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Reviewed by:
  • Magic on the Early English Stage
  • Paul Dunford
Magic on the Early English Stage. By Philip Butterworth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xxii + 295. $91.00.

While it is immediately clear that Philip Butterworth’s Magic on the Early English Stage was not written with the intention of focusing solely on the performance of Shakespeare’s plays, its examination of often-overlooked contemporaneous forms of performance mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights will be of interest to scholars of performance. Drawing on his research on the spectacle of medieval mystery plays, Butterworth is able to make revealing suggestions about the mechanics of stage illusion during the Elizabethan era—a subject of interest not only to the scholar but also to those theatre practitioners committed to the reconstruction of original staging practices. Finally, and perhaps most appropriately for this journal, the author suggests that magicians not only were present in the arena of popular entertainment but also were members of such companies as the Queen’s Men and the Lord Admiral’s Men. The “magical” methods and techniques described in the book could easily aid in the conceptualization or realization of historically accurate design and execution of stage effects. As Butterworth writes in his Introduction, “there are no rigid lines of demarcation between conjuring and theatre” (2).

The book’s nine chapters and four appendices include both Butterworth’s deconstructions of technique based on a combination of performance texts and contemporary accounts, and biographical sketches of major practitioners of the art. Despite the clarity of the writing and the impressive amounts of supporting evidence culled from primary research, one feels a certain inconsistency when reading the book. At points the book appears to be an exposé on stage illusion; at others the author seems unconcerned with practice and focuses instead on tracing magicians’ careers through records available—and one has the impression only recently so—through the Records of Early English Drama (REED) Project.

In Butterworth’s Introduction, he explores the term conjuring, an umbrella term that could include modern juggling, feats of activity, sleight of hand and confederacy. It is through an exploration of the various components of conjuring that Butterworth structures the book, as evidenced by his chapter titles: “Jugglers: the creators of magic”; “Feats of activity: juggling, tumbling and dancing on the rope”; “Conveyance and confederacy”; “Appearances and disappearances”; “Magic through sound: illusion, deception and agreed pretence”; “Mechanical images, automata, puppets and motions”; “Substitution”; “Stage tricks.” Each chapter reviews major practitioners of each aspect of conjuring, and surveys references to each in personal accounts such as diaries and account books, as well as in performance texts. These performance texts vary from the loose, improvisatory outlines of mystery plays and liturgical drama to such complete playtexts as Wily Beguilde (1606). Finally, each chapter provides insight into the mechanics of the performance of each family of trick. [End Page 109]

These insights into the mechanics of the illusions provide the book’s practical relevance. Stage designers will benefit from Butterworth’s compilation of historic staging techniques. For instance, the stage directions in an interlude of a passion play, Transfiguration at Revello (1483), include the direction, “And when Jesus is on the mountain let there be a polished bowl (bacillo) which makes the brightness of the sun striking the bowl reflect on Jesus” (80). Butterworth uses this example to suggest an early modern lighting convention: the use of a polished bowl as a curved mirror, providing directed light and presumably small enough to follow the movements of actors in a scene—the fifteenth-century equivalent of a follow spot. By the sixteenth century, Butterworth suggests, more refined and elegant solutions were available. He cites Sir Hugh Platte’s description of a lighting effect in The Jewell House of Art and Nature (1594) in which a candle was placed in a depression in a large glass globe filled with either a clear or colored liquid: the result was “a great and wonderful light, somewhat resembling the Sun beames” (81). This level of sophistication may come as a surprise to those who imagine the extent of lighting effects during the early modern era to have been...


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