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The Flowering Of The Speaker’s Art

May 2024
2min read

Well down on the title page of The Speaker’s Ideal Entertainments; for Home, Church and School comes the promise of “Hints upon Gesture and Dramatic Poses.” Hints is far too modest a word, for this primer on elocution all but demands that the public declamation of words and evocation of moods be accompanied by precisely appropriate and intricate sets of gesticulation and posturing. The book was published in the 1890’s, at the end of a golden century of freewheeling rhetoric—the eras of Clay and Calhoun, of Webster and Sumner, of Lincoln and Douglas—and doubtless was intended to set in order the house of oratory. The book’s strength and appeal lay in its rigid formulas for conveying thought and emotion; conformity to its rules offered comfort and confidence to the speaker and, supposedly, instantaneous comprehension to his listeners. Take, for example, the tour figures m our frontispiece; they appear, along with several others, in The Speaker’s Ideal . Their gesticulation being perfectly wedded to the words they are uttering, the proper pairings of captions and photographs should be child’s play. The captions are: “Hence! horrible shadow, Unreal mockery, hence!” “Nathan said unto David, ‘Thou art the man.’ ” “Fly, fly, beloved mistress, the devils of the mountains are upon us!” and “Blessed mother, save my brain!”

In its ministrations to “the amateur, as well as the elocutionist,” The Speaker’s Ideal leaves little to chance. Introductory sections discuss such matters as carriage (“Dignity and grace should characterize the walk as the performer approaches the front. The limbs … while being flexible and elastic, should not have a looseness or shambling action”); the need to analyze a given piece and to express its meaning exactly (“It is a heinous sin to commit intellectual murder …”); various vocal tones—guttural, pectoral, aspirate, falsetto—and their appropriate employment; and the choice of material itself (“In cases of uncertainty, it is well to consult the committee, and if they sanction, all responsibility will be removed from the performer”). Ah, but it is gesture—“without which, there can be neither natural, oratorical, nor dramatical delivery” —that comes in for the most detailed examination. “As a tree without leaves,” contend the authors, “so is recitation without gesture,” thereby forever denying the possibility of beauty in a winterscape. The would-be Cicero is told that “a thorough … drill upon the mechanical formation and elements of action is indispensable”; he is warned that “no one should depend upon the inspiration of the moment.” The book then takes him through the Positions of the Feet (Retired, below), tells him what to do with his Hands (Supine, at the left; Vertical, above; Clasped, top), and, finally, illustrates a staggering multiplicity of windmillings for hand and arm. The Speaker’s Ideal then thoughtfully provides a glossary on gesture (page 103), which is a table of reference for the footnotes accompanying many of the recitative selections that comprise the remainder of the book. Except for one item in the glossary, “Sp.—Special,” there are no chinks in the armor that protects the speaker from his own inventiveness. The instructional section concludes with line drawings (examples, overleaf) of the proper, and presumably only, attitudes for expressing almost every passion, emotion, and sentiment. The poem on the next two pages typifies the book’s taste and its approach to oratory. As you try it out before a mirror, you will have to decide who the victim of your intellectual murder will be —the happily forgotten author of “A Woman’s Vengeance” or Hamlet, who tells you not to “saw the air too much with your hand, thus.…”

—John L. Phillips

A Woman’s Vengeance

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