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Eisenheim the Illusionist: The Reality Behind the Magic

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Leonor Grave

on 18 November 2013

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Transcript of Eisenheim the Illusionist: The Reality Behind the Magic

"Eisenheim the Illusionist": The Reality Behind the Magic

Historical Context: The World in the Time of Eisenheim
Robert-Houdin "The Pioneer"
Herrmann the Great "The Theatrical"
Harry Houdini "The Revolutionary"
Smoke and Mirrors
“For a while its edges quivered slightly, as if it were made of black smoke. Suddenly, Eisenheim raised his eyes, which one witness described as black mirrors that reflected nothing; he looked drained and weary.”
(Milhouser 254)
How did real XIX century illusionists such as Robert-Houdin, the Great Herrmann, and Harry Houdini and their societal impacts influence Milhouser to create the character of Eisenheim?
Eisenheim was born Eduard Abramowitz in Bratislava in 1859 or 1960. He came from a Jewish family and his father was a respected cabinet-maker. He was the eldest of 4 children and developed skills in cabinet-making early on in life, but did not begin his magic career until he was around 28 years old. His Jewish background was a significant choice of Milhouser's because when Eisenheim's magic becomes darker, his Judaism is ultimately used as a scapegoat by the public.

Robert-Houdin had his own theatre he performed in when he began his magic career. When Eisenheim became successful, he opened the Eisenheimhaus.
The first trick performed by Eisenheim mentioned in the story is
The Mysterious Orange Tree
, which was made famous by Robert-Houdin.
Robert-Houdin's performance style was more simplistic than many other magicians, he appeared in normal evening attire instead or elaborate robes characteristic of other performers.
Alexander Herrmann was born in Paris, France, to a Jewish family, the youngest of sixteen children. His father, Samuel Herrmann, worked as a part-time conjurer and was Alexander's first exposure to magic. His older brother Carl also pursued a career in magic, and served as a mentor to Alexander.
Herrmann had a very distinctive look. He was known for his intense eyes, imposing mustache and goatee.
During his career, he too had a rival - Henry Kellar. In the United States, where he performed at the time, there was a media sensation surrounding who was the "King of Magic." Herrmann ultimately came out on top in this rivalry. Eisenheim had two rivalries in his magic career. The first was a magician who unsuccessfully challenged him and the second was a trick of Eisenheim's own invention.
Many of his physical distinctions, such as his mustache and goatee were copied by magicians that followed him. He brought a new element of dramatic flair to magic performances that would last beyond his time.

In his book "The Art of Magic," he says "the magician depends for the success of his art upon the credulity of the people. Whatever mystifies, excites curiosity; whatever in turn baffles this curiosity, works the marvelous.”
Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin was born in France. His father was a successful clockmaker that provided for the family. He became very skilled at clockmaking from an early age, an ability which allowed him to experiment with the more technical aspects of magic. He even opened his own clockmaking studio in Paris. He only became a professional magician later in life, at the age of 40.
Robert-Houdin is considered the father of modern conjuring. He was the first magician to use electricity in his tricks. He denounced magicians who relied on supernatural explanations for their feats. He wrote influential magic books that explained the art of magic and gave lessons in how to perform tricks. His work as a magician inspired Harry Houdini's name choice. Young Houdini idolized Robert-Houdin, but would ironically later go on to denounce him later in life, just as Robert-Houdin did to spiritualists in his time.
Harry Houdini was born Erich Weiss, in Budapest, Hungary. He was also born into a Jewish family. He took his stage name from a magician he admired in his childhood, Robert-Houdin.

"A chance encounter with a travelling magician is said to have been the cause of Eisenheim's lifelong passion for magic."
(Milhouser 242)

His family moved to America when he was four. His background was not something he was proud of, and later in life he claimed to be born at Appleton, Wisconsin.

Houdini was the most influential magician of his time and he was a firm believer in maintaining high standards within the performance magic industry. In his lifetime, he wrote several books denouncing magical people and practices he perceived to be fraudulent. He denounced his childhood idol Robert-Houdin as "a mere pretender, a man who waxed great on the brainwork of others."
Audiences loved Houdini because his seemingly impossible escapes were a metaphor for their own lives, for people's ability to overcome adversity.
The San Francisco Chronicle's Headline following Houdini's death:
"Death Claims Balk in Battle to Break Shackles of Grim Reaper." The Long Beach Press-Telegram had "Houdini Keeps His Secrets: Tricks Go to Grave with Magician."
Houdini was known for his elaborate escapes, such as the renowned Chinese Water Torture Cell. He would captivate the audience's interest by constantly increasing the danger is his tricks. He would constantly reinvent himself. In addition to the increasingly elaborate escapes, he also used motions pictures to increase his audience appeal. Eisenheim was also a close student of photography and cinematography. His performances earned him nicknames such as "The Celebrated Police Baffler," and "The King of Handcuffs."

“The rumor surrounded Eisenheim like a mist, blurring his sharp outline, darkening his features, and enhancing his formidable reputation.”
(Milhouser 248)

What Sets Eisenheim Apart?
“The long review, heavy with fin de siecle portentousness and shot through with a secret restlessness or longing, was the first of several that placed Eisenheim beyond the world of conjuring and saw in him an expression of spiritual striving, as if his art could no longer be talked about in the old way.” (Milhouser 256)

“The official reason given for the arrest of the Master, and the seizure of his theater, was the disturbance of the public order... No, what disturbed Herr Uhl was something else, something for which he had difficulty finding a name. The phrase “crossing of boundaries” occurs pejoratively more than once in his notebooks; by it he appears to mean that certain distinctions must be strictly maintained. Art and life constituted one such distinction; illusion and reality, another. Eisenheim deliberately crossed boundaries and therefore disturbed the essence of things. In effect, Herr Uhl was accusing Eisenheim of shaking the foundations of the universe, of undermining reality, and in consequence of doing something far worse: subverting the Empire. For where would the Empire be, once the idea of boundaries became blurred and uncertain?” (Milhouser 262)
Works Cited
"In the last years of the nineteenth century, when the Empire of the Hapsburgs was nearing the end of its long dissolution, the art of magic flourished as never before." (Milhouser 241)

Eisenheim the Illusionist is set at the end of the 19th century, an era in European history that saw many dying Empires, including the Empire of Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary was nearing its end and would no longer exist as an Empire after WWI. Milhouser set the story during this time of change to establish the theme of blurring the distinction between illusion and reality.

"It was the age of decapitations, of ghostly apparitions and sudden vanishings, as if the tottering Empire was revealing through the medium of its magicians its secret desire for annihilation." (Milhouser 241)
Ultimately, Eisenheim represents what magicians could have done if they had taken their power to the extreme.
A magician's power comes not from magic, but from his ability to mesmerize an audience and make them believe what they are doing is magic. In limited amounts, magic is a form of entertainment, as it was for Robert-Houdin, Herrmann and Houdini's audiences. The audience is entranced, but ultimately knows it is all smoke and mirrors.
Eisenheim blurred the line between illusion and reality and that turned out to be his end.
Having the changing, doomed empire of Austria-Hungary as the setting also relates to the theme. The changing roles of government and technology blurred the lines of what the Empire should be, and that turned out to be its end.


This quote alludes to the expression “It’s all smoke and mirrors.” It typically implies that it’s all done with sleight of hand, but in this passage they are anything but comforting and reassuring to the audience. Instead of assuring the audience it’s all a trick, it causes them to question the real existence of supernatural powers.

The imagery in this quote represents the mystery and emptiness that comes from change.
Where does reality end?
An Early Biography of Eisenheim
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Chinese Water Torture Cell Escape Poster. Digital image.
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Encyclopedia Britannica Online
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Edward Norton in the Illusionist. Digital image.
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Herrmann, Alexander.
The Art of Magic
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. PBS, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.
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