In October 1951 one of the biggest celebrities of British radio entertainment went missing in the course of a railway journey from London to Leeds. His disappearance coincided with Labour’s defeat in the general election, and to many people it came as an even greater shock. He had been doing his cheeky-boy routines on the wireless since 1944, and for the past two years had been starring in his own show on the Light Programme and getting a weekly audience approaching 12 million (roughly the same as Coronation Street today). In retrospect and on paper his act may look dull and formulaic: he simply got uppity with a luckless straight man called Peter Brough and showered him with childish insults. But he was able to bring on a troop of co-stars – Max Bygraves (‘I’ve arrived … and to prove it, I’m here!’), Tony Hancock, Gilbert Harding, Harry Secombe, Beryl Reid, Bernard Miles and Hattie Jacques, not to mention the pre-teen Julie Andrews – without ever being upstaged. In performance he would always hit the spot.
The secret of his extraordinary popularity was his voice. His high-pitched giggles and squeaky rasping speech might not be beautiful or ingratiating, but they were distinctive and easy to imitate; and in the good old days of radio comedy, true fame was measured by numbers of mimics rather than numbers of listeners. Stardom meant providing patterns for the thousands of would-be comedians trying out their funny voices in pubs, bedrooms and playgrounds all round the country, and the entertainer who had been spirited away somewhere between King’s Cross and Leeds had swarms of aspiring sound-alikes as far as the BBC transmitters could reach.
The story of his disappearance made headlines in the national papers the following day. Posters went up in shop windows, and Peter Brough offered a reward of £1000 for any information. Three days later he received an ominous envelope enclosing a ticket for the left luggage office at King’s Cross, and rushed off to collect a small suitcase. Just as he expected, he found the lifeless remains of his colleague trussed up inside.
Brough was delighted. Back home, he inspected every inch of the body and checked it for marks and scratches. He propped it on his knee, smoothed its hair, and gradually settled back into his customary routines. At first he had been rattled, but things could not have worked out better: the emergency had made Archie Andrews more famous than ever, and the listening figures for Educating Archie continued to grow.
Dialogues between ventriloquists and their dummies had always seemed unlikely material for the wireless – as incongruous, you might think, as painting or card-tricks or mime. But if radio audiences were in no position to appreciate the art of speaking without moving the lips, they could concentrate on some rather more intriguing aspects of ventriloquism: not only the knockabout dialogue, but the uncanny fascination of a single voice that audibly divides itself in two, and the metaphysical piquancy of an argument in which both sides are taken by the same performer.
If, as I was brought up to believe, theatrical persons are intrinsically untrustworthy, then ventriloquists must be the most duplicitous and unreliable of the lot. They scatter their fissiparous personalities among dummies and silly voices to the point where you can no longer tell whether their jokes belong to them or their puppets. Who is in charge of the whole production, you wonder, and who on earth are they when they are at home? The silver screen offers a frightening gallery of rogue vents – from Eric von Stroheim in The Great Gabbo to Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night and Anthony Hopkins in Magic – who have been led astray by their dummy-selves; and real vents can be just as mixed up as fictional ones. When the English entertainer Arthur Prince died in 1948, his jolly partner Jim was interred with him, and they were joined in their grave shortly afterwards by their grieving vent-widow. In the 1950s, an Australian singer who used to appear on stage with her vent-husband Herbert Dexter found that he was taking his dummy-insults and dummy-assaults too far both on stage and off, and sued him for divorce, reputedly citing the ‘miserable dummy’ as co-respondent. It is not surprising that Peter Brough once indulged in a bit of sober philosophising about his compulsion to ‘create other voices … divorced from his own’, acknowledging that ‘the habit of talking to oneself for a living’ was decidedly odd if not insane; but that did not stop him taking his puppet with him on family holidays or using it to spice up romantic weekends with his wife.
Brough’s partnership with Archie Andrews was an act of sincere flattery to the American entertainer Ed Bergen, who had been doing disputations with dummies in US nightclubs since 1936. He had three principal puppets: clueless Mortimer Snerd, pert little Effie Klinker and, above all, the incorrigibly fresh Charlie McCarthy. Bergen and his ‘wooden children’ eventually graduated from the clubs to radio, and the American Forces Network gave them an audience in Britain too. Charlie McCarthy quickly became a star in his own right, notorious for the insolence with which he treated such fellow performers as Al Jolson, Orson Welles and W.C. Fields. When, late in life, Bergen became the father of a flesh and blood child called Candice, he whimsically brought her up as Charlie McCarthy’s kid sister. In her impressively restrained autobiography, Knock Wood, Candice Bergen remembered Charlie’s room in the family house in Beverly Hills, with its neat bed, a wardrobe stocked with monogrammed clothes, a desk to study at, a West Point cadet’s hat, a feathered Indian headdress and a sweet little pin-up of Dorothy Lamour. She looked back impassively at the fun and games they all used to have when she was made to perch on her father’s left knee and engage in conversational sparring with the wooden elder brother on his right.
It was at the end of the 18th century that popular entertainers, using the mock-posh diction of masters of ceremonies and fairground barkers, began to promote certain funny-voice routines under the title of ‘ventriloquy’. Apart from the fancy Latinate title, there was nothing very grand about the one-legged actor Joseph Askins who toured Britain in the 1790s performing his ‘Ventriloquism, or Conversations in two Voices’. Nor was the ventriloquial act taken far up-market in the 1820s when the quick-change showman Charles Mathews began appearing as Monsieur Ventriloge in a series of one-man comedies or ‘mono-polylogues’. There was one celebrated scene in which a tutor called Monsewer Péremptoire tried to save himself the price of his pupil’s coach fare by smuggling him onto the vehicle inside a guitar case, and Mathews had to speak little Tommy Tarragon’s part (‘vox et praeterea nihil’, as the playbill put it) without moving his lips at all. But Mathews’s fame rested not so much on the art of invisible speech as on the variety of his vocal impersonations. In those pre-radio days, audiences were unlikely to recognise the vocal mannerisms of great personages, however celebrated, so impressionists focused not on individuals but on types, particularly small children, foreigners, and overexcited adults, all of whom could be done in varieties of easy-to-ventriloquise falsetto. Thus in a single mono-polylogue Mathews would appear successively as serving girl, little boy and grand lady, or Ap Leeks the Welsh gardener and Béchamel the French chef, not to mention the dashing young Captain Grapnell, RN. ‘All the characters are united,’ as one of his playbooks explained, ‘and Mr Mathews has full scope for the versatility of his talents and the rapidity of his changes.’
Mathews’s Monsieur Ventriloge soon faced competition from a genuine Monsewer called Alexandre Vattemare, who was said to have begun his career as a vocal impressionist at the age of 13 by giving a command performance for the Emperor Napoleon. The great Vattemare now condescended to present his ‘astonishing Vocal Illusions’ to the London public in a comedy called The Rogueries of Nicholas, featuring an accident-prone servant who runs on and off stage conducting serial dialogues with a vast imaginary cast including ailing Alderman Pillbury, amorous Captain Furlough, muling Pillbury Minimus and his big bouncy sister Flirtilla, along with Squire Tivy and the terrible siblings Mumble, Doleful, Jolie, Snuffle and Surly – all the characters being ‘embodied, illustrated and delivered by MONS. ALEXANDRE!!!’ Some critics thought they could hear a cross-Channel inflection running through all Vattemare’s personations, including Gobbe the turkey and Growler the dog, and even the plucked guitars, sizzling omelettes and popping corks; but the pervasive French accent lent substance to Vattemare’s airs of learned cosmopolitanism and gave colour to his claim that ‘Adventures of a Ventriloquist’ had been received ‘with signal approbation before most of the Crowned Heads and Princes of Europe’.
Ventriloquism remained a favourite theme for hyperbole throughout the 19th century. Henry Cockton’s novel The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, Ventriloquist, first serialised in the 1830s and still in print when Queen Victoria died, popularised the implausible idea that ventriloquists can ‘throw’ their voices like squibs and leave them to vociferate wherever they happen to land. Cockton believed that a talent for voice-throwing ‘gives its possessor a command over the actions, the feelings, the passions of men’, and persuaded himself that it could be a powerful corrective to vice and lasciviousness provided it was used with taste and discrimination: not for vulgar theatrical display, that is to say, but for ‘loading with ridicule every prejudice and every project of which the tendency is pernicious’. Cockton’s hero accordingly disrupts the House of Commons by lobbing cries of ‘buffoon’ and ‘shame’ onto the benches on both sides of the chamber; afterwards, he comes across a mob of uncouth ‘equalrightites’ demonstrating on Clerkenwell Green in favour of their hare-brained ‘system of social equality’ and puts them to flight by projecting shouts of ‘soldiers, soldiers’ among them; finally he halts immorality in its tracks by vocally sabotaging a meeting of the Universal Anti-Legal Marriage Association, thus saving a throng of earnest but infatuated young ladies from a fate worse than matrimony.
Meanwhile the art of speaking in many voices continued to flourish in popular entertainment. To assist the illusion of the thrown voice, some performers began to incorporate large puppets into their acts, including purpose-made ventriloquial dummies whose mouths could be made to move in time with their words. But the puppets did not become stars in their own right till the 1890s. ‘It fell to my lot,’ as the British entertainer Fred Russell stated, with the conscious gravity that seems to be a hazard in his line of work, ‘to revolutionise the presentation of Ventriloquial acts by endowing a single “figure” with a personality’. Well-established character dummies could now get higher billings than their human operators, and the way was open for the radio triumphs of Charlie McCarthy and Archie Andrews. Looking back on his revolution sixty years later, Russell observed contentedly that the invention of the personality puppet had advanced ‘the art of Ventriloquism’ throughout the civilised world, winning thousands of fresh converts to the cause.
In the 1930s the new disciples of ventriloquism started to agitate and organise in defence of their mystery, and launched a professional journal called Double Talk. But the title must have sounded insufficiently serious to members of the confraternity, and in the 1950s the selfless American vent W.S. Berger made a new beginning by instituting an International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists, recruiting hundreds of disciples from Cuba, Guatemala, Holland, Ireland and India as well as Britain, Canada and the US. Their international organ was known as the Oracle, and several of them solemnised their vocation by calling themselves ‘doctor’ or ‘professor’. When Berger died, his Kentucky home became a museum dedicated to the preservation of ventriloquiana, its centrepiece a tasteful mausoleum known as ‘Vent Haven’ where ageless dummies can repose for ever in quiet dignity after their mortal partners have taken the final curtain.
Perhaps they order these things better in Denmark and Germany, where ventriloquists are reduced to the bare vernacular as bugtaler and Bauchredner – in other words humble ‘tummy-talkers’; but the professors and doctors of ventriloquism in America, Britain and the Colonies swallowed the high-falutin’ classicism of their self-advertisements without the smallest particle of salt. Intoxicated by the glamour of their trade, they rummaged in reference books, delved into etymology, and eventually came up with a professional pedigree that stretched back into the mists of antiquity.
They even found that ventriloquism received a name-check in the Bible. The first Book of Samuel tells the story of Saul, the anointed King of Israel who had failed to show sufficient ferocity in the persecution of God’s enemies. After several years of undistinguished kingship he found himself facing military humiliation at the hands of the Philistines, and applied to God for explanations and advice; but ‘the Lord answered him not.’ Saul therefore disguised himself in humble clothing and went off to consult a woman in Endor who had a reputation for wisdom. Reluctantly she set to work and called up the spirit of the prophet Samuel from beneath the ground; and Saul heard a voice telling him that God had had enough of him, that the Philistines were destined to prevail, and that he and his sons were about to meet their deaths.
The prophecy was borne out by events; but the manner of its delivery is a conundrum which has never ceased to challenge the ingenuity of theologians. If God did not want Saul to know the truth, why did he allow him to discover it through the intercession of the wise woman? Did she really have the power to conjure demons from the depths, and if so which side was she working for? How could she compel the spirit of Samuel to appear at her bidding, and anyway what was he doing in the underworld when he should have been in heaven with the Lord? Saul’s consultation with the woman of Endor makes a very strange tale whichever way you slice it.
The Bible states unequivocally that Saul heard a voice, but fails to make it clear who was speaking to him. Did the voice belong to the prophet Samuel himself, to the maga impersonating him, or to some spiritual third party? And who exactly was the wise woman anyway? In the original Hebrew she is described as ba’alat ov, an expression which may have something to do with an ability to converse with forefathers, though the dictionary disarmingly notes: ‘origin and significance totally uncertain’. Translators cannot put up with much ambiguity, however, and the Greek of the Septuagint makes her out to be a gender-confused gynaika engastrimython, a ‘woman belly-spokesman’. In the Vulgate she is mulier habens pithonem, in other words, ‘a woman with a python’ – not a snake in this case, but a demonic spirit of the kind that was supposed to have spoken through the priestesses of Apollo at Delphi. In their assaults on the problem the early theologians turned the male engastrimython into a female ventriloqua; but still no one could be sure whether the voice that spoke to Saul should be attributed to the lady herself or to some squatter who had moved into her unguarded body and taken it over. In English tradition she came to be known as the Witch of Endor, and in the King James translation she is ‘one possessed of a familiar spirit’, while the Douai version endows her with ‘a divining spirit’; in the Jerusalem Bible she becomes a ‘necromancer’ and the Revised Standard Version makes her a tawdry ‘medium’. But however she is glossed and translated, the ventriloquising woman who conjured spirits for Saul remains a garish pagan presence within the sacred precincts of the Bible.
Where theology faltered, irreverence flourished, and the Witch of Endor was too good a topic for bawdy humorists to pass up. Rabelais regarded the engastrimython or ventriloque not as a prophetic spirit but as a woman whose belly had been colonised by a demon, and he told a story about a contemporary witch from Ferrara who plied her trade as (in Urquhart’s translation) an ‘Engastrimythian Prophetess’ and a practitioner of ‘gastromancy’ or ‘ventral fatiloquency’. A well-meaning committee of lords and princes visited her in 1513, and having stripped her stark naked (‘to remove all manner of Doubt’), they began to converse with the uninvited guest who had taken up residence inside her inside. He was, as it turned out, a silly devil, who took inordinate pleasure in being addressed as Curly-Pate; but in his glee he was prepared to oblige his interlocutors by conversing in a low but distinct voice of times present and times past. When it came to the future, however, Curly-Pate fell into perplexity and tried to cover his confusion by ‘letting out a rouzing Fart’ and telling lies ‘as fast as a Dog can trot’. The awesome prophetic ventriloquist had certainly been brought down a peg or two.
In 1981, an English vent who performed under the professional name of Valentine Vox brought out a book called I Can See Your Lips Moving: The History and Art of Ventriloquism. Vox was an amateur historian in the best sense of the term – lively, eclectic and loyal. He was also susceptible to etymology, and with its aid he was able to offer his fellow disciples the chance of laying claim to a 3000-year-old inheritance. He assured them there were ‘many references to ventriloquism in the Bible’ and of course reminded them about the Pythiae or Pythonesses of Apollo, the exotic vent-priestesses who sat over a steamy chasm at Delphi allowing the voice of the god to sound out from their nether regions. And for those with more classical insecurities, he invoked the memory of Eurycles, who features not only in Aristophanes’ Wasps but also in Plato’s Sophist, where he is described as one of those characters who live like ‘an enemy in their own house, carrying a voice within their bellies to contradict them wherever they go’.
Proper historians may well look askance at such vast and tenuous genealogies. To begin a history of Victorian theatrical ventriloquism with Plato, the Delphic oracle and the Bible, they will say, is a bit like seeking the origins of modern broadcasting in a method of sowing seed by hand, or tracing the Lyceums and Coliseums of modern theatreland to their namesakes in ancient Greece and Rome. Yet this is precisely the gamble taken by Steven Connor in his new history of ventriloquism. Connor is a professor in the academic rather than the theatrical line – a Professor of Modern Literature and Theory – and has already written reassuring books on Post-Modernist Culture and Theory and Cultural Value. In Dumbstruck he has combined his skills as a literary truffle-hound with the resources of Theory to compile a fascinating inventory of the various meanings of ventriloquism, strung together to make some kind of unified story stretching from antiquity to modernity and beyond. If Connor is right, moreover, then a ‘cultural history of ventriloquism’ will also serve as an epitome for a much larger story, telling of the fantasies and anxieties which have always clustered round the idea of the voice, and eventually opening out into a history of subjectivity as such.
Connor proceeds by dividing the development of ventriloquism into three successive periods, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Auguste Comte’s three stages in the history of knowledge. His equivalent of Comte’s theological stage begins with Virgil’s descriptions of the Delphic priestesses and some early theological contortions over the Witch of Endor; it passes through several 17th-century accounts of witchcraft and possession in England; and it ends up with anthropology in 18th-century France and the garrulous Oriental vaginas of Diderot’s Bijoux indiscrets. Throughout its first epoch, Connor concludes, ventriloquism always had an outward theological reference to ‘superhuman utterance’ and exalted spirituality, but covertly it played on fear and sex and the ‘association between the female genitals and the voice’. Connor’s second period (corresponding to Comte’s metaphysical stage) comprises the 19th century – a brief epoch of ventriloquism as popular entertainment – and he despatches it with a brisk inquiry into theatrical practices in Victorian England, including some excellent excursions on the development of automated puppets. But the age of theatrical ventriloquism, according to Connor, was brought to a rapid end by the triumph of ‘technological modernity’ at the beginning of the 20th century. New inventions like telephones and radios, he thinks, weaned us from our infantile habit of regarding ventriloquial speech ‘as the voice of nature or the breath of God’ and helped us recognise that the voice can be attributed directly to ‘the dead and dumb world of matter’: we are now grown up enough, it seems, to accept that the mater-ial world can speak to us ‘on its own’, without any need for special agents either human or divine. By relegating the voice to its proper place in ‘the realm of matter itself’, the positive stage has apparently done away with ventriloquism for good.
These are large conclusions, and Connor is unfailingly entertaining and instructive as he makes his way towards them. Nevertheless, they may be rather too bulky for the conceptual structures with which he hopes to support them. He begins by asserting that the voice is essentially spatial: it ‘inhabits and occupies space’, he says, ‘and it also actively procures space for itself’: in short, ‘the voice is space.’ But if this is so (a big if, to be sure), then – so Connor thinks – we are bound to find ourselves asking where the voice really comes from. You might find this about as inane as wondering whether the sound of a piano comes from the hammers, the strings or the sounding board; and you might remember George Bernard Shaw’s cautionary tale about Vandaleur Lee – the man who taught his mother singing and much else besides – and the autopsies he performed on the cadavers of songbirds and humans in order to prove that the ‘head voice’ and ‘chest voice’ of bel canto theory are myths, the real seat of the voice being nowhere but the throat.
Of course Connor’s question is not meant to be quite so literal-minded. He is interested in what he calls ‘socio-cultural spaces’ and the ways in which the human body is ‘distributed’ through them. He has a hunch that the ‘implicated space’ of antiquity has been replaced by the ‘explicated space’ of ‘the modern world’, and that our bodies, or at least our ways of imagining them, have consequently grown harder and less permeable to ‘processes, influences and agencies coming from the outside’. He also suggests that this epochal alteration of bodily space forms part of a necessary transition in which ancient auditory responses to the world have been replaced by modern visual ones, allowing sight to reassert its natural ‘priority over hearing for human beings’.
The drift of this story is not terribly hard to resist. You would have to be the victim of a very crabby old dogma to think that the only way we can experience the world is by channel-hopping between our five senses; if you are free of this prejudice then you will be able to put your money on the far more promising idea that perception always involves the entire body and that the world presents itself to us as a joined-up whole rather than an array of five different kinds of sensation. And the argument does not flow any better when Connor says that our eyes are concerned with space while time is the business of the ears: if you must persist in analysing your five senses separately it will quickly become clear that none of them has cornered the market in either space or time, and that each of them relates in its own way to the same world of more or less durable items in space. But Connor will not be discouraged: he still insists that the voice, as an object of hearing, lacks ‘permanence and continuity’, and concludes that it ‘belongs to time’.
This conclusion may seem hard to square with Connor’s earlier assurance that ‘voice is space,’ but it rhymes with his hypothesis that hearing has been forced to yield precedence to vision in the epoch of modernity. Shifting his attention from vocal sound in general to the particular case of speech, Connor claims that while spoken language is essentially addressed to ‘the ear’, writing is simply a means of making it available to ‘the eye’, from which it seems to follow that the rise of literacy must have reinforced the world-historical triumph of space and sight over time and the ears. And this, it appears, was the last straw for ventriloquism: once the 20th century was under way, there was no longer an auditory culture to nurture it; it tried in vain to adapt to modernity by becoming ‘a largely visual phenomenon’, but the world had lost interest and before long it quietly expired.
It is another argument that can be quite easily withstood. You do not need to be a slave to Chomsky or Saussure to realise that people can recognise conventional sets of speech sounds without being able to identify the ranges of natural noises that make them up: spoken languages are perceived in terms of abstract structures (syntactic and phonemic), rather than as collections of auditory sensations. Nor do you have to be fluent in signs to realise that much the same applies to gestural languages. And when you reflect that writing systems can be expressed in sound (by spelling words out or using Morse code) or by touch (in braille or palm-writing), you may begin to suspect that they are abstract analyses of linguistic structures rather than detailed portraits of the sounds of speech, and that there is not necessarily anything particularly ‘visual’ or ‘spatial’ about writing after all.
Not only are the conceptual props which are intended to support Connor’s world-historical argument rickety: his archival evidence – intriguing as it always is – isn’t quite equal to the task either. When 20 centuries of history are being spun from a few dozen documents it is understandable that the narrative thread is sometimes stretched exceedingly thin; but the assertion that ventriloquism was over and done with at the end of the Victorian age is very unsafe indeed, and if Connor is not careful he can expect to get a real shiner from the immortal Charlie McCarthy and Archie Andrews. He tries to get round his chronological difficulty by arguing that 20th-century ventriloquism was always inherently out-of-date. Like superstition or idolatry, it seems, ventriloquism is a topic which is pronounced obsolete the moment it is named, and hence the personality-puppets of the latter-day vents were merely exercises in ‘revivalism’ or even ‘necromancy’: the prominence of self-styled vents in the 20th century can be turned into evidence that genuine ventriloquism had already ‘had its day’.
Connor ends by projecting the obsolescence of ventriloquism back into history, claiming that it has always been ‘a past without a present’, doomed to be ‘never quite on time’: it was over and done with in the 20th century, apparently, because it was over and done with from the start. The suggestion is intriguing, but it has the giddying effect of exploding the entire historical argument of the preceding four hundred pages: Connor has burst the narrative balloon he was sitting on and the unifying idea of three stages in the development of ventriloquism lies in ribbons on the ground.
If Dumbstruck is able to glide over the kinds of distinction and precaution that philosophers, linguists and historians tend to get bogged down in, the reason may be that it is the record of an uncompleted intellectual journey, a valiant bid by a professor of Theory to get back to the rough ground of history. For the past thirty years or so, Theory – or the Anglo-American mélange of Freudian psychology and Heideggerian hermeneutics that has laid claim to the name – has provided literary academics with a skeleton key to the repressed secrets of everything they read. Take any book you like, and Theory will demonstrate that it enfolds a contradiction: professedly, it will be a manifesto for spiritual and intellectual purity, for legitimacy, regularity, orderliness and determinacy; but under the threat of ‘close reading’ it will confess to a furtive hankering for all the things it officially shuns: for subversions, bodies, transgressions, hybridities, and as many varieties of polymorphous mayhem as you could possibly want. Of course the formula works like a dream: there is no such thing, after all, as a document which cannot be read as a symptom of ambivalence, and the halls of Theory need never cease to hum with contentment as the same old conclusions are reconfirmed over and over again. Still, our spirits may sink a little when Connor dilates on the things that ‘human beings’ find ‘intolerable’ (‘a sourceless voice’, for example, or ‘devilish indeterminacy’ itself); they will not be much revived when he gropes for antidotes in ‘ancient and Oriental philosophies’; and they may well take a dive when he assures us that theologians have always been obsessed with the ‘inerrable univocity’ of the Bible. The pity of these generalisations is not so much their inexactitude as their grey predictability. When it comes to constructing histories, moreover, we need concepts that will bring out differences rather than ones which simply resuscitate the same eternal half-truths over and over again. On this showing, the lamp of Theory is going to be of limited use to the historian.
Theatrical ventriloquism is in any case a far larger topic than Connor allows. Think of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, in which the entertainer Leatherhead shows off his basket of puppets and boasts of being ‘the mouth of ‘em all’ before performing a set of routines – including speaking without moving his lips and being assaulted by his puppet – which according to Connor’s timetable should not have turned up till the 19th century. Consider, too, the wider range of puppetry with voice-overs, from seaside Punch and Judy shows to the high tradition of puppet operas (Haydn wrote a few, and so did Ignaz Pleyel and Manuel de Falla). And note that puppets are far from essential to the arts of vocal versatility: remember Bottom, who undertook the heroic part of Pyramus but wanted to take the other roles as well (‘let me play Thisbe too,’ he begs, and ‘let me play the lion’). Indeed, acting as a whole could be thought of as a generalised ventriloquism, or a form of puppetry without the puppets; and according to the assiduous theatregoer Søren Kierkegaard this kind of vocal play may even be a fundamental phase in the art of existence itself.
Kierkegaard had no patience with theological notions of ventriloquism, but he (or rather his pseudonym Constantin Constantius, obtuse narrator of the novella Repetition) had no doubt about the connection between theatre and the task of becoming who we are. ‘We enigmatic individuals,’ he wrote, ‘want to see and hear ourselves; and yet it is never really ourselves we want to hear.’ He found an allegory of our predicament in the Schattenspiel (shadow-play or ombres chinoises), where children throw silhouettes onto a screen and ‘discover themselves among the shadows’. They see the outline of a gallant bandit and identify with it as if it were their own; they admire the ‘strong masculine form, the swift yet penetrating glance, and the passion written on the lines of his face’ and they give utterance to the bandit’s feelings as ‘a shadow whose voice is their own’. It was this incitement to vocal proliferation and promiscuous identification that gave theatre its ‘magic’, according to Constantius. It enabled us to ‘split ourselves up into every possible variation of ourselves, without ceasing to be ourselves in every variation’: a childish fancy perhaps, but with luck we may never grow out of it. Ventriloquism may be over and done with in Theory, but it is alive and well everywhere else.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.