So apologies for the lengthy post below. I just wanted to provide some notes that are a record of the thoughts inspired by David Ben's insightful essay. I am posting up my thoughts now before this post gets any longer.
I know there is some repetition in what I have written below. But I would rather just keep this as it is rather than continually chopping and changing it.
David Ben's essay is the most useful piece of magic theory I have ever read.
The essay is based on some advice given to David Ben by Teller. Teller recommended that David Ben read the following book about drama in order to get a useful framework to increase the impact of your magic.
David Ben said that whilst he found the book quite dry - the concept of the Tragic Rhythm that is taught in the book was so powerful that he went on to use it in all of his magic tricks.
I was fascinated by this essay since I am obsessed with the work of Penn & Teller.
David Ben applies the thinking to tricks that involve multiple stages where the key effect is repeated. However - he likes to frame this in terms of strengthening the conditions or clarifying the effect as a result of new information that is shared with the audience. This creates a feedback where information is shared with the audience - which sparks a rhetorical response - which then conditions the next phase of the routine.
A few pages later - Pete McCabe applies the same framework to an analysis of the brilliant self-working card trick by Juan Tamariz called Neither Blind Nor Stupid. Except here it is in order to communicate to the audience the information the magicians has about the location of the selected cards - so that the conditions can repeatedly be made more stringent.
At this point I want to split the concept of the Tragic Rhythm into two halves.
It can be applied to the PRESENTATION and it can also be applied to the METHOD of a trick.
In my own shorthand (and very much following the analysis of Pete McCabe) - applying this concept to the PRESENTATION is something I associate with the work of Penn & Teller. And applying this concept to the METHOD is something I associate with Juan Tamariz (and his Theory of False Solutions).
Let's start by looking at how this concept applies to the presentation.
One thing that jumps out at me is that the tricks of Penn & Teller tend not to have multiple stages where each stage is simply a repetition of an earlier stage except under more stringent conditions.
Instead Penn & Teller tricks tend to start off with one premise and then the routine ends up with a surprising finish that logically grows from the initial premise of the trick. Michael Weber has spoken about this sort of structure as the 'expected surprise'.
Here are some examples from the work of Penn & Teller. You can find this sort of thinking in most of their tricks. However I don't want to make this post just be about Penn & Teller so I will just stick to some obvious examples that come to mind.
1) The cups for their cups & balls are changed multiple times throughout the routine.
The first phase is a traditional Cups & Balls.
The second phase is the "American" Cups & Balls - using plastic throwaway cups.
The third phase is the "Penn & Teller" Cups & Balls - using clear plastic cups that you can see through.
Each repetition of the effect has a different meaning that builds organically from the conversation between the performer and the audience. This creates a rhythm and (unconscious) expectation which means the performer can keep the audience on the end of a piece of string and keep tugging them along with the trick in order to keep them engaged.
2) Penn juggles flaming torches. He tells the audience that people sometimes think the flames might be fake. So he will try something else instead. He then gets three bottles of beer and empties them before smashing off the ends, and juggling the broken beer bottles.
In this trick - Penn answers a rhetorical query from the audience and meets it. This credits the audience with being smarter than they actually are. Since most "thinking" is simply agreeing with opinions expressed by others. This is much more powerful (and - again that word - engaging) than simply bringing out some broken bottles and juggling them.
3) Penn stops somebody in the street. He asks them about Houdini and asks if they agree that anybody could do the escapes of Houdini since he probably used fake locks and fake boxes. He then ties him up in a box and throws him in a river. This is an extreme example. But this is a logical consequence that Penn pulled the spectator into through the guise of rhetorical questions.
4) A drawing duplication goes wrong. Until Penn notices that perhaps what the spectator wrote is some kind of mirror image. A mirror is found and held up to what the spectator reveals. A title from the bible is revealed to have been written unconsciously by the spectator in mirror writing. A bible is found and when that passage in the bible is found it is revealed that it matches the prediction drawn by the magician at the start of the trick.
This trick pulls the spectator into the performance.
In real time.
It reminds me of what Tommy Wonder wrote when he talked about secondhand drama ("Let me tell you about a time a drunk guy screwed up my deck of cards" versus firsthand drama ("Whoops - I have accidentally shuffled the cards face up into face down").
A great essay clarifies your thinking and allows you to put into words things you have noticed in the past without realising it. I had that response to David Ben's essay. I am always thinking about tricks and categorising them in different ways - so that I have a list of favourites for each category.
SPECTATOR AS MAGICIAN
And so on...
What is interesting is there was a certain type of trick that really appealed to me but I had no conceptual framework to understand why. I just knew that the structure of the trick gave the trick much more power than I would usually see in a trick. The first time I came across a trick like this was in the introduction to Jon Racherbaumer's Inside Out column in the April, 1999 issue of MAGIC magazine.
Here is an excerpt of an email I sent to Andy (over at The Jerx) back in 2015:
I remember reading a trick in MAGIC once. It was actually a description of a trick from some novel. Jon Racherbaumer was talking about a brilliant presentation he came across in a novel he was reading.
It was the classic "Ashes on Palm" trick. The guy in the novel asked the spectator if she was Catholic and believed in Stigmata? She said she was a Catholic and did believe in Stigmata.
He then had her look at her right hand - and nothing was found.
The magician acted like he had failed until he asked her if she was left handed?
She said she was - and when she looked at her left hand - she could see a faint residue of ash.
And the spectator (in the novel) freaked out.
I always thought this was a great touch for this trick. And it is these little touches that can pack more punch than ten other tricks put together. So I just want to pass along the idea in case you find it of use in your work. It is the sort of thing to be on the look out for if you know somebody is left handed. Or if you know what religion they are.
So here we see an example of the Tragic Rhythm from a trick that is not by Penn & Teller. And in a trick that uses the concept on the presentation part of the trick rather than the method part of the trick. These simple touches can dramatically increase the power of a trick. It creates a spark of electricity that makes the magic happen now. Rather than the spectator being cast in the role of observer to an experiment.
Instead they are a genuine participant in what is happening right now. It feels organic. However it takes a lot of thinking and planning to find ways to add these moments to your tricks.
This is something that David Blaine is very good at. He seems to have an instinctive feel for this type of moment. He uses his off-kilter personality to increase the tension in a trick in a way that drags the spectator into the role of participant rather than simply being a witness to proceedings. Then the tension is popped by an unexpected personal moment that is shared by the magician and the spectator.
Let's look at how the Tragic Rhythm can be applied to the method of a magic trick. This type of thinking echoes a lot of the thinking we see in the work of Juan Tamariz and his Theory of False Solutions.
A trick I like is the Three Phase Book Test by Paul Brook. The routine has three phases and each phase cancels out the method used in the previous phase. He routines together three different methods. Each method gets progressively stronger. And each phase builds on the last phase by pointing out a possible method that could have been used before cancelling out that method in the next phase of the trick.
For example - “Okay - I held the book in my hands when you looked at the word. Maybe you thought I caught a glimpse of the word? Here - you hold the book in your hands and look at a word as I turn away”.
It is a great routine. And it has a wonderful flow to it since the structure drives the presentation in a way that feels organic and fresh since the magician is (apparently) responding to the unspoken thoughts of the more critical members of the audience.
This credits the spectators with being smart and engages them in real time with what is going on. And all this by focusing on the structure of the trick and not the presentation.
You can get a quick feel for how powerful this is. Take a one-way deck and have a spectator choose a card. You then reveal the card. You then laugh and say that actually you cheated - all the cards are the same.
You show the spectator 52 cards that are all the same. You then replace the deck with a new deck where all the cards are different. You then find the selection (either using a force or a control).
This trick - thanks to the structure - will feel much more engaging to the spectator than simply doing a regular card location.
This is the key word.
By restructuring a trick you can force the spectator to engage with what you are doing by poking at their critical faculties by apparently exposing how a trick is done. You can then rule out that method in the next phase of the trick.
It is literally impossible to be disinterested as you watch a trick when a magician is forcing you to engage with the trick in this way.
Interestingly this type of thinking can be traced all the way back to Greater Magic. That book contains a great trick called The Tuned Deck by Ralph W. Hull. This is a card location that is repeated over and over. Each time - the method is switched for a different one as the method used in the previous phase is ruled out in the next phase.
When I first read this trick I categorised it as a Magician Fooler. However - I see now that it is an example of the Tragic Rhythm.
It is one of the most interesting tricks in all of magic. My favourite philosopher is Daniel Dennett and he was the first person I ever saw who wrote about this trick. He said it was a devious trick where the secret lies in a single word.
By calling the trick The Tuned Deck - and repeatedly reminding the audience of the name of the trick - the title of the trick misdirects the mind into looking for a single method rather than multiple methods.
H.L. Mencken once wrote that 'For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong'. Ralph W. Hull encourages the spectator to go on a wild goose chase for an answer when in fact the real answer is that there are multiple answers.
Daniel Dennett argues that this misdirection also applies to The Problem of Free Will. By calling it the problem rather than multiple problems - it misdirects philosophers into looking for a single principle that explains all aspects of Free Will.
The second part of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s career was devoted to arguing a similar point. He believed that most philosophical problems came about as a result of using sloppy language.
It delighted me to find a reference to such a devious magic trick in a book of philosophy. The reason Dennett is my favourite philosopher is because of the many surprises and pieces of wonderful ingenuity that he scatters throughout his work.
The concept of the Tragic Rhythm can be applied to both the presentation and the (apparent) method. The latter approach is reminiscent of the ideas that Juan Tamariz explores in his Theory of False Solutions. However I agree with Tommy Wonder that making the method the focus of the trick sells the "puzzle" aspect of magic and robs the spectator of a richer experience.
Engagement is the key word here. The Tragic Rhythm is about changing the structure of a trick so that the presentation flows organically from the events of the trick.
Think about a funny story a friend tells you. Then something unexpected happens whilst he is in the middle of his story (a phone rings or somebody spills a drink).
The best storytellers jump on such a surprise and then wittily incorporate it into the story to create an unexpected punchline. The Tragic Rhythm is about creating a sense of momentum in a trick so that the spectator feels like they are participating in a miracle in real time. Rather than being a witness to a dry demonstration of powers, which turns a trick into a scientific demonstration rather than something that pulls them directly into the action.
I remember Penn Jillette saying that this is what he loved so much about the Asi Wind trick that was performed on Fool Us a few months ago. That trick is the best trick performed on the show so far. Funnily enough - Asi Wind was performing as a guest performer and not as a contestant.
Penn said that what he loved about the trick is that there was no way to predict how the trick would end once it started.
My sense - going back to the David Ben essay - is that Penn & Teller want their tricks to feel like events rather than demonstrations.
What do I mean by events? Well a trick where there is an unexpected left-turn half way through the trick. Ideally this left-turn should feel a natural part of the trick. This makes the spectator feel like they are witnessing magic in real time. Rather than a demonstration that was certain of success from even before the magician brought out the props.
I wonder if this is why Magician in Trouble and Sucker Tricks play so well for lay people?
Magicians often look down on these plots but one thing the plot does is make it feel like the magic is happening in real time. So - perhaps the core of the essay and its impact on Penn & Teller - is that they want their tricks to feel fresh and spontaneous. But without resorting to the Magician in Trouble or Sucker Trick premise. At its best you can feel the charge of electricity coursing through the audience.
If we go back to the Magician in Trouble and Sucker Trick premise - what is happening theire is that the tricks take an unexpected turn that raise a question in the spectator's mind. And that question is then answered by the magician at the end of the trick.
The goal of to David Ben's essay is to eoncourage magicians to create an imaginary conversation between you and the audience - where the next phase of the trick is shaped by the questions the magician rhetorcially raises on behalf of the spectator.
A good example of this is the Three Phase Book Test by Paul Brook. In this trick - he does a book test in three phases. The final phase allows for any word to be chosen and successfully divined. However - he builds up to that that final phase by using two weaker methods. He performs the opening phase and then points out a flaw in the procedure.
He then performs phase two which eliminates that flaw - but is still not flawless. Before finisihing with a trick that meets all the previous objections raised in the minds of the audience (and pointed out by the magician).
When we talk about building a trick up - what we are really doing is pulling the spectators into an imaginary conversation with us. And this pulls them into the trick by making them feel like participants rather than witnesses.
This creates drama. As a kid I couldn't stand most Hollywood action films (such as James Bond) since I knew the star of the film would always be alive at the end. So there was no sense of jepardy as I was watching.
This is something that can make magic boring as well. Usually the only way magicians create a sense of jepardy is by using Danger Tricks. But that creates a feeling of dread rather than true uncertainty about the outcome of the effect. It raises the stakes of the trick but doesn't do anything to really increase the sense of engagement with the audience.
This essay has been very helpful to me in understanding why Penn & Teller tricks have the impact they do.
What is the most commercial card trick ever?
The invisible deck with the invisible deck presentation.
If we ask a spectator to name a playing card and then show it reversed in the deck. They are a witness to a trick. Almost as if they are scientists with clipboards observing an experiment.
But if you get them to shuffle an invisible deck of cards and reverse one - their mind is sent on a wild detour. The subtext of which is - what is going to happen with the card I pretended to reverse? Sub-text is a fancy way of saying this is a thought the spectator will have or will make sense to him when the spectator answers that quetion in the next part of the trick.
So the secret here is to turn the trick you are going to perform (predict a freely-named card) into the sub-text of a different effect. Sub-text means we are answering a question that the spectator naturally asks themself. Rather than a question that the magician raises himself.
This creates a sense of drama in the minds of the audience since they feel genuinely involved in the trick.
So - a good way to strengthen a magic trick is to take the effect and bury it inside something else.
Hand the spectator a metaphorical wrapped present. And when they unwrap it - they find the trick you were going to show them all along.
Let's say you want to burn a card and reproduce it. How can we bury this premise to that it later emerges as an off-shoot to something else rather than it simply be demonstration of your powers?
Well - you can pretend to be annoyed that you got the wrong card (David Williamson idea). You produce the Ace of Clubs and "mishear" the spectator. Apparently you thought she said the Eight of Clubs - and as a result you over-react and decie to destory the "wrong" card by burning it.
You then find out that the card was correct all along. You then produce an envelope (which you call Fire Insurance) an reproduce the chosen card from there.
This is just a quick example from off the top of my head. I guess the above is what Tommy Wonder touched on when he talked about the difference between third-hand drama and first-hand drama. You want the trick to feel like it is taking place in the moment.
If a magician was truly magical and had god-like powers, he could simply stand in front of an audience and have them shout any magical feat and he would be able to perform it. Forget about Any Card At Any Number - this would be the ultimate magical effect.
As such - as soon as a magician defines what trick he is going to perform - the audience feels a little cheated (on a sub-concious level) that the magician should be in control right from the start. As such - the magician has to give the illusion of losing control during the trick in order to increase the tricks impact at the nd when the magician steps up to meet an apparently unexpected challenge.
This can either be through the use of a hokey left-turn (Magician in Trouble or Sucker trick). Or by creating an organic experience where the spectator feels like a participant whose concerns are being answered as they watch the trick.
Pit Hartling also touches on this in his Inducing Challenges essay.
Sorry once again for the lengthy ramble. I am going to end it here.
I just wanted to shine a light on such an important essay. Penn & Teller are the greatest magicians in the history of magic. And David Ben’s essay provides a glimpse into the inner workings of their minds.
David Ben's essay is an important contribution to magic and I just wanted to put together a post acknowledging that.