Bottompost 6: magic

I’ve been asked to speak about magic.

The Lantern runs a series of panel discussions around themes in the play currently onstage. For Midsummer, they chose “Commedia“, “Sex” and “Supernatural”. I have spent the past several weeks getting over the grave wound I felt at not being chosen to speak on “sex”. God knows I have so much to say about it, not mention my vast experience. Plus I’m so . . . well, sexy. But no. Since I am playing the character most transformed by a fairy spell, I am to speak on “the supernatural”. Don’t they know the donkey was thought of as a sexual creature by the Elizabethans because of his, ahem, attribute? Ah well. Perhaps I will deliver my thoughts on magical matters shirtless, thus weaving together two topics. And I will talk about magic because . . . it’s easier to say.

I am so besotted with the event of theater, that to me the topic seems redundant at first glance. A play performed is in and of itself magical. But maybe we should begin with definitions. Wikipedia tells me that “magic is the claimed art of altering things by either supernatural means or through knowledge of occult natural laws unknown to science.” Let’s unpack this phrase bit by bit.

“Claimed art”. I guess this means that magic doesn’t happen accidentally, but by design. Someone “claims” to make it happen. This strikes me as important because at the outset magic is therefore connected to human experience. Cats and mice do not experience things as magical, and even though we have ascribed magic properties to animals sometimes, it is we who ascribe them, not the animals. So magic is a peculiarly human phenomenon, both through agency and apprehension.

And it is an “art”. I assume the author here is opposing magic to science, but I sense a deeper familiarity between art and magic. I sense them as being of the same family. And if that family is made up of aunts and uncles, cousins and step-siblings, then I sense theater and magic as being brother and sister. We seek the same effects from both: amazement, transportation, surprise, shock, mystery. Both art and magic require the same extraordinary blend of discipline and enthusiasm in their practice. Both are marginalized by the more conventional avocations.

“Altering things”. Here, I think theater has it over magic. Magic is mostly concerned with the altering of “things”: playing cards, disappearing objects, things that float. Theater is mostly concerned with the altering of people. Think of Hamlet’s famous reaction to the Player King. The impact of a fellow human being transforming into someone else, and then feeling the emotions and saying the words and enacting the feats of that other person, is a magic more intense than any alteration of things. Certainly in our ironic and detached culture, the amazement at the magician’s magic doesn’t stem from an acceptance of the magic, but instead as a kind of technical appreciation, as in “how did he do that”? The magic, then, isn’t really believed in as “magic”, but rather as a bit of expert stage craft.

In the theater, as characters are altered, so are the witnesses. This is why Hamlet cries out. He has been altered – all the more galling to him since he knows he was in some way “tricked”. It was a powerful fiction which altered him, aggrieved him, outraged him. “Magic” seems to me to be concerned with surfaces, appearances, mirrors and illusions. Theater is concerned with the mystery of our shared human experience, and as we are transformed by actors we are lifted into their magic, we are accomplices, we are implicated. The laughter I hear onstage as Bottom is most magical, as it is the sound of a great gathering of joyous hearts in the collective imagination, at one singular moment in time, never again to be repeated. In the most successful theater, the boundary between audience and actor becomes quite porous, whereas the magician is invested in making the magic happen in front of us, but separate from us, the observers remaining observers.

“Supernatural means.” Super-natural = over (beyond) nature. There is a natural order, and magic upends it, adjusts it, crosses it. The execution of the magical event is achieved by manipulating something outside the normal order of things. This is where the fear creeps in. Magic is scary, or to be effective, it should at least have some shock value. In Macbeth, the Three Witches are known as the Weird Sisters. And in our production, the donkey mask I wear isn’t the furry head of some child’s doll – it’s a little ghastly: missing its lower jaw and disfiguring my face in an unsettling way. Along these same lines, I appreciate the way Dave Johnson is playing Puck – not as a woodland cherub, but as a creepy, mischievous satyr.

When the lovers enter the woods, they enter the world of magic and they leave the natural order of things. Worse, the already un-natural world of the fairies is itself out of order, as Titania points out in her great speech to Oberon when they meet. There has been much scholarship on the sexual energies in this play, much of it I agree with. At the very least, the lovers are running away from the Athenian order they have known and into the wild night-time world of their sexual desire. I have always felt the magic in the woods outside of Athens is Shakespeare’s way of playing comically with the often frightening urges of our loins. And yet, these are natural urges, they are entirely of nature. So in a sense, what happens in the woods to the lovers is not “super-natural”. It’s “hyper-natural”. The happy ending of the play is the restoration of proper balance: the right boys with the right girls, the king and queen at peace and the magical and real world compliments.

“Occult.” What happens in the woods to Bottom is a different story. The word “occult” comes from a latin root which means “that which is hidden”. The words “arcane” and “esoteric” are relatives, if not in etymology then in meaning. So the study of the occult is the revelation of what is hidden. Of course, it’s also what we call witchcraft, demonology, devil-worship, satanism. Here is where magic takes it on the chin from the fundamentalists. It was plays like Midsummer – in which pagan demigods were celebrated – which stirred the Puritans of Shakespeare’s London into fits of censorship.

May I digress? Thanks. The reason the fundamentalists have tried for ages to crush the theater is that theater is bad for their business. I include my own George Fox, who railed against the arts generally. Any good minister is a good actor. Any great actor is a good minister. You can put Religion in that family I referenced before, as some sort of enormously influential and nervous aunt, constantly scolding her nephew Theater, and berating her niece Magic.

What happens to Bottom in the woods comes closest to overt magic, with all its occult undertones, in the play. Not surprisingly this moment is the cause for the most elaborate stage craft in productions of this play, as the theatre tries to adopt some conventional magic. In our case, we employ some shadow puppetry when the ass-head goes on, and some slight of hand when it comes off.  And when it goes on, it horrifies the others on stage. Really, it’s some nasty black magic Puck hits Bottom with. But if “occult” is the revelation of what’s hidden, then what is revealed when Bottom is transformed? He is an ass, and he’s been behaving like one since the moment he arrived on stage. Surprise! What has this most magical moment revealed? The truth.

“Unknown to science.” There are two ways to look at our shared human experience. One way is that all of it can be rationally explained. That is the realm of science. The other is that some it cannot be rationally explained. Some of it is mysterious. That is the realm of art, religion and magic. Magic tends to exploit the mystery for effect. Religion ascribes divine import to what cannot be explained. Art – and theater specifically – refuses to choose sides, and finds divine meaning in the mystery, even as it employs some tricks to keep the groundlings entertained.

I found my way to the mysterious end of things early on, and have lived continually, if not always comfortably in the questions.