You must have heard of Harry Houdini? Houdini the “Handcuff King”? The man who could escape from a straitjacket while suspended upside down outside a building? No? Well around the turn of the twentieth century, everyone had heard of Houdini, one of the greatest entertainers in history and a lifelong enemy of spiritualists and the deceits they play on the public. Houdini was, arguably, the first true superstar. Born Ehrich Weisz, he could escape from anything, locked cells, prison vans, underwater coffins, even milk churns… he was obsessed with aviation and became one of the first people to fly a powered aeroplane. He appeared in films. Heck, he even gave Buster Keaton his nickname! By the 1920s, Houdini was everywhere. But time was running out.
On the 19th of October 1926, Houdini was injured backstage after a performance in Montreal. A week later he collapsed and on the 31st he died at Detroit’s Grace Hospital. Houdini’s body was brought to New York and he was buried beside his parents and brother in a bronze, air-tight casket that had been used in his stage act.
This is where the story of Bess – The Other Houdini begins. Houdini’s wife, Bess, had performed alongside her husband since the early 1890s. It was Bess who helped him into straitjackets and trunks, chained his hands and feet, and sealed him up in barrels. They had been introduced by Houdini’s brother and had married within weeks. While there may have been dalliances in the subsequent decades, the Houdinis were as a solid a couple as any. And for ten years after Harry’s death, Bess kept a vigil, sitting with spiritualists around a polished mahogany box with flap doors opening upon a lighted photograph of her husband, waiting for “a single sign” from the man who had spent a large part of his life debunking spiritualism but had also promised to communicate if he discovered – post mortem – that he had been wrong. No signal came and after 10 years, Bess brought the séances to an end. Houdini had been right after all.
Harry Houdini was an enormous personality and, almost inevitably, while Bess – The Other Houdini promises to tell the story of his wife, it has much more to say about the “man of mystery”. The play is set in a sanatorium where Mrs Houdini has chosen to recuperate but, disappointingly, the author, Christine Foster, says surprisingly little about Bess herself, and her perspective on their enduring relationship is not explored in any depth. Thus, while we get to hear some of Houdini’s many letters to Bess, we never hear her side of what history suggests was a genuinely true and enduring love. Nonetheless, while what you get is a play that – arguably – fails the Bechdel Test (perhaps because of a scarcity of source material about Bess) Christine Foster has wholeheartedly embraced that failure. Bess may be the story of Harry Houdini, but it is told – compellingly – by the woman who knew him best and any deficiencies in the script are more than offset by the astonishing Pip Henderson. Henderson is a simply extraordinary performer, protean, kinetic, and unstoppable. And such is the force of her performance as Bess that one scarcely envies those who find themselves sharing her stage, especially as most if not all of the other characters are under-written. As a nurse with an eye for celebrities, Gwenneth Holmes twinkles delightfully and she also provides a scene-stealing cameo as Bess’s sister May. On the other hand, John-Christian Bateman has a much harder time other than when appearing, briefly, as the Houdinis’ attorney. But no matter, this is Pip Henderson’s play and, whether performing carney tricks of the kind Bess would have turned before she met Harry or fantasising about the life and loves she has lost, Henderson brings Bess vividly to life. And she leaves one speculating wildly about just how good a one-woman version of the story would have been.
Review by Louis Mazzini
It is 1929, the height of the Spiritualist frenzy. Houdini, the world’s first Superstar, has been dead two years – yet surely if anyone can break through from the Other Side, it’s Harry.
When his beloved wife, Bess, hints that he already has, she is accused of rigging the séance.
Broke, broken and hounded by the Press, she flees to a private sanitarium.
Does she really believe her husband can reach out to her from the Beyond, or, haunted by her own hallucinations,
can she even tell the difference?
And most important of all, can she survive Life after Harry?