A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Art of Elocution." by Miss Anna Morgan.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 597-599.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 597] 




A sign of the times, which should be encouraging to all teachers of elocution, is the progress of woman in public affairs, and the consequent necessity that they should become proficient in public speaking.

I have had the pleasure of hearing the discussion of Woman's Progress in various departments of art, and have been much pleased with the natural and unaffected demeanor of most of the ladies who have participated. Conspicuous among them has been the President of the Woman's Branch of the Auxiliary–Mrs. Potter Palmer. She has addressed many crowded and distinguished audiences with as much ease as if she had been in her own drawing-room. Now, to convey this impression, she has been obliged to use a certain measure of art. It has been necessary for her to speak with a fuller volume of tone than that used in a drawing-room, and she has accomplished this without appearing strained or artificial. The great beauty of her manner was, that she was entirely womanly, not a vestige being about her of aiming at masculine methods. It has been delightful to me to see this; for I know it means a newer and sweeter fashion than the manner which previously prevailed among certain woman lecturers and woman lawyers. Several, especially of the latter class, I have heard speak with the swelling port of masculine pomp and masculine assertiveness. In the woman speakers of the future, the assumption of virile methods will be in bad taste.

The voice of woman is less strong that that of man–a less perfect instrument for addressing audiences–yet it may be made effective by judicious training. To make it a more perfect organ, to give its possessor full control of it, will be the proud office of the art of elocution. If it is not so robust as the male voice, we have one consolation: In the laws of acoustics there is one which is, that a sweet sound is carried farther than the rough and rugged one; that the soft and stealing notes of the flute may out-travel on the wings of air the explosion of a cannon. The penetrative quality of every woman's voice may be improved; every woman can be taught to stand at ease, to speak with composure and to judge the objectivity of her own voice, to know its extension–in other words, to feel within herself whether she is clearly and distinctly heard in all parts of the hall. Elocution will not make women orators any more than it will make them actors; it can not confer brains, nor in a great measure impart that good taste which is the fragrance of the individual soul; but it can take that disordered instrument, the body, and tune it. [Page 598] 

Ex-Senator John J. Ingalls, in an article on "Oratory" contributed to a Chicago newspaper, referred to the art of elocution in terms of condemnation–terms which we, who profess the art, have long ago come to expect from those who examine it superficially or judge it by its failures. Said the ex-Senator of Kansas: "No speaker eminent at the bar, in the sacred desk, or on the platform, observes the rules which the elocutionary teachers of ambitious and aspiring youth inform their pupils are indispensable to eloquence." The public speakers who do not observe the fundamental rules of elocution are hopelessly bad in their delivery, and they are valued for other gifts than that of expression. These men do not ascribe their success to the faults that have hindered them; they know that intellect and imagination have triumphed in spite of a muffled monotone, an indistinct enunciation and a laborious delivery. Their efficacy as speakers would have been greatly increased had they been properly trained in elocution. The positive philosophy of this century has effected all the arts, and particularly the art of expressing the mind through the body–the art of elocution. Look at literature in all its phases, and literature may be tersely defined "the expression of life." Both in our own country and Europe the imagination which creates is gradually giving way to the inquiring scientific mind which analyzes. To illustrate this idea is the purpose of Mr. W. D. Howells' latest work, "Criticism and Fiction." Realism is the direct result of the positivist philosophy. This realism is carried to such an extent, especially in French and Russian novels, and in the art of acting, that extreme realism is described by one class of critics as naturalism. I have no intention to go into a literary discussion, though literature is moving on parallel lines to the art of expression. I am anxious, however, to dwell on the naturalistic impulses that are now actuating the world of acting–impulses which must communicate themselves to the world of elocution, students and teachers; impulses with which we ought to be in active sympathy if we are to keep abreast of the art progress of the nations.

"All art," said Mr. Nelson Wheatcroft, "is nature better understood." A child having no mannerism–that is, I mean, petrified peculiarities–has no occasion to be taught elocution, especially if it be in a good school of acting. I can easily see that teaching might check the originality of that child. It might give her self-consciousness, that unpardonable sin which so many of us older people frequently commit, that fault from which no work or study will ever completely free us. Now, a child brought up on the stage might become a great and unaffected actress, other things begin equal. Miss Terry, Mrs. Kendall, and several other of our actresses were brought up in this way (Joseph Jefferson and Ristori are also examples), and in naturalness they are unsurpassable. Signora Duse's life was like theirs, only that her parents and grandparents were actors before her, and her aptitude for the boards (not speaking of her particular genius) came as naturally as a young duck's inclination for water. The teaching of pantomime should precede the teaching of elocution. Take a young woman of eighteen or twenty; she can not speak or walk or stand with the naturalness of a child of six or seven. Elocution takes her, and if it fulfills its duty that young woman is given freedom where she is constrained, grace wherein she is awkward, is taught to breathe instead of choking herself; she is not taught new or artificial habits, she is only taught to rid herself of false ones. If she is a diamond she will then begin to sparkle; if she happens to be a common bit of clay she is a little better fashioned, but intrinsically not more valuable than she was before.

"What is elocution?" said Miss Cushman to an aspirant to the stage who asked for advice on elocution. "I don't know what it is," said the great actress: "no one ever taught me elocution. God gave me a mouth with which I can make a whisper heard in the end of the largest hall; then what use have I for elocution?"

Very true; elocution had nothing to teach Miss Cushman, though she had much, no doubt, to teach elocutionists; but how many actresses in her profession could truthfully repeat her words? The exception proves, it does not disprove, the rule. Blind Tom needed no music-teacher, but the number of music-teachers has not been diminished since his phenomenal precocity astounded the world. [Page 599] 

A name that attracts as much undeserved ridicule as elocution itself is Delsarte-ism. People seem to regard it as a series of gymnastic exercises. This, of course, is not its definition. The system which François Delsarte tried to formulate and left unfinished was the expression of the emotions through the body. What Lindley Murray was to English grammar, such was Delsarte to the art of expression. The great Frenchman has revealed to us much about the body; the wonderful complex organism through which the Ego or the spirit manifests itself; but on the side of the soul so infinite is the speculation that François Delsarte, even if he had lived to carry out his system, would have been incapable, I think, of formulating anything approaching an exact scientific system. The reader or the actor who is educated on Delsartean principles is necessarily no more self-conscious than a writer in the process of composition is handicapped by knowing the rules of syntax. Thousands of good actors will live and do without bothering about Delsarte, just as Robert Burns sang without troubling himself about grammarians, but this reasoning is no argument either against Lindley Murray or François Delsarte.

In nothing was the naturalism of Signora Duse so apparent as in her economical use of gestures, which one would imagine would be voluminous in one of the Latin temperament. It seems paradoxical to say it, but it is a fact that this actress was even true to nature in a certain awkwardness in moments of grief. The unimpeachable truth of the attitude was their vindication. The modern tendencies in the art of expression are to the closest naturalness attainable without flatness, to suggestiveness rather than to literal expressiveness, and to hold to the exact truth in preference to any scheme of decorative beauty. This is equivalent to saying that these tendencies are, first, naturalness; second, naturalness; and third, naturalness. In the beginning of dramatic art in Greece men walked on stilts, spoke through instruments that magnified the voice, and wore masks that exaggerated the human features. The history of the art from that day to this has been the gradual approach to nature, until now the art of concealing art seems almost to be identical with nature.

Declamation–old-fashioned declamation–has no longer any place in the artistic economy. It is out of harmony with our time and our institutions. Though declaiming has gone out of fashion the charm of the sweet voice of the accomplished reader will never become obsolete. More may be left nowadays to the imagination of the auditor than in former years. It is now especially important to suggest the subtle beauties of a poem or a chapter of prose–those beauties which would escape the casual reader, who voraciously devours the sense.

But it will not be impertinent, I hope, to commend to teachers, who deal largely with the poets, to take a course in prosody. To anyone with a taste for rhythm it is a knowledge which is easily and even pleasantly acquired. Many of us neglect the rhythm and the rhyme of poetry. In reading verse strictly in accordance with sense and punctuation many reciters, destitute of poetical sympathy, commit a sacrilege the enormity of which they cannot appreciate. Pity is that the reading-desk, which has done so much to refine public taste and to minister to the intellect more directly and more exclusively than did the stage, should now be obsolete. Let us hope that it is only in temporary eclipse of public favor, and that when this day of follies and trivialities has passed the reading-desk will once more emerge to shed on the world its mild and beneficent influence.

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Miss Anna Morgan was born in Fleming, N. Y. Her parents were Allen Denison Morgan and Mary Jane Thornton Morgan. She was educated in Auburn, N. Y. She has traveled over Europe and quite extensively in America. In personal appearance she is commanding, handsome and graceful. Miss Morgan is an elocutionist and philanthropist. Her principal literary work is "An Hour with Delsarte," published by Lee & Shepard, Boston. Her profession is that of teacher of elocution and dramatic expression. Miss Morgan is a member of the Presbyterian Church. Her postoffice address is Room 80, Auditorium, Chicago, Ill.

* The address here presented consists of extracts from one delivered before the Woman's Congress, under the title, "Some Modern Tendencies of the Art of Elocution."


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom