31st October 2016: Halloween, and the 90th anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death
The Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin celebrated both marvelously with a free showing of Austin’s Hidden Room Theatre play, called “Houdini Speaks to the Living.” This seemed only right given the play came about from extensive research into the archives of the Ransom Center. With the goal of bringing Houdini back to life, the play was 75% verbatim––pulled from transcripts, letters, writings and recordings of Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) themselves. It was a true conjuring of the dead.
So what was the play about? In the words of the artistic director of the show, Beth Burns, it was about Houdini’s challenge to Doyle which “was specific: Give me anything that you’ve seen that you can’t explain, and – with the right conditions – I will replicate the phenomenon for you . . . . Doyle says, ‘I’ve seen this,’ and Houdini says, ‘Let me show you how that can be accomplished without the use of spirits,’ and then he does.”
This arises in the context of their disagreements of spiritualism, that is, the notion that the living can communicate with the dead. Houdini on the one hand, believed it to be a hoax and went on to catch more frauds in 2 years than the police had arrested in 70 years. Then on the other hand, there was Conan Doyle, a firm believer in communication with the dead visited mediums. In other words, the famous illusionist was more rational than the man who created the prototype or rationalism: Sherlock Holmes.
What happens in this play? Houdini sets off to replicate three so-called illusions that Doyle finds persuading for spiritualism. He starts off explicitly by telling the audience, “This is not real, this is an illusion.” It was never Houdini’s intention to trick people, just to entertain them.
The first challenge was a ringing of a bell that no one seems to touch. This happened during a séance of Conan Doyle’s, and it was attributed to a spirit since no one could be seen to be ringing it. Houdini takes a glass, hangs it on a string and gives it to Conan Doyle to hold. Then without touching it, he motions his hands, and asks the so-called spirit a question, and the glass clings. First proof of communication with the dead, debunked.
The second and third illusions, are where it really got spooky. Houdini chose six members of the audience at random and threw them a deck of cards. He had them choose a card and memorize it without telling anyone. Conan Doyle, in the back of the stage held in his hand a small chalk board that was folded in two. All six people stood up. Think of your card, he said to them, staring them down. Then he took the chalkboard from Conan Doyle, and it revealed the chalk drawings of the markings of six different cards: 10 ♥️, 5 ♣️etc.
“Everyone who’s card is illustrated here, sit down,” he said. They all sat down. The audience erupted in applause.
Last, he chose someone from the audience, who had been told from before the show to think of something (without telling anyone), and told her to stand up. Think hard, he said.
“Do you know your zodiac sign? Don’t tell me, but do you know it?” Houdini asked the woman in the very back.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Scorpio,” he said.
She laughed, “Yes.” She sat down.
“We’re not done yet,” Houdini said, and she stood back up. “Now you’re thinking of another word.” She nodded. “Two words?” She smiled.
Houdini points to the man in the superman costume in the audience, “This reminds me of you, sir––Wonder Woman.” The woman laughed again and shook her head. “Yes.”
It was haunting. The ecstasy of illusion filled the room. Every person in the theatre had felt it––it was magic. It was a conjuring. We know it’s an illusion, we know. But there’s still the spectacle, the art of illusion that is so thrilling.
Then for a real Halloween finish, a recording came on, and the stage went dark. A woman’s voice spoke, in broken increments, from a tape of long ago. Houdini is not here, she says. For ten consecutive years, we have tried to call him back to us in every conceivable way, but he has never joined. I now declare communication with the dead to be impossible. “I turn off the lights.”
May you rest in peace, Harry Houdini, and thank you for allowing us an escape.