In what follows, I have tried to offer a careful reading of Muriel Rukeyser’s 1973 version of Houdini: A Musical, published by Paris Press in 2002. This is the version new audiences will soon encounter together during the four public Houdini events sponsored by the Eastern Michigan University Center for Jewish Studies and the English Department this spring. My goal was to strike at some of the play’s most central questions, to pick up on some of the ambiguities and ideas that might appeal to new and not-so-new readers alike. My own reading grew from the question Marco Bone asks in the play’s final scene: “What are all his escapes for?” We might also ask: What is art for?
At the end of this essay, you will find a few questions intended to spark conversation as well as a find from the archive. There must be many more questions I’m missing––I hope you’ll tell me about them.
Houdini is an odd play. Serious and silly, bawdy and surreal, this loosely biographical musical about the life of the great American escape artist seems to wink at its audience, asking us to join in on a joke we don’t always get. Over the course of two acts we watch Harry Houdini rise from poverty, find love, master his craft, and gain international acclaim. We see him break locks, escape trunks, evade death in a frozen river, and testify against fraudulent mediums in a congressional hearing. He exerts perfect control over his body and all his fears. Then, when Houdini appears at his most unstoppable, this self-made man suddenly dies, punched in the gut by a trio of medical students. When he speaks from beyond the grave in the play’s final lines, he commands the audience to liberate themselves, to “Open yourself, for we are locks / Open each other, we are keys”––right before making what might be an innuendo (“Touch yourself as I touch myself”). Is this a hero’s journey? A love story? A farce?
Houdini is a story about art. It is an exploration of the role artists play in society, an examination of the artist’s power to change their audience and the conditions of our shared world––and the limits of that same power. I know that sounds like a bit of a stretch. Isn’t this a story about a magician? More importantly, isn’t this a story about self-liberation, a story that can inspire us to free our bodies, psyches, and imaginations? The answer is: Yes, Houdini is all of those things. But it’s essential to step back and ask why a magician might be qualified to teach us anything about how to live in the first place, and I want to suggest that the play is uniquely aware of that strange tension: the delightful and sometimes untenable absurdity of calling a showman an artist. Even if you can accept that Houdini is an artist and not just an entertainer, a more troubling possibility remains: the possibility that even artists can’t do much to change a world riddled with injustice and inequality. Houdini does it anyway.
What makes Houdini’s performances an enduring art––not just fleeting entertainment? We can begin by looking at the play’s ambiguous setting and time. Rukeyser’s final 1973 version of the play, published by Paris Press in 2002, includes the following notes: “The time is the legendary past of circuses, carnivals, and magic acts. Historically, the first quarter of the twentieth century, slides to the present time.” The real Erik Weisz was born in 1874 and died in 1926. If the “present time” denotes 1973, the year the play was staged by the Lenox Center for the Performing Arts, then it is clear that even “historical” time is not quite historical here. The world of Houdini is curiously devoid of the major events and crises of the 20th century: There are no World Wars, economic booms or busts, protests, or unrest. Even the congressional hearing in Act Two, Scene Three, which includes material taken directly from Houdini’s Testimony Hearing on House Resolution 8989, seems to float unhinged from the events of the day. While many contemporary readers remember Rukeyser as a Thirties documentarian, this play, completed toward the end of her life, is explicitly not a documentary about the life of Erik Weisz. Rather, Rukeyser sought to create a mythic, “legendary” world that could endure beyond Houdini’s lifetime and her own––even if the details are not entirely true.
Freed from the confines of historical accuracy, the play strives to reveal some other kind of truth: a truth that only Houdini can show us. In the first scene, Houdini and Bess share their first date. They are walking along a Coney Island beach full of lovers, tourists, tricksters, and grifters when Houdini lets his future wife in on a secret: how to pick up needles with your eyelids. “You control your muscles,” he explains, “And you control your fear. Now you know all.” Suddenly Bess sees Harry as much more than a skilled entertainer:
You could do anything. (The people on the beach are still for a moment.) Look––they’re stones, they’re statues of themselves. You can see what they need. Look––we could have a mind-reading act. Harry––if you bend over me, they’ll think we’re kissing. Look––if you could stand up now and say to them: “My fear––look what I do with it!”
“Somebody like you,” she tells him, “you could lead them along.” What Bess sees in Houdini is not just the ability to stage a great act, but to “lead them along”: to teach audiences how to be human. Without Houdini the people on the beach are just “stones” and “statues of themselves.” They are not living––or at least not living in a meaningful way. Yet for Houdini the meaningful life is an autonomous one. Through the practice of intense personal discipline, through mastery over his own body and emotions, Houdini transforms his fear into power. He submits to no authority other than his own. Audiences, Bess believes, can learn to do the same.
Yet the play also casts some deep doubt on the extent of Houdini’s powers. In Act One, Scene Three, Houdini performs his first big lock-breaking act: He opens all the locks in the “city jail,” ushers the prisoners out of their cells, then locks each man into a new one. Throughout the stunt, Houdini asks what kind of crime each man has committed. One prisoner answers, with an odd nonchalance: “Child-knifer… Cop-killer. Mass-rapist. Nothing much.” When the momentarily freed Fourth Prisoner asks Houdini “Can you get me out of here?” Houdini, “looking at him in despair,” only answers “No.” When the trick is done, Houdini turns to the prisoners and says, “Forgive me.” The jail scene ends with a song, “Hostility,” sung by the prisoners, who are divided into the “Black Prisoner,” the lead singer, and “Prisoners,” the ensemble. The “Black Prisoner” sings:
The man who opened my prison door Has put me back in jail. No chance to plead my innocence, Or get out of here on bail. Someone showed me free, And drove me deeper in my misery.
These characters do not reappear in the play, and Houdini never again apologizes to anyone involved in his act. The jail scene marks a strange divergence in what is otherwise a story of triumph. Confronted with systemic racism and mass incarceration, Houdini’s powers of self-liberation seem to have reached a hard limit. Perhaps these are conditions of confinement that cannot be overcome.
At the outset of Act Two, Scene Two, as Houdini prepares to take the stage, his assistant Marco Bone and his wife Bess sing his opening act, a song called “What the King Said”:
Today your ambassador said in fun, “Things are tough in Washington–– Let’s go see what Houdini has done.” With all the forms of American rape, We need a good all-purpose escape, An all-purpose good economy escape… Every president and king Must be able to get out of everything…
“What the King Said” may be a satire, but the song still raises the possibility that Houdini’s act is futile––and maybe even counterproductive. When viewed by people in positions of power, Houdini’s illusions are entertainment and escapism at best (“Things are tough in Washington–– / Let’s go see what Houdini has done”). At worst, they offer a lesson in how to deepen injustice and inequality (“Every president and king / Must be able to get out of everything.”). Lying, fraud, negligence: These are all forms of “escape,” too. The song’s second verse imagines a king speaking to “Houdini the Great,” saying, “You can have all your locks and clocks / As long as I’m in the royal box.” Just as the prisoners can’t use Houdini’s message of self-liberation to actually get out of their cells, so too are the “ambassadors” in Washington and the king in his court unchanged by the performance. For those in the lowest and the highest positions of power, life goes on just as before. Perhaps artists are only free to create so long as they make sure not to threaten the dominant power structure.
Again and again, the play pushes against the limits of freedom, only to suddenly sweep those limits away, suggesting that anything is possible. We might wonder if the play truly believes its own message. Take, for example, Act One, Scene Four, when Houdini sings “Chains, Freedom, Keys,” the play’s most memorable expression of his belief: that freedom is accessible to everyone, everywhere. Moments before a shackled Houdini is lowered beneath the frozen surface of the East River, about to perform the most dangerous escape of the play, he sings:
There are chains–– There is freedom–– There are keys–– And of these, chains are strong Freedom’s endless, keys are great And we Are the greatest of these, The greatest Of these.
In the world of Houdini, individuals have the ability to free themselves from suffering––if not from the structural conditions of suffering (like being incarcerated or impoverished), than from the psychic ones (like feeling weak or afraid). No longer reliant on supernatural authorities like God or the spirits of the dead, and perhaps powerless to intervene in the workings of the state, individuals can essentially make the best of what they’ve got: their own bodies, minds, and emotions. This way of thinking might reflect the therapeutic language of self-help, the corporatized technospeak of self-optimization, or even the alienating consequences of capitalism itself. Yet Houdini’s claims about personal autonomy might also stake out a powerful bid for individual agency in a world that would otherwise render its inhabitants completely powerless. The play’s persistent ambiguity won’t let us say for sure.
When Houdini’s claims cross over into the unbelievable, it’s often the wry assistant Marco Bone who plays the naysayer. After the second verse of “Chains, Freedom, Keys” concludes, “There are keys–– / And the greatest of these / Can free the world,” Bone cuts in with a skeptical accusation: “You’re telling them something they want to hear.” Why should anyone trust a promise of world liberation made by an entertainer, by someone who tells audiences “something they want to hear” and gets paid for it? We can read Bone’s skepticism as part of the play’s larger pattern in which claims about art’s power to transform society are constantly met with flashes of doubt and resistance. Yet this pattern is also marked by the swiftness––the sometimes baffling and even awkward speed––with which those doubts are cast aside. When Houdini replies, “I’m just doing it,” Bone is instantly convinced (“You’re saying it. With yourself!”) and the scene shifts to the news of Houdini’s mother’s death. The point is not to say that Houdini is inconsistent, but that the play’s constantly shifting tone forces its viewers to continually ask ourselves what we’re willing to believe. Can self-liberators really “free the world”? Are Houdini’s promises true, or are they just the rhetoric of the ultimate showman? And why does the play so playfully avoid answering its own questions?
Houdini refuses to pin down the precise meaning of freedom or the function of art. Yet there is one thing the play might know for sure: That artworks, regardless of what they do or what they’re for, endure. In the play’s final scene, just before Houdini dies, he promises Bess, “I’ll come back to you. I’ll make a way. I’ll come back.” Here Marco Bone, the skeptic, makes his final interjection:
Read your newspaper. The law against fortune-tellers? Of course, it did not go through. Tell your fortune, ladies and gentlemen? What are all his escapes for? What did he make his stand for? Go further, you say? Does Houdini go further? Breaking out forever?
Beatrice waits for a word from Harry.
Bone finally asks the play’s central question: “What are all his escapes for?” It’s important to note that this question comes in the midst of Houdini’s failure to enact tangible political change. Houdini’s efforts to pass “the law against fortune-tellers,” the crusade against false mediums that occupied the majority of Act Two, “did not go through.” Here the play reaches a tipping point: If we are to believe that Houdini’s “escapes” matter, that they will make an impact on society regardless of what’s written into the law, then he needs to achieve immortality through some other means. One way out of this conundrum is to prove that Houdini does in fact have supernatural powers. “Breaking out forever,” the escape from death, would be Houdini’s biggest stunt yet. Yet the fact that Houdini even raises the possibility of a ghostly return seems to contradict his entire life’s work. Why would he promise a supernatural intervention if he believed that spiritualists were frauds?
As “Beatrice waits for a word from Harry,” the stage directions tell us that “something does come, a message in the form of a song.” Houdini then reappears on stage beside his wife and sings a fragment of an earlier song, “Let Me See, Let Me Feel”: “Let me see, Let me feel, / Let me know what is real, / Let me believe––” An ensemble of naysayers raise their final doubts: “If you believe that, you’ll believe anything. / It didn’t even sound like his voice.” Is this song sung by a ghostly voice, or is it just a memory in Bess’ mind? Did Houdini really escape death, “breaking out forever”? The stage goes dark. When Houdini emerges again, this time the stage directions make clear that he is about to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly: “Singing, crowing, laughing, a chaos of noise. HOUDINI steps out of the blackness to the point closest to the audience.” It is at this point in the play––the point when we are asked to believe the impossible––that Rukeyser subtly reminds us that we are watching a play. Erik Weisz was a man, but Harry Houdini was a character he played, and Houdini is a character in this play. He is on a stage. In front of an audience. If he is alive after death it is because the play itself is giving him life––or a particular view on a life, shaped by the vision of Muriel Rukeyser. Whenever the play is staged, they both, in a way, return. The play itself is the “actual magic.”
Perhaps what Rukeyser wants us to see is that the encounter with art––with music, poetry, theater––is very much like the supernatural. Perhaps artworks cast a spell so powerful we cannot fully know or explain how they work. We should certainly try. But just as we cannot know exactly why poems or songs or even musicals move us exactly the way they do, we also cannot predict what their effects in the world will be. The work of artists might be ignored or lost. These works might be co-opted and abused by the powerful, or they might offer consolation and inspiration for the powerless. They might change one person’s life or society at large––for better or for worse. The artist’s desire to create goes on regardless, but why? Houdini’s playfulness, irreverence, and sheer strangeness speak to the unanswerable nature of these questions. Rukeyser would have wanted us to keep asking them anyway.
Questions to consider:
- How would you describe the experience of reading, hearing, and seeing Houdini? I have used words like “strange,” “surreal,” “inconsistent,” and “ambiguous,” but these are my responses and interpretations. Which words would you choose?
- Houdini continually asks its audience to question what they are and are not willing to believe. Which moments in this play feel impossible to you? Do you find these moments intriguing, exciting, frustrating, confusing? Why?
- What really happens in the play’s final scene? Does Houdini return? Whose voice does Bess hear? Why does it matter?
- At the end of this essay, I suggest that “the play itself is the ‘actual magic’.” But is art really magic? Or like magic? And what does “actual magic” really mean?
- Attached to this post you will find a letter Rukeyser sent to an unnamed recipient, likely Lyn Austin (Houdini’s Producer) and André Gregory, on August 1, 1973. After the initial production of Houdini in July 1973, Austin and Gregory requested that she rewrite the play’s second act in anticipation of an additional (though never staged) production in 1975. Here you can find Rukeyser’s notes on Act Two, including some uncertainties and possible revisions. How do these notes affect your understanding of the play? For example, why does the shift in music after “What the King Said” matter so much? Why are the “storm of light” and the “yellow curtain” called “big clues”? Why should the words “SELF-LIBERATOR” remain unsaid?
Muriel Rukeyser Papers, Library of Congress, Box II:13, Folder 11, Plays, Houdini, 1944-54, 1969-74, n.d. Posted with permission of William L Rukeyser.
Jackie Campbell is a PhD candidate in English at Princeton University. Her dissertation, Preparation for Action: The Poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, explores the social function of poetry in the thought and writing of 20th century poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser.