An Other Voice: Ventriloquism in the Romantic Period[Record]

  • 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. 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." 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. . . ." 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). 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 …