Home Arts & Lit Dannee McGuire discusses the death of magic as we know it…

Dannee McGuire discusses the death of magic as we know it…


IS there still place on the 21st century stage for magic? In a world of instantly available and popular entertainment, it would seem that magic is a dying art.

There is no longer a prevalent, serious public interest in extrasensory and paranormal effects. The typical image of a magician in a top hat with a rabbit is, today, a rare and comical figure. Although there are some performers who still class themselves as magicians, such as the popular Dynamo, most performers who claim to have magical powers are criticised and ridiculed. The standard example of this is of course Uri Geller, who claimed his abilities to bend spoons and describe hidden drawings were a demonstration of psychokinesis and telepathy.

1993 Camel Cigarettes vanishing lady magic trick Image credit: Crossett library
1993 Camel Cigarettes vanishing lady magic trick
Image credit: Crossett library

Instead, magic is becoming more commonly reclassified and presented as ‘illusionism’, although it still uses many time-old and traditionally-based ‘magic’ tricks. Stage presences, such as Derren Brown, are popular for their reassuring determination to ensure the audience is aware that there is always an explanation behind his stage tricks. Although Brown often deceives the audience in exactly how the magic is performed, he never claims to have any paranormal or psychic abilities, and denounces those who do. Penn & Teller are another notable example; often claiming to reveal the secrets behind their tricks (for example, using transparent cups in the common cups and balls trick), they misdirect the audience in order to re-mystify the very trick they have just debunked (for example, adding a potato into the cups and balls trick).

Magic, therefore, in the late 20th and early 21st century, is becoming a more versatile category. Instead of fooling audiences that magic is real, they work on the premise magic is illusion, thus modernising from exploiting belief into exploiting disbelief. In assuring the audience that magical tricks are not “magic” and demystifying old magic tricks as an example, performers nonetheless continue to distort and revive these same age-old tricks to provide even more complex and disorientating illusions.

Image credit: Charles Crosbie
Image credit: Charles Crosbie

Yet an additional problem facing the popularity of magic today is the rise of technology: both in terms of using technological advancements to carry out a trick more efficiently, and in the technology of broadcasting magic. Although technology can and does help performers conceal tricks, there is something reductive and disappointing in simple, technologically based answers to seemingly complex performances. This is compounded by the use of television to broadcast where home audiences are inevitably even more separated from the performance, and thus more sceptical of the possibility of post-production edits and effects behind the shows.

To resolve this, the most popular televised form of magic show is the artist performing in front of a studio or stage audience, in order to reassure the remote viewer that the illusions are really happening in “real time”. As technology enables more complicated tricks to be performed and shows to be broadcast to wider audiences, the magician faces the connected challenge of continuing to engage and mystify the audience in order to convince the audience of the virtues of showmanship, mentalism and illusion, as opposed to simple technological trickery.

Magic as we once knew it – the wizard pulling a rabbit out of his hat, the deliberate insistence on concealment over revealing – is, certainly, a dying art. Instead, the subtle combination of exposure, explanation and misdirection – the balance between revealing and further disillusion – are enjoying resurgence, both televised and live.

Magic, like all arts, is endlessly reviving through the renovation of old tricks and illusions, whilst at once unceasingly inventing new illusions. Through the recategorization of magic as illusionism, and the insistence on traditional forms of presentation such as stage performances, magic in the 21st century is in fact a living art – continuously resurrecting and reinventing itself whilst still grounded by age-old and timeless principles.


Dannee McGuire

Read Exepose Arts’ interview with Derren Brown here.

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