Comm 141/Jim Lee
April 18th, 2000
In ancient times, before Christianity, magic played an important role in the everyday lives of people. Magic was to the ancient people what prayer is for some today, a way of communicating and gaining power from their gods. Ancient priests took their magic very seriously, but because of the very nature of magic, trickery was inevitable and clever magicians took advantage of the superstitions of ignorant people.
In the ruins near Italy, pipelines were discovered leading to hidden chambers in which priests could hide undetected and by speaking into various conduits, could make their voices heard in almost every part of the sanctuary. This would trick the workers inside the sanctuary into believing the gods were speaking to them. And a little more than 100 years ago in China, in an obscure village a stone image stood on a platform inside a shrine. As passers would walk by they would hear the shrine speak and prophesize. Upon further examination a tube was found running from the mouth to behind the opposite wall of the statue. This tube was one in which ancient priest were assumed to speak through. Also during the Graeco-Roman period thousands of people have commented upon hearing the Egyptian statues of Memnon speak. Although people thought it to be the voice of the gods it was later found to be the effect of suns rays on combustible stones.
Magic was one of the two major elements in the study of the ancient occult. The other was divination, or the foretelling of the future. Born out of man’s desires to know the future, certain divination practices arose. This is where ventriloquism comes in. A practice that has endured in this sense is Necromancy or divination by communication with the dead. “The belief that death increases rather than diminishes a man's powers, especially his prophetic faculties, is the basis of necromancy” (13). The old Necromancer would invoke or claim to possess the spirit from the dead within him, and through this spirit is able to tell the future. “It is from the practice of necromancy that ventriloquism finds its origins”(14).
The history of Ventriloquism and the right to practice from then on out was an up hill battle. During the times of about 1500 BC the Mosaic Law given to the Israelites was that it was forbidden to practice necromancy or any other occult practices. Driven by a familiar spirit was a form of necromancy called “invoking Obh”. This was when the necromancer would bend down and feign a hollow voice that seemed to come from the lower joints or from the ground. The people believed that this voice was that of Obh an ancient spirit that could foretell the future. In Isaiah 29:4, it speaks of those who speak to invoke Obh.
The practice of necromancy carried the Death Penalty, and although this was the case it was still practiced in biblical times. In the first book of Samuel is a story of the witch of Endor. The story goes that King Saul became in trouble with the Philistine armies. He found his prayers for peace unanswered, so he asked for a well-known woman necromancer in Endor to invoke the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel for his advice. Upon her arrival she found out it was King Saul, who she was invoking the spirit for and refused, scared she would be arrested. King Saul assured her she would not be jailed and to continue the process of invoking the spirit. As the woman invoked this spirit it is said that King Saul passed out, but that a man did arise form the ground and spoke words to Saul. No one knows if it was trickery or if it did in fact happen. The controversy lives on today.
In the Greek version of the scriptures, the word “Baal Obh” is compounded of prefixes and suffixes meaning “in”, “belly” and “speaker” or belly speaker. Belly speakers or belly prophets would sometimes counterfeit spirit possession. They would do this by talking in a diffused voice engaged in a certain amount of lip control. The person watching would think that the voices they were hearing were that of the spirit coming from inside the belly speaker’s stomach. Ventriloquist diviners in the first century AD gradually became known as Pythones. But whatever they were called these foretellers of the future became very prominent figures. Even if it assured an unlawful gain it carried the people’s respect and awe.
In the reign of Augustus Caesar, emerged a new form of religion- Christianity. This religion showed no tolerance for occult practices or divination. However, somehow the practice continued to thrive. St. Clement wrote “The Ventriloquist are still held in honor by many”(79), and he placed them in high standing beside many religious peoples. Not all shared in this opinion, including Origen writing his commentary on Samuel, and St. Gregory believed that ventriloquist diviners were possessed by demons whether or not it was a mere vocal deception. This thought continued in 470AD with Constantine’s embrace of the church, as he made any such practices illegal and forbidden. Thus religious persecution began, and the witch trials followed. Anyone wanting a shilling or two would find and old decrepit body and turn them in as a witch. This continued on until between the 13th and 17th Centuries, and all records were released of divine ventriloquism during this time. Reformation brought little relief. Even for Elizabeth Barton, known as “the holy maid”. She was said to have spoken from a voice within her belly. She was executed. And in 1584 Reginald Scot published “The Discoverie of Witchcraft”. This reflected witchcraft as being evil, but not because of demon possession but only sleight of hand tricks and illusions. He devoted a chapter on Ventriloquism saying, “The Pythones spoke hollow in the bottom of their stomachs”(78). During the 16th Century there was a turning point for this practice.
In the late 16th Century Ventriloquism made a turn around and in England was gradually emerging as a form of amusement. James 1 used it as entertainment in his court and gradually the church grew more lenient toward the practice. In Austria in 1750, a new dimension was added as Baron Von Mengen began using a small doll figure in which he installed a moving mouth. By moving the mouth and synchronizing these movements with the ventriloquial voice, he gave the effect that the doll itself was talking. From there a revolution in Ventriloquism took place.
In the late 18th Century Ventriloquism was becoming a popular form of entertainment. In the North of England, James Burns, a native of Ireland was attracting large crowds in village squares and taverns performing his ventriloquial acts. Otherwise known as Count O’Burns or Squeaking Tommy he made ventriloquism a popular form of entertainment in the pubs. Thomas Haskey witnessed Burns and continued further with this form of entertainment after Burns’s death. Changing his name to Askins he made his debut on the London stage in the summer of 1796. In the 18th and 19th Centuries Ventriloquism and magicians began to make a comeback in popular entertainment. In America Richard Potter in 1801 brought popular forms of Ventriloquism to America. Potter was followed by many, but importantly in 1820 Nicholas Mari Vattermare brought this entertainment to a new plain. He started in Paris and then moved to Britain. His act contained 13 characters. He gained the respect of eminent people including Sir Walter Scott. On the side he began campaigning for free libraries all over the world and this is one of the reasons he ended up in America. He did shows in American and his success prompted a revival of the ventriloquial act and performers including himself began making money in America doing one man shows.
At the turn of the 20th Century many still misunderstood Ventriloquism as a supernatural gift that enabled the ventriloquist to “throw his voice”. And yet their success continued so much so that the individual performers began to patent their designs not only for their acts but also mainly for the puppets they used. In the USA performers like Harry Kennedy, Ed Reynan and AO Duncan enjoyed much success in the business.
However, in 1896 Fred Russell was introduced into the business. He became known as “the father of modern ventriloquism”. When he walked on London’s Palace Theatre stage carrying a single figure named Joe, who he sat on his knee, the crowd went wild! It revolutionized ventriloquism into the form of popular entertainment as we most widely recognize it today. More important however, was his format or style, a pattern most ventriloquists have followed since. He made his sidekick Joe more important than himself. “…A place that ventriloquial figures have held over human partners ever since” (79). In 1906 Fred Russell was a key figure establishing the Variety Artist Federation and in 1932 the Royal Variety Performance took part in 1950’s television shows. It was due to his efforts to improve conditions in the profession that still governs variety acts today. One of his great successors was Arthur Prince the highest paid entertainer in the business.
The beginning of the end for Ventriloquism was in 1920’s with the arrival of film. And the final blow was in 1927 when sound was added in a film called The Jazz Singer. However, ventriloquist did enjoy quite a ride in the movie industry. They made their debut in the movie, The Great Gabbo. Radio shows also stayed popular for awhile, especially with the famous Charlie McCarthy one of the most famous wooden boys not ever alive! An American Renaissance began with McCarthy and ventriloquism everywhere began to pick up. However, this popular form of entertainment was no match for the authenticity of film and television. An authenticity that was more than ready to find the faults with the illusions of ventriloquism.
The illusion of the talking figure relies upon the basic movement of the mouth, which when moved in conjunction with the ventriloquial voices gives the appearance of speaking. Mimicry is the root of the practice. Based upon the fact that the ear experiences great difficulty determining the exact source of sound that it hears. The ventriloquist takes advantage by mimicking near and distant sounds, while misdirecting the auditor. It can be acquired by application.
There are two main categories of Ventriloquism. Near Ventriloquism uses close distance as related to the figure, or doll. Distant Voice Ventriloquism comes from a distance, outside, offstage or below the floor. In production of a normal voice, three mechanical effects are involved. First there needs to be a motivating force, such as the breath. Then there needs to be a vibrator, such as the vocal folds. And finally resonators, the throat, nose and mouth cavity. Breath from the lungs travels to the larynx or voice box. In the larynx are two ligament vocal folds or cords. When air from lungs passes over these it causes them to vibrate producing a tone. The tone moves to resonators where it is amplified. From there it is the function of the articulators, the tongue teeth and lips. When a near ventriloquist speaks he perform two different voices, one for him and one for the alter ego.
Sound is produced by position of the tongue. Normally tongue lies flat and tone passes over it. Sound comes out mainly through the mouth and partly nose cavity. When ventriloquist arch their tongue up or back tone passes through the nose cavity and partially through the mouth. An example is when the “ng” sound is made, such as in song sang, or fling. The back of the tongue makes contact with the soft palate giving voice a nasal quality. Making a prolonged “ah” sound while changing the tongue from flat to arched is called the Ventriloquial Drone and is the first step in learning the speech. The second step is changing smoothly from one’s own voice to Drone. Then trying letters, then words, and finally sentences.
Lip control is very important for the ventriloquist. The letters B, P, F, M, and V are very hard to control and that is why you will see ventriloquist in the past and even today with long mustaches. To solve this problem some engage only in interior articulators while keeping the visible exterior one’s immobile. To overcome the problem of enunciating these consonants without moving lips, the ventriloquist must learn to duplicate their sounds using only the interior organs of the mouth which are unseen by the observer.
Distant Ventriloquism is slightly different. It is sometimes referred to as “throwing the voice”(164). When we produce normal speech it is amplified by the mouth and nasal cavities. At the same time this gives voice timbre and resonance. The distance and location of the listener gauges the loudness of these sounds. The principle of Distant Ventriloquism is to imitate this basic vocalization. Ventriloquist emits a vocal tone without allowing it the full benefit of the resounding system. For example the lungs fill with air and the throat becomes partially closed off. Pressure exerted by diaphragm and impeded breath is slowly released over the vocal folds, confining the tone to the larynx area. To try this yourself fill lungs with air, partially close the throat, then expel air, gradually exerting pressure with the diaphragm while emitting a prolonged “ah” sound confining tone to larynx.
Now in the 21st Century, a new form of Ventriloquism emerges. Many definitions of this term are put out into the discourse of our modern era. Steve Connor’s an academic figure defines ventriloquism as “not merely making ones voice appear from nowhere- he means the word to designate all forms which may be taken by sourceless, or dissociated or displaced voices, along with the various explications of such voices”. So, not only is he referring to this popular form of entertainment that once lived on the stage, but also any other form of disembodied voice. According to the academic journal TDR, an academic definition used today of ventriloquism is a general term for any variety of speaking for or through a represented other.” So in other words a legal document representing a company would in modern times be a form of ventriloquism. Or perhaps a congresswoman speaking on behalf of women’s rights in the workplace would be a ventriloquist.
It seems that the smallest form of ventriloquism we see today is that of the form of entertainment that ventriloquism developed into around the late 18th and 19th Centuries. That form does still exist today, but in part only through informal events, such as in churches and in children’s research. Ventriloquial entertainment is a dying species. But it can be seen now a day mostly in the world of academia as a label for certain modern discourse. How strange it seems that one word can travel through history all the way from antiquity to today, changing invariably to mean the same thing, yet not at all the same thing. Starting out as a form of invocation of a dead spirit to foretell the future, to representing the discourse of a society or formal representation of a group of people. But the one thing that holds this word together is that of another term, Dissociated Voice or Disembodied Voice. Meaning a voice coming from another source that is not one’s own. Invoking a spirit involves dissociated voice, as does ventriloquial entertainment as does a congresswoman representing not her own voice but that of her people.
Vox, Valentine. The History and Art of Ventriloquism. Hong
Kong: Kaye & Ward Ltd., 1981.
Davis, Charles B. “Reading the Ventriloquists Lips: The Performance Genre Behind the Metaphor”. TDR 42 (1999): 133-134.
Connor, Steve. “A Cultural History of Ventriloquism”. Jim Lee’s 141 Web Page, www.unc.edu/~jimlee: (1999).