If you asked most people what a magician does I think they would say magicians do tricks or perform illusions, and they would probably use these two terms interchangeably. To a magician however tricks and illusions are very different things.

To most non magicians there is very little difference between magic tricks and illusions, if anything an illusion is just a really good magic trick and an illusionist is just a really good magician. Magicians however would generally use the word illusion to mean a big trick: sawing a lady in half, making a car disappear, that kind of thing. To a magician size is the difference between a trick and an illusion but should we be content with this definition?

Recently I’ve found myself agreeing with Henning Nelms who wrote that a trick is something that makes the audience wonder how it’s done while an illusion convinces the audience (even if only momentarily) that they have really seen the impossible. Nelms draws the parallel between a magic show and a play. An audience’s conviction that they really saw a lady float in a magic show may only be as fleeting as an audience’s conviction that the prince has been killed in a duel in Hamlet, but that is all that is needed to create drama and to elevate the show to something beyond an amusing distraction.

I think the key to elevating a trick to the status of illusion is in the performance of the magician. Robert Houdin is often quoted as saying ‘a magician is an actor playing the part of a magician’. If a magician starts by saying he is going to do a trick and continues his display with that attitude rather than really committing to the idea that he is doing something real and extraordinary then the audience is not going to be convinced that he has any unusual powers just as if an actor didn’t fully commit to their part an audience wouldn’t believe in the drama of the play.

However, I know my audiences are generally intelligent people who won’t believe that it’s actually possible to make doves appear and disappear or turn lottery tickets into £20 notes but when I actually do it, just for a moment, I can see that they believe it. That belief is usually gone in a matter of seconds and they’re back to looking at my sleeves and trying to deconstruct what just happened. That doesn’t matter though because for a moment they felt something real and strong and that feeling will be remembered for a long time. That doesn’t happen if they’ve just seen a trick.

What do you think is the difference between a trick and an illusion? I’d be genuinely interested to know so please put your thoughts in the comments. As always please feel free to like and share, and remember: If life gives you lemons… squeeze the juice into a water pistol and squirt people in the eyes!




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