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lumberjohn
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Houdin is often quoted as saying "a magician is an actor playing the part of a magician." This quote was recently featured prominently in Joshua Jay's "Magic, the Complete Course" without much elaboration. In fact, I've seen it many times in magic literature, but usually in contexts in which it made no sense to me, as if those that included the quote had no real sense of the thought it was intended to convey. Perhaps it is I that have been getting it wrong.

I've always felt the quote lost something in translation and would make its point better if reworded as "a magician is an actor playing the part of someone who can actually suspend the laws of nature and perform miracles." I've always felt the intended lesson of this quote was that performing magic is about far more than doing tricks. One must think as an actor researching a part and take into account the motivation, mannerisms, style, etc. of someone who could actually do what you are representing to be able to do. That person would not be you. Houdin was saying that there is always something theatrical to every magic effect and to ignore this robs the effect of its power.

Am I the only one with this interpretation of the quote? Clearly, there are others who feel differently. What do you take from the quote?
Bill Palmer
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First of all, the quote is taken completely out of context. Most magicians have NEVER read the quote in its entirety.

In one of the early threads in my old "column" in the Buffet -- From the Wizard's Cave, I wrote the following:

Quote:
"A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician." -- Jean Eugčne Robert-Houdin.

I know that everyone on this forum has read this quote somewhere, and possibly even quoted it to some other magician. But what is the context of the quote, and what did Robert-Houdin actually mean by it?

I think it is necessary to put the Robert-Houdin quote into its full context, because many of us are prone to quote it without understanding why it was said.

The quote is on page 43 of the Routledge edition of Secrets of Conjuring and Magic in a chapter titled "Escamotage, Prestidigitation."

He explains the meanings of the two words, then he states: "A conjuror is not a juggler; he is an actor playing the part of a magician; an artist whose fingers have more need to move with deftness than with speed. I may even add that where sleight-of-hand is involved, the quiter the movement of the performer, the more readily will the spectators be deceived."

Ironically, Hoffmann added this footnote at the end of the chapter -- "The present chapter being a disquisition of the precise signification of a couple of French terms, will have but little interest for the ordinary English reader. It would, however, have been an unjustifiable mutilation of the text to have omitted it."

Why is this ironic? Well, there are several reasons. One is that it is probably the only quote from this book that almost every English-speaking magician is aware of in any form at all. Most of us have no idea where it comes from or its context, just that Robert-Houdin said it. In fact, I must admit that I had never read it in its full context until I purchased a copy of the book from Andy Greget at the TAOM Convention last year.

And we have added a lot of meaning to the original text that may or may not have been intended by Robert-Houdin in the first place.

But were we wrong to do this?

NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Sometimes a tiny fragment of a book will assume a life greater than the book itself. And a whole new approach to an art form will appear because something was gained from an out of context quote.

Thanks to magicalaurie for starting the thread that inspired me to put this up.
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Daveandrews
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Bill, many thanks for that. Oh, how true it is.

Dave
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Bill Palmer
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I stumbled across this entirely by accident. I had just got hold of a copy of Secrets of Conjuring and Magic, and was reading through it, when I came upon that chapter.

It was only a few pages. As I read it, I realized that I had no real understanding of what Robert-Houdin meant by that statement, because I had no idea why he wrote it. As it turns out, the original meaning was far simpler than most of us tend to apply to it. But our interpretation of it actually is important. It makes us better magicians if we understand this quote on both levels.



Regarding "Houdin," see the following: (fifth post down)
http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/viewt......um=171&5
and
http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/searc......=5538192
and
http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/searc......=4651034

This may sound silly to you, but I think that knowing this is very important.
"The Swatter"

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Lawrence O
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English!

Let's face it: English is an odd language.
There is no egg in an eggplant
No ham in hamburgers
And neither pine nor apple in a pineapple.
A guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
French fries are claimed by the Belgians, not the French.
And boxing rings are definitely square.

If lawyers can be disbarred and clergymen defrocked,
shouldn't it follow that electricians may be delighted,
musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed,
and dry cleaners depressed?
Now if writers write, how come fingers don't fing.
Since the plural of tooth is teeth
Shouldn't the plural of phone booth be phone beeth
And in the same way, that, during my youth, teachers taught,
Why didn't the preacher praught.

Most people take English for granted
But if we examine its paradoxes we find that
Quicksand takes us down slowly
And when stating that four men out of five suffer from headaches,
It doesn’t imply that the fifth one enjoys it.
Knowing that a vegetarian eats vegetables
doesn’t tell what a humanitarian eats!?
Could someone explain why people do recite at a play
And yet play at a recital.
Or why Americans park on driveways
And drive on parkways
Or how can the weather be as hot as hell on one day,
And as cold as hell on another one

Shouldn’t we wonder at the unique lunacy
Of a language where a house can burn up
As it burns down.
And in which I’m suppose to fill in a form
… by filling it out.
And a bell is only heard once it goes!

English was invented by people, not computers
And it betrays the ambiguities of this human race
(which of course isn't a race at all)
where a person who plays the piano is called a pianist
but a person who drives a racecar is not called a racist?
That is why when the stars are out, they are visible
But when the lights are out, they are invisible
So why is it that when I wind up my watch
It starts
But when I wind up this kind of fantasy
It ends.
Magic is the art of proving impossible things in parallel dimensions that can't be reached
Bill Palmer
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Good to see you back here again. I missed you.

Here is a funny story about "racists."

I don't know if you know Ralph MarcoM, the magician and doctor from Honey Grove, Texas, and former columnist for the Linking Ring. He and I were working at Scarborough Faire, near Waxahachie, Texas, about 5 miles from the Texas Motorway in Ennis, Texas.

As he was checking in to the motel one night, he asked the owner of the motel how things were going. The owner replied, "We had a very strange week. Had a bunch of them racists up here. Place was full of racists."

MarcoM asked "Ku Klux Klan?"

"Nope."

MarcoM was puzzled. "Black Panthers?"

"Nope."

"What kind of racists were they?"

"You know -- from that Motorway down the highway from here."

The poor man was serious. Can you imagine how the news must have sounded to him?
"The Swatter"

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JRob
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On a related note I remember reading how an English monarch touring St. Paul's Cathedral upon its completion described it as "artificial and awful". Then the person relating this (possibly apochryphal) story reminded the reader that back then those words were understood as we understand "artistic and awesome"
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spatlind
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Quote:
On 2009-01-18 04:59, Lawrence O wrote:
English!

Let's face it: English is an odd language.
There is no egg in an eggplant
No ham in hamburgers
And neither pine nor apple in a pineapple.
A guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
French fries are claimed by the Belgians, not the French.
And boxing rings are definitely square.

If lawyers can be disbarred and clergymen defrocked,
shouldn't it follow that electricians may be delighted,
musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed,
and dry cleaners depressed?
Now if writers write, how come fingers don't fing.
Since the plural of tooth is teeth
Shouldn't the plural of phone booth be phone beeth
And in the same way, that, during my youth, teachers taught,
Why didn't the preacher praught.

Most people take English for granted
But if we examine its paradoxes we find that
Quicksand takes us down slowly
And when stating that four men out of five suffer from headaches,
It doesn’t imply that the fifth one enjoys it.
Knowing that a vegetarian eats vegetables
doesn’t tell what a humanitarian eats!?
Could someone explain why people do recite at a play
And yet play at a recital.
Or why Americans park on driveways
And drive on parkways
Or how can the weather be as hot as hell on one day,
And as cold as hell on another one

Shouldn’t we wonder at the unique lunacy
Of a language where a house can burn up
As it burns down.
And in which I’m suppose to fill in a form
… by filling it out.
And a bell is only heard once it goes!

English was invented by people, not computers
And it betrays the ambiguities of this human race
(which of course isn't a race at all)
where a person who plays the piano is called a pianist
but a person who drives a racecar is not called a racist?
That is why when the stars are out, they are visible
But when the lights are out, they are invisible
So why is it that when I wind up my watch
It starts
But when I wind up this kind of fantasy
It ends.


This is a great passage, I've not heard it in some time. Cheers!
Actions lie louder than words - Carolyn Wells

I believe in God, only I spell it Nature - Frank Lloyd Wright.
Eric Fry
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The real problem is that you'd need to know mid-19th century French to know the best English translation for Robert-Houdin, and I'm certainly not qualified to do that. Words can have very subtle shades of meaning, or can have different meanings in different contexts, or their meaning can change over time. Also remember that the original author may write unclearly.

That said, let's say the English translation is essentially a good one. Let's also say Robert-Houdin's point was mainly that a magician's dexterity manifests itself in deftness, not speed. I still think the statement about a magician being a type of actor can stand on its own as a meaningful insight.

Even when we're doing something as simple as a false shuffle, we're acting as if we're giving the deck a genuine shuffle. Not just the patter and presentation are acting. It's all acting.

In fact, there are effective types of magic performances in which the performer doesn't act as if he's a magician, even in jest. I wouldn't say Ricky Jay plays the role of a person with magical powers, for example. I'd say he displays sleight of hand skills in the entertaining context of talking about con artists, crooked gamblers, and so on. He isn't acting as if he has those skills. He really does have those skills.

Going back to Robert-Houdin's quote, I wonder if we still misunderstand exactly what he was saying. I wonder if he was trying to say that a magician isn't a ragamuffin street performer; a magician has the dignity of someone who acts on a stage. Maybe he was making a social point. Think about the way Robert-Houdin presented his magic. Think about his clothes, his stage setting, his audiences. Just a thought.
Bill Palmer
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Since the translation in question was done by someone who was basically a contemporary of Robert-Houdin, i.e. Angelo Lewis, it can be fairly well accepted as accurate. There is a very good chance that Lewis met Robert-Houdin when he appeared in London. I haven't verified this, though.

If you don't have the book in question in that particular translation, you owe it to yourself to get hold of it. For those who are not familiar with Angelo Lewis, he was better known to us as Professor Hoffmann.

I did not quote the whole chapter, by the way. There can be NO misunderstanding at all if you read and understand that chapter.
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Eric Fry
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Good point about Angelo Lewis being a contemporary of Robert-Houdin. So let's grant that it's well-translated.

I still don't see why magic commentators so often say the sentence has been taken out of context. Robert-Houdin's point isn't SOLELY that magicians move with deftness, not speed. He makes a point of saying that a magician is an actor and an artist. I think that's part of the contrast he is drawing with jugglers.
Bill Palmer
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Have you read the whole chapter? The chapter is the context. If you haven't read the chapter, you can't judge what I posted. Also please re-read what I stated in the second post in this thread.

BTW, to the best of my knowledge, I was the first to point out, at least in recent years, that this quote had been taken out of context and had acquired a depth of meaning that may not have been intended in the original. That post was originally made in August of 2005.

So, it's not a matter of "magic commentators so often saying that the sentence has been taken out of context." Many of them are quoting me.

Note that I stated:
Quote:
And we have added a lot of meaning to the original text that may or may not have been intended by Robert-Houdin in the first place.

But were we wrong to do this?

NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Sometimes a tiny fragment of a book will assume a life greater than the book itself. And a whole new approach to an art form will appear because something was gained from an out of context quote.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
Eric Fry
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Yes, I have read the chapter -- and the book. Let me re-read it tonight and get back to you tomorrow. Whether people drew their comment from you originally or not, it's still something that gets posted periodically by a variety of people. I'm glad to have the opportunity to discuss this with you.
Bill Palmer
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The paragraph following the one with the quote in it says a lot about what R-H meant.

Then, the two paragraphs that follow that one give some more interesting context.

Also, make note of Hoffmann's footnote on page 44. That says a great deal.

Please note that I am not disagreeing with anyone who says that a magician is an actor playing the part of a magician. Of course, this is true. What I am saying is that the emphasis that modern magicians place upon this quote may not be the emphasis that R-H originally intended.

In fact, an actor who was not a trained magician would intuit this in his interpretation of a magician as opposed to a "juggler," and would avoid anything that called attention to the perceived dexterity of the hands and the speed of the fingers.

Too often beginning magicians think that the grotesque stances, poses and gestures of the stage manipulator are the things that define magic. How much more impressive would it be if a manipulator could perform all of those magnificent feats without any apparent dexterity at all, but by simply plucking cards from the air?
"The Swatter"

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My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

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Eric Fry
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I think we agree with each other.

I agree that the context is Robert-Houdin talking about the term "prestidigitation" and saying that it's misleading because it refers to quick movements of the hands. His point is that if you really had magical powers, such as through your wand, you wouldn't need to move your hands fast. Behaving like a slick, dextrous guy contradicts your make-believe claim to be magical.

I think modern magicians seized on the phrase about the magician as actor because it does have a lot of truth to it. I wouldn't say people have misunderstood the phrase. They may not know the original context. But the phrase does stand on its own as a meaningful statement.
mtpascoe
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If that's so, then the discovery by modern magicians is a happy accident. It has changed the lives of so many magicians that took it literally.
Bill Palmer
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Eric -- that's really my point.
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arielf
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There's a lot of misinformation about this quote, as I explained in the forum on my site (I Saw That!), in 1997 (sorry, Bill Smile ). There are bits of truth in all the above, but a lot of conjecture too. The fact is, what Robert-Houdin said in the original French is extremely clear, even to a contemporary French speaker. But no translation can convey his exact meaning without a full explanation. So, from having been a magician for over 40 years and being a full-fledged francophone myself, I offer the following.

Here's the original:

"Un prestidigitateur n'est point un jongleur; c'est un acteur jouant un role de magicien; c'est un artiste don't les doigts doivent etre plus habiles que prestes. J'ajouterai meme que, dans les exercises de prestidigitation, plus les mouvements sont calmes, plus doit etre facile l'illusion des spectateurs." [This stupid thing keeps adding an apostrophe in D-O-N-T, above -- ignore it.]

Or, in English (my translation):

"A prestidigitator is not a juggler; he's an actor playing the role of a magician; he's a performer whose fingers must be skillful rather than fast. I'll even add that, in the performance of prestidigitation, the more relaxed the movements, the easier it will be to create the illusion for the spectators."

The point he's making is that we should do our sleights without haste, gently, so that we don't draw attention to our dexterity. The idea is that our trickery should look like 'real' magic, not manual skill.

The translation problem stems from two words. Let's look at the French meanings first.

In French, the standard word for our art is "prestidigitation". It has two roots: prest- and digit-, which mean fast (or nimble) and fingers, respectively. In other words, a bit of a misnomer for sleight-of-hand. So when he starts the sentence with "Un prestidigitateur", it's clear that he's referring to us.

The word "magicien", however, meant (in his day) one who does REAL magic, the genuine article, the guy who makes things happen just by snapping his fingers. No trickery -- the black arts.

Replacing the words in the sentence with their explanation, we get: A sleight-of-hand performer is not a juggler; he's an actor playing the role of one who does real magic.

The meaning is very clear. For the record, in contemporary French, "magicien" can refer to either the sleight-of-hand trickster or the real magician, but the meaning of the sentence would still be clear because of the context, since "prestidigitateur" retains its original meaning.

Now comes the tricky part (pun intended). In the original translation, Hoffman did not use the English word "prestidigitator" (perhaps because it was too uncommon). He wrote: "A conjuror is not a juggler; he is an actor playing the part of a magician". I don't know English usage from Hoffman's time, so it may or may not have been clear that conjuror referred to sleight-of-hand trickster and that magician referred to real magician. But in contemporary English, the two are interchangeable: every dictionary I've consulted gives both meanings to both words (or doesn't distinguish between the two meanings). Therefore, to the modern reader, the sentence is a bit of a tautology, especially the rephrased version: a magician is an actor playing the role of a magician.

Regarding the word "artiste": it means artist, but in the context of performing arts, it simply means performer. Jugglers, magicians, singers, acrobats, actors, etc., are all referred to as "artistes" today, and I doubt that it was any different in R-H's day.

A final thought. Hoffman's footnote about this notion not being of interest to English speakers implies that Robert-Houdin wrote about it specifically to prevent aspiring magicians from taking the "prest" part of the word literally. Since I don't have access to the text that precedes the quoted paragraph, I don't know if this is indeed the case; it's possible that magicians of his day were showing off their skill by performing sleights at breakneck speed, as is often the case today. That's MY conjecture Smile

Hope this helps.

Ariel
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lin
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Thank you. I very much enjoyed and appreciated your explanation.
Eric Fry
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Very helpful post. I think the English did, and perhaps still do, use the word "conjurer" to refer to performers and the word "magician" to refer to people who have magical powers. So Angelo Lewis probably did come up with a good British-English translation.
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