The Mask of Marionettes

Prestige, prestidigitation and ingenuity are all recognised aspects of the mundane magics of stage performance, but sometimes they conceal the workings of the impossible.

There was such invention in the early decades of stage magic that some elements of it come so close to the impossible they can be hard to disentangle from one another, with certain feats escaping rational explanation to this day. This knife-edge distinction in the study of the scientific and supernatural aspects of the art, both appealing somewhat singularly to those of an obsessive inclination, can eventually blur and create a path of interest leading from the marvellous to the miraculous.

Many investigating these stories will eventually, whether through their own research or by being directed by parties who have taken these neophytes under their wings, come to learn about the trailblazing Parisian theatre run and fronted by Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (the ingénieur behind a number of classic illusions and the man who inspired Erik ‘Harry’ Weisz to take Houdini as a stage name). In a rented and renovated room above the Palais Royal he delighted the small audiences with his shows, his Soirées Fantastiques.

On occasion these performances featured other acts, usually established names in their own right or friends of Robert-Houdin, but one night in early 1846 he agreed - for reasons he later found himself unable to recount - to allow an unknown young woman to head the evening’s bill. She walked onto the stage wearing a white dress shirt under a cream waistcoat, black trousers leading to bare feet and a short tangle of blonde curls behind a mask. This was both a disguise and nom de guerre, she was announced her as Le Masque des Marionnettes - The Mask of Marionettes.

The full-face Mask itself was described, somewhat tentatively, as delicately featured and narrow, clearly intended for - or based on the features of - someone of a build so slight as to appear wan and almost aethereal. The descriptions are offered with caveats because of the Mask’s material construction: Besides the thick black ribbons with which it was affixed the Mask was either made of or adorned with a seamless pattern of uniform and mirrored five-millimetre square tiles.

Raising her hands theatrically the unknown performer rolled up her sleeves, revealing milk-white arms. The audience, momentarily stilled by the anticipation of spectacle, leaned forward in their seats. She raised her hand, crooking her fingers to create a crude animalistic shadow on the wall. She growled and barked, manipulating her shadow to mirror the sounds. The audience sniggered. She took another calming breath, stepped back. Those who were close enough saw the shadow of her hands blanche slightly as it stretched, detaching itself from the shadow of the animal’s head.

The head grew on the wall, shadow branching out to give a fuller form. As she stepped back, distancing herself from the shadow, the audience gasped. The shadow-dog sat, a flat image on the wall, and scratched at its ear with its hind-leg. She instructed it to bark, roll-over, and to dance, and the audience was rapt. Finally she let out a shrill whistle, and the shadow-dog ran towards her own shadow. When they touched the two shadows bled back together, leaving no trace of the shadow-dog.

The audience exploded into tremendous applause, which she quieted with a wave of her arm. Linking her thumbs she made the shadow of a bird: the shadow cleaved, the bird flying away from her, chirping and twittering. The audience, still impressed, had nonetheless moved on to being as curious towards the mechanics of the trick as they were marvelled by it. Holding out her left arm like a perch, she whistled. The sudden noise cut across the small shadow-bird’s chirps and it turned to look at her.

She whistled again and it took flight, peeling away from the wall, becoming fuller, adding depth to its previous dimensions. It flew across the stage, landing upon her arm, and the audience was silent, too shocked to applaud. She stroked the shadow-bird, whispered gently to it, and turned to face the audience. With a shrug and flurry of dark feathers the bird took flight. It swooped and soared above the audience.

Smiling at her audience, for they were that now, unquestionably, she took advantage of their amazement to launch a second bird into their midst, then another, and another. Soon the auditorium had been transformed into a dark aviary, the noise of the animals mixing with the startled gasp and scattered pockets of delighted applause until the furore was almost thunderous. Those members of the audience to whom the birds flew close attested that the birds were truly made of shadows, shifting darkness which waxed and waned in continuous tumult.

In the flurry of motion the mirrored Mask - already a difficult visual for the mind to properly process - created optical chaos. The white walls and gold trim of the décor rippled in moving reflections along with flashes of light from the candelabras, the distorted inversions of the watching audience and the living shadows that The Mask of Marionettes had conjured.

She raised both hands, a maestro about to conduct her most difficult symphony. She called for them to return, her voice seeming to tremble the auditorium. The birds turned, turning and diving in tight arcs to fly directly into her chest. She closed her eyes, seeming serene, but behind her her shadow shook and convulsed with each impact. When the last bird had been reabsorbed her shadow doubled over in apparent anguish, taking a few seconds before pulling itself upright and resuming its natural place behind her as perfect mimic.

Amid the uproar of excitement she threw her arms wide open, sending shadows bursting out across the room to snuff out the lights. By the time someone had fumbled to relight them The Mask of Marionettes was gone, never to grace the stages of Paris again. And that was that; a remarkable performance that became an underground legend in part because of the ambiguity around whether it was magic or mere trickery, at least for the next ninety-seven years.

The Mask of Marionettes, the object and the identity apparently one and the same, was next seen on the face of a young boy. A French Algerian by some accounts, which acknowledge that he never removed the Mask in the presence of other people, he appeared several times throughout 1943 to lend aid and assistance to the French Resistance - mainly creating distractions that allowed others to strike at Nazi targets unseen before disappearing into sympathetic darkness.

As the tide of war turned and France was liberated the Mask again disappeared, with sporadic sightings across western Europe in the last few decades, each time on the face of a different person. With every addition to its legend it becomes clearer that The Mask of Marionettes is not just the prestige to an elaborate deception but a power which we are unable to explain. This frustration is hardly unique, more a part of this work, but I believe that one day we will know, if not everything, enough.

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