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Our Magic by Nevil Maskelyne & David Devant

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Two things are noteworthy. One, it is a must read book for magic theory interested. Two, it has a 20 page bibliographical index of card tricks. This includes sleights as well. Anybody doing research on card moves or routines should have this index. It makes searching a lot easier. And this index might point you to interesting books you have not heard about or which are not in your possession.

Paul Fleming wrote:

For almost half a century, "England's Home of Mystery" in London was the "capital" of the magic world; and for a considerable portion of that period the active operation of this little theater of magic was in the hands of the authors of Our Magic. Out of their long experience in providing such excellent programs that "Maskelyne and Devant's" became known in all parts of the globe, came the wealth of knowledge which has been incorporated into the book under review.

David Devant, who died in 1941 after a long invalidism, was the unquestioned leader of magic in England for at least two decades. At the time Our Magic was first published, in 1911, he was probably at the height of his powers as a performer, though he continued to make public appearances for some eight or ten years more. He was an outstanding originator of both small tricks and stage illusions, and was noted also for his charming stage presence and his mastery of the technique of misdirection. A quarter of a century after his untimely retirement from professional life, he is still referred to by English conjurers as "the master," and cheerfully accorded the honor of having been the greatest magician Britain has yet produced.

The name of Nevil Maskelyne is less well known than Devant's, at least on this side of the Atlantic, though his forty years of service at the Home of Mystery - "as conjurer, inventor, dramatist, actor, and director" - exceeded the amount of time spent there by Mr. Devant. As one writer has said, "Nevil Maskelyne did not pretend to be a conjurer in the ordinary sense of the word," and we may hazard the guess that his contribution to the success of this famous theater brought him less renown because much of his work was done in the business office, the workshop, or behind the scenes, and not out in the glare of the stage lights. However this may be, it is clear that, among other things, he originated a number of important stage illusions; and he is credited with the invention of the greatest piece of magic ever devised - the marvelous suspension feat which Kellar later presented in America under the title, The Levitation of Princess Karnac.

He found time, also, to write a series of articles for The Magic Circular, the official organ of The Magic Circle, a society of British conjurers in which he long held the post of president.

These articles later became Parts I and II of Our Magic. In the first of them (104 pages), which is entitled The Art in Magic, Mr. Maskelyne undertakes to set forth the characteristics of artistic magic, and to lay down certain principles which he regards as fundamental. Possibly because we have no special knowledge of, or interest in, "art for art's sake," we incline to the view that his discussion of the nature of art could have been shortened without any substantial loss being suffered by the average reader. We feel, too, that he gives undue prominence to the place of originality in art, minimizing though not overlooking the fact that there is need for great interpretative as well as creative artists. What seems to us an over-emphasis on the need for originality and the wickedness of imitation is doubtless accounted for, in part at least, by the fact that the magical novelties which Maskelyne and Devant's was continually offering its audiences were, over a period of many years, promptly appropriated in their entirety by other magicians and in some instances were presented very badly by the imitators.

However, we find in Part I much that should be of value to magicians everywhere. Mr. Maskelyne discusses such matters as unity, consistency, justification, surprise, repetition, and climax, and gives practical advice on rehearsal, speed in production, patter, stage manner, and other equally important subjects. But the feature of this section of the book is, as we see it, the inclusion of twenty-three "principles" of artistic presentation, each of which is first stated concisely and then discussed at some length. We may quote a few of these statements, by way of example:

"(3) Avoid complexity of procedure, and never tax either the patience or the memory of an audience."

"(15) When presenting an effect of pure transition, the first and most important essential is the avoidance of every possible cause of distraction."

"(19) When a presentation includes a number of effects in series, the final effect should represent the true climax, and its predecessors successive steps whereby that climax is reached."

"(23) Never attempt, in public, anything that cannot be performed with the utmost ease in private ..."

Stripped of the exposition which accompanies them in Our Magic, these statements may not appear to be of great importance; but we firmly believe that the careful study and earnest practice of the principles here presented would do much to raise the level of performance of magic generally.

In Part II (64 pages), entitled The Theory of Magic, Mr. Maskelyne makes a detailed analysis of magic, separating all conjuring feats into three main orders - manipulative, mental, and physical - dividing these orders into classes or types, which in turn he subdivides into principles and methods. So far as we know, this is the first attempt that was ever made to apply the methods of scientific analysis to magic on a comprehensive scale. Such an analysis does not make easy or exciting reading; but once mastered it may pay large dividends by furnishing an understanding of the possibilities and limitations of magic - by enabling the magician to proceed on the basis of known principles instead of fumbling about on a trial-and-error basis.

In Part III (140 pages), by David Devant, is found the practical application of the principles laid down in the earlier sections. However, Part III may also be considered on its own merits, quite apart from the preceding sections on art and theory, and will probably be regarded by many readers as the most valuable part of the book. Mr. Devant was long rated as one of the world's foremost teachers of conjuring. His smaller works - Magic Made Easy, Magic for Everyone, The Best Tricks and How to Do Them, and Lessons in Conjuring - have enjoyed a wide sale and the highest praise. But those who are unacquainted with Our Magic have yet to see Devant the teacher at his best. In this book we have that exceedingly rare combination - a great magician revealing secrets from his own professional program, explaining details of preparation, stage "business," and in several instances every word of patter used in his stage presentations. We know of no finer lessons in magic to be found anywhere in print.

The twelve tricks explained here - which are given, on the average, twelve pages of print and seven illustrations each may be noted briefly:

  1. The Triangle. This is a card trick, suitable for stage performance, in which two cards merely thought of by spectators are made to pass magically into the hands of a third member of the audience.
  2. Multiplication. Mr. Devant's own version of The Billiard Ball Trick, followed by some original manipulations with eggs. This explanation (pronounced by Professor Hoffmann "the best exposition of billiard-ball manipulation which we have ever seen") is illustrated with 22 drawings.
  3. Simple Addition. The total of a sum propounded by several members of the audience appears magically on a slate; and the individual figures of the total are then indicated by numbered cards rising from a giant pack.
  4. The Forgotten Guest. A borrowed watch vanishes from a paper cone held by a spectator, but reappears tied by a ribbon around the neck of a rabbit which is extracted from the coat of a second spectator. (A somewhat different version of this trick has had a place in this reviewer's program for thirty years.)
  5. A Lesson in Magic. Devant's own method of performing The Torn and Restored Handkerchief, followed by his unique presentation of The Sun and Moon Trick.
  6. Homing Bells. Four sleigh-bells vanish, one by one, from the performer's hand, and reappear mysteriously (again one by one, and ringing) on the ends of four pieces of ribbon.
  7. The National Colors. Silk flags are produced magically from bits of burnt tissue-paper, and the trick ends with the production of two enormous flags on solid staffs.
  8. The Three Vases. A remarkably fine version of The Egyptian Pyramids, in which colored liquids are mixed together and then caused to separate visibly.
  9. The Silver Ball. A combination feat with a rabbit, a solid metal ball, and two hats, in which these articles move about in a most bewildering way.
  10. The Educated Fish. Lettered wooden blocks, dropped into an aquarium, are apparently brought to the surface by trained goldfish, which thus spell out a word freely chosen from a newspaper by the audience.
  11. The Point of View. A feat in which two doves, placed between two straw hats, are converted into two white rats; a little later the doves themselves reappear in an empty cage.
  12. The Phoenix. A pistol shot, aimed at a target, causes the target to change into a birdcage, in which appears a canary which was also made to vanish when the shot was fired.

All of these tricks were performed with great success by David Devant more than a quarter of a century ago. All, we believe, could be presented with equally great effect today, though some would possibly need to be modified slightly. But the value of Mr. Devant's explanations does not lie wholly, by any means, in his teaching how to do given tricks. Much of his instruction is applicable, also, to feats which he does not specifically mention. There are bits of subtle misdirection here which constitute the highest type of conjuring technique, as, for example, the procedure which enables the magician to produce a rabbit from the boa (or muff, or shawl) of a lady in the audience, to switch a prepared deck for an ordinary one, and to load a metal ball undetectably into a hat by the simple action of lifting a candlestick and silk handkerchief. In our opinion, a careful study of Devant's explanations could not fail to be of practical benefit to any observant magician who gives performances, even though he should never present any of the twelve fine feats included in Our Magic. But it is hard to conceive of a magical enthusiast reading these explanations without putting some of them into actual practice!

Those who are familiar with the first edition of the book will note in the second the substitution of excellent drawings by Jeanne McLavy for the indistinct and poorly reproduced photographic illustrations of the original. An examination of the new edition will reveal, also, the inclusion of a pen-and-ink sketch of Mr. Devant, and a three-page preface and four-page index by the present reviewer. As Volume III of THE FLEMING MAGIC CLASSIC SERIES, Our Magic follows the format used in Magic Without Apparatus. It consists of 336 (xviii + 318) pages, size 61/4 by 91h inches, printed from Baskerville type on Warren's Olde Style White Wove paper, bound in Bancroft buckram (maroon), and gold-stamped from special dies on both front cover and spine.

The first edition of Our Magic fared well at the hands of the critics. Professor Hoffmann praised it as "distinctly the most advanced book which has so far appeared upon the subject of magic; a book to be taken seriously and to be studied, in the case of the neophyte, with the same reverent attention with which the budding medico reads his Gray's Anatomy, or the future attorney-general studies his legal textbooks .... It is not merely a book without which, in popular phrase, no conjurer's library is complete, but it deserves the place of honor on his shelves." To Ellis Stanyon, it seemed to be "beyond doubt the most important conjuring book ever written." Some years later, Sidney W. Clarke (in his Annals of Conjuring) pronounced Our Magic "one of the few books worthy to rank with the works of Robert-Houdin, Sachs, and Hoffmann." Still more recently, Robertson Keene wrote: "In it will be found the whole basis upon which the conjuring performer should - in fact, must - build his performance if he wishes to be of any consequence at all in the magical world"; and John Mulholland called it (in The Sphinx, May, 1943) "one of the best books ever written on magic." It seems reasonable to assume that the new edition of this classic will be welcomed by the thousands of magicians to whom it has heretofore been inaccessible.

This book was rated one of the ten basic books for a working library of conjuring by H. Adrian Smith, historian, collector and owner of the largest private magic library in his time. Other books in this top 10 list are

1st edition, 1911, E. P. Dutton & Company; 2nd edition, 1946, Fleming; original 487 pages; PDF 265 pages.

  • PART I: THE ART IN MAGIC by Nevil Maskelyne
    1. I: The Real Secrets of Magic
    2. II: The Three Degrees in Art
    3. III: Unity
    4. IV: Consistency
    5. V: Justification
    6. VI: Surprise and Repetition
    7. VII: Effects of Transition
    8. VIII: Climax
    9. IX: Presentation
    10. X: Rehearsal
    11. XI: Speed in Presentation
    12. XII: Patter
    13. XIII: Stage Manner and Personality
    14. XIV: Mental Attitude
    15. XV: The Importance of Artistic Principles
  • PART II: THE THEORY OF MAGIC by Nevil Maskelyne
    1. I: Terminology
    2. II: General Analysis
    3. III: Misdirection
    4. IV: Styles of Magic
    5. V: Manipulative Principles
    6. VI: Principles of Mental Magic
    7. VII: Mechanical Principles
    8. VIII: Optical Principles
    9. IX: Acoustic Principles
    10. X: Electrical Principles
    11. XI: Chemical and Molecular Principles
    12. XII: Magical Inventions
    1. I: With Playing Cards. The Triangle
    2. Bibliographical Index of Card Tricks
    3. II: With Billiard Balls. Multiplication
    4. III: With Figures. Simple Addition
    5. IV: With a Borrowed Watch. The Forgotten Guest
    6. V: With a Borrowed Handkerchief. A Lesson in Magic
    7. VI: With Bells. Homing Bells
    8. VII: With Flags. The National Colours
    9. VIII: With Liquids. The Three Vases
    10. IX: With a Rabbit, a Ball and Two Hats. The Silver Ball
    11. X: With Fish and Letters. The Educated Fish
    12. XI: With Doves and Rats. The Point of View
    13. XII: With a Canary and a Target. "The Phoenix"

word count: 112190 which is equivalent to 448 standard pages of text

Reviewed by Martin Christopher
★★★★★   Date Added: Thursday 16 March, 2006

This book is excellent if you care about magic as an art. I particularly enjoy the discussion on "effects of transition," that is tricks like the blooming bush and houdin's orange tree. this would also include the egg on fan and tabary's rope routine, etc.