Houdini’s fear of being imitated – his need to be unique, unprecedented, unthinkable – was matched by his desire not to imitate himself too much. He was a tireless inventor of things that might defeat him, of traps that could kill him. And all these stunts, as he called them – the word itself meaning a performance, a feat, an event – had that kind of uncanny symbolic resonance that made him an irresistible spectacle, a unique draw in a newly emerging and ever more powerful entertainment industry (Houdini would eventually start his own Film Development Corporation).
Houdini was determinedly and calculatingly a spirit of the age, but by using a vocabulary of familiar cultural objects – chests, trunks, beds, locks, ice (for freezing and preserving food) – he seemed to speak the strange language they seemed to encode, as though the drama of the age was claustrophobia, of the confinement created by new kinds of freedom.
The magic was to escape without damaging the locks, without even chipping the ice. It could all be done without violence, everything would seem the same. The grand illusion was that nothing had changed – neither Houdini nor his box – but everything was different. It was literally a revolution – a radical and irreversible reordering, and a repetition of the same thing unmodified, without apparent struggle. It was magic, an art form in which success was the concealment of difficulty, and the difficulty was deception.
Houdini’s Box: The Art of Escape
Background on Adam Phillips
Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz, later Ehrich Weiss or Harry Weiss) was a Hungarian born American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice in vaudeville in the US and then as “Harry Handcuff Houdini” on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can with water in it.
Houdini died, at age 52, of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix.