Mario and the Magician

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by Levi B. Sanchez


Mario and the Magician is a novella written by German author Thomas Mann in 1929. As in many of his fictional works, Mann borrowed material for Mario from his actual experience. A performance Mann attended while on vacation in Italy in the summer of 1926 serves as inspiration for the sinister magician Cipolla’s production in the novella. Interestingly, it was not until years later that Mann fictionalized the experience due to a comment from his daughter.[1] Erika Mann's suggestion that the victim of a trick similar to what befalls Mario in the story might well kill the magician was enough to spur her father's creative mind to action and the novella was born.


The novella is roughly divided into two sections. In the first section, an anonymous father recounts the troubled beginnings of his family’s vacation in Italy. From the onset, he foreshadows a horrible incident that brings an end to the trip. He observes an air of mounting nationalism during the first days of his stay, one which comes to a head when a seemingly innocent action becomes a full-on scandal. The narrator and his wife prompt their eight-year-old girl to bathe naked in the sea in order to rinse off her bathing suit. The company at the beach, comprised heavily of loyal Italians, interprets this action as not only an “offence against decency,” but also as a “gross ingratitude and an insulting breach of... [Italy's] hospitality" [2] The ordeal ends at the police station with the issue of fine of fifty lire.

The second section recounts a memorable performance by an Italian magician. The crippled Cipolla begins with number tricks and minor hypnotic displays before unveiling more malicious acts of will-control, using his silver tongue and rider’s whip to impel select audience members to increasingly demeaning actions. At once offensive and intriguing, the dynamic and diabolical Cipolla repulses and captivates the audience until his final display of will-control.

He convinces the local waiter, Mario, to kiss him on the cheek by taking him under and masquerading as the female object of Mario’s desire. The audience’s silence in reaction to this grotesque act is only broken by the sound of two gun shots leveled from the slender hands of Mario. The story ends with the demonic magician lying crumpled on the stage, his subjects falling still, and the family finally leaving the theater.


The Dangers of Fascism

One of the most circulated interpretations of the story centers on the piece's sinister portrayal of Cipolla as a controller of wills. In Manfred Dierks's reading, “The novella demonstrates the interplay of 'people and leader'; it shows the loss of freedom of the individual will; and, finally, it defines the end of the game as the point when the 'Fuhrer' violates the emotional integrity of other human beings.”[3]

While the piece can, and should, be considered as a general representation of fascism, the prevalence of Italian nationalism and the psychological interplay between Cipolla and his audience specifically alludes to fascist Italy in the 1920's under Benito Mussolini. Interestingly, while the piece was written over a decade before the end of war, it also unknowingly predicts the violent end of that dictator.

Alan Bance concisely lays out a few of the more obvious similarities between the two: “Cipolla-like in hating to be laughed at, he similarly prided himself on his great intelligence, iron will and perfect sense of timing. Like Cipolla, Mussolini was initially not taken seriously, and resorted to sadistic measures to intimidate the opposition. (…) Both treat the masses of ordinary people like children.”[4] Cipolla’s gift for public speaking further supports this likeness. Using eloquent yet deceptive speech, assertive body language, and psychological principals of mental manipulation, Cipolla carefully controls each aspect of his show to achieve maximum impact.

The magician’s evocation of the nationalist sentiment in the town mirrors the dictator's tactic of inciting the group thinking of the masses. As Eugene Lunn observes, “Cipolla frequently alludes to, and paints himself in the colours of, Italy’s ‘glorious’ Roman past as part of his repertoire of manipulative oratory, a favorite device of Mussolini’s rule.”[5]Further, he labels the disruptive and rude audience members as outsiders to this proud tradition, creating a confrontation between insider and outsider. In short, Cipolla knows his audience well, and uses this knowledge to manipulate them both individually and collectively.

However, the audience's compliance is not without revulsion and resistance; it goes without saying that this too can be said of Mussolini. Hecklers interrupt his speeches and participants purposely try to hamper Cipolla's tricks by creating obstacles to their success. But as the show progresses and the magician's will is further extended even these begin to quiet. As Dierks explains, only when Cipolla violates the integrity of Mario in the final act does the audience's revulsion violently surface. Yet despite the fact the murder avenges Mario's honor, destroys the diabolical figure of the evening, and frees the entranced dancers on the stage, members of the audience crowd around him and call for the police; Mario is not rewarded for his action, but punished, revealing the dynamic performer's influence even after death.

Criticism of the Artist

A popular interpretation evinces the critical portrayal of the artist in the story. Several times in Mario, the demonic Cipolla is described as “the artist,” a figure Mann repeatedly muses on in his fiction. Like Gustav Aschenbach's descent into impishness in Death in Venice, Cipolla's grotesque personality and evil performance do not reflect favorably on the artist.

Biographical details suggest that Mann turns this critical lens towards himself in Mario and the Magician. Biographer Anthony Heilbut notes similarities between Cipolla and his creator. Besides the obvious fact that the Mann children's nickname for Thomas was the “Magician” (450), Heilbut observes that“...Cipolla shares many traits with Mann, including a bad case of artistic insecurity and a hopeless love of young men.”[6] And Cipolla would not be the only demagogic figure Mann would compare himself to in writing. As T.J. Reed explains this type of reflection and comparison “is central to the essay ‘Brother Hitler’ of 1939, where to the disquiet of his friends Mann, the leading exile opponent of Nazism, probes the psychology of the failed artist Hitler for common ground between them, and sets the complex motive of analytical ‘interest’ above the simple emotion of hatred."[7]

Another artist and manifestation of Mann, the narrator artificially manipulates the narrative to keep the reader’s interest in an almost identical fashion to the sinister Cipolla. The following excerpt describes the magician's technique for crowd-manipulation, but could easily delineate the narrator's coy unraveling of the story: “Cipolla moved with the bearing typical in these experiments: now groping upon a false start, now with a quick forward thrust, now pausing as though to listen and by sudden inspiration correcting his course” (Mann 161). In the same way that Cipolla controls his act, the narrator riddles his retelling with false starts, logical jumps, small hints, and even blatant foreshadowing to much the same effect as the diabolical magician and controller-of-wills. This overwhelmingly overlapping characterization of the two further criticizes the artist: his motivations, methods, and integrity. It questions the artist's ability to create an interpretation of reality with any degree of verity.

Free Will or Determinism?

Another common interpretation of the story follows its complicated depiction of the philosophical debate over free will versus predetermination. As Allan J. McIntyre views it, “... practically all phenomena in the story, including what are usually termed moral decisions, are the certain result of a network of prior causes."[8] Heavy words like fate, choice, will, and destiny populate the pages, and the narrator's telling seems to suggest his concurrence with Cipolla that “freedom of the will does not exist” (Mann 160).

Besides the deterministic language, the tone of the story mirrors the limiting philosophy of predetermination. While the beginning merely hints of controlling circumstances, by the end all semblance of choice and agency is nonexistent. The narrator’s fumbling to explain his passivity during the intermission of the doomed performance speaks to more than his decisions of that evening: “I cannot excuse our staying, scarcely can I even understand it. … Were we under the way of a fascination which emanated from this man who took so strange a way to earn his bread; a fascination which he gave out independently of the programme and even between the tricks and which paralysed our resolve?” (Mann 165). It is important to note that Cipolla's first act, while interesting, was not extraordinary. This makes the narrator's explanation harder to take at face value. Despite the practical concerns confronting him, the lateness of the hour, the children's exhaustion, and the bizarre and repulsive nature of the magician and his performance, the narrator decides to stay. This “decision” belies the work of greater forces; the narrator and his family are meant to see this performance to its horrific end.

  1. Eve Geulen, “Resistance and Representation: A Case Study of Thomas Mann's 'Mario and the Magician.” New German Critique. No. 68, (1998), p. 28.
  2. Thomas Mann, “Mario and the Magician.” Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 141. All subsequent parenthetical citations refer to this edition.
  3. Manfred Dierks, “Thomas Mann's Late Politics," A Companion to the Works of Thomas Mann, ed. Herbert Lehnert and Eva Wessel (New York: Camden House, 2004), p. 213.
  4. Alan Bance, "The Political Becomes Personal," The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. Ritchie Robertson (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 112. Accessed through Cambridge Collections Online, 30 November 2009.
  5. Eugene Lunn, "Tales of Liberal Disquiet: Thomas Mann's 'Mario and the Magician' and Interpretations of Fascism," Literature and History, 11.1 (1985), p. 9.
  6. Anthony Heilbut, Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature (New York: Knopf, 1996), p. 497.
  7. T. J. Reed, "Mann and History," The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. Ritchie Robertson (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 16. Accessed through Cambridge Collections Online, 30 November 2009.
  8. Allan J. McIntyre, “Determinism in Mario and the Magician," Modern Critical Views: Thomas Mann, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea, 1986), p. 275.
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