Guest writer JAREK ADAMS tells why Victorian sceptic magician JN Maskelyne was the perfect subject for her new play, the The Mysterious Gentleman…
John Nevil Maskelyne was a Victorian magician who gained notoriety by challenging spiritualists to prove they weren’t charlatans fraudulently misleading audiences. He was known by some as ‘The Arch Disbeliever’ for his ceaseless challenges through the law courts.
His career began when he watched the Davenport Brothers act in Cheltenham and worked out the technique they were using to create the illusion of a spirit manifestation. Shortly afterwards he recreated the illusion, and pronounced it to be a spirit free demonstration. But not everyone was convinced and several newspapers accused him of not giving credit to the spirits who aided his performance.
Undaunted, he continued with a series of challenges through the courts, some of which he won, and some of which he spectacularly lost but still managed to use as publicity for his stage performances. And despite his constant challenges to those who believed in the spirit world, he chose to never quite dismiss a family legend which followed him around about a deal his ancestors made with a Mysterious Gentleman in black, who was said to have given him and his forebears supernatural powers. JN was the eighth in line of the marvellous Maskelynes who included an astronomer royal, an alchemist, and a woman whose portrait was said to have bewitched Clive of India. The tenth in the line (when the deal was supposed to expire) was Jasper Maaskelyne known as the war magician whose WW2 feats, such as using magic to move the city of Alexandria, are legendary.
JN Maskelyne died in 1917, but will be returning to the stage in just a few weeks’ time – 100 years after his death.
A play called ‘The Mysterious Gentleman’ follows his rise to fame, his many challenges in court, and also his struggle to cling to his disbelief in an afterlife. Despite this disbelief in the spirit world, his dying wish was to find a way back if he possibly could. So is there a danger in calling him to return live (probably not the right term, but you know what I mean) onstage?
For the company producing my play it’s a difficult question. We all have our own beliefs and hopes about the existence of an afterlife, but even as an open minded sceptic I can’t help feeling a tinge of excitement as we mark the anniversary of his death with a performance featuring his story.
We open on Halloween, and we’ll be using some of his own words, where he asked his son Nevil ‘After I die, wait, and if it is at all possible I will come back to you. I will send a sign, or some form of communication. Listen for it; wait for it; try your hardest to pick up any messages I may be able to send. Then we shall be able to prove or disprove this matter once and for all.’
This event was in 2017.