Today, a story about theatre, magic, and science.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The Greeks used the phrase
Deus ex Machina for a stage trick -- a
mechanical god appearing on ropes and pulleys.
Magical machinery captivated the ancient world. You
saw far less magic in Medieval theatre -- the
theatre of the Catholic Church.
That changed in the late 1500s. English alchemists
rediscovered Vitruvius. Vitruvius was a Roman
engineer who catalogued the ancient technologies.
He filled one of his chapters with mechanical
wonders: self-filling bowls, water organs, and
Medieval scribes copied Vitruvius over and over for
centuries. But they paid little attention to what
was in it. Now Renaissance thinkers read the old
texts with a new eye. Vitruvius's magic machines
struck a nerve among the new alchemists. They held
a strange view of magic. They mixed magic tricks
with a belief in real magic powers. It seems
baffling to us.
Take the 16th-century alchemist, John Dee. Dee
always kept one eye on his volume of Vitruvius. He
set up a catalogue of human knowledge using
Vitruvian principles. Dee also mixed trickery with
what he claimed to be true magic.
In 1547, when he was 20, Dee created one of the
first magic devices in English Theatre. He built a
great flying bird with a man on his back for an
Aristophanes play. The device was primitive, but he
stunned his audience by the sheer novelty of it.
Sixty years later, the brilliant and arrogant
architect, Inigo Jones, surfaced. Jones read Dee.
He trafficked with the later alchemists. And he was
intimate with Vitruvius. Late in life, Jones wrote
a book on Stonehenge. He tried to prove it was a
Roman temple built on Vitruvian principles.
Jones took up theatrical machinery in a very big
way. His King, James I, put huge sums into his
productions. When he did, people began taking Dee's
magic for granted in the theatre. They began to
Ben Jonson hated the
alchemists, and he saw Jones as one of them. He
also hated seeing theatre made into a bag of cheap
tricks. Jonson wrote scathingly about Jones and his
He designes, he drawes, he paints, he carues, he
builds, he fortifies, Makes Citadels of curious
foule and fish, . . . He has Nature in a pot!
Still, these new Deus ex machinas were
here to stay. They took on a curious importance in
Western thinking. When the alchemists put their magic
in the theatre, they demystified magic itself. Magic
out in the footlights was magic no longer. In the
end, theatrical magic helped pave the way for a new
and more rational science. It helped us expect magic
of a better kind from technology and science.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Yates, F.A., Theatre of the World.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.
Jones, I., The Most Notable Antiquity of
Great Britain called Stone-heng. Restored,
(John Webb ed.) London: J. Flesher for D. Pakeman
and L. Chapman, 1655.
Debus, A.G., The English Paracelsians.
New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1966, Chapter I.
To satisfy the time demands of radio I've asserted
some things that are only known circumstantially.
For example, Jones was in several of the same
places as the alchemist Robert Fludd (see Episode
614.) They were almost
surely friends. Jones's education was such that he
had to have read Dee (see Episode 474.) The author of Jones' book on
Stonehenge is often given as John Webb. Webb was a
friend of Jones who professed to have written the
book from Jones's manuscript notes after his death.
See also Episode 896 for
another view of Dee.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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