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Philip Butterworth. Magic on the Early English Stage.

Philip Butterworth. Magic on the Early English Stage. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xxii + 295. $85.00.

Philip Butterworth is rapidly establishing himself as the pre-eminent authority on special effects on the medieval stage. In his first book, Theatre of Fire (Society for Theatre Research, 1998), he introduced us to the practicalities of pyrotechnic and other special sound and light effects in early English and Scottish theater. In his second book, Magic on the Early English Stage, he now investigates magical tricks, illusions, appearances, and puppets on the early English stage (and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in Europe and even, in one instance, in China). Butterworth is also currently editing a volume 'of essays, The Narrator, the Expositor, and the Prompter in European Medieval Theatre, for Brepols, and, with Joslin McKinney, completing The Cambridge Introduction to Scenography. His approach is cautious, scholarly, and thorough.

In Magic on the Early English Stage, Butterworth begins by carefully defining his terms. Although conjuring is now "the principal term ... used to encompass magical activity," this word, he tells us, "was not used in its current sense in England until the nineteenth century" (2). The more common term for many centuries was juggling, whose meaning is now confined to "throw[ing] up objects from one hand to another in a continuous rhythmical sequence without dropping them to the floor" but which, until the nineteenth century, was the common term for the performance of all kinds of magical tricks. Other terms were "tregetry, legerdemaine, prestigiation, ... feats, feats of activity, and sleight of hand" (3).

In chapter 1, Butterworth introduces by name several "jugglers" whose careers can be pieced together from the surviving records. Among these are Thomas Brandon, first mentioned in Chichester in 1517-18 and first called the "joculatori domini regis" (the lord king's juggler) in Shrewsbury in 1520-22. When not performing for the king, Brandon traveled under royal license throughout the southern half of England, from Kent to Worcester and from Cambridge to Cornwall. One of his tricks involved stabbing a painting of a pigeon while pointing to a live pigeon perched on a rooftop, apparently causing the real pigeon to fall "from the top of the house starke dead" (13). The trick, it is reported, involved a well-timed administration of poison to the pigeon beforehand. Brandon is last mentioned in the records in 1536-37. Another king's juggler was William Vincent, alias Hocus Pocus, who flourished between 1619 and 1642 and is mentioned by his pseudonym in several Jacobean stage plays. Vincent was well known for "his apparent ability to swallow and expel daggers from his mouth" (23).

Chapter 2 examines "feats of activity" including "juggling, tumbling, and dancing on the rope" (26). Here we learn that the modern piece of gymnastic equipment known as a vaulting horse derives its name from a "feat of activity" that required the juggler to vault and to perform acrobatic tricks on a live horse. Two printed illustrations from 1652 are provided (36-37). We also learn that many of the rope dancers were (or, at least billed themselves as) Turks (47). Since we know from other sources, such as the lavish illustrations in The Book of Festivities of Ahmed III (1720), that rope walking was popular at the Turkish court, it is probable that "Turkish" ropewalkers in England bear witness to the influence of performance traditions from the Muslim world on the European repertoire. One of the more spectacular rope tricks was that recorded in Hertford in the eighteenth century. A man with a wooden leg descended "with incredible swiftness" from the top of the church tower, lying belly-down on a grooved board balanced across a taut rope and slamming into "two or three featherbeds" at ground level. He performed the trick "three times in the same day." On the third occasion, "he held a pistol in each hand, which he discharged as he came down" (44).

Chapter 3 explores "conveyance and confederacy," terms that apply not to magic itself but to the means of producing magical effects. "Conveyance is concerned with the real or apparent transference of objects from one location to another that takes place in front of an audience and yet is not perceived by it" (49). Confederacy involves working with a partner to dupe an audience. Thomas Brandon's pigeon trick may have been accomplished more surely by having a confederate hold the poisoned pigeon "by the leg in a string" and, at the right moment, pulling down the pigeon, "and so the woonder is wrought" (57). The confederate itself may be an animal, as in the case of Morocco, a horse trained by William Banks to answer complex questions, identify designated audience members, and "curtsy, dance, fight, piss and operate whilst blindfolded" (66).

Chapter 4 reports on "appearances and disappearances" by means of "architectural features such as traps, doors, and screens" (74). In this context, Butterworth discusses a wide range of early stage directions requiring characters to vanish or to appear suddenly. In the Chester Cycle play, for example, a stage direction reads, "Tunc Jesus evanescit" (Then Jesus vanishes). Later in the same play, another direction reads, "Et subito apparebit Jesus dicens" (And suddenly Jesus shall appear, saying). At the end of the chapter, we are treated to an exploration of what has come to be known as the Indian Rope Trick, in which a boy purportedly climbs to the top of a rope that has no visible support and then disappears. Butterworth provides us with supposed eye-witness accounts from as far apart as fourteenth-century China and sixteenth-century Ireland, but admits that "modern-day conjurers ... generally believe that this stunt cannot be performed in the open air" as the witnesses claimed it was (96). He therefore reminds us of "the need for ... caution in the treatment of so-called eye-witness accounts" (97).

In subsequent chapters, Butterworth treats us to the workings of magic by various other means. There is the manipulation of sound, in the form of noises offstage or, in some instances, mysteriously onstage, or through various forms of ventriloquism. There are mechanical images, such as automata and puppets. In this context Butterworth includes a reproduction, from Bruegel the Elder, of what "may be ... the earliest illustration of the puppeteer and his glove puppet" (132). There is the substitution of "real bodies with dummies" or of real body parts with artificial limbs that may appear to be mutilated or amputated. The loss of an arm that blasphemously touched the consecrated host in The Croxton Play of the Sacrament is a well-known example. And, there are "tricks" that allow an actor to appear to be stabbed and to bleed to death onstage or enable a company to comply with such ambitious stage directions as this example from the Bourges Mystery of the Acts of the Apostles: "St. Paul shall be beheaded, and the head will bounce three times, and from each bounce will spring up a fountain from which will flow milk, blood, and water" (176).

Butterworth concludes with a final chapter on terminology, four appendices, clear and cepious notes, and a full bibliography. The chapter on terminology simultaneously illustrates one of the strengths and possible limitations of this book. At times, Magic on the Early English Stage reads a little too much like a series of extended dictionary definitions of the vocabulary of early English magic, illustrated by copious citations and technical explanations. But precise and well-supported dictionary definitions are of real value and can sometimes make fascinating reading. They do so here. One might wish for a little more excitement on Butterworth's part about the extraordinary stage effects that he has assembled and explained. But, at the same time, one appreciates the seriousness with which he has approached his topic, favoring caution and meticulous scholarship over any temptation to showmanship. The book avoids the entertaining flourishes of the magician in order, all the more seriously, to study the history of such flourishes and tricks.

Magic on the Early English Stage is a valuable addition to our knowledge of stage effects and other technical "tricks" of the period. Both scholars of early drama and those who want to stage its texts anew on the modern stage will frequently return to Butterworth's careful record of the full range of stage effects available to early English actors, playwrights, and stage managers.


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Author:Harris, Max
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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