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The Harvard Theatre Collection, part of the Harvard College Library, is in Pusey Library and is open weekdays from 9 to 5. The Imagery of Illusion runs through March 26. Call the Theatre Collection at (617) 495-2445 for further details.

A lithograph poster for an American tour by the German magician Alexander Herrmann.

A playbill for the magician Professor Guertin, appearing in Boston in 1871, with a woodcut illustration of a decapitation illusion.

The Imagery of Illusion

The Harvard Theatre Collection lifts the curtain on the mysteries of magic.

Magicians transformed themselves in the nineteenth century. They made a bold, brash, even defiant change in self-portrayal. No longer were they to be perceived as possessors of supernatural powers. No, they asserted, their feats of wizardry were made possible by exquisite skill--a special dexterity, a formidable memory, or a subtle knowledge of nature or technology--by methods simply beyond the power of the audience to detect.

Led by Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, often called the father of modern magic, many performers stepped out of their wizards' moon-and-stars robes and into evening clothes. Of course, a magician would go to great lengths to create a unique and colorful persona. Many cultivated an aura of mental superiority; others put on the sophisticated manner of the concert artist or the authoritative air of the public lecturer. Some were homespun and comedic, often combining their illusions with ventriloquism, trained-animal acts, or musical numbers. Still others, among them Chung Ling Soo (actually a Scotsman named W.E. Robinson, who was killed when a trick rifle misfired onstage), adopted the shroud of exoticism, especially of Orientalism.

An important development during the nineteenth century was the growing ability of conjurors to develop illusions based on technology and natural phenomena--on smoke and mirrors--including levitations, disappearances, and decapitations, nearly all of which required ingenious and finely crafted apparatus, special lighting, and meticulous technique. (Both Robert-Houdin and the "anti-spiritualist" John Nevil Maskelyne had been trained as clockmakers, a perfect apprenticeship for a performer who had to be responsible for a great number of automata and mechanical illusions.)

The idea of a magic exhibition came to Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, curator of the Theatre Collection, as he became fascinated by Harvard's impressive accumulations of nineteenth-century posters, bills, programs, photographs, and apparatus associated with magic and its allied arts, among them spiritualism, juggling, trained animals, acrobatics, and ventriloquism. To bring an exhibition to life, he invited Ricky Jay, sleight-of-hand artist extraordinaire, a historian and a collector, to be guest curator. Jay is a dominant figure in today's conjuring scene; the entire run of his recent off-Broadway show, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, sold out on the day tickets went on sale.

Wilson and Jay have combed the catacombs of the magic stack in the basement of Pusey Library to assemble the current exhibition, billed as The Imagery of Illusion. It offers choice pictorial representations of the deceptive arts, shows off the collection's nineteenth-century material in its best light (or darkest mystery), and evokes a world of deceit, skill, and-- above all--entertainment.


A handsome mid-nineteenth-century magic set made by H. Rousseau,Paris, with a hand-colored lithograph cover showing proper usage in a drawing-room setting.

A lithograph poster advertising "The Phenomena" at Lyric Hall, London, billed as "the largest illusory apparatus in the world."

A large (28-by-38-inch) woodblock poster showing a suspension effect, printed in England as a "stock poster" intended to be overprinted with the name of the performer, venue, and date.

One of the Great Herrmann's numerous posters, beautifully printed by Strobridge Lithographic Co., Cincinnati, in 1880, depicts several of the acts in his show, a touring variety entertainment.

A typeset playbill, with typically exuberant typography, for Professor C.B. Charles's "Soirées Philosophique," printed in Cleveland in 1853.

A typeset playbill for Signor Blitz and his "one hundred learned canary birds," with woodcut illustrations depicting the talents of his avian assistants.

A playbill for Association Hall, Boston, featuring prestidigitator J. Harris Hughes, "The Fakir of Ava," and J.W. Whiston, comic, in a "gift entertainment," at which members of the audience were given prizes.

A lithograph handbill for the sleight-of-hand artist Robert Nickle, filled in by hand for an appearance in Cape May, New Jersey, the cartouche presenting an acrostic verse and several supernatural creatures.

A playbill for the Broadway Theatre, New York, featuring Chin Gan, the double-jointed Chinese dwarf, 1853. Audiences were fascinated by the mysteries of the Orient.

A lithograph poster for Zykes the Showman, a play about an itinerant conjurer, starring John Thompson.

A lithograph poster, printed in Cleveland, showing the magician Professor Hartz asleep, tormented by impish creatures.

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