical rule, which is merely the embodiment of a truism, and should prevent all possible doubt of the kind mentioned. It is this:--
(23) Never attempt, in public, anything that cannot be performed with the utmost ease in private.
Anything that cannot be done with facility cannot be done properly. Yet, on the part of public performers, magicians included we often find an apparent disregard of that self-evident fact. The spectacle of a performer attempting to present in public magical feats which obviously have not passed beyond the stage of difficulty in private practice, is by no means unusual. The effect produced in the minds of spectators by witnessing such presentations is invariably of a most deplorable character. An audience subjected to such an ordeal cannot fail to be either distressed, or moved to sarcastic laughter. So far as the performer's success is concerned, it does not matter which of those two results is produced. There is nothing to choose between them, for they are equally disastrous. Whether the audience feels sorry for the performer, or feels inclined to "guy" him, makes no difference in the end; because, either way, the end is failure, writ large. An entertainer-magician or otherwise-must be able to make his audience think and feel as he chooses, not as accident may decide. He may excite laughter or arouse sympathy, but it must be on account of his art, not himself. Whatever impressions his spectators receive should be due to an interest in what he is presenting, and not to his own shortcomings. The audience should be made to laugh with him, not at him; to grieve in sympathy with his artistic suggestions, not in pity for his inartistic failures.
One would think that the strained relations which, in cases of immature or otherwise defective presentations, always exist between a performer and his audience, must necessarily provide a wholesome corrective for such errors. But unfortunately some performers appear to be so incurably afflicted with megalomania-in other words, "swelled head"-that their failures never come home to them. They seem unable to conceive the possibility of failing to compel any audience to fall down and worship the divinity of whatever they choose to present. Theirs is the primrose path, the easy pursuit of art, because of the transcendent gifts with which nature has endowed them! Other men, less favored than themselves, may no doubt find it necessary to labor in the vineyards of art, in order to achieve success. It is only fit and proper for such poor creatures to earn their bread by toil, and with difficulty. Let them do so, since they can do no better. The supremely gifted geniuses, to whom the conquest of art has been rendered a mere holiday task, have no need for such personal effort as others make. The king can do no wrong, and they can do nothing that is not right! Why should genius trouble about what it is going to present to a public audience? It will be all right on the night!
Will it? No! almost certainly, it will be all wrong. Men who are capable of arguing in that way are not artists in any sense of the term, and never will be. In connection with art of any and every kind, there are many things which necessarily are open to question, and admit the possibility of dispute. There is, however, one point upon which no question can be raised, and no dispute is possible. That is, no matter how great may be the natural ability of any man, he can only achieve artistic success by means of great and persistent effort. Those who think otherwise, and act up to their convictions, are almost certain to fail. Now and then, of course, one of them may be lucky enough to meet with success-of a kind; but it will not, it cannot, be artistic success. He will be a "mushroom man." He will spring up in a night, as it were, and disappear the next day. His only chance of permanent benefit will lie in making all the profit he can during his brief period of popularity. After that, the public will have found him out, and will consign him to the oblivion that awaits all such impostors as he.
Year after year, such men constantly come and go. The lesson taught thereby should be self-evident to anyone who has normal intelligence. In magic, above all other arts, the phrase "'all right on the night" has no place, except by way of sarcasm. Whatever is not entirely right before the night arrives, will be found all wrong as sure as fate. It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion, such as the production of a magical effect for the first time in public, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Whether we must attribute this to the malignity of matter or to the total depravity of inanimate things, whether the exciting cause is hurry, worry, or what not, the fact remains.
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