The Maskelyne and Devant magic company in Sydney 1908
Since the 1870s John Nevil Maskelyne had been producing innovative illusions and magic shows at the Egyptian Hall in London, the hall soon became a tourist destination and an essential stop for aspiring magicians. Maskelyne was known as an inventor, his profession as clock maker had made him a clever producer of magic effects and illusions. One of his innovations was the presentation of magic feats as short dramatic plays or sketches. In 1905 Maskelyne moved his magic show to St George’s Hall in London and took on a new partner, David Devant. The latter was a talented magician who had incorporated modern elements such as moving pictures into the Maskelyne show.
In 1908, Theatre Magazine in Sydney said of Maskelyne that "The world’s greatest wizard is an unassuming man, though his brain is packed with knowledge bearing upon his particular subject." By that time, the name Maskelyne represented the highest calibre of magical performance. This was the reputation that the Maskelyne and Devant company had to maintain when they visited Australia that same year. To the disappointment of many, neither Maskelyne nor Devant were part of the tour.
The company was headed by one of the team’s associate magicians, Owen Clark who was 32 years old. He was a handsome man and had a great deal of magic experience including several appearances at St George’s Hall. Theatre Magazine said that, ‘he unites to a striking appearance, a spontaneous flow of humour which has made him known for patter and a remarkably varied list of accomplishments." Joining Clark on the tour were Barclay Gammon, a pianist and monologuist, Mr W Mayne, a former Shakespearean actor who played comedic parts in the magical sketches, Mr Fred Paul, who also played a part in magic sketches and his wife, Nina Westerleigh, who played ingénue parts. Also included was Gintaro, billed as a Japanese juggler.
The company opened to a packed house at Sydney’s Palace theatre on Saturday April 4 1908. However, all did not run smoothly that first night. The audience in the gallery began to complain that their view of the stage was blocked by the flies. When Owen Clark refused to respond to their complaints there was uproar. Finally the curtain was lowered and Barclay Gammon came on stage and calmed the fractious crowd. The Sydney Morning Herald was not pleased stating that "The license permitted to a certain rowdy section of the occupants of the gallery somewhat interfered with the performance"
When Owen Clark finally returned to the stage he showed three illusions which were not new to Australian audiences. However, they were presented as dramatic sketches, an innovation for Australia.
The first of these was "Will, the Witch, and the watchman". This magic sketch dated from the 1870s, although it had been substantially updated in the 1880s. A comedy drama, it consisted of a series of disappearances, as a sailor, a witch, a butcher and a monkey entered a barred cell and vanished. Finally the monkey was locked in a box and reappeared in the cage.
The second illusion was "The Problem of Diogenes". A wine cask was sealed at both ends by white sheets of paper, then a small lamp was passed through, illuminating the interior. Suddenly the shadow of Diogenes appeared and was swiftly followed by the philosopher in the flesh.
Finally and romantically the beautiful sketch called, "The Artists Dream" was performed. The scene opened with an artist who sat in front of a painting of his lost wife. He described his tragic loss to the audience in pitiful terms. Finally to quell his sorrow, he took a sleeping pill. Whilst he slept, the portrait came alive and came towards him, the wife, played by Nina Westerleigh spoke sympathetically to the sleeping artist. As he stirred, she returned to the portrait and drew a curtain across it. The artist awoke, pulled back the curtain and the painting was once again an inanimate object. It was noted in the paper that the pathos of this beautiful sketch was not appreciated by the rowdy element in the gallery.
These illusions were book ended by the juggler Gintaro and monologuist Barclay Gammon. Both of whom received a warm response.
The show was very popular with the Sydney public and the reviews were warm The Sydney Morning Herald however, thought that Owen Clark lacked humour, whilst Charles Waller, an Australian Magician who saw the show in Melbourne thought some of the dialogue in the sketches was old fashioned. The Referee lamented that ‘one would have liked to have more of the mysterious element in the programme". Bother newspapers made it clear that the illusions were familiar to Sydney audiences.
The show continued through April and had several changes in programme. Owen Clark introduced two new illusions about two week after opening night. They were St Valentines Eve and the Giant’s Feast. Both of these illusions completely mystified the audience.
St Valentine’s Eve was another romantic sketch. A man remembering an old superstition, set alight a love letter from a woman who jilted him 20 years ago. Upon the instant the flames flashed on the stage, the woman herself appeared. According to the Referee ‘The astonished audience can only believe that she has come from nowhere at all."
The Giant’s Feast was a more humorous sketch.
"In a gilt frame suspended clear to the view of the audience appears inexplicably a huge egg; out of which flaps a chicken of a size calculated to satisfy the appetite of a Cyclops."
The Referee called this illusion, ‘quite as clever as its baffling predecessor, ‘Diogenes’. It seemed that by this stage the initial scepticism of the newspapers had softened. The Referee quite generously labelled these illusions as "new to Sydney." Owen Clark also contributed some sleight of hand and conjuring to the entertainment.
Barclay Gammon was singled out for praise in the press for his performance. The Referee stated that ‘one would like to see more of him in the entertainment." Perhaps Gammon’s manly feat of taming the gallery on the first night had earned him the respect of the reviewer.
By the last week of April, the aura of mystery surrounding the Maskelyne and Devant company had increased. As was usual with shows of this type, the audience was frequently invited on stage to participate in or investigate the illusions. Curiosity was high.
"Naturally a good deal of speculation is indulged in as to how the illusions are done, but so far none of those who have been invited on the stage and investigate have been able apparently to solve the mystery."
The company continued playing through April, they performed matinees on Saturdays and Wednesdays and attracted packed houses. There was a third and final change of programme for the last weeks of the season. Three new illusions, ‘Elixir Vitae", "Oh!" and "Mrs Daffodil’s Séance" were introduced.
Charles Waller who saw "Elixir Vitae" in Melbourne, called the sketch, ‘very mirth provoking’. In "Elixir Vitae" an old man visited a doctor and complained about ‘buzzing’ in his head. The doctor promptly decapitated him. There followed a series of hilarious incidents which included the head at a separate table talking to the body and the man headless trolling around the stage with the head in his hand. It was an illusion calculated to appeal to a gruesome sense of humour. It must have been very startling to an Australian audience, unfamiliar with the mysteries of Maskelyne and Devant.
In the second illusion "Oh!" a man sat in a curtained cabinet and a member of the audience was invited on stage to hold his hand through a slit in the curtain. The man then vanished from sight. Finally in "Mrs Daffodil’s Séance", an apparently empty cabinet quickly became occupied. The Referee called this a ‘magical play’.
In those final weeks, Gintaro and Barclay Gammon continued to entertain the audience to great acclaim The show was described as ‘a capital programme which pleased the audiences considerably."
On Saturday May 16, ‘a large attendance’ gathered to watch the company. Governor General Northcote and his wife Lady Northcote attended as did the State Governor Sir Harry Rawson. It ws a big compliment for the performers. Their excellencies witnessed ‘Elixir Vitae’, ‘Oh!,’ ‘Mrs Daffodil’s Séance’, Mr Owen Clark’s magic tricks, Mr Gannon and Gintaro. The illusions were described as ‘clever’ and the large audience was appreciative.
On Wednesday May 27, the Maskelyne and Devant Company gave their final show. It had been a successful season. The performers headed to Melbourne and played at the Bijou theatre to similarly good attendances.
The Maskelyne and Devant company incorporated most aspects expected in a magic performance of the time. This included, audience participation, elaborate presentation, a mysterious element and the central figure of the magician, or wizard. In many ways the shows were an acknowledgment of the Victorian era, with their gothic and sentimental themes and old fashioned dialogue. This was primarily due to the fact that many of the illusions had originated in that era. The show’s major innovation was the presentation of magical illusions as dramatic or romantic sketches. The novelty attracted good audiences and good reviews. In all it could be said that the Maskelyne and Devant company lived up to the reputation of their illustrious namesakes during the tour of Sydney.