The death of Eugene Burger, a legend of modern magic, has just been announced.
Much will be said in the magic community about Eugene’s passing. I cannot think of another figure in our strange and wonderful world who was (and is) as loved, who loved as much back, or who truly gave himself up to the stuff of mystery. He inspired a generation of close-up magicians – including me, very directly – and will continue to do so. When I first met him as a novice, he taught me a great lesson in how to make magic feel special. We later became friends, and though I lived too far away to count myself amongst his close companions, we would see each other when we could and had a lot of love for each other.
Yet there is something else surrounding his death that has struck me, which may be passed over amidst the eulogies, and may even sound a little strange to say now. And that is, that his death was somehow suitable.
As a magician, Eugene was a master storyteller. His magic hooks you in because it weaves a narrative around the possibility of deep mystery. In life we weave stories continuously: in order to navigate the infinite data source of our environment we must edit and delete and reduce an active, messy world to a neat story that makes sense of what’s going on. We tell ourselves stories of who we are, how we got to where we are, what we want, what other people want, what they think of us. If we are mindful, we might try to see our story-telling capacity at work, and remind ourselves that we are continuously twisting the facts to fit whatever story has gripped us. We should of course own our narratives, but we might also choose to be aware that they remain just that, otherwise they have a tendency to own us.
Eugene seemed to be a man in charge of his own story, yet mindful of its contingency within a world of deep mystery. When we are not, we are usually beset by needs and forever chase external approval and goals that continually elude us. By comparison, Eugene lived with a minimum of possessions (he knew little of the collecting mania which drives many of us in our field) and seemed to have no particular ambitions beyond the grateful enjoyment of the here and now. If you know his work but never met him, he was exactly as you’d want him to be, and then some. I found this almost too good to be true: I wanted to understand how the love for magic could continue to run so deep in this brilliant, philosophical man, without a hint of the weary cynicism of which we are all guilty. How it was to find his only family in the magic community. But throughout, there was only the warmth and ease of a man very at home with himself and his world. I never felt even a hint of the bitterness one might expect from a magic legend who remained more or less unknown to the public at large. There was no suggestion of jadedness, or pretension, or the bewildering egomania that pervades our craft. He had of course his distinctive look, but he was never affected, never contrived (after all, he always had that look: I imagine he emerged with beard and garb fully dressed from the womb, greeting a world that would come to adore him with a rasping basso tremendo). The aura that surrounded Eugene (on stage as well as off) was one of twinkling mischief, of naughtiness, of gravitas without solemnity. Perhaps most powerfully he carried that air about him that the most charismatic actors often bring to their parts: that of I have a secret. It was irresistible.
He appeared to me a man profoundly at home with himself; one who had made a comfortable space for whatever demons still undoubtedly announced themselves on occasion. And unheard of for a magician: he didn’t try to impress. But his masterstroke of story-telling was that of his ending.
Mystery lies in ambiguity. Eugene said towards his end that he was excited to finally meet the Big M Mystery. How profoundly that statement must have moved his friends; how beautifully a lifelong reverence for mystery served him at the end. It is in our last chapter of life that the importance of authoring ones narrative is paramount. When a book or film ends, it makes sense of what has come before. When a life ends, there is no meaning: often only absurdity. We have to find that meaning for ourselves. It is hard to do this if we see death as a terrifying stranger rather than as a companion, and nothing in our culture encourages us to make our peace with its ever-presence. Since we proudly stripped away superstitions from our thinking a few hundred years ago, we have all but lost touch with any cultural narratives that provide a sense of meaning around death. Hence the proliferation of mediums and psychics, who step in to provide some tawdry semblance of significance. Eugene’s séances by comparison offered only further mystery.
So we scrabble blindly when death approaches, and in doing so, we often become cameos in our own stories. The main roles are given over to doctors or loved ones who make decisions for us and above all try to prolong life, which is quite different from preserving its quality. The only narrative the dying person is offered today is that he or she is ‘fighting a brave battle’, and this only helps the healthy onlookers feel a little better. For the terminally ill person it is an imposition, which adds pressure to seem brave for everyone else’s sake. And of course it presupposes eventual failure.
I could not read his mind, despite the promises of our professions, but by all reports Eugene died as a man in charge of his own story. I spoke to one of his dearest friends (and doctor) soon after his passing: I am told Eugene had nothing but deep gratitude for a life that surpassed all his expectations. Unattached to possessions, he adored the hospital rooms with which he had become quite familiar, marvelling at the food and how well he was looked after. Mortality had become a comfortable theme for him, and when a cancer diagnosis came he declined to fight it with chemotherapy. Pneumonia arrived instead, and continuing the theme of a life well lived, he took a quiet ownership of death too. A lifetime of loving and of gathering people together meant that he finished his life in the way he wished. He died very well.
Finally, it’s rare one gets to choose ones family, but Eugene was able to do this. And this family of close friends will now miss him terribly. Yet nothing that burns so brightly is snuffed out easily. Eugene deeply affected so many people: those dearest loved ones and partners in magic, his friends, his students, those who have learnt from his books and videos, the audiences who have loved his performances, and the magic world which will honour him. Eugene knew that the self is not fixed but malleable, ambiguous and situated: it extends into the world. So we should honour this. He is not absent: we can still find him in all of those people. When we die, we leave behind an afterglow in the hearts and minds of those who loved us. Eugene’s afterglow will be felt for a very long time.
Those who were closest to him will recall and settle in their reveries of Eugene; they will now and then feel what it would be like to be him, to laugh at what he would laugh at, to react or raise an eyebrow or ponder a thought in his way. When they do, they will recreate in themselves the particular pattern, the unique twinkling consciousness that defined him. The more sympathetically they knew him, the more him it will be. And maybe this is where we find the Big M: perhaps it is something to do with the love between people that provides the mechanism for the self to survive death in the only meaningful way we know.
In those moments, in each of those imperfect, invisible versions of Eugene that will spring into life within those who know what made him him, his distinctive Eugene-ness will appear again. And again, and so on, through all of us, and over a very long, slow fade.
The 2014 leg of Infamous starts on Tuesday in Brighton. It’s all very exciting. If you’re coming to see it, I really hope you enjoy the show – a lot of work and love goes into it. In the past I’ve always done my best to come out to stage door after and sign things and say hello, but this year, the eleventh year (I think) of touring, I’m going to have to stop doing that. This is a big shame, at least for me, as I always enjoy meeting people after the shows and I’m so grateful to anyone who buys a ticket and comes out to see it. The reason is – as some of you will know who have come on nights when I haven’t been able to come outside – my voice. Last year I had to cancel a couple of shows in the West End which is an appalling business, and I’m determined not to let that happen again. For weeks before that, my voice was a mess and I was back and forth to the hospital getting fixed up as well as I could. Looking after my voice is a big part of the show – hence I do a lot of vocal training and the like. And this is the longest tour I will have done. The moment my voice gets tired, I have to go into shut-down mode: no hanging around outside, no talking, a strangely monastic existence until the next show begins. The result last year was that on about, I don’t know, a third of the tour dates I couldn’t go out afterwards. Whereas I used to find 10-20 people and I would spend proper time having a nice relaxed chat, the numbers are now more like 60-100 people, which is amazing and wonderful, but I can no longer chat and sign AND be sure to keep my voice in shape for a six month tour of a two-hour one-man show six nights a week.
I apologise hugely to anyone who was hoping to say hello. I hope you’ll understand even if it’s a bit disappointing. There’ll be some who for whatever reason will be unable to summon any understanding, and will treat this as me just ‘not being bothered’. Most times I’ve apologised in the past for not coming out to sign, I’ve read similar comments telling me I’m just selfish and lazy, and that I owe it to my fans to spend time with them afterwards etc. That’ll happen again of course, and there’s not much I can do other than offer this explanation and apology. I promise that in the past I’ve spent far more time after shows with people than any other performer I know. This isn’t a lazy choice, and the thing I definitely do owe to fans is to put on the best show I possibly can, which is what this is about preserving. Any of you who work in theatre will already understand how this voice business is, and I hope any others of you who had hoped to say hello will understand too. And above all that you enjoy the show.
Below we have a lovely Q&A by that young layabout from Derren Brown: Apocalypse (YEAH, DERREN BROWN: APOCALYPSE NOT STEVEN BROSNAN:APOCALYPSE THOUGH YOU’D NEVER GUESS IT WOULD YOU?). Steven asked his now roughly 15,000 followers on Twitter to send in any questions they wanted to about his experience and he has answered the most common ones below. I’m posting it here for him exactly as he wrote it, as he doesn’t have a blog.
Meanwhile, part 2 of Fear and Faith – and the final instalment of this year’s television from your occasional blogger – happens this Friday at 9.
I sent out a tweet asking if there was anything you felt that was unanswered, Iâ€™ve answered a few of the most popular questions to try and help ease your understanding.
Why didnâ€™t you attack the â€˜infectedâ€™?
I get asked this the most. You have to remember that this is not a Hollywood movie, Iâ€™m not Bruce Willis. This was real and Iâ€™m not a violent person. When watching the news report, they said the infection could be passed by any form of contact. I wanted to avoid any possible interaction with the â€˜infectedâ€™ and stay as far away from them as possible and fortunately there was no situation in which I had to defend myself or anyone else from them.
At any point did you think it was fake?
No, everything I went through I was fully immersed in what I was doing. I was in the middle of an apocalypse and I was trying to get back to my family in Wales before the border shut.
Are there any negative effects?
There are no negative effects what so ever. No nightmares or flashbacks. Everything I have gained from this event in my life has been positive and Iâ€™m glad I went through it all to change me into the person I am now.
Were you angry at the reveal?
No not at all, relief and happiness were the main emotions going on when everything was revealed. Looking back on my experience I have no regrets or bad feelings towards anyone involved.
Did you ever think of giving up?
No, not at all. The biggest thought in my mind was getting to Brecon.
What did Derren say to you on the phone to make you fall asleep?
I donâ€™t know, simply put. Last thing I remember is picking up the phone off the table.
What was your scariest moment?
Definitely encountering my first â€˜infectedâ€™ in hospital.
What did I think of the infected?
I was ruddy scared of them, but when they werenâ€™t scaring me I did feel kind of sorry for them, not knowing fully what they were and thinking I wouldnâ€™t want to be one of them.
What was it like watching myself?
It was a little weird, as I watched I could feel the same emotions from when I was there. But overall I was quite comfortable with it.
Did you find anything embarrassing?
Yeah of course, think itâ€™s embarrassing when one person catches you picking your nose? Try a whole nation, I laughed it off though.
What did I eat and drink?
There was tons of canned food in the bunker, and plenty bottles of water.
Where did I go to the toilet?
Surprisingly popular question. In the program you can see a row of portable loos to the right of the bunker entrance, thatâ€™s where I went.
Was there anything they didnâ€™t show?
Yeah I made a few hilarious jokes which never made the cut. But as you could imagine with almost 2 days of filming me there was a lot of footage and with only 2 hours to show it, they canâ€™t have everything in there, really though there was nothing extra I wish they could have put in, the editing team did a great job.
Is my bedroom tidy now?
My bedroom is incredibly tidy now; itâ€™s hard to have a clear mind with a dirty room.
Did you ever get to see The Killers?
Yes! I did! They were amazing! Derren and the team were very kind and managed to get some tickets for me. I was very wary of getting on any busses this time though.
Steven Brosnan talks to Carlotta Eden about his night-terrors, sexual dysfunction and zombie-flashbacks in his first published interview since Apocalypse. Interview here.
We all survived. Steven is a finer Steven than before: despite a week of negative Twitter speculation reported disingenuously in the Sun, he really did do it and he really is a better man for it. For those wondering what has happened to him since, Steven now works as a teaching assistant in a special-needs school, a job he finds much more rewarding than the series of positions he held before. And I think in time he’ll make an excellent teacher. For now he’s keeping his Twitter and FaceBook set to private, but I’m sure before too long he’ll open them up and you’ll be able to ask him about his experience.
The show was, as many of you spotted, The Wizard of Oz with zombies. Our Dorothy (you’ll have noted theÂ Kansas Autos sign on our mechanic’s van who visits Steven’s house) did not seek a place over the rainbow, but nonetheless had to learn that there is no place like home. With some extra motivation and carpe diem thrown in: L. Frank Baum’s message that you don’t need to go lookingÂ anywhere further than your own back yard always struck me as a little limiting. After the tornado/apocalypse, our Dorothy encounters Leona – of course a cheap play on ‘lion’ – to discover courage and responsibility, a scarecrow (Iain) who becomes indecisive and necessitates a new alpha-male in the group, and a tin-man (Danny) who, having no heart, makes it necessary for Steven to find his own. The Yellow Brecon Road awaits to take Steven to salvation, but it is Oscar Zulu from Emerald Communications – the wizard (ahem) behind the curtain – who provides the noisy, army equivalent of his hot air balloon to take them away. You’ll have spotted the graphic on the side of the helicopter.Â Like Dorothy, Steven is left behind: before he can return home he has to say what he has learnt from his experience, and what he has known all along. Which he does, movingly, in the video tape he makes for his family. To encourage this moment, we had him see the others do the same and held the camera held back from him until he was ready. That done, and his lesson learnt, cue the deus ex machinaÂ of the phone call (I know now I should have floated down in Glinda’s bubble for absolute authenticity) and he’s magically transported back home to a life now dramatically reassessed.
Writing a show with an unscripted, unwitting central character is a strange and demanding task. My co-creators Iain Sharkey (himself a freaked-out participant in my SÃ©ance programme many years ago where we first met) and Stephen Long worked on the idea with me in the first instance, before Mark Gatiss got involved to help find possibilities for narrative. The massive bulk of the extraordinary writing task was then shared by Iain and a gifted, lovely writer called Ben Teasdale, both of whom gave heart and soul to the project. Sharkey can be seen starring as the first we see of the ‘infected’, behind the window in the red tag building. His condition of butt-nakedness-save-for-a-backless-hospital-gown was sadly lost in the gloomy lighting of the sequence, but I’m sure it added to Steven’s growing sense of deathly horror.
For my production team to make it all happen took a level of dedication and love almost unheard of in the industry. Working 30 days without a break, spending nights awake in Steven’s shed waiting to pull a plug to his television, they were stretched beyond anything one would expect anyone to put into making a television show. Samuel Palmer and Dave Struthers in particular – both brilliant and talented core members of our little family – deserve special mention here. Dave’s Twitter feed over the last week was a tirade of fury at the glib, uninformed assurances of fraud after the endless work he and Sam put into the hugely demanding job of secretly filming Steven over such a long period of time. I bow to the extraordinary level of commitment and resolve shown by the whole team, who were bonded above all by a desire to do right by Steven. It was a formidable show to make.
And it’s not over yet. Next week brings two more shows under the banner Derren Brown:Â Fear and Faith. In part one, airing this Friday at 9, we follow the first members of the public to take a wonder-drug, developed for the military, that completely eradicates the experience of fear. It was another astonishing journey. I hope you enjoy it.