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An Other Voice: Ventriloquism in the Romantic Period

  • John A. Hodgson

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  • John A. Hodgson
    Princeton University

The early nineteenth century was a golden age of ventriloquism. After having been a rare (and rarely discussed) as well as mysterious phenomenon for centuries, ventriloquism rather suddenly developed at this time into a matter of great public interest. Ventriloquists proclaiming their own rareness became, in a mild paradox, mainstays of popular entertainment.  [1] While represented only occasionally in literary works, ventriloquism as a dramatic and rhetorical concept became important and prominent in the cultural vocabulary and the literary criticism of the period. Most notably, it widely informs the criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate note, ventriloquism "is one of C's favorite terms."  [2] It is also, for Coleridge, a curiously ambivalent one. The term carries a consistently negative import in Coleridge's commentaries on drama and dramatic poetry: for example (writing of Ben Jonson's Sejanus), "Think of Jonson's erudition, and the force of learned authority in that age—and yet in no genuine part of Shakespeare is to be found such an absurd rant and ventriloquism as this. . . ."  [3] Yet ventriloquism nevertheless also appears regularly in his other writings as a compelling figure for transcendent voice: "Conscience . . . [is] a perfect ventriloquist" (1795); "Reason [is] a ventriloquist" (1800); "Reason . . . [is] like the voice of an external Ventriloquist" (1809); "truth [is] a divine ventriloquist" (1817); "the Ventriloquist Truth" speaks from various places (1819); God is "a superhuman . . . Ventriloquist" (1824).  [4] These very different responses to ventriloquism suggest the gap between real and ideal, performance and theory.

The temporary prominence of ventriloquism in this period was in part due to the ambiguity of its character, an ambiguity not unrelated to Coleridge's ambivalence. Was it a genuine phenomenon, or was it illusory; was it natural, or preternatural? With these questions finally resolved to the satisfaction of most critics by the 1830's, and with ventriloquists —often and increasingly by their own explicit acknowledgment—finally categorizable as showmen, ventriloquism assumed the comfortable status of a vaudeville act. This later status, which continues today, has greatly obscured the much greater and more complex significance that the concept of ventriloquism once had.

Ventriloquism, as it unsettles both voice and attribution, also unsettles critical boundaries. Consider, for example, Stephen Dedalus's quick discrimination, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, of the lyric, narrative, and dramatic genres. Stephen presents them as a progression of decreasing authorial immediacy, from the "purely personal" utterance of the lyric poet to the removal of the dramatic author behind the esthetic life of his handiwork, like God behind His creation, invisible, refined out of existence, paring his fingernails. Stephen's musings, as Lynch joyously notes, often have "the true scholastic stink," and he shapes them by trying to answer such aesthetic questions as, "Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? . . . Is the bust of Sir Philip Crampton lyrical, epical, or dramatic?" In something of the same spirit, we might test Stephen's own generic schema with some stinkers of our own: what shall we think, for example, if the dramatist is a puppeteer? Or what again—and this time the question is itself progressive and transitional—if the dramatist is a ventriloquist? Both questions, as we shall see, are in fact Coleridge's.

In Europe, ventriloquism, as it came to be recognized and then examined, proved to have a long if very obscure tradition: the further back it was pursued, the older it seemed to be. In the early American republic, however, ventriloquism was originally a rumor from a void, the voice of an absence. There was no there there; it was elsewhere, not here. And since this condition—the disembodied voice, the absent speaker—curiously mimics the early condition of ventriloquism itself, the entirely derivative history of ventriloquism in America nevertheless has from the beginning a remarkably self-contained, self-definitive, and autochthonic quality.

Ventriloquism as the voice of an absence: we must begin by abandoning our own twentieth-century preconceptions and recovering those of an earlier era. Charlie McCarthy is a badly misleading guide to the practices of his predecessors. Before 1800, ventriloquism almost exclusively implied not a transferred but a disembodied voice—the voice putatively of a spirit, of a ghost, of God, or (once ventriloquism became a popular entertainment) of the performer's hidden or invisible companion. The ventriloquist's is always an other's voice; but the history of ventriloquism during the early Romantic period (ca. 1801-1820) is, like many other Romantic histories, a history of the gradual appearance and embodiment of the other.

I. The Emergence of the Ventriloquist

When Charles Brockden Brown published Wieland; or, the Transformation and wrote the Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist in 1798, there had never been a ventriloquist in America. Brown had examples of murderous religious enthusiasm ready to hand in late eighteenth-century America, and relied on one of these as an occasion for his Wieland plot; but his notion of the dangerous human agency manipulating such enthusiasms most likely came primarily from an entry in a contemporaneous encyclopedia.  [5]

The first ventriloquist in America is usually said to have been "Mr. Rannie," a Scot billing himself as "the European Ventriloquist," who arrived to considerable attention in Boston in late November, 1801 and began performing a few weeks thereafter.  [6] This is both true and false. James Rannie —who, incidentally, proclaimed himself to be, and probably was, "the [ventriloquist] mentioned in the Encyclopedia,"  [7] the same encyclopedia that Brown had probably consulted in writing Wieland—did indeed begin his American career at that place and time. But James Rannie (he would later begin styling himself "Rannie, Senior," or "Rannie the Elder"), had been preceded to America by his younger brother—also "Mr. Rannie," naturally enough. The younger brother, John Rannie, also a ventriloquist, arrived sometime in the preceding spring, probably in March or April, and gradually worked his showman's way from Philadelphia across New Jersey and on to New York City. For a while one brother performed in Boston while the other performed in New York; then John traveled on to Boston and the two joined their performances for a few days. Thereafter they moved southward again; an apparently solo stand in New York City (James, this time) was followed by an extensive joint stand in Philadelphia.  [8] But then, suddenly, their professional relationship exploded, and the brothers became fierce competitors. For the next several years, they performed an odd, extensive pas de deux through the United States and elsewhere, sometimes apparently seeking to preempt or undercut one another, sometimes dancing carefully around each other's itineraries, sometimes touring in widely separated areas or in greatly divergent directions, and then sometimes again collaborating. At times, the competitor is "his own brother"; at other times, the other Mr. Rannie, "not the Rannie who performed here lately"; at still darker moments, an imposter, "another person, who calls himself Mr. Rannie, a Ventriloquist."  [9] Throughout this period, moreover, the Rannies were, as ventriloquists —if not as magicians, gymnasts, rope dancers, actors, and stage managers, to touch lightly on but some of their other talents—almost entirely without competition of any kind.  [10] From 1801 until 1809, with only the most trivial and suspect of exceptions, "ventriloquist" in America effectively meant "Mr. Rannie"—which is to say, of course, that the term thus had an inevitably double referent, an echo.

So for eight years the ventriloquial Rannies had the field and audiences of America entirely to themselves; but each also always worked in the shadow of his other, his brother. This, apparently, was a sufficient competitive spur. In Europe they had been successful, but not unique; in America, not only did they thrive professionally, they also seem to have taken ventriloquism to new levels of dramatic development. Through the Rannies and a few of their contemporaries, we can follow ventriloquism's emergence from the voice of an absence to the voice of a presence, from anti-apostrophe to address; we can witness the gradual appearance and embodiment of the other.

II. The Emerging Embodiment of the Other

The progress from absence to presence—the progress to natural supernaturalism—in these early days of professional ventriloquism passed through many stages of development. Not surprisingly, these greatly overlapped and mingled, often in a single performance. Nevertheless, their progressive tendency is readily apparent.

In its beginnings, the ventriloquial voice is bodiless, supernatural. The supposed speaker is a spirit or ghost, The performances of Carwin the biloquist are representative of this sort; that of the Witch of Endor before Saul in I Samuel is a frequently cited precedent.  [11] Almost all of the pre-nineteenth-century anecdotes of ventriloquism are of this sort, although many have a comic turn, rather than the tragic and somber twist of Wieland. Such performances typically had not audiences, but victims. As such, they constitute a terminus a quo of professional ventriloquism.

Closely aligned to these private ventriloquial victimizations were the pranks in which an animal or an infant would seem, like Balaam's ass, to utter pointed or prophetic speech. Rannie was particularly famous for several of these. Most notoriously—and this anecdote is recounted so widely by so many that it may well have been true—he asked a woman selling fish in the market at Edinburgh when her fish had been caught, and when she told him, the fish suddenly spoke up, "It is false, I am a week older."  [12] The result was widespread consternation in the market and a general throwing away of fish. Similarly, in Portland, Maine, he "occasioned a child 12 hours old, to exclaim apparently, that the town of Portland would be swallowed up by an earthquake in three days," leading "great numbers to depart from the city for several days."  [13] The point of these feats, however —or of the stories about them, which comes to much the same thing—was especially the publicity, the advertising. Like the utterances of a seemingly supernatural voice, they depend upon the unsuspectedness of the ventriloquist for their power. Thus these demonstrations do not take place on stage before a paying audience; their purpose is rather to attract that paying audience.

For those who did pay for and attend the performer's exhibition—and in cities there would be hundreds each night—one feature of the show was usually animal imitations. These might include "Dogs, Ducks, Cats, Hens, Chickens, Pigs squealing and Cocks crowing. . . . Birds whistling, viz., the Black Bird, Thrush, Sky-Lark, a Chipart, a Wren, a Quail, and the Robin."  [14] These imitations were at once closely associated with ventriloquism and carefully distinguished from it, in a separate although usually adjacent act of the program. The effect, certainly, was to further establish the ventriloquist as a skilled mimic, thereby making more familiar—wonderful, rather than dangerous—some of his truly ventriloquial tricks, such as this one: "the notes of a pig's voice were heard to come from a gentleman's pocket; and, on his being asked by Mr. R. to set the Pig at liberty, he said he would do so provided Mr. R. would insure his hand from being bitten."  [15]

But the featured center of Rannie's performance was his command of the other voice.

He possesses by nature the faculty of commanding a voice to answer him from any object he pleases. . . . He will clearly demonstrate that he has an absolute power of commanding the same voice to be heard in any other room. . . . None in Europe or America is possessed with the power of conveying the voice but himself.  [16]

Rannie would command this other voice to speak "from the pockets of his audience, or from any object present."  [17] It might come from a gentleman's hat, from inside a clothes press, or from under a teacup. Once in New York City, he claimed, "when the voice proceeded from a Lady's muff, . . . the lady was so fully impressed with an idea of reality, that she threw the muff away, with an exclamation of terror and astonishment."  [18]

The ventriloquial voice, of course, was not, could not be, the ventriloquist's ordinary, usual voice, else his ostensible throwing of it would never persuade or deceive. Rannie's other voice, typically, was the voice of a child, and behaved as such. It answered, "from all parts of the room, ... whatever question [Rannie] propose[d]";  [19] sometimes it called for help, as when it found itself in a teapot, or a gentleman's snuffbox, or a lady's thimble: "let me out, let me out or I shall smother."  [20] This was a strangely, unnaturally small child, then; perhaps we can understand the fright of the lady who suddenly perceived it concealed in her muff. But in all these cases, the child's is still the voice of an absence; no child is to be seen.

Yet just at this time this absent child, this domestic other, was also acquiring a presence and a body. The advent of the ventriloquist's doll was at hand.

Indeed, there had been avatars. As early as 1757 the Baron de Mengen, an Austrian nobleman who often sported with ventriloquism, was using a little puppet or doll [poupee] with a mouth like a kind of nutcracker then common; the lower jaw was moveable by a peg.  [21] As ventriloquism was becoming an established dramatic art in England in the late 1700's, however, the doll was scarcely in evidence. Well into the 1830's ventriloquists featured what is now called the distant voice, emphasizing their ability to make a voice seem to come from a point at some significant distance from the performer.  [22] So Joseph Askins, the ventriloquist whose triumphant engagements at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London in 1796 and 1797 aroused widespread popular enthusiasm for the art, explicitly advertised "curious ad libitum Dialogues between himself and his invisible familiar, Little Tommy."  [23] And Rannie himself frequently emphasized the distance to which he could throw his voice, at various times claiming a range of twelve, fourteen, or even sixteen yards.

Yet, very quietly and unobtrusively, an alternative ventriloquial tradition was already developing. An early record of it comes with the stories about one James Burne or Burns, an Irishman who made a living performing in the Nottingham area in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Most anecdotes of Burne's performances feature his distant voice. But John Throsby, in his History of Nottinghamshire, also recounts that Burne

carries in his pocket, an ill-shaped doll, with a broad face, which he exhibits . . . as giving utterance to his own childish jargon. The gaping croud, who gather round him to see this wooden baby, and hear, as it appears, its speeches, are often deceived; nothing but the movement of the ventriloquist's lips, which he endeavours to conceal, can lead to the deception.

An accompanying illustration shows Burne holding a rigid, somber figurine partly wrapped in a large handkerchief (Figure 1). This would seem to be the first English illustration of a ventriloquist's doll.  [24]

Figure 1

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In the late 1790's another prominent ventriloquist, Thomas Garbutt, was also, without fanfare, using a doll in his performances. Garbutt's advertisements, typically, stressed his distant-voice powers:

He . . . questions in one voice, and answers in another, which he commands to come from any object the Company pleases, from Closets, Presses; from under chairs, Tables, the Floor, the Roof, etc. etc.  [25]

But while none of Garbutt's advertisements ever alludes to a doll, its presence is confirmed by a striking anecdote dating from his 1797 engagement in Dublin:

A curious occurrence took place, at a tavern, last week between Mr. Garbut, the Ventriloquist, and one of the waiters. The former called for dinner which was served up, and he placed at the table with him his little companion, a puppet, he calls Tommy, with which it would seem he converses, at his exhibition, the oddity of which not a little surprized the waiter. Mr. Garbut having dined, he rang the bell, and the attendant appearing, Tommy, as was imagined, demanded what was to pay.—The waiter at first could not believe his ears; but the question being repeated, Tommy, saying at the same time, he would pay the bill—this so frightened the boy, who could not observe the ventriloquist speaking, he ran down stairs, and swore he would not receive the reckoning in the room he came from, for he was sure the two that were in it in company, were the Devil and some conjurer, and had the Ventriloquist thought proper, he might have come off with dining for nothing, during the consternation the waiter created in the house.  [26]

Such publicity was surely invaluable, and may well have been planted by Garbutt himself.

It is quite probable that Garbutt was James Rannie's mentor in ventriloquism.  [27] And while Rannie never once, in more than fourteen years of highly detailed advertising, mentioned the fact, it is also clear that Rannie himself was using a doll, which he too called "Tom" or "Tommy," during his performances. As early as 1803 an eyewitness in Georgia reported,

When it came to the performance of what he calls Ventriloquism, the man came with his infant, which he calls Tom, and made appearantly [sic] Tom speak by asking Questions, and Tom answered.  [28]

The 1798 Encyclopedia also describes the Edinburgh ventriloquist (probably Rannie) as making the voice of a child "appear to proceed . . . from a wooden doll, with which he held many spirited conversations."  [29] An 1805 description of Rannie's 1804 appearances in Boston gives a similar account, including the doll's name, Tommy.  [30]

Rannie was a great pioneer in the use of illustrations in his advertising; and some of his woodcuts provide what would seem to be the first widely disseminated illustrations of the ventriloquist's doll. The earliest such woodcut, dating from December, 1802 (Figure 2), and a slightly different version, from April, 1804 (Figure 3), show Tommy as a stiff, articulated figure, man-like but child-sized, wearing a ruff and an elaborately plumed broad-brimmed (or possibly tricorn) hat, standing balanced on one leg on the ventriloquist's flat, outstretched palm.  [31] A second and quite different kind of illustration, dating again from April, 1804 (Figure 4), shows instead a tiny child, again in a ruff but now hatless.  [32] He is again poised on one leg, but poised now on the ventriloquist's supporting index finger, for the child is seemingly but a few inches tall —small enough to lose itself in a lady's ruff or a gentleman's pocket indeed, but too small to be effectively visible on stage to an audience of several hundred, so we must perforce regard this figure, I think, as the imaginary child of Rannie's best distant-voice tricks, not the actual Tommy.

Figure 2

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Figure 3

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Figure 4

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The introduction of the ventriloquist's doll is, in hindsight, surely the most remarkable single development in the dramatic history of ventriloquism. But one of the most remarkable things about it is how terribly little attention it received at the time. For in fact this development is almost invisible in the records. Neither Rannie ever mentioned it in their years of often quite lengthy and descriptive advertisements. Neither did Richard Potter, the first American ventriloquist, ever mention it in his twenty-seven years of performing and advertising, although he, too, at least occasionally used "a wooden doll, with which we have seen him hold spirited conversations" in his ventriloquial act, as we know from an 1819 account.  [33] Were it not for the contemporaneous testimonies of a few eye-witnesses, we would know nothing of these dolls; we would instead have every reason to think, as generally has been heretofore thought, that the ventriloquist's doll first appeared only in the 1830's or 1840's.  [34]

Such facts suggest inescapably that in these first decades of the nineteenth century the ventriloquist's doll itself was of little significance, surprising though this may seem to us today. Even its recording witnesses take note of it only in passing. Both puffery and audience attention remained strongly focused on the ventriloquist himself: he was the unique and mysterious figure, however gentlemanly, respectable, and upstanding he appeared. The doll, after all, was itself familiar, both from childhood and from Punch and Judy shows; the creating of doll-speech was but child's or puppeteer's play. And these Tommies (unlike Punch and Judy) were docile and respectable dolls; Rannie's Tommy even addressed him as "Papa."  [35] The other voice, thus, was not an other's voice. But the fantastic throwing of voice, the commanding of voice from a distant place, the speaking as it were from the belly—these were strange and extraordinary indeed, and the ventriloquist did not hesitate to proclaim them as such.

All attention remained on the ventriloquist rather than the doll, this is to argue, because it was still the ventriloquist, and not the doll, that embodied the other. And his personal differentness only reinforced this judgment. The Rannies were foreigners in America, as both their accents and their acts testified, although James eventually became a naturalized American citizen. And the dark-skinned Richard Potter, although he hailed from Massachusetts, was the mulatto son of a Guinea slave.  [36] In the early part of his career he sought to ease the burden of this racial identity by advertising himself as a West Indian,  [37] in the middle part he passed as white while touring through the slave-holding states for some four years, but in the later part he was often recognized and identified by others as "colored." The lingering strangeness of ventriloquism was thus compounded by the perceived otherness of the ventriloquist.

III. Coleridge and "Ventriloquism"

In this historical context, we can see that Coleridge did not always mean the same thing by "ventriloquism," and so not always what we mean by the term today. We can also begin to trace the outlines of his gradually increasing, if incidental, familiarity with the art.

Consider, for example, Coleridge's early mention of ventriloquism in Conciones ad Populum (delivered January or February 1795; published November 1795):

Lastly, I applied to Conscience. She informed me, that she was indeed a perfect ventriloquist, and could throw her voice into any place she liked; but that she was seldom attended to, unless when she appeared to speak out of the Pocket.

Lects 1795 31

The allusion is to a typical early ventriloquist's trick—making a voice seem to proceed from a gentleman's or lady's pocket or pocket-book, as if from an unseen being hidden therein. (Coleridge humorously suggests that the pocket's or pocket-book's contents seem to speak; "money talks.")  [38] It is quite likely, moreover, that at this time Coleridge had observed no other kind of ventriloquial performance—had never witnessed a ventriloquist working with a doll. That may have changed, however, by early 1800, when he writes,

If we could dissever from the ideas the ludicrous association, we would personify Reason as a ventriloquist; it is of inferior importance into what uncouth vessel she throws her voice, provided only that it is audible.

EOT 1:120

"Vessel" here may be meant literally or figuratively—the early ventriloquists typically threw their voices into any number of actual vessels (wineglasses, teapots, teacups, and the like)—but, in context (the "uncouth vessel" to which Coleridge is here alluding is a political faction), would seem to imply a human-like speaker.  [39] And by 1803, at any rate, it is quite certain that Coleridge has witnessed a vent-and-doll performance—although surely no very good one. Writing dismissively of "the vulgar Schoolbooks, histories, & religious Tracts in the dialogue form," he objects,

these are not Dialogues, but dull Exhibitions of a sort of Ventriloquism, one man is speaking all the while, but every now & then he alters his Voice into a Semi-squeak and wd. fain make it appear to proceed from some doll or man of Straw at some little distance from it[.]  [40]

This "sort of Ventriloquism," however crudely realized, differs fundamentally from the earlier sort: now the voice has its own presence on the stage, and ventriloquism's truly dramatic potential becomes apparent.

Clearly ventriloquism made a powerful impression on Coleridge. He was, indeed, one of the very first and one of the very few men of his time even to take note of the ventriloquist's doll. Recognizing ventriloquism's potential relevance to his own concerns, he adapts its ideal as a contemporary figure for vatic possession, most famously in the Biographia: "I regard truth as a divine ventriloquist: I care not from whose mouth the sounds are supposed to proceed, if only the words are audible and intelligible."  [41] He brought the word into our critical vocabulary, giving it a currency it retains today.

While ahead of his time in all these respects, however, Coleridge was simply of his time in finding no true otherness in the doll's ventriloquial performance. Probably, indeed, he never witnessed anything better than a mediocre performance. Certainly he seems never to have found the illusion of such performance either persuasive or moving: he several times alludes to the doll as a "puppet" or "Straw Moppet" or the like, and to the dialogue as "insipidity."  [42] For whatever reason, the gap between the ideal and the performance of ventriloquism never closed for him.

The lesson from the history of ventriloquism, as from Coleridge's Shakespeare lectures, seems to be this: dramatic form becomes effective only when the artist projects the other onto the stage. For Coleridge, this ability distinguished Shakespeare from all of his dramatist contemporaries, whose scenes too often "are mock dialogues, in which the Poet Solo plays the ventriloquist, but cannot suppress his own way of expressing himself" (CM 1:402). For ventriloquism, such development finally appears in the 1830's and 1840's, when the ventriloquist's doll becomes, not a respectful child, but a mouthy street kid: suddenly, audiences remember the doll as well as the ventriloquist; suddenly, ventriloquism becomes truly dramatic.

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