Resuscitating an immoral piece of poultry

Poetry was genuinely popular during the Victorian era in a way that it has never been, before or since. As Bratton observes, social and technological innovations ‘from the growth of the industrial towns to the diversification of the periodical press’ changed the audiences for poetry and their literary taste.[21] Les Murray has thus praised the verve and variety of nineteenth-century newspaper poems in Australia, and the way in which popular journals in those days worked to cross-fertilise the high end of verbal art with the low. The Victorian period represented ‘the narrow-columned middle ground’ of poetry, before the ‘social-divide model of Australian verse’[22] had started to appear, after which literary—and, by implication, modernist—elites overruled the mass of poetry lovers.

It must be remembered that the taste for recitation arose alongside that for public reading, itself the product of an elocutionary culture that sought to regulate the voice as a sign of gentility. Philip Collins has traced the fashion for reading aloud in Britain to the establishment of Mechanics’ Institutes, where, from the 1840s, ‘readings and other forms of respectable light entertainment came to supplement (later rather to displace)’ educational lectures.[23] According to Collins, ‘The common readers’ enjoyment of some of the best authors of the age—most notably, of Tennyson and Dickens—must have been reinforced and extended by their hearing of so many of their pieces in recitals, public and private.’ As a result, ‘many people met contemporary literature as a group or communal, rather than an individual experience’.[24]

The relationship between poetry and song during this period is also important. As Murray observed: ‘[A]s in previous ages, the sharp distinction we make between poetry and song would have seemed strange.’[25] The Victorian stage was overwhelmingly musical in character, from opera and operetta down to melodrama, fairy ballets and pantomime, but its supreme popular expression was the music hall, in which ‘all branches of popular entertainment came to be absorbed’.[26] With its comic monologues and sentimental ballads, music hall was a powerful influence on the popularity of recitation, and artists such as Bransby Williams, renowned for his rendition of J. Milton Hayes’ The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God, became famous. In this context, a clear distinction between recitation and character sketches and songs is often difficult, especially as songs performed by actors were sometimes delivered in a kind of Sprechgesang. In Australia, music halls, as such, had a relatively short history, and were overtaken in the late 1860s by variety theatres, which appealed to a broader range of classes, and which in turn laid the foundation for the later Tivoli vaudeville circuit, though the style remained derivative of English music hall.[27]

Accordingly, the twentieth-century vaudeville comic Mo (Roy Rene) had a routine in which he attempted to recite The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God, only to be interrupted constantly by stooges planted in the audience. Driven to distraction, Mo would splutter, ‘Oh this is lovely! This is beautiful! A gentleman and a scholar can’t get up to resuscitate an immoral piece of poultry without being got at!’[28] But even Mo could take himself quite seriously as a reciter. On stage and later on radio, he would occasionally come out with Life is a Very Funny Proposition After All, a mangled version of a piece of homespun wisdom by the American popular entertainer George M. Cohan. As Alexander Macdonald recalled:

He’d long forgotten most of the words of this piteous lament, but that was no obstacle. He filled in with a few of his own. And the finished product emerged as quite a remarkable length of double-talk:

Life is a very funny proposition after all,

Imagination, hypocrisy and gall,

With not much to say, and two meals a day,

And when you’re broke you’re always in the way.

And waiting and waiting, and still no curtain call…

Life is a very funny proposition after all.

After putting this across he’d come back stage flushed with triumph. ‘I had the mugs weeping,’ he’d say, ‘Bloody well weeping.’

‘They were weeping, all right,’ Macdonald added, ‘weeping with laughter.’[29] Yet Fred Parsons, Macdonald’s co-writer on the Colgate–Palmolive Radio Unit, who tells much the same story, stated that the audience ‘would hang on every word’ and give the comic ‘a terrific hand’.[30]

These stories of Mo’s recitations recall the 1940s, when he was a national celebrity, and they mark not only the twilight of public recitation as a performance art but two distinct attitudes to it. On the one hand, the postures and poetic discourse of the reciter provide easy objects of satire. On the other hand, publicly performed verse—however trite—was still able to move an audience. Mo could, with some justification, believe that his rendering of Life is a Very Funny Proposition After All left the mugs in tears.

Outside of music hall and vaudeville, recitation was a predominantly genteel activity, a perceived social accomplishment in the Victorians’ endless quest for self-improvement. Middle-class audiences who wouldn’t dream of joining the throng ‘Down at the Old Bull and Bush’ could hear sensational, pathetic or comic verses performed in the parlour or concert hall. As Bratton observes, ‘[P]erformers like Bransby Williams…were acceptable not for their personal gifts or background but because their material was common to all.’ She describes a style of presentation that ‘could be transposed from music hall to concert room, even to church hall or private house’:

The ingredients were a strong voice, and a magic lantern: the performer stood in strong spot-light or in dramatic silhouette, and a series of slides depicting scenes in the ballad were thrown on the wall or screen behind, while the artist delivered the ballad with all the dramatic gesturing and vocal acrobatics at his or her command.[31]

As a means of showcasing elocutionary skill, recitation was also part of a professional stage actor’s training.[32] Kenneth Pickering writes: ‘It is easy for us to overlook the importance of voice to the nineteenth-century actor and audience…[but] elocutionary display was an accepted and integral part of theatre’; indeed, ‘[t]o some extent “elocution” became synonymous with acting’.[33] This involved acquiring a knowledge of prosody, as well as a facility for the semi-dramatic recital of poetry. (It should be recalled, too, that verse plays were commonly produced in the Victorian era; not just those of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but what we would now regard as the closet dramas of poets from Byron to Tennyson.) Some of the great Victorian actors became identified with their rendition of particular poems—for example, Henry Irving with Thomas Hood’s eerie confessional The Dream of Eugene Aram—and the widespread popularity of recitation produced a new kind of professional platform recitalist who would often use music to enhance the emotional effect.[34] In Australia, one such was Lawrence Campbell, who was seen as pre-eminent in his field,[35] and a typical recital was described in the Theatre Magazine in 1905:

The principal interest in an entirely new programme will centre [on] Mr Campbell’s delivery of Tennyson’s well-known poem, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, with a piano, violin and ’cello accompaniment.

Other elocutionary items will include a selection from Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I, characters represented—Malcolm, Macduff, and Rosse [sic]. ‘The Village Priest’, by Farcalladen Moor, with musical accompaniment by Miss Lilian Frost; and two humorous sketches, ‘The Family Vault’, by Max Adler, and the ‘Two Scars’, by Overton.[36]

Though a distinction was drawn between platform and stage performance, the perceived benefits of elocutionary training allowed considerable overlap. Theatre Magazine described veteran actor William Holman as ‘one of the most popular reciters and successful teachers of elocution in Sydney’, who had coached state and federal MPs—including his own son, the future Labor Premier W. A. Holman—in voice production.[37] Advertisements in the journal for drama teachers constantly link platform and stage. Holman offered lessons in ‘elocution, voice culture, dramatic art’, and Campbell described himself as a ‘teacher of elocution and dramatic art’.[38] Actor-manager Duncan Macdougall, who set up Sydney’s pioneering Playbox Theatre in the 1920s, began his career as a teacher of elocution and trained future Presbyterian ministers in public speaking at St Andrew’s College at Sydney University.[39]

The solid popularity of recitation in the early 1900s makes its sudden decline by mid-century the more remarkable. After all, it had behind it the institutional support of the education system and many prominent people in public life, including some in what we would now call the entertainment industries. Encouraged by a network of teachers of elocution, and fed by an ever-expanding range of recitation books, the wild suburban reciter was in his glory. To find out why public taste turned so decidedly against him—why Kodak wanted to ‘Bag his head and bear him swiftly through the night’—we need to consider some effects of the new audial landscape that arrived with the turn of a dial shortly after World War I.