Magicians to celebrate 100 years of sawing-person-in-half trick

A hundred years ago, an enthralled audience gasped as magician PT Selbit sawed through a wooden crate while a woman was lying inside.

The performance in London’s Finsbury Park Empire Theatre, was the first display of an illusion that would become as iconic as pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

To heighten the drama in later performances, Mr Selbit would sometimes tip fake blood into the drains and have an ambulance waiting outside the theatre with the sign “in case the saw clips”.

It was this sense of visceral danger that drew audiences, says Noel Britten, president of The Magic Circle, a London-based society of magicians.

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PT Selbit’s trick 100 years ago has been a mainstay of the magic scene ever since

“Unless someone fainted in the audience, they didn’t consider it a good performance,” he added.

“And public taste at that stage – because it was just after the First World War – there was a feeling of fixing people as well… someone being subjected to this horrific thing but that they were alright at the end of it.”

The original hand saw was replaced by a motor saw and even lasers throughout the decades, and the routine has been performed by who’s who of the magicians’ world, with Mr Britten hailing David Copperfield’s performance as the definitive version.

The Magic Circle will celebrate the centenary of the first performance with a series of online events.

Like most performers, illusionists have had to adapt to a new reality without live audiences, forcing many to rethink their acts.

The trick has timeless appeal
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The trick has timeless appeal

Illusionist Darren Delaney, who has performed magic for 35 years, said: “Immediately there were things that I perform in real life that just aren’t possible on Zoom because of the nature of what they are.

“They might involve me handing something to someone, or close contact, so I had to remove a bunch of stuff from my repertoire to do the virtual show and then adapt certain things.”

He said that the inability to interact with the audience has been the hardest thing to get used to, but to his surprise, some tricks were more impressive when performed online.

“For instance, if I do something with a mind-reading theme, if I’m in London and the person watching is in Los Angeles and I somehow read their mind, it seems more impossible and amazing than if I’m in the same room as them,” he said.

A slither of silver lining for those in the business of make-believe is that physical limits are no barrier magic.

The Magic Circle’s event, which is being streamed on Facebook, starts at 6pm today.

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