(Click to enlarge)
18th century chess-playing automaton, reconstructed by John Gaughan
More on The Turk here
(photo: NY Post)
Three-Card Monte is a con game that has intrigued me ever since I first saw it played in London in the early nineteen eighties. Over 20 years ago, I wrote an article about it for Theatre Annual magazine, discussing how the monte gangs used elements of theatrical technique to achieve their deception. My brother found a copy of the article in his files, which was fortunate, because I no longer had a copy of it myself. I’m posting it here as it first appeared, except for some slight stylistic changes. Whit Haydn’s invaluable book, Notes on Three-Card Monte, was not published until the following decade, but it is the go-to resource for anyone who has further interest in the subject.
Finding the Red Card: The Performance of Three-Card Monte
by Jack Shalom
Theatre Annual 47 (1994): 61-70
The scene: a large crowd gathered in the middle of the sidewalk; a fast-talking guy is standing behind a make-shift cardboard-box table challenging spectators to find the one red card from among three face-down cards as he shifts them around. While the spectators may think of this three-card monte as a game, to the man behind the box–and to his cohorts–this con game is in fact more nearly a performance of a play, a play that has been produced in its present form internationally for at least one hundred and fifty years. Carefully scripted, acted, and costumed, monte draws on many techniques of the theatre, even manipulating the spectators’ concepts of theatrical convention itself, in order to accomplish its ultimately criminal goals. And, as in the theatre, the amount of money made by the players depends directly on their acting skills, and their ability to create a working ensemble.
To understand how monte works, it would be helpful to experience it first from the perspective of the naive spectator.1 For the urban spectator leaving work or taking a lunch break, the first contact with monte seems intriguing and innocent enough. The first scene the spectator—the victim– sees and hears is a crowd of people on the street: commotion and noise, cheering, clapping, and groaning. Intrigued, the spectator draws closer and sees that a game is going on, with money changing hands.
It’s easy enough for the spectator to follow the game: there’s a dealer tossing three cards, two black ones and one red one, face down onto the cardboard-box table. The dealer has a stack of money in one hand, and moves the cards around on the table, chanting hypnotically, “Find the red, find the red, find the red. I don’t complain when I lose, but I grin when I win!” The dealer urges someone to point to the red card and a few people take him up on the offer.
“You gotta pay to play, show me your money,” demands the dealer, so they each show him twenty to forty dollars. Some of the players have evidently been watching carefully: they picked correctly, the red card. The dealer pays these people the amount of their bet. Others, fooled by the man’s quick moves, lose their money, having chosen a black card. It soon dawns on our naive spectator that he can do better than those who keep losing. In fact, when one of the active players asks the spectator for advice on which card to choose, the victim manages to select the right card. The player thanks the spectator for the help and insists to the dealer that the spectator be paid as well. The dealer, however, is adamant that the spectator has to put up his or her own money to play. Meanwhile, several more rounds go by, with players winning and losing money, although the stakes have now gone up to eighty and even a hundred dollars a round. The spectator, encouraged by his apparent ability to follow the red card, finally decides to put up some of his own money: one hundred dollars. Unfortunately, however, the spectator is mistaken this time and picks the wrong card, losing the money.
But fate seems to intervene to restore hope to the hapless spectator.
While the spectator was trying to get over his shock and disappointment in losing, the other players were fighting with the dealer, insisting that he give their new colleague—the victim—another chance. Although the dealer refuses, a stroke of luck comes the spectator’s way. One of the players knocks over the cardboard table, which distracts the dealer’s attention. As soon as the dealer goes to pick up the cards from the floor, another player grabs the red card and bends a corner of it while the dealer isn’t looking. The dealer begins the game again, only this time it is very easy to follow the red card because the bend in the corner of the card is apparent even from the face-down side. The dealer now begins to lose all of his bets; at last, the spectator, sufficiently recovered from the shock of the previous mistake, now has the confidence to put up another hundred dollars.
The dealer, however, declares that he will no longer take any more hundred dollar bets; it’s two hundred or nothing. The other players look at one another and smile as they look at the bent corner. They put up their money, and so does the spectator, confident now that finding the red card—the one with the bend—is a sure thing. When the spectator is told to turn over the chosen card, however, the spectator gasps in astonishment and horror: the card—bend and all!—is black, not red. How could it be? But it is. “How can I possibly explain to my family that I just lost my whole paycheck?” whispers the shaken spectator. As the dealer sweeps up the money, packs up the game, and leaves, the spectator is left only with the comfort of another player who commiserates, “Well, I guess he beat us fair and square.”
But, in fact, our spectator was not beaten “fair and square.” Most people who lose at monte assume that they have been beaten “fair and square” by the talents of a skilled dealer. They assume that the dealer’s sleight of hand was just too quick for them, the “hand being quicker than the eye.” While it is true that there is sleight of hand involved, this trickery alone will not guarantee the success of the enterprise. Rather, in the words of one writer about monte, the spectator “walked into a carefully rehearsed play with an elaborate cast of characters and a detailed script. [The spectator] was cast in the role of sucker and he played his part to perfection.”2 Contrary to appearances, far from being a one-man operation, three-card monte is usually enacted by companies that consist of about twenty-five actors at a time. These twenty-five break up into casts of five to seven actors, each cast performing simultaneously on a different street comer although often in close proximity, say a couple of blocks apart. This allows for the easy understudying and replacement of parts should an actor in one cast become indisposed or exposed. The three roles that must be enacted by the monte gang are the mechanic, the stick (or shill), and the slide. Later, a fourth role will be taken by the spectator, called the mark or the vic. The mechanic, sometimes called the broadtosser, is the most visible member of the cast. He is the one who manipulates the cards and is most often, though not necessarily, the cast’s director. He is the only member of the cast who the spectator believes is involved in running the game. Using sleight of hand, the mechanic can toss the cards in such a way that the red card can appear in any given position. Maskelyne and many other conjuring authors give good descriptions of how this ancient sleight is accomplished.3 The sticks, usually numbering three to five in a cast, have an equally essential, if not more important, job. Their role is to act as if they were ordinary people who have stopped by to watch the show and have ended up betting. They are there to entice the spectators, by example, into betting on the wrong card. Since often the mechanic’s sleight cannot be followed even by the sticks, the sticks must look for secret signals from the mechanic as to where the red card actually is. This can be done in one of two ways. Either the mechanic indicates which card is the red card by holding his stack of money in the hand nearest to it, or he actually says out loud in code during his patter where it is. For example, if the mechanic says “C is the blow, money is the top,” he’s telling his sticks that the center card is the sucker card, while the red card is nearest to him. The final role undertaken by the monte cast is that of the slide, sometimes called the wallman. The slides, usually two of them, post themselves at either end of the block. Should they see the police or any other trouble coming, they will yell out “slide!” which is a signal for the mechanic and sticks to disappear.
Before the monte cast can actually perform, they must find a suitable area to put up their cardboard box set. It must be placed in a heavily trafficked area, but not so blatantly as to compete with other businesses for their customers’ dollars: the monte cast cannot afford to stir up the animosity of the local businessmen. Therefore, the best location is in front of a building closed for renovations or under construction. It is helpful to find a location that is near a city garbage can. The ensemble will take boxes and cardboard and overstuff the garbage can so that some boxes will have to overflow onto the sidewalk nearby. This will provide a perfect backdrop in the event that the cardboard boxes which make up their set have to be hurriedly knocked down: the two boxes that serve as the table on which the cards are tossed can be thrown aside quickly into the existing pile of boxes, leaving no trace of the performance that has occurred. Yet the set can be re-formed in a moment as soon as circumstances permit. As soon as the set is up, the sticks start performing. At the beginning, before there is a crowd, it is important to draw spectators to the set. The sticks bet loudly on the cards, making sure that they make enough noise by shouting, cheering, and clapping. The sticks all have wads of money in their hands to indicate that they have been playing for a while and that they have been making money. Some sticks will deliberately bet on the losing cards while others will bet on the winning card. The mechanic makes no attempt at sleight of hand. Anybody paying a modicum of attention can predict where the red card will be. Eventually, spectators will start to gather and it is from this audience that the sticks will select the mark. The first crucial moment in the psychology of the con lies in getting the mark to enter into the circle of performance. There are a couple of ways that this is done. As outlined earlier, a stick might ask a potential mark to choose the card for him. Another possible way to rope in a mark is for the stick to ask the mark to be a witness for him, or, perhaps most brazenly, a stick may even sidle up to the mark and whisper in the mark’s ear that he knows the game is fixed, but that he can still get the red card every time. The point of the script at this time is to get the mark to participate in the game, while simultaneously letting him believe that he is at no risk. As soon as the mark responds, however, he is literally put center stage. The mark up to now has been outside the circle that the sticks have initially established around the mechanic and his stage. A stick will now physically take the mark by the hand and lead him center stage in front of the cards, as the other sticks draw around him, physically locking him in the crowd. The mechanic may, in fact, actually move his cardboard boxes so that the mark is directly in front of them. Now that the mark is ringside and has convinced himself that he can follow the card, he is encouraged to put up his money. The mark feels confident; after all, he has seen people win and lose, and each time he has guessed correctly as to the whereabouts of the red card.
The success, then, of this production depends on the ability of the sticks to convince the mark that 1) they are on the mark’s side and share a common interest with him and 2) each stick is independent of the other, and independent, of course, of the mechanic. The sticks must appear to be a society of ordinary strangers who by chance share a common monetary interest with the mark. It is from this guise that the sticks gain their psychological and moral powers of persuasion over the mark. This power of persuasion is enormously important to the success of monte. For once the mark starts losing he will stay in only if the sticks can encourage him to do so. To do this, the sticks carefully encourage an “us against him” mentality with regard to the mechanic: they will groan anytime the mark loses money, and cheer when one of the sticks wins. (The mark, by the way, never gets to win, not even as encouragement. The sure way to spot a stick is to see who wins.) The sticks assure the mark that “this time we’ll get him, let’s both put up $80.” A recent wrinkle on this is to have one of the sticks ask the mark if he has a bank card. If so, the stick just happens to know where the bank is: “Why that’s my bank too!” he’ll reply, and he will take the mark by the arm and lead him to the bank, all the while assuring the mark that “this time, we’re going to get this guy’s ass.” While the stick walks the mark to the bank, the set is quickly knocked down and the actors disperse: there is no sense in playing when the mark is not there; that would only run the risk of the police coming and closing the show in the middle of their big scene. However, the slides are keeping a lookout and as soon as the mark and his newfound friend can be seen coming back, the play quickly reforms as if it had been going on all this time. (In some cases the police are enlisted as part of the cast as well. I saw one incident in NYC where as soon as a particular policeman walked by, the cast knocked down the set. The slide walked over to the policeman and murmured, “Don’t worry, I respect you.” The policeman gave a furtive wave to the slide as he walked by; before the policeman had even turned the corner, the set was back up again.)
The mark by now has seen lots of people winning—all sticks of course—but somehow the mark never seems to win, since anytime he bets, the mechanic pulls his sleight, assuring the mark’s loss. When it finally looks as if the mark has lost too much money and wants to quit the play, the lazzi of the bent corner is employed. As described above, one of the players puts a bend in the corner of the red card while the mechanic is not watching. The mechanic, contrary to appearances, is fully aware of what has happened. Until the mark bets, the mechanic will allow the bent corner to remain in the red card. When the mark finally gets enough courage to bet again on this “sure thing,” the mechanic can get the mark to put up an unusually large amount, since the mark is very anxious at this time to make his money back, and the mark is buoyed by the encouragement and example of the sticks. Then, and only then, does the mechanic pull his sleight. The mechanic is actually able to uncrimp the corner of the red card and put a bend in one of the black cards unbeknownst to the mark. I observed one poor mark, a man who twice earlier had been walked to the bank, lose five thousand dollars this way.
Once this scene is played out, the mechanic leaves the area as quickly as possible. It appears that the performance is over but there is still one more scene to be played. If the mark starts to chase the mechanic, a stick, usually one who has not yet played much of a role, will go up to the mark sympathetically in order to calm him down and allow the other actors a quick exit. “Well, I guess they beat us fair and square,” she’ll commiserate with the mark. The mark does not understand that he has just heard the curtain line of a classic play starring himself.
As in the theatre, a monte performance depends not only on the viability of the script and the skill of the performers but also on the details of casting and costume. In New York City, a city beset with a highly polarized racial climate, many of the best monte production teams are inter-racially cast. The monte actors know—perhaps with more acumen than Broadway producers realize-=-that if they are to achieve a high degree of verisimilitude in performance, then they must represent the current racial reality of the city. The sticks are deliberately cast and costumed in such a way as to suggest that they are each of a different race and class background from one other and from the mechanic. The mechanic is almost always Black, and dressed in lower-class street clothes. This helps to foster the “us versus him” attitude that the sticks hope to instill in the mind of the typically more middle-class mark. By including sticks who are white and Hispanic, the actors play on the racist assumption that people of different races couldn’t possibly be working together. The diversity of class, sex, nationality, and race also allows various categories of marks to form bonds with sticks who look or sound like themselves. I observed a particularly memorable example of this near Times Square when a French tourist and her husband stopped to watch and discuss the monte performance going on in front of them. As soon as the first few words of French were heard out of her mouth, one of the sticks turned to her and replied in flawless French. He explained to her that she could win money by betting on the red card. Needless to say, it was not too long before the French couple lost their money.
The best ensembles pay close attention to the details of costume, dressing to suggest specific identities. One of the more successful casts I saw had sticks who were costumed in the following way: a Black woman in her twenties in a green pants-suit outfit, suggesting a secretary on her lunch hour; a young trendy-looking white man in his twenties wearing a designer rugby-shirt-and-shorts set carrying a shopping bag from an upscale department store, suggesting a yuppie just passing by en route from a shopping spree; an olive-complexioned man in his thirties with an Israeli accent, wearing a loud flowered shirt and cheap polyester dress pants, suggesting a foreigner fairly new off the boat; and finally a white man in his forties in a conservative brown suit, short hair, and wire-rim glasses who gave the air of a successful, cautious businessman. The casual observer would have had a difficult time determining that they were working together: only by realizing that they were the sole people winning money, and by noticing the little conferences that would take place amongst them when the set was knocked down, could one know that these seemingly unrelated spectators were sticks.
Not that all monte casts are successful. Even with a good mechanic there must be an ensemble sense of playing. The bare bones of the production can be learned fairly easily: Ortiz reported in 1984 that “the going rate in New York jails for a convict to teach another inmate the techniques of working three-card monte is one hundred dollars.”4 A longtime street performer and observer of monte, Bill Rafael, claims that by watching long enough one can deduce which “school” the casts attended, each school being marked by stylistic differences.5 Occasionally one observes an unsuccessful monte cast, and it only emphasizes the point that a good mechanic alone will not create a successful performance. I observed one monte cast on Broadway and 48th Street in New York City that was singularly unconvincing: the actors could not even draw a crowd. All of the sticks as well as the mechanic were Black; two of the three sticks were wearing cheap t-shirts and gym shorts as was the mechanic; and the third stick who was wearing a dress shirt with dress pants was also incongruously wearing sneakers, as were the other two sticks. The semiotics of the sticks’ costumes and race fairly shouted out to any passerby that the sticks and the mechanic were part of the same cast. The few times a small crowd did begin to form, the too-cautious wallman yelled, “Slide,” even though the cops were blocks away. As the set was knocked down and the spectators dispersed, the mechanic complained angrily to the wallman, “Why do you call out when there’s no trouble!” Eventually this cast broke up and left the location, having made no money at all. In monte, a talented leading man alone will not bring in the box-office receipts.
For all its apparent simplicity, monte continues to fool even the relatively sophisticated spectator. This is because, unlike many other kinds of con games, monte has two layers of deception. The first layer, designed to take in the more naive player, is simply on the level of sleight of hand. That is, the most naive player takes the game purely at face value, and does not even assume that the dealer is capable of card trickery. He assumes that as long as he watches the dealer’s movements carefully enough, he will be able to choose the right card. This kind of spectator does not think that he is engaged in a battle of wits with the dealer. The second layer of deception, however, is more subtle and is designed to trap the more sophisticated spectator. This kind of spectator knows that the dealer is capable of trickery. He sees the dealer “onstage” by his little cardboard box, and knows that the performer onstage is capable of all kinds of deceit. ‘l’he spectator may even sneak around behind where the dealer is standing, in order to obtain a “backstage” view of the dealer’s actions—perhaps the dealer has some extra cards up his sleeve, or hidden behind his table. What that spectator never realizes, however, is that no matter where he stands, he is never “backstage,” but always, in fact, “onstage,” still in the sphere of influence of the sticks. The monte cast’s achievement, then, is this: they have manipulated the theatrical convention of a defined stage area by making it appear as if the monte stage were confined to the cardboard box and the mechanic. In reality, the stage extends right into the presumed audience area and encompasses the mechanic, the sticks, and the spectator himself. Unless the spectator understands this, there can be no safe, objective viewing place from which he can observe without illusion.
Despite the sophistication of monte’s deception, it has a history that takes it back in one form or another at least 1700 years. It has survived several incarnations including a version with three walnut shells and a pea, and the conjuring routine of the cups and balls. The latter has been described as early as the year 200 AD. by the Greek Alciphron in his Letters from the County and the Town. In one letter, a farmer visiting town to sell his produce tells of stopping by a local theatre and being amazed by a conjurer who manipulated three plates and three ordinary white stones: “He hid them first one under each plate; but then, somehow or other he showed them to us all under the same plate, and then he made them disappear from under the plates altogether …. I should not like such a creature on my farm. No one could catch him: he would steal all our household goods and we should never see them again.”6 The great card magician John Scarne pointed out that the cups and balls routine turned up in a fifteenth-century painting by Hieronymous Bosch called The Conjurer.7 The Elizabethan society, too, was rife with all kinds of conmen, in particular the vagabond called the fingerer, who was what we today would call a card mechanic. John Awdeley in 1561 described in The Fraternity of Vagabonds how the fingerer operated. What is of special note here is that it seems to be one of the first descriptions of card sharps working together as a team. As with our modern-day monte ensembles, the success of the fingerer depended not so much on his manipulation of the cards as on his and his assistants’ acting ability. The lingerer’s young assistants would first make friends with some wealthy young man-about-town, courteously inviting him to breakfast at a local inn. The fingerer, disguised as a ragged old man, would seat himself at one end of the table where the young men and their mark were sitting. When the fingerer’s assistants would propose that they should all participate in a game of cards, the fingerer would further lure the mark by agreeing to play although complaining that “Ich am an old man and half blind, and can skill of very few games.” The “old man” would then deliberately lose several games. Acting enraged, he would stalk out, vowing to get his life savings from home to bet against the young men. Then the mark would be encouraged to put up all his money in order to make a big killing against the old man; in fact all the young men would agree to bet against the old man along with the mark. “They thus, tickling the young man in the ear, willeth him to make as much money as they can, and consent as they will play booty against him.” Once the old man fingerer returns, it is the time for the fingerer and his assistants to manipulate the cards in order to win the victim’s money: “they so use the matter, that both the young man loseth his part and, as it seemeth to him, they losing theirs also[;] and so . . . one runneth one way, another another way, leaving the loser indeed all alone.”8
Sophisticated as the Elizabethans were in this kind of theatre, the full flower of the monte script in its present form, bent card scenario and all, does not come to the United States until sometime in the 1830s. Henry Chafetz reported that monte was “to be found in high class saloons and at public balls and fetes [of New Orleans].”9 The game soon made its way to the steamboats that operated on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the 1840s and later. “The throwers took to the steamboats without fear,” wrote Chafetz, “since the captains (it was believed they collected one-third of the profits) let them operate unmolested.”10 Monte also proliferated in the West during the California gold rush and on the railroads with similar protections in effect. The famous card man Canada Bill once offered the Trunk Lines Railroad “a premium of $25,000 per annum to be allowed to practice confidence games upon its trains without molestation, a condition of the offer being that he would not attempt to victimize any class of passengers except preachers.”11
One of the best eyewitness accounts of the era is an autobiography by a riverboat conman named George DeVol. In his Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi, DeVol described how he and three partners made over a million dollars from monte in four years on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during the 1850s. Monte in such circumstances was necessarily enacted in a more private manner. Rather than try to attract a crowd, DeVol would impersonate a member of the wealthy class in order to befriend a mark. In DeVol’s very first monte game, “I represented a planter’s son traveling for my health”; before the boat had reached its destination, he had won $4100 and four slaves from a slavetrader on the boat up to Vicksburg.12 But the game could not be won on DeVol’s talent alone: he too had to have his stick, or capper as he called his partner. DeVol tells of a time he set up a monte game on the steamer War Eagle traveling from Dubuque to St. Paul in the 1850s. He had picked out his mark and “invited him to join me in a drink, and then steered him to the barbershop. I told him I had lost some money betting on cards, but I did not mind it very much as my father was wealthy. While I was showing him how I had lost the money, my partner came in; and after watching me throw the cards for a little while he wanted to bet me $100 he could pick the right card.” DeVol and his partner smoothly orchestrated the betting: after appearing to win a few times, DeVol’s partner then bent the corner of one of the cards in plain sight of the mark. Turning to the mark, DeVol protested that he couldn’t continue betting with a man that kept beating him. The mark at this point picked up his cue perfectly, asking whether he could be allowedto place a bet. “The man then got out his big roll and put up $100. I told him if I won, I would only be even; and that I would not bet less than $500. He put up $500 and turned the wrong card.”13 Remarkably, however, DeVol and his partner were not finished with the mark. They then pulled a variation on the bent card scene: the pencil dot routine. When the dealer was supposedly not paying attention, DeVol’s partner marked the corner of the correct card with a pencil mark. The mark, who had put up a diamond tie stud, felt sure that he could win this time—all he had to do was follow the pencil-marked card. Of course he was doomed to failure once again. When the pencil-marked card was turned over it had somehow been transformed into one of the wrong cards. The correct card was clean as a whistle. DeVol probably had rubbed off the pencil mark unobserved with his thumb, and then used what magicians call a nailwriter—a small pencil lead that fits under a finger nail—to mark one of the other cards.
While Ortiz’s sense is that monte had come East to New York City only recently, in fact, a form of monte had been present in New York since at least the 1850s as well.14 An 1857 booklet entitled Tricks and Traps of New York City, written to warn newcomers to the city of the dangers and temptations that awaited them in New York City, described the workings of the thimble-rigger, a conman who ran the monte game using three thimbles and a little ball. Although there is no bent-card scene, there is an analogous scene described in which the ball is “accidently” seen peeking out from under one of the thimbles. Of course, when the mark goes to pick up the thimble, the ball has disappeared, The thimble-rigger, naturally, also had others working for him. In the description of thimble-rigging, the author makes clear one very important, heretofore unmentioned aspect of the duties of the cast: defense. The book tells of one mark who after losing, “with commendable promptness and presence of mind knocked the thimble-rig man about four rods with a single blow. . . . [The mark] however only got one single broadside into the enemy before he was boarded by the whole crew, who pummelled him till his face looked as if somebody had used his head to fight bumble-bees.”15
So monte is an ensemble act, for the conman plays for keeps; his livelihood and perhaps his life depend on his acting skills and his companions. The best monte actors, however, manipulate not only cards, but the markers that allow us to know that we are in a theatrical setting, seeing a performance, Through misdirection, the spectator believes he is seeing one kind of performance, when, in fact, a completely different kind of performance is taking place. The ultimate proof that monte must be an ensemble performance and not a solo piece by the mechanic is in the actual practice: no mechanic on the street works by himself. Despite the fact that he will have to split the profits, the mechanic in every instance chooses to work with others in creating the illusion; he cannot do it by himself. During a recent crackdown by police on monte gangs in New York City, a dealer insisted on telling a New York Times reporter, “I don’t work with no partners and the game ain’t fixed.”16 But how could one possibly believe the first part of his statement when the second part is so clearly a lie? Like so many theatre artists, the con artist would have the spectator believe that it’s all about the star.
The con game and the theatre seem to have so much in common that it is tempting to mistake one for the other; in fact the long anti-theatrical prejudice against actors has much to do with the perception that actors and conmen both disguise their “true” characters and attempt to fool their audiences. Because both the actor and the conman present “lies like truth,” it is not that easy to distinguish between theatre and monte. Some might say the distinction lies in the convention that the theatre audience knows that they are seeing a performance. But if we want to continue to categorize as theatre such enterprises as Augosto Boal’s Invisible Theatre, where the audience never knows that they’ve been part of a theatre experience, then we must abandon that distinction. The con game is different from true theatre in that the con game always sells the promise of profit for the spectator, with no intention of fulfilling that promise. The theatre on the other hand, sells the spectator the promise of entertainment and/or enlightenment, which promise may or may not be fulfilled. Though the con game draws many techniques and structures from the theatre, the con game remains an essentially criminal enterprise. The performance of monte demands of the spectator not willing suspension of disbelief, but unwilling suspension of cash.17
The influential magician Dai Vernon, known by his peers as “The Professor,” was feted by his contemporaries at a tribute roast in 1987. Cabaret singer Pat Cook sung an homage to the 93-year-old magician to the tune of Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top,” but with revised lyrics by Cook. The clever Cook went on in later years to write a Broadway show and is presently the Director of BMI ‘s Musical Theater and Jazz division. If you’re a fan of magic, you’ll get a kick out of the lyrics Cook wrote for the occasion.
Thanks to magician Michael Ammar who captured the event on film and uploaded it onto YouTube.
One of the great modern clowns, I first saw Avner perform sometime in the early 80s at the Hudson River Clearwater Folk Festival. He is still performing, and combines a love of clowning, new vaudeville, juggling, and magic to create a character always bound to amuse and amaze.
More of Avner here: Avner Eisenberg
The suspenseful Fireside Mystery Theater has become an unexpected podcast success, with over a million downloads of its contemporary radio performances of macabre and off-center scripts, reminiscent of the Golden Age of Radio. You can listen to an interview broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program over WBAI FM that I did with the two creators of the company, Ali Silva and Gus Rodriguez, by clicking on the grey triangle above.
It’s hard for a modern magician to adopt an extreme persona without seeming corny, but Rob Zabrecky’s funny warped psycho magician character humorously illustrates what it might have been like had Norman Bates taken up magic as a hobby.
Thanks to YouTuber Simon Drake’s House of Magic
After reading my friend Mitchel Cohen’s essay on factors affecting how people change their political views, I was reminded of the scene above from Chaplin’s Modern Times (I’m strange that way). Facts alone, Cohen says, are often not enough to change a person’s political views, because the person’s psychological reaction formation simply dismisses the new facts as false propaganda.
I’m a little less pessimistic concerning facts. Generally, I think that facts that challenge the framework of the conversation, or move the discussion to a wider context, some meta-level, can be very useful.
Well, this isn’t the place for that discussion (but see Mitchel Cohen’s excellent series of essays here: http://www.redballoonbooks.org/books/books.html for really deep imaginative thinking about how political change is effected and affected).
But what that conversation reminded me of was the roller skating scene from Modern Times, as well as reminding me of magic and the technology of deception. If you haven’t watched the video above yet, please take two minutes to watch it. Don’t watch the video link below though yet—it’s a spoiler.
Once you watch the first video, consider your feelings about the scene. Next click the link below. I think you’ll enjoy it. Consider what happens to your mindset about the first video when the frame is broken.
What an odd and thought-provoking play.
The play as advertised on the title page of its First Quarto publication declares its putative genre: a Pleasant Conceited Comedy. And so it is for four and a half acts. Not only is it based on a simple comedy plot conceit—four royal gents, including the King of Navarre, try to forswear thoughts of women, but give up as soon as four women visitors, including the Princess of France, arrive—but the copious wordplay, wealth of literary allusions, and satirical sallies aimed at the pretensions of the educated classes, indicate the young “upstart crow” of a playwright calling attention to his easy gifts, leaving his calling card with not a little hubris. The play is drunk with puns and verbal sparring, and with parodies of those who would spend so much time twisting words into what they’re not. Shakespeare juggles the words, plot, and characters with due ostentation, like a strolling player with four balls in the air at once. There is no hiding art with art here: his art is all out there on display.
The play at first seems to share a theme that most of Shakespeare’s comedies embody: love makes us all mad and makes us do silly, out of character things. And like many of the other comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost employs many of the same comic plot devices with its verbal sparring between lovers, disguises, mistaken identities, and maskings and unmaskings.
And this is how the play goes for four and a half acts. The men woo the ladies, the ladies demur, the men disguise themselves and try to trick the ladies, but the women get their own back by swapping identities among themselves during a masked entertainment. Finally the duplicities are uncovered and the women triumph, embarrassing the men, getting the men to admit their faults and their love. It’s just at this juncture in the other comedies where there would be a laughing, a forgiving, and the men and women would conclude by dancing a merry jig, with weddings in the air. That’s what the theatrical clock anyway says should happen here, given the stage time left to wrap up.
But here instead in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare does an extraordinary thing. A messenger delivers the news from France that the Princess’s father has died. The news casts a terrible pall on the proceedings and causes the women to withdraw completely. Even though the men earnestly declare their love for the women as honestly as they can, the women will have none of it; they are too perturbed by sorrow and get ready to go back home to France. It’s a remarkable moment; it’s as if someone had come out and said to the audience, sorry folks, there’s no comedy tonight, one of the actors has died. . .we tried to keep your sorrows at bay for the last few hours, but unhappy reality always creeps in, and so it has again. The women must go home to mourn; they say that they will be back in twelve months, but only if the men can prove they have become better people, and have done genuine social penance in that time. And we are left hanging.
In construction, Love’s Labour’s Lost is unique in the Shakespeare canon. Although other Shakespeare plays shift gears in the final moments as Love’s Labour’s Lost does, those other so-called “problem plays” —Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, and All’s Well that Ends Well, for example—do so in a decidedly different way. Those plays start off as apparent tragedies, and then suddenly by a happy turn of events, often due to an act of bold and generous forgiveness, lovers are reconciled, friendships are repaired, and the world is righted once again. But not so in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Its construction is the very opposite of the problem plays. It seems to have every intention of being a comedy, but in the last moments the play morphs into sadness, snatched from the jaws of happiness. As far as I know, Shakespeare doesn’t do that anywhere else.
In another play, the unhappy turn of events at the end might serve as a plot twist in the middle of the play, only to be merrily overcome by the end. But no such luck in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The time is out of joint. One of the men announces quite openly to the other players (and the audience):
Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Gill. These ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth an’ a day,
And then ’twill end.
That’s too long for a play.
The play ends with a song, not by the assembled would-be lovers, but by players representing Spring and Winter, introduced by Armado, a foolish visiting nobleman. The song about spring warns married couples that they are subject to being cuckolded, while the song about winter reminds the assembled of all the chores and drudgery that the cold weather brings, albeit bringing perhaps a kind of small domestic satisfaction. When the songs are over Armado says in a bittersweet curtain speech, “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.” Mercury traditionally was the deliverer of messages, while Apollo was the God of art, music and poetry. It was as if Shakespeare were saying, as an artist he could ease you with the comforts of art, but he couldn’t close his eyes to what life could bring at any moment. One unfortunate message is enough to turn any happiness upside down. It is an odd, odd ending for a comedy. The curtain comes down as Armado says, “You that way, we this way.”
Who is Armado addressing that line to? Who is the “you” and the “we”? The men and the women of the play? The audience and the actors? Or Shakespeare and everybody else? For community and the very act of storytelling seem to be at root the very essence of comedy, yet Shakespeare insists on ending with a separation.
It was an audacious jump. Shakespeare wanted to go “that way,” differently from the “this way” of others. He could set a plot in motion as well as any other trifling theatrical, he could parry and thrust his wit as sharply as any of his peers. But in the end he wanted something different. By this time, he had already thrown Aristotle out the window—no precious Unities of time and place for him, the world was too encompassing for that—but he now also wanted to do away with false endings that spoke of finality, when the truth was that everything one knows can change in an instant, and happiness can turn into sadness in a heartbeat.
What could have prompted such a desire in the playwright at this time? The Quarto title page may provide a clue. It was printed in 1598, but the notice on the page declares that it had been performed for the Queen the previous Christmas in 1597. So it’s not unlikely that the play was composed around 1596-1597. But in 1596, the successful London playwright got a visit from Mercury himself with the news from Stratford-On-Avon: Shakespeare’s only son, eleven-year-old Hamnet, had died. Was it this awful blow that turned a sunny comedy into a darker meditation on the ephemeral nature of life? I think it must be so.
What must Will’s audiences have thought of the play? It was thought well enough of, that it was published in several Quarto and Folio editions. But perhaps that was for the more literary-minded, because actual productions of the play after its initial performances were few and far between until the 20th century. I think, ultimately, that the play was not a crowd-pleaser. In short order, the practical-minded impresario Shakespeare eventually came to his senses, and never wrote such a bitter comedy again. In truth, the very comedic form which Love’s Labour’s Lost subverts is exactly the kind of comedy that Shakespeare then goes ahead and writes for the next decade. He never seeks to end a comedy in such a melancholy way again. So figuratively he writes with one hand behind his back, and the titles give his contempt away: As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night or What You Will— that’s what you want from Will, that’s what you will get.
He never did write a comedy like Love’s Labour’s Lost again, although certainly he expressed the darker side of his nature in the tragedies and the histories. He retired after 37 plays, a wealthy man, with a newly minted coat-of-arms, to his house in Stratford-on-Avon. But Love’s Labour’s Lost stands as a bold experiment in form by a young playwright near the peak of his powers who once allowed Mercury’s harsh words to interrupt Apollo’s song.
A few days a week I work at a public high school for new immigrants here in New York City, and one of my students, Lamine, asked me to act with him in a scene from a play for the school’s Talent Show. So we worked up the following which you can see in the clip above.
It was a lot of fun to prepare and perform. The student audience last Thursday really appreciated the dynamics of the father-son story: the son has just moved out of his parents’ house to his older brother’s apartment, leaving only a letter behind to announce his decision. He thinks he’s on his way to a hot date–but when the doorbell rings, it’s his father.
The final scene of Othello, set in Desdemona’s bed chamber where Othello, standing over Desdemona while she sleeps, decides to kill her.
Performed here on the 1944 audio record by Paul Robeson as Othello, Uta Hagen as his doomed wife Desdemona, Jose Ferrer as the evil Iago, who falsely convinces Othello of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, and Edith King as Iago’s wife, Emilia, who realizes with horror what her husband has done. I don’t think I’ll ever hear a better rendition.
Thanks to YouTuber Xenu
I had long known of Langston Hughes’s poems, but I didn’t know until very recently what a delightful speaker and storyteller he was. In this audio clip he is talking to a group of graduate students in Berkeley about his upbringing. What a lovely man. Click on the grey triangle above to hear.
The audio clip is just the beginning of a one-hour Hughes talk from an astounding collection of over 1300 hours of audio from the archives of Pacifica Radio. The collection is called Voices That Change The World. It’s not cheap, but on the 64GB flash drive (you get two for the price of one) there is an extraordinary range of audio from the most remarkable people of the last fifty years—singers, poets, writers, politicians, artists, scientists, religious figures, audio books. It’s an amazing resource.
And if you buy one, please mark down that you’re donating for the Arts Express program.
So last night I was riding on the subway, on a line I don’t usually take, and standing next to me were two attractive women in deep conversation. I kept looking at one of the women because she seemed very familiar to me and yet I couldn’t place her. But I was sure I had seen her or met her before.
I racked my brain over and over, cursing my terrible memory, but I couldn’t figure it out. Well my stop finally came and I had to get off, but at the moment I hit the door, it came to me. I turned back around and called to her,
“Sixty-nine! You were Sonnet number Sixty-nine. ” She looked towards me, laughed, and nodded yes. I mouthed my words as I got off and pointed to myself, “Number Seventy.”
Since she had been assigned to read the sonnet before mine in the Shakespeare Sonnet Slam, she was my cue.
“Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again.”
A short 3 minute movie made at the birth of the new medium that so intrigued magicians and inventors alike. Robert Paul, who pioneered the invention of film in England (Edison for some reason didn’t patent his invention in Britain!), innovated cameras which allowed reverse cranking of the film stock. This allowed him to create double exposures and some of the special effects seen in the movie above.
Thanks to YouTuber shahdhaval369
acting, Borges, Everything and Nothing, Melinda Hall, performance, poem, poetry, Shakespeare, Shakespeare Sonnet Slam, Shakespeare's Birthday Sonnet Slam, sonnet, Sonnet Slam, theater, theatre, writing
Today is Shakespeare’s birthday. If you’ve never read it, this very short story about Shakespeare by Borges comes closest to describing the man who I imagine WS to be.
I had the pleasure two days ago of participating in the 7th Annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam. It was a drizzly, misty day that made all of Central Park look like a French Impressionist painting. The producers told us that if it rained hard, we would simply continue and gather up the audience to join us up on the outdoor bandshell stage in Central Park. It never happened, but it was a cozy thought to think about.
This was my fourth Sonnet Slam, so I knew what to expect. All 154 sonnets are read in about three hours. Producer Melinda Hall has a very democratic approach to the slam, and it’s fun to see the way professionals and non-professionals alike approach performing the sonnets. One reader brought her dog up with her, and another set her sonnet to music. Each year brings some surprise guests, and this year veteran actor Richard Thomas made an unannounced visit to read Sonnet 29, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…” It’s also always fun for me to hear others perform the sonnets to which I had been assigned in previous years. I feel a kind of special bond with those particular readers even if we’ve never met, because I can appreciate the struggle that goes into wrestling with those shared sonnets.
I’ve written about analyzing a sonnet before, but based on what I’ve learned this time, I’d humbly like to make a few suggestions about performing sonnets. These suggestions may seem sonnet-specific, but I believe they have wider acting implications as well.
The first thing is this, and it’s not as minor as it may sound at first: You have to pay allegiance to the final couplet’s rhyme. In the rest of the sonnet, the interpretation can spread over line breaks and rhymes, but if you don’t hit the rhymes in the final couplet, there is a real sense of incompleteness for the listener. It’s like a piece of music without the final resolving chord; the rest of the sonnet can be performed beautifully, but if you don’t get the final rhyme stressed, you haven’t closed the deal. Rhyme, even at the expense of sense or archaic pronunciation. (“Love” doesn’t rhyme with “prove” anymore? It doesn’t matter. Make it rhyme in your performance.) Go for the rhyme.
The second thing to remember is that the vast majority of these sonnets are love poems. They are meant, in the end, to win the heart of someone special. So while actors are wont to build little mini-dramas of the sonnets—not a bad thing—it should be remembered too that objectives such as to woo, to praise, to kiss, to seduce, to reassure, to flatter, should take precedence over objectives such as to scold, to complain, to dismiss, to chastise. Not that there aren’t elements of the latter, but in the end, the sonnets are love poems and should end up that way. So humor and self-reflection about the more negative aspects of love are in order, even though the anger may seem flashier to perform.
Finally, make every noun, metaphor, verb as visual and specific as you can for yourself. It’s Acting 101, but it’s especially true in playing Shakespeare that one should not lapse into the generic meaning of the words. The first line from Sonnet 70 should suffice to illustrate:
“That thou be blamed, shall not be thy defect.”
“Thou”: Who am I talking about? What does that person look like? What is my relationship to that person? Where are we?
“Blamed”: Blamed for what? In what manner? By whom? To what end?
“Thy defect”: What form might that defect take? How has this affected my lover? How has it affected our relationship? What do I want to do about it?
And so on. The wonderful thing about the fourteen short lines of a sonnet is that they allow you to do this kind of close work without getting overwhelmed. The important thing that I learned for myself here is that it’s not enough to make intellectual choices, but to pick vivid images that will spur feelings and imagination. Make the metaphor real.
Well, one more nice thing about Shakespeare’s birthday is that it comes around every year, and if the producers so wish, so will the next Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam. So if you’re in the NYC area next year, consider signing up in April for one of the sonnets at www.shakespearesonnetslam.com . You will have a wonderful time.
David Amram’s impossibly beautiful waltz from “After The Fall,” with Paquito D’Rivera on saxophone.
The piece was composed for use in the original Elia Kazan stage production of Arthur Miller’s play After The Fall.
Thanks to YouTuber newportclassic
Monday morning, Leonard Bernstein conducts his own Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.
Favorite Bernstein moment: 18:01
Thanks to YouTuber karaberu
Yesterday the Arts Express radio program ran my audio essay on a new site-specific performance piece called Inside by PopUp Theatrics. The more I tried to write a conventional review, the more I realized I had to do it in another way. Sometimes when a work of art leaves you feeling unsettled, it’s a good thing. For a meditation on the power of memories and stories, and the way they blur the line between truth and fiction, click on the grey triangle above.