The journey of “Britain’s Got Talent” contestant Susan Boyle has been an interesting case study in the modern media. Boyle was a classic Cinderella story, who, due to the wonders of YouTube, became an in international sensation overnight, but before too long the media turned on her. Just last week, the British tabloid the Sun reported on a series of ranting profanity-laced tirades by the small town Scottish woman, who they dubbed “RamBoyle” after the Stallone character. And she ended up losing on the reality show.
In today’s New York Times, Ricky Jay puts the Boyle phenomenon in a broader historical perspective as only he can, comparing Boyle to another unexpected performance, by Mathew Buchinger in the Council Chambers in Edinburgh:
Buchinger demonstrated his skill on more than a half-dozen musical instruments (some of his own invention), danced a hornpipe and performed conjuring tricks with cups and balls, cards and dice. In front of the lord provost he fashioned a pen and with it produced a fine calligraphic document of the coat of arms of the city. The year was 1726. Buchinger was 52 years old, 29 inches tall — and, he had neither legs nor arms.
[Buchinger] was heralded and discussed: the subject of stories, verse, jokes, slang expressions, souvenir prints and royal command performances. Samples of his calligraphy, fashioned by Buchinger holding a pen in between his unarticulated fin-like excrescences, are saved in the collections of the world’s most formidable institutions. He is even immortalized in a 1726 English broadside, “A Poem on Mathew Buckinger: The Greatest German Living.”
Both performers, Jay argues, benefitted from high ability relative to low expectations. However, after giving a few more examples of performers throughout the years, Jay observes that, “Our first look at Ms. Boyle generated not only expectation but surprise. But as she became overexposed, our surprise diminished. The extraordinary became commonplace….A performing cycle that once could have taken years is herein reduced to days. She’s unknown, we’re surprised. She’s embraced, we’re disenchanted. She’s the runner-up … next?”
For those who aren’t familiar with Ricky Jay, he’s one of the world’s leading sleight of hand artists and historians on the bizarre. You also may recognize him as an actor in David Mamet movies. If you have the time, check out this stunning card trick he pulled off.