WHEN SHOW BUSINESS WAS ALL TALK
A Maclean’s Flashback
Before radio and the movies, anybody with a clear voice could be an
and everybody would listen to him. From the Grand Opera House to the church beanos, pear-shaped vowels were rocking the land
WHEN THE AUDIENCE had settled down for the opening night of Toronto’s glittering new Grand Opera House in 1880 no one was surprised when a member of the cast, Adelaide Neilson, stepped out on the podium before the curtain went up and recited “Bingen on the Rhine.” It was fitting that the show should start with a recitation because elocution was enjoying a vogue which was to last well into the twentieth century.
Timothy Eaton, the department store founder, was so tickled with Jessie Alexander’s recitation of “Friday, Bargain Day” — a humorous piece about two women shoppers storming the bargain counters — that in 1896 he engaged Miss Alexander to recite her piece at a meeting of all his employees.
No one could attend a garden party, take a summer steamboat trip, or go anywhere near a town-hall or church beano without having someone get up and recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Dickens in Camp,” “A Man’s a Man For A' That” or other offerings of the sort. In the early Twenties boxing fans became inured to having some theatrical looking gent in a well-used tuxedo climb through the ropes at some point during the evening and recite “The Kid’s Last Fight.” An “At Home” was not complete unless an elocutionist slipped into the parlor and recited a few verses heavy with maudlin pathos, then responded to the polite flutter of handdapping with a humorous
encore, such as “Should Women Propose” or “How Betty and I Killed the Bear.”
Anyone who could memorize, had a presentable appearance and a clear voice was an elocutionist, and everyone else was willing to listen to him, including all the other elocutionists. A reciter had only to fill half a dozen engagements at church socials or high school commencements to qualify as a teacher of raw beginners at two bits a lesson; the teacher, in turn, would be studying under someone else who charged a dollar, who would be paying a larger fee to still another elocutionist farther up the scale. With such constant ploughing-in of talent it was no wonder that in almost every Canadian community the elocutionists outnumbered the barbers about two to one. Those who wanted to hit the big time could undergo a course of training as rigorous as that for an opera singer.
By late in the nineteenth century there were more than a dozen large schools of elocution in North America, all with large teaching staffs, and all providing courses of four years or more, with strict examinations and diplomas for the graduates. They were as large as any of the music conservatories in their respective communities and enjoyed just as much prestige. Their fees were as high as those of a university. Canada’s two major schools of elocution were the Toronto
School of Expression and the Margaret CONTINUED ON PAGE 45
Continued from page 31
“I used to row out into Lake Ontario to practise elocution with all the tremolo stops pulled out”
Eaton School of Expression, also in Toronto. These schools handled thousands of would-be elocutionists whose ambition was to get rigged out in a flowing gown —something a little more substantial than a night dress, but not quite as voluminous as a housecoat — and hold the hall breathless as they swayed back and forth on the platform declaiming "Curfew Must not Ring Tonight,” or something equally dramatic.
Such ambition often was made of stern stuff. In 1906 Clara Salisbury Baker, of Hamilton, who was then sixteen, used to row a boat out into Lake Ontario to practise her lines “with all the tremolo stops pulled out,” as she now recalls. Mrs. Baker, like a good many other hopefuls in southern Ontario, journeyed to Toronto once a week to study under Owen Smiley, a self-trained elocutionist who had no trouble collecting six dollars a lesson — at a time when six dollars was a week's pay for a bank clerk. Mrs. Baker did her tour of duty in town hall and church concerts, then, believing that human expression was capable of better things, went to London and studied at the speech and oratory departments of the Royal Academy of Music. She forsook Grecian gowns and the James Whitcomb Riley sort of thing for more serious work, and is now head of the department of Speech Arts and Drama at the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto. Modern speech art is as different from the old elocution techniques as a modern functional living room is from the rococo furnishings of a Victorian parlor.
“Elocution, or bellow-cution, was mannered. stylized, and arty,” Mrs. Baker says. "You were taught to lean toward an audience to show deference, keep the feet together or at an angle of forty-five degrees; the hands were gracefully spread; you took a step forward to announce the title, then stepped back to show you were ready for the big business.
“Some teachers taught us to make a deep curtsy, others said that we were not to bow until the audience had applauded, then we curtsied in acknowledgment. Certain facial expressions were taught through imitation.”
When an elocutionist looked over the heads of the audience and showed the white of the eyes below the pupils it was supposed to mean that she was looking into a great distance. Looking straight ahead was Fate. Eyes turned to the side and upwards denoted reflection. The hands and the arms made beautifully curved gestures from the centre of the body outwards. All descriptive words were pantomimed, so that a performer couldn't say "scissors” without crossing the fingers. The sky called for a great sweeping arc with the arms, waves were expressed by a gentle undulation of the wrists; when sky and stars were mentioned it called for the sweeping gesture with the arms plus a twinkly movement with the fingers. For galloping, imaginary reins were held and the body was moved in imitation of riding, something like small boys playing cowboys and Indians.
These calisthenics were the wrappings around a pretty sticky repertoire of verse
and prose. The works of Ella Wheeler Wilcox. James Whitcomb Riley. John Greenleaf Whittier and others of equal profundity were strong favorites, as well as Henry Drummond's French-Canadian dialect verse, and the simpler or more sentimental works of Burns. Longfellow and Tennyson.
Jessie Alexander, of Toronto, one of Canada’s top elocutionists, was always sure of an encore when she gave:
1 wish that there were some wonderful place
Called the Land of Beginning Again,
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
And all our poor selfish grief,
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door,
And never put on again.
She could also be sure of scoring with a Riley whimsy, such as:
What makes you come here fer, mister,
So much to our house — say.
Come to see big sister,
An Charlie says 'at you kissed her,
And he ketched you, t'other day.
Audiences of the day liked to have such homespun humor varied with stronger stuff, like Bell's “Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots,” a stanza of which was:
Her neck is bared, the blow is struck, the soul has passed away.
The bright, the beautiful, is now a bleeding piece of clay.
The dog is moaning piteously, and as it gurgles o’er.
Laps the warm blood that trickling runs unheeded to the floor.
Of course it wasn’t all that bad. Emlyn Williams, the English elocutionist, could please the most sophisticated audience with his readings from Charles Dickens, and another Englishman. Professor Ducksbury, awed his listeners with Biblical readings, especially his rendition of the Book of Job.
Few Canadian performers could compete with the imports. The surprising thing is that much of the better talent in this country was found among the amateurs. The Rt. Hon. Arthur Meighen, as a youth, could keep the most critical audience spellbound with his readings from Shakespeare; in fact, within recent years Senator Meighen gave an address on Shakespeare, with lengthy quotations, to a business and professional audience at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, and gave it with such histrionic mastery that his audience sprang cheering to its feet, waving handkerchiefs and shouting “Bravo” at the conclusion. R. B. Bennett as a young school teacher in New Brunswick, used to recite at school concerts and church gatherings. Ralph Connor, the writer and minister, was always in demand as an elocutionist.
Bliss Carman made several coast to coast tours, packing them in with recitals of his own verse. Carman, tall and lanky, with a mop of long, wiry hair, a care-
lessly tied string necktie and a shy platform manner looked more like a poet than most poets. Audiences got their money’s worth just by seeing him step out from behind the curtains.
But for most professional elocutionists, earning a dollar meant a few nights each year before big-city audiences, and the rest of the time on the town-hall and Sunday-school-auditorium circuit. Jessie Alexander recalled in 1916, towards the close of her public career, that she had given recitations in prisons, universities, drawing rooms, hospitals, churches, military
camps, mining and lumber camps, barns, school rooms, opera houses, town halls, hotel lobbies and porches, front and back.
It wasn’t an easy life. Miss Alexander toured the West, traveling as often in a caboose as in a coach. She had met William White, superintendent of the CPR western division, following a recital in Winnipeg. She mentioned that one passenger train a day each way across the prairies made it difficult to fill as many engagements as she would wish. White had been so captivated by her performance that he arranged for her to be allow-
ed aboard the caboose of any freight at any time. Once, while traveling by horse and rig from one Manitoba town to another, she decided to shorten the trip by cutting right across the fenceless prairie. She got lost and long after nightfall drove into a homesteader’s yard. The homesteader led the horse to a Presbyterian manse a couple of miles further on, where Miss Alexander spent the night.
She missed her engagement but when she appeared the following evening the schoolroom was packed. “We waited quite a spell for you last night, then went
home,” a member of the missionary society sponsoring the concert told her. “But we knew you’d show up sooner or later so everyone came back tonight.” It was at that concert that a burly Scot approached her at the conclusion and congratulated her thus: “I liked your recitin' fine, and ye’ll be a guid lookin’ wumman when ye fill oot.” Another time when returning to her hotel from a recital where she had included “McGlashan’s Courtship” in her offerings, a large, swaying figure loomed up on the board walk and whispered, “Say, I’ll bet you ain’t no amatchoor at the sparking business, eh?” He was closing the gap when sober and more chivalrous characters rescued her.
Drunks were not a major problem but most of the old-time elocutionists can recall having been baited during a performance by the more festive souls who hung around at the back of the hall and refused to take anything seriously, even “The Little Girl’s Lament for her Dead Cat.” (Oo’s as stiff an’ as cold as a stone, pussy cat; did they pizen your stummick inside, little cat?)
There were other hazards too. Eva Cline, from Grimsby, Ont., was a popular performer and a teacher of elocution at Halifax Ladies’ College and, later at Brandon College. But she had to face the dangers of tank-town tours like the rest of them. One of her most painful recollections is hurrying across unfamiliar fields between the church and her hotel after a concert and, still clad in her best platform gown, falling headlong into a cesspool.
Pauline Johnson, the Indian poetess, was an elocutionist. At one recital given at Soda Creek, B.C., she was given an oat bin for use as a dressing room. The recital was in a barn.
Most of Pauline Johnson’s programs were composed of her own works, and except for a few cross-country tours, she stuck to the British Columbia circuit. Walter McRaye, of Ottawa, who specialized in habitant poems, often teamed with her.
In 1903 he and Miss Johnson were staying at Lac La Hache, en route to an
engagement they were to fill at a larger town the following evening. When the proprietor of the Lac La Hache hotel heard they were elocutionists he pleaded with them to give a recital. McRaye pointed out that there was no audience. That detail was attended to by sending horseback riders north, east, south and west to round one up. By mid-evening enough eager listeners had poured into the settlement to fill a barn.
It may have been that people at that time were just hungry for the spoken word, no matter what was being said. After Miss Johnson and McRaye had given a three-hour concert a man in an old tweed coat jumped up and announced that he would like to make a speech. To everyone’s astonishment it was none other than Dick McBride, the premier of British Columbia. He spoke for an hour and then his companion. Attorney - General Charlie Wilson, took a turn on the platform until well past midnight. Then the benches were shoved to the wall and everyone danced until dawn.
For Fright: gesture No. 12
Although no one can pinpoint the year or even the decade when the elocution fad started here it grew from the teachings of a Frenchman, François Dclsarte. In 1822, he was apprenticed to a Parisian porcelain painter. Three years later he decided to study singing and enrolled at the Paris Conservatory. He lost his singing voice before completing the course. The young Delsarte did not let this get him down. He decided that if he couldn't sing he could at least speak, and proceeded to make money at it, as did thousands who came after him. Delsarte was not an elocutionist of the school which blossomed half a century later. He was primarily a teacher. Until Delsarte’s time it had been thought that oratory was a gift. If you were a Cicero or a Pitt you had it. and if you weren’t you hadn’t. And there was nothing to be done about it.
The Frenchman thought that effective speech could be acquired by study and practice, like learning the violin. He laid down rules for every expression and gesture; he even used a color scheme by which the student speaker thought of certain colors as his utterances ranged through the gamut of human emotions. His system was complicated and involved. He insisted that oratory was an exact science.
Fright, for instance, must be registered by gesture number twelve of his system, which called for "the right hand pendant, the left hand rising with a tremor.” There were nine expressions of the eye; there were also nine attitudes which could be indicated with the head. The next step in the Dclsarte course was to perfect the eighty-one ways of interpreting the various emotions and sensations by the combination of eye and head expressions alone. Then there were the arms, hands, fingers, legs and torso to work with! A Siamese temple dancer might have understood Delsarte, but certainly most of his disciples here and in Europe didn’t. Nonetheless they used their own teehniques, in Delsarte’s name — the arms Hung up to heaven in supplication or despair, hand pressed to heart for deep pathos, the eyes hidden in the crook of the arm to close out hideous sights. All this ham was served up in Delsarte's name, and elocution was born.
The end of the rage is easier to locate. It died quickly in the Twenties, when radio and the movies were giving an abundance of cheap, varied and professional entertainment against which elo-
cution — and vaudeville — could not compete.
Of course, elocution was not completely dead. Ruth Draper and Cornelia Otis Skinner survived the dime-a-dozen reciters because they were equipped with a high degree of dramatic skill, were experts at stagecraft, and had repertoires free from the arty and sentimental. The success a few years ago of the Charles LaughtonTyrone Power tour of "Don Juan in Hell” was of the same genre. But the town hall elocutionist could no more be compared with Draper or Laughton than Edgar
Guest can be compared with T. S. Eliot.
For all that, it would be uncharitable to ridicule them. Their selections and stagecraft were in no poorer taste than much of the architecture, home furnishings and dress of the period; and their fees were modest enough. An elocutionist of fairly wide reputation would give an evening's entertainment for as little as ten dollars and expenses. Even such stars as Jessie Alexander. Owen Smiley. Pauline Johnson, Clara Salisbury Baker or Walter McRaye seldom got more than a hundred. Two or three hours of recit-
ing. with no prop other than a potted plant on a pedestal table was a greater drain on nervous energies than acting in a play, or in any group w'here each individual is supported by others of the company.
Above all, they could be heard. Every pear-shaped vowel, every rolling consonant carried clear to the back of the hall without the speaker having to lean on a microphone and fill the room with a metallic clacking like Tick-Tock the Machine Man.
And that was something. ★