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The Vanishing Lady

Augusto Corrieri

This is an extract from Augusto Corrieri’s 2017 essay ‘Dining Tables and Performances, or: the labour of illusion’ in Mansfield, Laura (ed.) FEAST: Setting the table. FEAST. It was written as part of a series of commissioned responses to the Home Studies Collection, held at Special Collections Manchester Metropolitan University Library.

The dining table, much like a magic theatre, might be a site of subterfuge, of timed appearances and disappearances. The display of food upon the table, the serving of dishes by trained staff in contemporary restaurants or the servants of historical empires, might create a sense that the dinner is effortlessly made – there is no artifice, no investment, and no preparation. The (often female) labour remains hidden, and the feast unfolds as though of its own accord: by ‘magic.’  

For a parallel we might think of classical ballet, the trained bodies of (often) female dancers, those ‘docile bodies’ [1] gracefully leaping about the stage, in a display of effortless and spontaneous movement. And we might think of those female assistants, who from the 19th century began to accompany male stage magicians, and who unbeknownst to the theatre audience were the ones often carrying out most of the labour to make the illusion happen – activating pulleys, executing difficult bodily feats and manoeuvres, preparing and disposing of props and objects – all the time having to appear as pleasant human decor, or else as subjects who are being hypnotised, etherised, made to sleep, levitate and vanish, if not sawn in half or skewered, yet through the (male) magician’s powers eventually return to their usual bodily selves.

In an echo of the relations between workers and capitalist factory owners, the female assistants carried out the labour of illusion, whilst the male conjuror reaped the benefits and took all the credit. The female assistants were quite literally objectified by the male magician’s act. On April 5, 1789, a poster for the Haymarket Theatre, London, promised that Monsieur Comus,“lately arrived from Paris, will, by sleight of hand, convey his wife, who is 5 feet 8 inches high, under a cup, in the same manner as he would balls.” [2]

It might not be a coincidence that most of the books in the Special Collection were published during the so-called Golden Age of magic, the second half the 19th and early 20th century. Whereas earlier magicians would perform in a variety of settings, and were generally considered rather lowly entertainers, in the mid-19th century they begin to don tailcoats and perform in theatres. Magic transforms into “a legitimate form of theatrical performance, one that would, by the 1880s, become an indisputable staple of the Victorian cultural diet.” [3]And THE illusion that propelled magicians to a kind of stardom is, lo and behold, The Vanishing Lady.

Before describing the trick, there are two historical contexts that need to be thought about, and which theorist Karen Beckman has written about superbly in her 2003 book Vanishing Women: Magic, Film and Feminism. The first is that in 1851, “the national census made the British public aware of a burgeoning female population, that left men in the minority.” [4]

What ensued was a growing male anxiety about managing an increasing population of women, who were increasingly unmarried, in work and able to educate themselves. They were not disappearing into the household, to set the table. Public discussions centred on the perceived question of female surplus, a surplus that would need to be somehow curbed: actual suggestions included shipping women to the colonies, such as New Zealand.  

    The second historical context to bring to bear on a discussion of the Vanishing Lady illusion highlighted by Beckman is the Indian rebellion at Cawnpore of 1857, resulting in the violent killing of British civilians by the Indian army, and an excruciating retaliation from the British forces. Beckman suggests that this colonial uncertainty abroad, and the beginnings of what would turn into universal suffrage at home, were worked through at a more or less subconscious level, and that such subconscious workings can be seen to appear in the stage conjuror’s acts of the time. For one, magicians began having assistants, who were invariably either women or Indian men: “From the 1870s on, British magicians began to blow women out of canons, a trick that could not but recall the punishment of Indian soldiers at Cawnpore, whose bodies were decimated precisely in this way.” [5]

Albert Hopkins, Magic: Stage Illusions, Special Effects, and Trick Photography. New York: Munn 1898.

The trick that gathered the most attention was Buatier de Kolta’s The Vanishing Lady. The original title was L’escamotage d’une dame, the word escamotage from escamote, the conjuror’s cork ball used in the famous cups and balls routine. Here again a literal upscaling of ‘object’, from cork ball to female body. The essence of the trick again is a literal act of subterfuge, or fleeing beneath. Presented on the Victorian stage by Charles Bertram, the act was performed in a set that represented the Victorian drawing room, which as Beckman notes is “already a place of disappearance or ‘withdrawal’ from public view.” [6]

The magician is asking us to imagine a domestic space, in which the female subject is made to literally disappear.

After having the female assistant sit on a chair, Bertram would cover her with a large cloth, which was then whisked away with a flourish to reveal an empty seat, the woman nowhere in sight. In fact the assistant would slip through a trap door below (as pictured), her escape perfectly concealed by the cloth, and most importantly by a metallic structure built around the chair, which replicated the essential features of a human body shape.

 Interestingly, in the original performance of the trick by De Kolta, the magician also made the cloth vanish, meaning that the secret apparatus that kept the body shape was also gotten rid of. Beckman gives importance to this cloth and its disappearance, reading a kind of anxiety about colonial unrest: De Kolta’s vanishing of the silk, “renders invisible the mechanism of vanishing along with the body in question…This piece of silk is remarkable as the only remaining visible trace of the exotic Orient that this very British, very domestic conjuring scene works hard to repress.” [7]

Before the massacre at Cawnpore, in fact, Western magicians often wore Oriental robes and silks, referencing fakirs and mystics from the East. After the rebellion, silks were largely abandoned, magicians now presenting themselves as capitalists, in top hats and tails, establishing a clear and legible corporeal difference.  

A detail, that made the trick particularly startling, was De Kolta’s spreading of a newspaper on the floor, beneath the chair. How could the lady vanish, without making noise or a tear in the sheet? The secret was that the newspaper placed beneath the chair was actually made from Indian rubber, with a flap for escape. So again it is an Indian product, made of the same rubber serving to erase pencil marks, that is itself made invisible.  

Despite the evident analogy between the disappearance of the female assistant and Victorian anxieties around surplus women, Beckam is wary of wanting to read the act as an exclusively straightforward representation of a desire to get rid of women. She acknowledges for instance that a certain disappearance of ‘woman’ might be desirable, if strategised as a mode of resistance; just as she points out the fact that the female body, in the Vanishing Lady trick, has to return, it insists on coming back, it cannot be vanished without reappearing. And importantly, in London the feat was performed by Mademoiselle Patrice, herself an accomplished magician, which was very rare at the time (and still is). She was summoned by the royal family to perform at Sandringham Palace, like Charles Bertram, the magician who presented The Vanishing Lady.

[1] The term ‘docile bodies’ comes from Michel Foucault. See for example Foucault (1995) Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Random House.

[2] Karen Beckman (2003) Vanishing Women: Magic, Film, Feminism. Durham and London: Duke University press, 46.

[3] ibid, 41.

[4] ibid, 19.

[5] ibid, 45.

[6] ibid, 52.

[7] ibid, 45.

Augusto Corrieri is an artist, writer and lecturer in Theatre & Performance at the University of Sussex. In parallel to his performance and writing practice, Augusto presents a magic show under the pseudyonym Vincent Gambini.

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