Houdini at the Goodspeed Opera House

I offered this review in 1997 on my personal website, then hosted at a university. Since that site is no longer available, I'm republishing the review here.

What: Houdini
Book: James Racheff
Music: William Scott Duffield
Lyrics: William Scott Duffield and James Racheff
Magic Consultant: Peter Samelson
Where: The Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, Connecticut (http://www.goodspeed.org)
When: September 24 – December 14, 1997: Wednesdays at 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Thursdays & Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 4 & 9 p.m.; Sundays at 2 & 6:30 p.m.
Special Events:

  • The Official Houdini Seance®, on stage on October 30 beginning at 11 p.m.
  • Magic Nights on October 2, 9 and 16, featuring the "close-up" magic of Jim Sisti beginning at 7:15 p.m.

When Sid Radner first pointed out to me that this fall would bring the world premiere of a musical inspired by the life of Houdini, I was somewhat hesitant to show great enthusiasm for such a project. It's not that I object to creative adaptations, though in the case of Houdini, historical revisions always leave me wondering why the remarkable reality of his life isn't already sufficiently dramatic. Nevertheless, I had grown to enjoy such semi-fictions as the Curtis/Leigh film.

What gave me pause, rather, was the vision of Harry Houdini breaking out into song and dance–a mental block against envisioning somber, serious, self-possessed Houdini doing the ol' Astaire. And yet, I thought, what with the success of Ragtime in LA, the 1990s are apparently, though somewhat inexplicably, the season for creative development of stage material inspired by his Roaring 20s life. The Goodspeed is well-known for staging admirable productions, many of which proceed to Broadway or London, or at least enjoy critical acclaim. So I tried to allow the theater's reputation to temper my skepticism a bit and ventured forth to remote East Haddam to see what was cooking.

I am pleased and surprised to say that Houdini works. The dramatic hinge of the story is an apparent love triangle between Bess (correctly depicted as a Coney Island showgirl), Theo ("I saw her first, Harry"– also apparently correct), and Harry ("I'm not a clown!") Houdini. This intrigue plays out against the thematic backdrop of their descent into dime-museum poverty in the 1890s and their rise to fame and glory under the guiding hand of impresario Martin Beck, played with pizzazz by a flashy P. J. Benjamin.

From the many scenes in which he sings of how underappreciated his talents and potential are, to his reluctance to give up trying to contact Harry at the 1936 Houdini seance, Theo (played by Lewis Cleale) is, unexpectedly, the play's central character. It is equally surprising to find that Theo is the antagonist, presented (as is Harry) in a rather unflattering light. Early made to feel inferior by the innocent favoritism shown to Harry by their mother (played with great charm by Barbara Andres), Theo is bewildered by Harry's egocentricity and chutzpah. He bewails at length the fact that, though he was accustomed to being one of the Brothers Houdini, and in some respects the preeminent one, his dreams are increasingly trumped by his brother Harry's driving ambition. Driven by the playwright's considerable license with the historical facts, Theo senses that Bess (played as soulful, lovelorn heroine by Barbara Walsh), too, feels displaced as Harry's fame grows, and recognizing that Houdini's intense devotion to his work and his mother have left Bess vulnerable, Theo intones to her how much better things would be for them both if she were *his* wife. Though (and perhaps because) these mutual longings apparently remain unconsummated, Theo begins to calculate ways to get Houdini out of the picture.

Timothy Gulan is remarkably convincing as Houdini, both physically [my wife's comment: "They got the hair right"] and with respect to his acting, though his voice was sometimes swallowed up by the fervent orchestral ensemble. During the course of the evening he performs the Metamorphosis, throws himself into a dazzling slow-motion bridge jump at the moment he learns of his mother's death, executes a variety of unremarkable handcuff escapes, releases himself from a straitjacket [a modern white canvas one, rather than a leather model from the period–a pet peeve of mine] while dangling in the air, performs the Hindu Needle Trick, and presents himself before audiences with the pomp and self-importance that helped make him an icon. Lovers of magic will be pleased by the panoply of production flowers, 10-foot poles, coins pulled from the air, appearing canes, vanishing persons, and other tokens which pay loving, if stereotyped, homage to the art.

In one of the show's more memorable early sequences, Harry is frustrated and perplexed that his midwestern circus and dime-museum audiences fail to appreciate the importance of his escapes and magic. As he tries to figure out just what is lacking in his performances, he is suddenly confronted by Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley, PT Barnum, and Flo Ziegfield, who, along with Cheng and Eng Bunker, General Tom Thumb, and a host of other human oddities and feathered showgirls, walk out of lithographs into the dramatic space and divulge to Harry the secrets of formula and publicity. They do this with gusto in a spirited song, "You Know It When You See It", that, in lyric and tune, is strikingly similar to "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" from Gypsy. Meanwhile, Houdini strokes his chin and figures out how to reinvent himself. Harry's whirlwind rise to success is epitomized in a startling and funny barrage of challenges presented by company heads of ever increasing prominence, while his many European adventures are conflated into a single tour — Houdini buffs will note that the chronology is much abused — that leaves the police of many nations complaining indignantly, in song, that the integrity of their jails has been cast into doubt by this presumptuous American.

After the death of Mrs. Weiss, Houdini sets out on the familiar hunt for a spiritualist who can reunite them. A delightful, if not terribly deceptive, black-art presentation follows as a trio of mediums sings of "telling them what they want to hear." Although Houdini, on a rampage, exposes one after another of them, he succumbs to the physical and metaphysical charms of (of all people) Margery, who seems to be able to tell him things that only Mama would know. As it turns out, Theo has given Margery some early correspondence from their mother. He has done this ostensibly in an effort to appease his brother's self-destructive obsession with the afterlife by having Margery tell him what he wants to hear, but actually to further alienate Bess from him. This triangle erupts into a backstage conflagration at the play's climax. The famous punch to the appendix leads to the subsequent downfall of the hero while he and Theo (who urges him to perform rather than go to the hospital) are still on bad terms, and while Harry and Bess have only just rekindled their mutual passion.

The playwright has undercut the myth of the self-made man by presenting a Houdini who is chiefly, though not wholly, a product of the creativity and industry of others. When Martin Beck first turns up, Houdini has to ask Theo what kind of lock is on the cuffs with which Beck has challenged him. Later, when a backstaged Theo threatens to leave the act and strike out on his own, Houdini sets him up as Hardeen chiefly because Houdini can't work without him. Houdini is managed by Beck throughout his rise to fame in this production, and indeed right up to the end. With the ringmasterly Beck quite obviously pulling the journalists' strings and providing spin to the public, Houdini gets little credit for achieving, sustaining, or exploiting his own success. With his dependence on Theo and Beck and his oblivion with respect to his excesses and his crumbling marriage, this Houdini is all too human, quite a counterpoint to the usual lionized representation.

Voices are strong, the acting is persuasive, and the book, while not free of cliche, was tolerably original. While not life-changing, the show is certainly entertaining, giving all that one expects from musical theater. The score is an evenhanded blend of a few key songs from which leitmotifs are taken and used to punctuate the show's other tunes–a common musical formula in this post-Lloyd-Webber age, and one that seems to please audiences who have been trained by Hollywood to respond to the throbbing intonations of an expository score. The music is competently written, but there is no show-stopper, and indeed no song that one goes away singing. The first half of the show struck me as much more replete with clever staging and varietal music than the second, which tended to drag a bit and led to a climax and resolution that were perhaps a bit too easy and understated. Still, the show is entertaining and the time well-spent.

As we were leaving the theater, I overheard some audience members giving their on-the-spot evaluation. "Do you think it will go to Broadway?" asked one woman of her elderly friend. "Off-Broadway," I thought to myself. "Oh, I think it will," replied the other woman, "but you know, I didn't think he had died that way! I thought he had died doing one of those tricks!" The incorrigible legend lives on.


George and Linda Bauer

Thanksgiving season always reminds me of teachers; this time, it reminds me of one in particular.

As a child, I was such a pedagogy nerd that I kept a list of all my teachers, from kindergarten onward, to better track my developing thoughts about them and about the task of teaching. I did this, from an early age, with the idea that if I ever became a teacher, I'd emulate the better ones and avoid the benighted blunders of the worse.  While rummaging through boxes not long ago, I came across a version of that list, and as I revisited those memories one name stood out. I was blessed to enjoy many excellent teachers along the way, but only one was a life-altering, lastingly consequential mentor: Linda Freeman Bauer.

When I started as an undergrad, I was precocious, intellectually promiscuous, and intensely curious, but I was also rough around the edges, too often inconsiderate, and entirely without direction– a contradictory product of my chaotic upbringing. Having received exactly zero guidance in high school, I nearly skipped college, as my forebears had done. Nudged in the right direction at the last minute, I finally applied to exactly one. When the day came, I traveled there on a bus and arrived, suitcase in hand, with no room in the dorms, no money, and nowhere to sleep that night. But once there and settled, I was delighted by the opportunities and gorged myself at the intellectual buffet. I sampled this, returned for some of that, and left those to be taken away as I sought a fresh plate. However, I had no particular goal in mind, and so it was seemingly by good fortune that I landed in one of Linda's classes. One term, I discovered that there was such a thing as art history, and the next term I was drawn into her orbit by the allure of a spectacular word: "Rembrandt".

Linda taught semi-socratically with the genuine, unironic expectation that students had read and digested the assigned text. This was usually one of those Pelican Art History tomes about the size and weight of a wide paver, and her expectations arose from her own detailed and conscientious mastery of all the material. In a typical class session, she would explain some of the relevant historical context and then push us to engage, complete, or question what she had said. Then she would show us an artwork, draw us into the act of intentional looking by means of a deft ekphrasis or a connoisseurial quote, and then goad us into owning our ideas and language as we tried to rise to her interpretive example and prompts. We would go through that cycle several times, which required a nimble flipping from historical to pictorial details as we sought or evaluated connections between the two. I enjoyed the intensity of the challenge, and I was startled by Linda's respect for responsible autonomy of thought.

My problem then was that I was pretty good at the "autonomous thought" part but not so hot at the "responsible" part. Sometimes I excelled; sometimes, I slacked off. Self-indulgent to a fault in those days, I cared about the subject matter but felt cynical about systems and institutions. So one week, I'd write a solid paper; the next, I'd blow off an assignment. In response, Linda did her job; she rewarded the good and brutally marked down the inadequate (or invisible). But she also took me aside and bluntly characterized my strengths and weaknesses with a precision and rigor that were new to me. She imposed professional expectations on me– standards to which I had not really been exposed until then, and which I had to learn to value. Somehow, she managed to do this without a smidgen of negativity or insult. Linda was often overtly encouraging, but her inimitable blend of composure, good cheer, and matter-of-fact analysis was inherently encouraging even when her words conveyed more censure than sentiment. She seemed to care in greater-than-expected measure. For some reason that worked to my lasting benefit, Linda Bauer found me unformed and did more than her part to form me.

I took five courses with Linda, planning my schedule around her offerings. (One of these was a guided independent study in which she was absurdly generous with her time and resources and endlessly patient with my digressions.) Her lectures were richly entertaining (and substantial, and accurate– virtues not always in play with other lecturers), and we often pursued issues in greater depth during the afterchat or her office hours. As a matter of education and personal development, all of this added up to more than the sum of its parts– and the sum of its parts was already pretty hefty. How can I summarize what Linda did for me?

Until my first course with Linda, I had only been to one art museum, the destination of a primary school field trip. She took us to the Getty (when it was all in Malibu) and showed us how not to rush through a museum, how to extract the perimeter of plausible meanings from the trace of an artist's touch, and how to translate such thoughts into theses. For her, I wrote my first art historical essay there, standing before a Dutch still-life.

She taught me that skilled use of tools of the trade matters. Knowing that I had a knack for connoisseurship, she pressed me to blend intuition and rational assessment more deliberately, with greater discipline, and with appropriate caution. When I couldn't afford photocopies of articles, she made them for me. When I couldn't order needed books through interlibrary loan, she summoned them through the magic of her faculty privileges. Knowing that I was a language nerd, she informed me of the expectations Wolfgang Stechow had imposed on her and her colleagues at Oberlin: you're responsible for the relevant source material, no matter what language it's in. Knowing that I was fiddling with Italian material but hadn't formally studied Italian, she'd sometimes throw an Italian word my way to see if I could understand it via cognates. (Once, the word was carciofo; I didn't figure it out but appreciated its relevance to our Caravaggio studies.)

She taught me that in a humanistic discipline with a material, evidential aspect, methodological sophistication requires balance and judgment. Knowing I was deeply attracted to the complexities and cleverness of critical theory, she encouraged that study but taught me to remain answerable to the object, the artifact, in all its physical and contextual detail. She demonstrated how to distinguish and assess different kinds of evidence, and helped me to find the places where the poetry of interpretation and the prose of empirical description fruitfully converge.

Linda unfolded before me this world she knew– the scholars, their personalities, their labors– and when she saw that the spark was lighting a fire in me, she tended it with care. She taught me that a negative critique of the work of others is the easy part, and that creating something of value that satisfies that same standard of criticism is the hard part. She taught me, by example, to be generous and collegial, rigorous but not pedantic, open and exploratory but not unduly susceptible to academic fads. She taught me that it's sometimes right to withhold an opinion, to change one's mind, to pick battles, to go slowly, and to let an argument gestate. She taught me to focus, to narrow the scope, and to weigh the alternatives… and then to take a stand.

All these lessons and more she taught me, and they're not just about art-historical methodology and scholarship. They're about life. And, again by example, Linda taught me that a teacher's students are not just about topical pedagogy; they, and pedagogy, are about life.

Thank you, Linda– you were not just Mentor to me, but Athena.

On Seeing John Waterhouse's My Sweet Rose


John Waterhouse, My Sweet Rose, 1908. Photo courtesy of jwwaterhouse.com
John Waterhouse, My Sweet Rose, 1908. Photo courtesy of jwwaterhouse.comWea

Contemplate in all detail
A scintillating allegory
Integrating to avail
Alated visions of the story
Of a maid's respiratory,
Hortatory adoration
Of a floral territory:
Horticultural elation.

Ruminate this painted tale,
Instilling senses desultory
Till the slated sights regale
Your appetite for gustatory
Stimulation, for the glory
Of this vernal fascination
Inundates one category:
Horticultural elation.

Penetrating import's veil,
Distill the scents explanatory,
Requiring that the maid inhale,
Allowing that her laudatory
Attitude be prefatory,
Topiary recreation
Finishing her repertory:
Horticultural elation.

Devotion to this inventory,
Flights of the imagination,
Are baited by obligatory
Horticultural elation.

~David Byron, ca. 1990, for Cathie

A Jingle from the Lockheed Skunk Works

There's no confusion!
We aim to implement fusion!
It's a tougher catch than lightning in a bottle.

But we can do it!
We made the Blackbird and flew it,
And we circumnavigated at full throttle.

Yes, some are skeptical
That our receptacle,
For holy fire might be a mayonnaise jar.

So we'll assure 'em,
Our R&D is kosher for Purim,
And this'll be our best result by far!

Hedge funds: don't short us!
Federal watchdogs: don't report us!
It'll take a while, so journalists: rake some muck!

Still, we're not kidding.
We're doing DARPA's bidding,
And soon we'll ship reactors on a truck!

(WaPo on Lockheed)


So, if you're a grammar Nazi, then feats of form and usage that strike you as "wrong" (or inferior, or jarring) fairly leap off the page or screen at you in just the same way that my use of "so" at the start of this sentence irks all who are by now fed up with hearing that word abused that way.

The French have an expression for obvious things and especially for things obviously wrong: ça saute aux yeux! That leaps out at the eyes! Like an eye-attacking deathfrog of death. Or blindness. Or blinding obviousness.

Many folks notice deviations from canonical grammar and usage; the Nazi is the one who sees most or all, all the time, until she's fed up. She feels welling up within her an urgent, primal cry in behalf of the norms she has embraced, the quirky irrationales of the tongues to which she's wedded. The Nazi is the one for whom, involuntarily, cela saute aux yeux. Finally, with eggshell sensitivity to the descriptivists and positivists, she pipes up: "perhaps you should reconsider using 'begs the question' in that way." Then she ducks.

Have you been watching the newish BBC series Sherlock? I enjoyed the Holmes stories as a child but wasn't passionate about them. I enjoyed them again as an adult with the same result, but with an admixture of pity and contempt for the racism, sexism, inconsistency, and lack of complexity. I enjoyed them (despite these and other flaws) because they project a world and an ill-fitting inhabitant of that world, and they spark the imagination to consider how that combination might play out– a worthwhile exercise (especially for the logically inclined).
Continue reading Nazism

The Hand of Isaac Fawkes: Quicker than Hogarth’s Eye?

This article originally appeared in The Mandala Magazine (2:1), July 2011

The Hand of Isaac Fawkes:
Quicker than Hogarth's Eye?

Isaac Fawkes is the earliest professional magician about whom we know anything substantial, and the sparse historical record is top-heavy with praise. He is “the famous” Mr. Fawkes, who “performs… most surprizing Tricks by Dexterity of Hand.” He undertakes “Curiosities no Person in the Kingdom can pretend to show like himself.” He has “had the Honour to perform before his present Majesty King George” and other high-falutin’ types, and has done so to “great Applause.”

Isaac Fawkes
Isaac Fawkes

For those who know the business, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the reviewer who authored most of this praise was… Isaac Fawkes. As the research of Ricky Jay, Edwin Dawes, and especially Richard H. Evans has shown, Fawkes was a relentless self-promoter who issued a flood of publicity. Newspapers were fresh and abundant in the early 18th century, and people high and low would gather in London’s countless coffee houses to read the daily news, bicker over the issues, and click the occasional AdSense link. What were these ads like? In a typical one, Fawkes trumpets his own success at the box office and defies other magicians to match his fiscal feat: “The famous Mr. Fawks, as he modestly stiles himself, has since Bartholomew and Southwark-Fairs, put seven hundred Pounds into the Bank” and he “may certainly challenge any Conjuror of the Age to do the like” (Paulson 80). Continue reading The Hand of Isaac Fawkes: Quicker than Hogarth’s Eye?

Rearrangements, part two: A Passover/Easter Exhortation

This poem is the second part of a diptych. To read the first part, already posted, follow this link.

A Passover/Easter Exhortation

When winter, winter days, and dramatic rains,
Arrange with memories in ink and fiction,
Ascribing each benediction to the reigns
Of blessed change and heavenly restriction,
Their season’s preferred font of color let
Bestow with frigid hand a painted touch,
Chromatically whispering even its palette,
And reason a distraction to the brush.
In essence winter day too long decrying,
Thy lip and constancy’s eye, by short diction, tear
The given center. Why, wonted sky denying,
With word take aim, selection and objection their
Reaction? Whether winter be loss, the other teach,
Meet me, thy mate, in the periphery of each.

~David Byron for Cathie


The most beautiful land I've ever stormed
Crimea, Crimea, Crimea, Crimea….

All the beaches and dachas and woods where my army swarmed
Crimea, Crimea, Crimea, Crimea….

I've just annexed all of Crimea,
And suddenly Ukraine
Will never be the same
To me.

I've just held a vote in Crimea,
And suddenly I've shown
How vain a threat or drone
Can be!

Take by force, and we're there in person.
By decree, and we're edging toward Kherson….

I'll keep occupying Crimea!

The most beautiful land I've ever stormed: