I recently came across an excellent magic blog, The Houdini File, authored by writer David Saltman. Although I had never heard of Mr. Saltman before, I soon realized that we share some of the same obsessions: magic, novel writing, and nineteenth-century variety arts history. He is about to have an historical novel published by Maiden Lane Press entitled The Secret Notebooks of Harry Houdini. The novel follows Harry as he tours through Russia in 1903, spying on the Tsar for Teddy Roosevelt. Saltman posts about once a week.
Two weeks ago, the well-known Spanish-born magician Rene Lavand died, and you can see a nice tribute to Lavand that Saltman did here. But also look around at all his other posts if you have any interest at all in the art of magic and all things Houdini.
Description. It doesn’t come easily to me. Other writers have spoken about this–there seems to be a definite divide among writers: some agonize over dialogue, while others have trouble with description. As a reader, I have to admit, I don’t like to read long passages of description. Okay, I admit it: sometimes I just skip pages and pages of the damn descriptive stuff. Does this make me a bad person? I only hope God doesn’t throw those skipped pages in my face at the final reckoning.
Since the novel I’m writing could benefit from better description, I figured that a good way to learn how to do it would be to read the great novelists who are best at it. So after a lot of temporizing, I made the plunge and picked up the first volume of the Mother of All Descriptive Novels, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. When I say picked up, I should point out that at over a million words and seven volumes, the novel is difficult to pick up at all without straining yourself. But anyway, I’ve started reading the first volume, Swann’s Way, and well, how can I put it delicately? It’s freakin’ torture! It is requiring a real act of will to continue reading. Someone I know, a Proust fan, says blithely, “Oh, yes, the first volume is like that. It only starts getting good halfway into the second volume.” Oh, joy.
Yet it is oddly compelling in its own molasses-like way. Right now, I’ve made it to page 100, and here’s one example of what I’ve run across so far:
All these things and, still more than these, the treasures which had come to the church from personages who to me were almost legendary figures (such as the golden cross wrought, it was said, by Saint Eloi and presented by Dagobert, and the tomb of the sons of Louis the Germanic in porphyry and enamelled copper), because of which I used to go forward into the church when we were making our way to our chairs as into a fairy-haunted valley, where the rustic sees with amazement on a rock, a tree, a marsh, the tangible proofs of the little people’s supernatural passage–all these things made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town; a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space–the name of the fourth being Time–which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant, hiding the rugged barbarities of the eleventh century in the thickness of its walls, through which nothing could be seen of the heavy arches, long stopped and blinded with coarse blocks of ashlar, except where, near the porch, a deep groove was furrowed into one wall by the tower-stair; and even there the barbarity was veiled by the graceful gothic arcade which pressed coquettishly upon it, like a row of grown-up sisters who, to hide him from the eyes of strangers, arrange themselves smilingly in front of a countrified, unmannerly and ill-dressed younger brother; rearing into the sky above the Square a tower which had looked down upon Saint Louis, and seemed to behold him still; and thrusting down with its crypt into the blackness of a Merovingian night, through which, guiding us with groping finger-tips beneath the shadowy vault, ribbed strongly as an immense bat’s wing of stone, Théodore or his sister would light up for us with a candle the tomb of Sigebert’s little daughter, in which a deep hole, like the bed of a fossil, had been bored, or so it was said, “by a crystal lamp which, on the night when the Frankish princess was murdered, had left, of its own accord, the golden chains by which it was suspended where the apse is to-day and with neither the crystal broken nor the light extinguished had buried itself in the stone, through which it had gently forced its way.”
You may have noticed that that was one sentence. There evidently was a period shortage in France at the time. But there is still something fascinating about it.
As I was reading it, I was trying to recall of whom Proust reminded me, and then it hit me: Samuel Beckett. Now this may seem an odd choice. Beckett is so stripped down, while for Proust everything is decoration, and yet what struck me were two things: first, the total obsession of the two authors in detailing the inner mental processes of their protagonists, and second, the absolute commitment by each author to put down the entire mental process on paper, no matter how tedious, incoherent, or repetitious. Now it may sound like I am criticizing them, but I’m not. It takes a kind of ferocious courage to be so committed. As a reader, I am thinking, oh, are they really going to do this, is Beckett really going to describe how his protagonist moves stones from one pocket to the other and then to his mouth for page after page after page? Is Proust really going to go on and on and on with his description of what every nook and cranny of the town’s church meant to his protagonist? And after a while, the answer becomes apparent: yes they really are. And for me, my numbness turns into a kind of wonder at their bull-headedness. I remember once when I was eight years old I had decided to write down a million circles. I don’t remember how far I got, but if I had finished it, it would have been really cool. That’s how I’m feeling about Proust right now.
It’s interesting to think about how at the turn of the twentieth century, the cultural air of Europe was filled with the explication of mental process. Freud and the flowering of psychoanalysis; Stanislavsky on the inner motivation of the actor; Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen writing plays where the true realism resided in the innermost recesses of the characters’ psyches; expressionist painters who depicted the inner states of their subjects in outward form. And, of course, Proust. The drive was always to make the inner explicitly outer, open to be read and seen. And equally important, to reveal the connection between inner and outer, and to show how the inner was the prime motor of the outer.
I’m not sure what I can learn from Proust explicitly about writing description, but I have a feeling that if I can make my way through the novel–or at least this first volume (my years on the planet are limited like all of us, after all)–then I might gain some descriptive power by a kind of osmosis. By bathing in it, I hope to benefit from the residue.
That’s the theory, anyway. If it doesn’t work out, at least I can say to God that I feel the Proust pages I did read should offset all those pages of description that I skipped over through the years. If She’s got any sense of fair play at all, I figure She’s got to give me a break on that. And there better be plenty of madelines up there.
Last week I went to a delightful community theater production of The Pajama Game. The songs were written by Jerry Ross and Richard Adler, and the show was a big hit when it first opened in 1954. They followed up a year later with Damn Yankees which also was a big hit. Unfortunately, Jerry Ross died shortly afterward at the age of 29, and Adler, who lived to be 90, never had a Broadway hit again.
The action of the play is the love story between a union leader and a supervisor of the Sleep-Tite pajama company. The love plot is set against the background of an impending strike demanding a 7 and 1/2 cents an hour wage increase. While not politically sophisticated, the story actually celebrates the struggle of union members for better wages, a sentiment you would be hard-pressed to find in today’s popular entertainment.
The score delivered some pop songs that are still standards today. Here’s “Hey There,” sung by John Raitt, who created the lead role in the original Broadway production and the movie. Raitt had one of the great Broadway voices, perfectly suited for the strong leading man tenor roles of Rodgers and Hammerstein as well as The Pajama Game.
Last April, I participated in the 4th Annual Shakespeare Sonnet Slam in Central Park. It’s a lot of fun—participants perform all 154 sonnets in order, one per person, all in one afternoon. It’s open to anyone who wants to do it. Email them about a month before Shakespeare’s birthday, April 26th, 2015, and they will assign you a sonnet to perform for this year’s event on April 24th.
I was assigned Sonnet 33 last year. I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with it beforehand. You can read it below. (BTW, it’s easier to deconstruct the meaning of a sonnet by breaking it up into three quatrains and a final couplet.)
Full many a glorious morning have I seen Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye, Kissing with golden face the meadows green, Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy; Anon permit the basest clouds to ride With ugly rack on his celestial face, And from the forlorn world his visage hide, Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace: Even so my sun one early morn did shine, With all triumphant splendour on my brow; But out, alack, he was but one hour mine, The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now. Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth; Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.
Just for fun back then, since I was playing around with learning how to edit sound digitally, using computer software, I made this recording of the sonnet.
Pro audio editing tip: You can make anything, even reading the phone book, sound a hundred times better if you layer it over a bed of Pachibel’s Canon in D. 🙂
Ask a magic-loving friend who s/he thinks is the best all-around magician today, and you might get disappointed. Your friend could very well name someone you’ve never heard of. Not David Copperfield, Criss Angel, or David Blaine.
The key here is the phrase “all-around.” That qualifier makes the question a tough one to answer, because magic is not just one art, it’s a collection of many specialties. There’s close-up cards, close-up coins, mentalism, escapes, stage illusions, comedy magic, children’s magic, bizarre magic, even gospel magic. There are similar basic principles of magic that underlie all of them, but each field has its own subtleties and methods as well. It’s unusual for a magician to be expert in more than a few areas. It would be like expecting one person to excel at singing opera, country, rock, gospel, and jazz. Or expecting one doctor to be a surgeon, ophthalmologist, and psychiatrist as well.
So, if called to answer, my choice would be Johnny Thompson. Thompson was a student and friend of two of the greatest close-up sleight of hand magicians ever, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. But Thompson also had an extensive stage career as well, not only as a magician, but as a musician and actor. Unlike some of even the best sleight-of-hand guys, Thompson understands the stage and what it means to perform. He knew everyone in magic, and now at age 80+, he has earned the respect of all of his peers. His resume includes the behind-the scenes advisement of Penn and Teller, Criss Angel, and Lance Burton. There’s a bio of Thompson by Jamy Ian Swiss that’s slated to be published this year. It’s going to contain a lot about Thompson’s life and magic. Fans have been eagerly waiting for this, as it has been almost a decade since plans for the book were first announced.
So here’s my Johnny Thompson story. I was at the Texas Association of Magicians 2013 convention, and two of the headliners were Thompson and Tom Mullica, who is also a very funny and skilled magician. Mullica was performing a stage show, and I was sitting one empty seat away from the aisle. Mullica has a spectator pick a card without looking at it, and has it put aside. Mullica then takes out a big pad, writes something on it, and sets the pad face down.
Next, Mullica steps downstage to the proscenium edge and asks for a volunteer from the audience to name a card. At that moment, I hear some panting and hard breathing on my right, and I turn and there is Johnny Thompson walking quickly with a bit of a limp, down the aisle. He sits down in the aisle seat, right next to me, and I can see that he is working hard to catch his breath. I can hear his heart pounding. Mullica points to him and says, “Sir, name any card.”
Thompson is now wiping sweat off his brow, and manages to get out, “The F-F-F-Five of S-S-S-Spades.” Now I’m starting to really worry about him, and I’m wondering if I should lean over and ask him if he needs some help. I can see close-up he’s an old man, no kid anymore, his face is twitching. Mullica, however, seems, oblivious, and continues. “I’m sorry, what did you say, the Five of Hearts?” And Johnny, now breathing more heavily than ever sputters out, “Not the F-F-F-Five of Huh-Huh-Huh-Hearts, the F-F-F-Five of S-S-S-Spades.” He’s gasping. By this point I’m looking around for someone who can help me carry the magic legend out of the theater. But Mullica remains unperturbed.
“Just as I predicted!” says Mullica; he shows the selected card, then walks over to the face-down pad, turns it around, and now the whole audience can read what’s written on it.
It says: “You will choose the F-F-F-Five of S-S-S-Spades.”
Almost exactly a year ago, an old high school friend, Burt Rochelson, called me out of the blue and asked if I would audition for a part in a staged reading of his new musical play about Albert Einstein called The Rule of Disorder. The request was a surprise since we had last worked on a play together 45 years ago! I don’t have a trained singing voice, and since the last time I sang publicly on stage was also 45 years ago, I was somewhat skeptical. But, anyway, I did it and it was a lot of fun.
The beautifully done musical score is by Jonathan Glickman, who in his spare time works for NASA as a rocket scientist. (Really!) Here is one of the lovely songs from the score, sung by real singers:
The play had won a musical play competition, and we performed it in the lobby of a beautiful old former vaudeville theatre in Patchogue, LI. Unfortunately, even though we were sold out, and got a very good response, we were funded only for that one performance, and the play didn’t get to be seen by a wider audience.
I had lunch with Burt yesterday (who, incidentally, among other things, happens to be a doctor, currently head of OBGYN at a major hospital on Long Island), and he was telling me about his current campaign to get the play seen by more people. He has been submitting it to the many different organizations around the country that produce musicals. It’s a difficult, tedious, and often arbitrary process, but a necessary one that musical creators have to go through. In the meantime, however, in between baby deliveries, he is working on other playwriting projects. So, if you know someone who knows someone who produces musicals…please let me know.
A little more than six months ago, I was volunteering at radio station WBAI, and I got into a conversation in the hallway with radio producer Mitchel Cohen about education. He started recording me, and a few hours later, we were still talking. Mitchel brilliantly edited all our talk down into a ten minute interview. He did a great job–I actually sound coherent, and as if I know what I am talking about. It was my first introduction to being on radio:
We talk about charter schools, Teach for America, New York City politicians, educational priorities, and the teaching profession. I think you’ll find it interesting.
True, it’s 17 minutes long, but think of it this way: it’ll probably be the best consecutive 17 minutes you’ll have this Monday. Or this week. Or maybe, even, this year. And that’s not a put down of your year.
“The players often mention it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand.'” –Ben Jonson
Stephen Minch, owner of The Hermetic Press, publisher of fine books about conjuring, must have blotted out hundreds of thousands of words by now. Enough, anyway, so that he can write authoritative and amusing advice to the players in hisHermetic Press Stylebook.
Minch’s 11-page Stylebook is a fascinating little read for anyone interested in magic, reading, or writing. Even if you are a writer who is not at all interested in magic, I still urge you to take at look at this booklet. You can download it for free here. I was lead to this book by a review in Genii, The Conjurer’s Magazine, where the reviewer, Eric Mead, no slouch himself in either the writing or the magishing department, makes a very good case for the stylebook’s necessity. “Writing about magic,” Mead says, “is technical work, extremely demanding, and requires a clarity and precision with words that few seem to be able to master.”
As someone who has spent some time proofreading magic and other kinds of books, I can attest to this. The issues involved in writing about magic are sometimes magic specific: should we capitalize the names of cards? Should the names of sleights be capitalized? If a deck is face up (hyphen or no?) where is the top of the deck? And here’s one that Minch doesn’t take on: should we call the people for whom we do effects (tricks? experiments?) spectators, participants, subjects?
But since magic is a hands-on art, its description must also share similarities with other hands-on how-to books. Mead points to the following instructive example:
“Here is one sentence one might find in a magic book: ‘Pick up the deck with your right hand, and place it into left-hand dealing grip.’ Minch suggests this sentence is more effective if written, ‘With your right hand, pick up the deck, and place it into left-hand dealing grip.’ Not only does the second version avoid an ugly dangling phrase, it delivers the reader information in the most useful order.” [italics mine]
Useful really, when you think about it, for so many kinds of description. If a reader is trying to follow along, s/he doesn’t want to pick up the deck, and only then, afterward, find that the deck was picked up by the wrong hand. Order matters!
There are some issues, however, which Minch tackles, with which I disagree; he dislikes “(s)he” and “s/he,” pleading that “When someone comes up with a new non-gender specific pronoun that is as functional as “he”, I’ll consider it; but for now I think it best to follow traditional usage. Especially when you consider that ninety-eight percent of the readers of magic books are male.” This seems to me to be dead wrong on two counts: “s/he” is just as functional as “he”; and even if 100% of magic readers were male, it’s still sexist to default to the male pronoun. These kinds of things matter, too, in my opinion.
But for the most part, there is much sound advice. I have to admit, I had never thought before about why “put the deck on the table,” was poor usage. (If you don’t know why, then you, like me, especially need to read this stylebook. 🙂 )
I like proofreading. It really makes me think a lot about how writing, not the least, my own, can be improved. It’s a low-risk way to get to be a better writer. So, thanks to the people who have given me the opportunity to revise their work, and thanks to Stephen Minch of Hermetic Press for bringing clarity to his criteria for good magic writing.
Last week, the national version of Arts Express radio aired an interview I did with Brad Zimmerman, the star and writer of an amusing new one-man show called My Son, the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy. Zimmerman talks about the process of creating such a show, of his time sharing the bill with such comedy greats as Joan Rivers and George Carlin, and what he learned from them about comedy.
By the way, I’ve upgraded the site, so there should be no more annoying ads at the bottom of the posts. There’s also a slightly different format for audio clips. Just click on the grey triangle to play.
Americans know Rowan Atkinson best for his hilarious portrayal of the wordless Mr. Bean, but he’s been a staple of British sketch humor of all kinds for decades. Here is one of my favorite pieces of his.
A group of friends and I meet each month to read a Shakespeare play, one act at a time. For the past few months we’ve been working on Cymbeline, one of the more obscure plays in the canon. We’ve finally finished reading it, and what a wild ride it was! We were laughing out loud at all the crazy twists and turns of the story.
It’s unlike anything else I’ve read by Shakespeare. It’s plot, plot, plot, plot, and then more plot. But the plot makes almost no sense. It’s large doses of randomness and chaos. Deceived lovers, pretenders to the throne, headless bodies, bodyless heads, women dressed as men, kings in rags, poison that is not poison; it’s a romance, it’s a tragedy, it’s a comedy, it’s a history, it’s an all-in-one, all-purpose, all-singing, all-dancing, Shakespeare Uberfest. It can be called a truly post-modern play, written centuries before that word post-modern was even a glint in some corduroy-jacketed academic’s vocabulary.
What’s fun is to see how Shakespeare takes his previous plays, and William Burroughs-like, cuts and pastes his way to creating a new work. Our group caught echoes of King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, As You Like It, Titus Andronicus, and The Merchant of Venice in the play. We imagined Shakespeare rummaging through the prop closet and finding different props, fashioning a play as if he were Jonathan Winters improvising with found objects. The apparent method of construction is also very amusing—as soon as one character’s entanglement is depicted, another character gets involved in another improbable subplot and so on, until it seems as if there is no way that all the threads could be unravelled and resolved. Add to that, that almost every character ends up in some sort of disguise, and you have a recipe for total miscommunication. And yet Shakespeare does, in the end, pull it all together. In doing so, however, he violates,—purposely?—every one of Aristotle’s recommendations for the drama.
What are we left with? I think, more than anything, I was strongly left with Shakespeare’s deep belief in reconciliation, repentance, restitution, and redemption. No matter how chaotic the world gets in a Shakespeare play, it does, in the end, return to sanity. And almost always, the return to sanity is made possible by forgiveness on the part of those wronged, and apology by those who did the wrong. Claudius in Hamlet says:
Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this two-fold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon’d being down?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Even Claudius the murderer understands the power of forgiveness and repentance.
At the end of Cymbeline, like so many of the plays, the world is made livable again by acts of forgiveness, along with the consequent apologies by the wrong-doers. The King and his daughter forgive, the deceivers apologize, and the world is set right again.
Shakespeare is calling us, telling his audience, that in such a dangerous and chaotic world, there is only one strategy for continued survival. Humankind is endlessly fallible; if we want the world to continue, then only continued forgiveness will keep the Globe intact. It’s a fascinating play, and a production of it is slated to play this summer at the Delacorte Theater in NYC. Can’t wait.
Here’s an interview I did with Betsy Daly, one of the founders and directors of the Working Actor Studio, the place where I took my stage combat class. It was broadcast last week on the national Arts Express radio program. We talked about what the aspiring and beginning actor need to know in order to survive in the business. It begins at 20:45 and ends at 35:10.
If you, too, wish to be a contenda in the theatre game, you can donate to listener-sponsored radio WBAI 99.5 FM in NYC. The kind people at WAS are giving away two cut rate scholarships as a thank-you gift for donating. If you’re interested in getting a scholarship for the Stage Combat or Musical Theater class, listen to the interview for details, and then listen to Arts Express live between 2-3pm EST, Thursday, Feb 12th.
They gave me such useful comments, big picture and little picture. They told me what worked for them and what didn’t work.
I’ll try to summarize the feedback, especially when the same comments were given by more than one reader.
The biggest thing that was not clear to the readers was: whose story is this? The character, Holly, who I want to be the protagonist is not yet carrying the story. That feedback makes so much sense to me because of the way that I wrote the book. I didn’t start off with any plan in mind—I just wrote. Sometimes I’d sketch out one character, and then I’d move on to another, not necessarily related, character. It wasn’t until a few drafts in, that I even understood how the characters were related. In fact, it wasn’t until the most recent version that I understood who the protagonist would be. At that point, it still felt like an ensemble piece, and not a story with a lead character and supporting characters. I had attempted to fix it by cutting certain scenes starring minor characters. I liked those scenes and those characters, but I had given those characters too much time, so they had to go. You can listen to one such scene, which I broadcast on the radio, here. But despite that, what I’ve learned from my readers is that I’m still not there yet. My protagonist, Holly, is not yet the spine of the story. And that’s valuable to know, because I couldn’t judge that accurately by myself.
The second point that my readers made, was that it was difficult, at first, to sort through and get a fix on all the characters. It takes too much time to understand who they are and what their role in the story is. In addition, I need to introduce the major conflict, which should drive the book, much earlier on.
Readers also caught all kinds of logical mistakes in the time line and elsewhere. Those are also difficult to catch on my own. And several readers mentioned, too, that they thought that I could add more visual elements in setting a scene.
But the other wonderful thing that they did, was to tell me what they liked. That was really important for me, too. I don’t expect that everyone will like everything that I’ve written; I know that people’s tastes vary too much. But I do want to feel that for the people who are my “ideal readers,” that certain key moments worked for them. I sent this out to these particular readers because I had a feeling that we had some shared literary sensibility. So it was exciting when they liked certain scenes, or were amused by certain lines, because I was writing those scenes and lines, in some sense, just for them. That they responded positively tells me that I’m heading in the right direction.
This has been a very happy experience for me. I feel like I can go back to the novel and work. I know what I need to do. Whether I have the skill to do it is another question.
I feel an obligation. But the obligation—is this strange?—is not to myself, or even to the book, but to the characters. I can’t let them down. They want their story told. I have to see this through to the end, for them.