A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Monologue As An Entertainment." by Miss Jennie O'Neil Potter.
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. 682-685.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 682] 



One night, in the year 1891, after listening to a monotonous elocutionary recital in Chickering Hall, New York, I returned home with rather a heavy heart, feeling that I had chosen the wrong profession.

Retiring to rest in a listless manner, I fell into a dreaming sleep. Again I was wending my way to a soliloquist's entertainment, but the place seemed changed. Instead of a dimly lighted corridor, electric flashes in bright-colored globes gave splendor to the scene. There was a clamor for seats, and every one seemed expectant and happy. As I entered the auditorium, the odor of sweet flowers filled the air. I could see no orchestra, but the low, soft music that stole out and rested sweetly upon our ears, told that they were there, screened by palms and foliage.

I scanned my program closely. Is this to be an elocutionary entertainment? thought I. On delicate perfumed cards I read: "Monologue Dramatic–The Life of Woman in Tableaux." By whom impersonated I could not discover. A party of giggling girls back of me were wondering who she was, and whence she came.

Looking back and through the closely seated hall, my eyes were dazzled and pleased with the appearance of the audience. Not a hat marred the many lovely faces there. Now and then a spray of forget-me-nots, or a curl of bright ribbon nestled around a fair girl's head. And like sunbeams peeping through a shaded grove, diamonds and precious jewels flashed. The men were all in evening dress, wore gloves, looked wide-awake and brilliant as the women.

Suddenly a hush: The music swells and the curtain rises. Our eyes linger on the dainty stage, turned so deftly into a perfect bijou of beauty. Soft silken draperies covered all the angles of the ungraceful platform. Rugs, rich and soft, were carelessly strewn upon the floor, while roses, white and red, nodded and welcomed us there. In the distance we heard the ripple and laugh of a child's voice, and rushing before our eyes came the figure of a little girl, clad in tiny frock and pinafore. In her arms she carried a doll, and as the applause died away, she flitted here and there, now with her doll then with her playmates, weaving with imaginary friends wreaths of flowers, and serving them all a cup of tea from her cherished tea set. On and on in merry laughing childhood, only to be turned to tears when she finds that her doll and tea set have been spirited away.

She fades from our view, but in a moment she returns to us, now older and stronger grown, her girlish form decked out in mannish clothes. Stepping lightly from off her bicycle she unrolls a manuscript on "Woman's Rights." Here we saw [Page 683]  the student. She discussed Aristotle, and delights in the study of biology. She talks to men in the same tone that she uses in ordering her maid. And the reformer of the nineteenth century disappears.

But how quickly the change. Before our startled eyes stood the same young lady, a vision in white tulle and rosebuds. The gauntlet of reformation is thrown over, and she lets her eyes and sweet smiles bring to her feet suitors and admirers by the score. At last her heart is captured, and we are rather tired of the silly chatter between two young hearts, and rejoice when they decide to wander away into the refreshment room to cool their fevered throats with lemon ices.

It seemed but a moment when she returned to us a bride, radiantly beautiful, clothed in spotless white, her soul as pure as the pearly whiteness of her face, bidding good-by to girlish follies, and fervently praying that God would watch over her and protect the future which would make her wife and woman. The veil is lowered; the organ plays. She is gone.

Again and again we saw her as the tender and loving wife–as the mother watching over a precious flock of little ones. Their bright eyes and curling locks we could almost see as she busied herself among them, now scolding, now petting them, and at last, clustered around her knee in evening prayer, the grandest and most exquisite scene of all, motherhood, passed from our gaze.

To be followed in our imagination, fifty years later, by the appearance of an old lady, her face beaming with the soft, though deep-seated lines, from a life well spent in rearing and caring for her loved ones. The husband and father is dead. It is her birthday. She waits alone her children and grandchildren. Her thoughts go back to the earlier days. The Bible, her sweetest comfort now, is resting upon her knee. One by one the children come, but alas! the face of the husband and the cheery voice of a favorite boy are gone forever. But there she stands, crowned queen of many hearts. Her arms embrace grown men and women who seem as children yet. Vanished hours return, and grandmother is to that little group the most precious and lovely figure of them all.

The curtain is lowered; the strains of "Home, Sweet Home," swell from out the shaded screen, and we knew the end had come.

I was about to congratulate the young woman who had portrayed the wonderful tour de force, when I awoke. But the dream haunted me, and at last became a practical materialization. With no idea that I could impersonate the ideal of my dream, yet I saw where I could at least give promise of a novel and refreshing entertainment. Repeating the dream to Mr. Robert Griffin Morris, a man blessed with the unique faculty of creative genius, he grasped the idea, and in a few weeks I held in my possession the manuscript of "Flirts and Matrons," a departure somewhat from the ideal, but–

"I wonder if ever a song was sung,
    That the singer's heart sang sweeter;
 And I wonder if ever a rhyme was rung,
    But the thought surpassed the metre."
The insight that the study gave me to dramatic art I never before discovered in recitation. There are ten millions of people (it is estimated) who do not patronize the theater, and probably thrice as many who admire the dramatization of such authors whose books would not make a play. Placed in vivid impersonation with the power of a Coquelin, the grand and beautiful thoughts and words of George Eliot in the mouth of "Adam Bede" would be a dramatic monologue greater than many presumptuous plays with a long list of players and parts. Ibsen's plays seem classic and profound when a refined impersonator portrays and suggests the wearied characters in "The Pillars of Society," or "Ghosts."

It is there one gets the deeper meaning of the author's words, which are too often sacrificed when placed in the hands of players who, for effect, dwell upon situations [Page 684]  and scenic display. With a monologue effectively presented, there would necessarily be less of plot, fewer striking situations, and none of the complicated incidents that give excitement to a play; but there would also be something that would attract even more strongly than any one character in a play–the ability to infuse in many characters "life" without artifice, and making the one impersonation a physiological study and mental accomplishment.

There is a serious difficulty in overcoming monotony in even the brightest written monologue. Therefore, it must not abound in long drawn-out declamatory speeches. Everything must tend to natural effect. Change of expression and attitude is necessary, and above all a natural tone of voice. I don't believe that a person with a high-pitched voice could play successfully the brightest written monologue extant. The emotion and control of the voice, the vivacity and earnestness of the player, are the requisites of success.

I once attended an informal reception in New York, and as most "informals" are very formal and stiff-jointed, the hostess thought of a plan to introduce dancing. How to clear the drawing-room was the question. "I have it," she said. "There is Miss —; I shall ask her to recite." And while that naturally pretty girl twisted her face in agonizing wrinkles, begging "the sexton not to ring the bell," one by one the rooms were cleared. At the conclusion she was left alone, save for a few patient listeners, and as I listened to the congratulations of the hostess, "Thank you, my dear, you have such talent; why don't you go on the stage?" my imagination carried me to the bedside of that fair unemotional girl, and in fancy I could hear her plan her future as a great actress, while the hostess slept soundly that night, content that her dance at least was a success.

Dramatic schools and colleges also have a great share in burdening the platform and stage with "failures." Their methods may be ever so perfect, their knowledge ever so complete; but they lack the moral courage to refuse the applicant who can offer the necessary fee for tuition, although absolutely deficient in natural ability, and thereby, many a useful mechanic is spoiled, and any number of clerks, housekeepers and people who would be successful in any business line are "possessed forever," until hope dies, and they often realize when too late that a mistake has been made. But no one would think of presenting a bill of damages against the schools that first fostered and held their youthful ambition.

Eloquence and dramatic instinct are gifts, and can not be artificially acquired. There is a tremendous amount of crude eloquence that is never properly developed, for, strange as it may seem, the naturally eloquent person rarely develops and polishes his or her talent in schools set apart for this purpose. This is a mistake; for the cultivation of a voice for speaking is as necessary as the cultivation of a voice for singing. A serious trouble with American women (I do not speak of the men) is the lack of melody in her speaking voice, and if a woman or girl has the money to spare for the cultivation of a soft, low-toned voice, I would advise them by all means to do so. I have often thought that if all the mighty women who make public speeches in behalf of woman's suffrage had soft and eloquent voices, we women should have voted long ago. Any method that teaches unnatural attitudes and meaningless expression, claiming it to be Delsarte or any other "sarte," is wrong. Every good, graceful thing we do is the method of the much abused Delsarte. For instance, if a woman calls upon you and tells you that the day is beautiful and the sun is bright, without the lighting of the eye; whose face bespeaks cloudy weather, she does not understand Delsarte, whose only teacher was sublime nature, inspired by the eloquence and grace of God's footstool.

With the Dramatic Monologue Entertainment a success, playwrights and authors can so dramatize subjects, plots and stories, until small towns and cities can be supplied with the very best dramatic literature. Artists who present such dramatic monologues or monodramas, as my thought wishes to convey to you, can give millions of people glimpses of grand and glorious characters, practically unknown heretofore. What a [Page 685]  wonderful monologue Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" would make. His terrific power in working up a situation and displaying it is as in a calcium light of intense imaginative description. The impersonator should be able to do mentally for the audience that which they otherwise would miss in the mere reading of the lines. The monologist could suggest the meaning between the lines, for there never was a genius with more inseparable, unescapable, tyrannizing consciousness of itself than Victor Hugo. The listener would feel the personality and genius of the great author.

"Imaginary companies need no salaries." There are no breaking of contracts, no elopements of the soubrette, and, in bad luck, only one has to walk home.

"Music hath its charms," and should go hand in hand with every dramatic entertainment, save, I could never see anything but absurdity in the orchestra playing a doleful tune when at last the "wife" or "sweetheart" is "pushed" to tell the story of her past, and how she "once suffered." The story is often drowned by the music, the audience left in a chilly condition, and with but a faint idea of how it all happened. Music at intervals, or to illustrate some poetical idea, is an acquisition, but I do not approve of the so-called "singing reading," unless it aid the rendition of a dirge or the chanting of a prayer. The reciter invariably spoils both the accompaniment and the poem. Only once have I heard a successful serious reciter accompanied with the piano, and that was the clever monologist and reciter, Clifford Harrison, London, England. Corney Grain and George Grossmith are successful only because they make comedy a story that can be illustrated by caricature music. Themselves natural musicians, and full of the comedy element, they succeed in stories which abound in humor, introducing musical accompaniment. But to recite a poem in unison with a piano and monotony of the speaking voice is to my mind neither artistic nor entertaining.

The world is filled with genius and progressive artists. They study the wants of the public and follow not after fads. When the monologue is presented in its complete beauty, thousands of people who have not the opportunity to hear great plays will become acquainted with characters that have helped to civilize the world, and many a home will be made brighter by the glimpses into other lives, and thousands of hearts will hold dear the name of the monologist and entertainer.

[Page 682] 

Miss Jennie O'Neil Potter was born in Patch Grove, Wis. She is a young woman of much talent and energy. Miss Potter is a gifted and cultured elocutionist, and is meeting with great success presenting monologues. She first appeared in New York in 1889, and met with great success in 1891. "Flirts and Matrons," by Robert G. Morris the well known playwright; "Orange Blossoms," and "A Letter from Home," were written by Townsend. These three monologues are copyrighted and belong to Miss Potter. Several of Miss Potter's poems have been published in the Texas Siftings. She belongs to the Methodist Church.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom