Elocutionary Arts

Exploring the lost practices and performers of recitation

Blanche Hawley, reader, and the list of her repertoire, which included serious, humorous, and dialect readings.  Popular works on her list include Lasca, Aux Italiens, Out to Old Aunt Mary’s, Little Boy Blue, Irishman’s PanoramaCuddle Doon, and others.

[Courtesy of Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century, University of Iowa Libraries, Special Collections]

1905 Speech Class, John Tarleton College, now Tarleton State University, Texas

"From the early beginning of John Tarleton College, oratory was included in the curriculum. As stated in the 1902/03 bulletin, the oratory department was designed to teach oratory as an art, to develop in the student a knowledge of his powers in expression, and to work until the strain and roughness disappeared and the animation was made attractive.

 The 1902/03 oratory department had 34 students and the elocution class consisted of nine members. Other bulletins stated that expression must come from within outward, with naturalness being the highest form of art with which to manifest the effect of a true conception of a truth as directly and simply as possible. The expression curriculum seeked to develop the originality and awaken the power of each student.” 
Courtesy of Tarleton Library Blog
"The Genius of Humor" by Clifford Harrison, in Voice, Speech and Gesture, edited by Robert D. Blackman (1904)

"The Genius of Humor" by Clifford Harrison, in Voice, Speech and Gesture, edited by Robert D. Blackman (1904)

Top: Flag drill, Opera House, Hartford, Michigan

Bottom: Elocution class dressed for a final show, South Hetton, 1939. Courtesy of Durham City Council, UK

Program for a Literary and Musical Entertainment by the ladies of the Mystic Orthodox Society, Music Hall, Medford, Massachusetts
Pianist Anton Rubinstein (1824-1894), the subject of “How Ruby Played”
"Now that Rubinstein is dead and all the world is doing him honor in some way or another, the American elocutionists ought to do their part by forever banning from their ‘selections that touching monologue entitled ‘How Ruby Played.’ There is a certain respect that is due to the dead."
—Willa Cather, Nebraska State Journal, 25 November 1894

Pianist Anton Rubinstein (1824-1894), the subject of “How Ruby Played”

"Now that Rubinstein is dead and all the world is doing him honor in some way or another, the American elocutionists ought to do their part by forever banning from their ‘selections that touching monologue entitled ‘How Ruby Played.’ There is a certain respect that is due to the dead."

—Willa Cather, Nebraska State Journal, 25 November 1894

Excerpt from JUD. BROWNIN’S ACCOUNT OF RUBINSTEIN’S PLAYING (or, HOW RUBY PLAYED)

by George Bagby (1828-1883)

“When he first sot down he ’peared to keer mighty little ’bout playin’, and wished he hadn’t come. He tweedle-leedled a little on the trible, and twoodle-oodle-oodled some on the bass—just foolin’ and boxin’ the thing’s jaws for bein’ in his way. And I says to a man settin’ next to me, s’I, ‘What sort of fool playin’ is that?’ And he says, ‘Heish!’ But presently his hands commenced chasin’ one ’nother up and down the keys, like a passel of rats scamperin’ through a garret very swift. Parts of it was sweet, though, and reminded me of a sugar squirrel turnin’ the wheel of a candy cage. ‘Now,’ I says to my neighbor, ‘he’s showing’ off. He thinks he’s a-doin’ of it; but he ain’t got no idee, no plan of nuthin’. If he’d play me up a tune of some kind or other, I’d’—

“But my neighbor says, ‘Heish!’ very impatient.

“I was just about to git up and go home, bein’ tired of that foolishness, when I heard a little bird wakin’ up away off in the woods, and callin’ sleepy-like to his mate, and I looked up and I see that Ruben was beginnin’ to take interest in his business, and I set down agin. It was the peep of day. The light come faint from the east, the breeze blowed gentle and fresh, some more birds waked up in the orchard, then some more in the trees near the house, and all begun singin’ together. People begun to stir, and the gal opened the shutters. Just then the first beam of the sun fell upon the blossoms; a leetle more and it techt the roses on the bushes, and the next thing it was broad day; the sun fairly blazed; the birds sang like they’d split their little throats; all the leaves was movin’, and flashin’ diamonds of dew, and the whole wide world was bright and happy as a king. Seemed to me like there was a good breakfast in every house in the land, and not a sick child or woman anywhere. It was a fine mornin’.

“And I says to my neighbor, ‘that’s music, that is.’

“But he glared at me like he’d like to cut my throat.

“Presently the wind turned; it begun to thicken up, and a kind of gray mist come over things; I got low-spirited d’rectly. Then a silver rain began to fall; I could see the drops touch the ground; some flashed up like long pearl ear-rings; and the rest rolled away like round rubies. It was pretty, but melancholy. Then the pearls gathered themselves into long strands and necklaces, and then they melted into thin silver streams running between golden gravels, and then the streams joined each other at the bottom of the hill, and made a brook that flowed silent except that you could kinder see the music specially when the bushes on the banks moved as the music went along down the valley. I could smell the flowers in the meadows. But the sun didn’t shine, nor the birds sing; it was a foggy day, but not cold. Then the sun went down, it got dark, the wind moaned and wept like a lost child for its dead mother, and I could a-got up then and there and preached a better sermon than any I ever listened to. There wasn’t a thing in the world left to live for, not a blame thing, and yet I didn’t want the music to stop one bit. It was happier to be miserable than to be happy without being miserable. I couldn’t understand it. . . . . . . Then, all of a sudden, old Ruben changed his tune. He ripped and he rar’d, he tipped and he tar’d, he pranced and he charged like the grand entry at a circus. ’Peared to me like all the gas in the house was turned on at once, things got so bright, and I hilt up my head, ready to look any man in the face, and not afeared of nothin’. It was a circus, and a brass band, and a big ball, all goin’ on at the same time. He lit into them keys like a thousand of brick, he gave ’em no rest, day nor night; he set every living joint in me agoin’, and not bein’ able to stand it no longer, I jumpt spang onto my seat, and jest hollered:

“‘Go it, my Rube!

“Every blamed man, woman, and child in the house riz on me, and shouted ‘Put him out! Put him out!’

“With that some several p’licemen run up, and I had to simmer down. But I would a fit any fool that laid hands on me, for I was bound to hear Ruby out or die.

“He had changed his tune agin. He hopt-light ladies and tip-toed fine from eend to eend of the key-board. He played soft, and low, and solemn. I heard the church bells over the hills. The candles in heaven was lit, one by one. I saw the stars rise. The great organ of eternity began to play from the world’s end to the world’s end, and all the angels went to prayers. Then the music changed to water, full of feeling that couldn’t be thought, and began to drop—drip, drop, drip, drop—clear and sweet, like tears of joy fallin’ into a lake of glory.

“He stopt a minute or two, to fetch breath. Then he got mad. He run his fingers through his hair, he shoved up his sleeves, he opened his coat-tails a leetle further, he drug up his stool, he leaned over, and, sir, he just went for that old pianner. He slapt her face, he boxed her jaws, he pulled her nose, he pinched her ears, and he scratched her cheeks, till she farly yelled. He knockt her down and he stompt on her shameful. She bellowed like a bull, she bleated like a calf, she howled like a hound, she squealed like a pig, she shrieked like a rat, and then he wouldn’t let her up. He run a quarter-stretch down the low grounds of the bass, till he got clean into the bowels of the earth, and you heard thunder galloping after thunder, through the hollows and caves of perdition; and then he fox-chased his right hand with his left till he got away out of the trible into the clouds, whar the notes was finer than the pints of cambric needles, and you couldn’t hear nothin’ but the shadders of ’em. And then he wouldn’t let the old pianner go. He fetchet up his right wing, he fetcht up his left wing, he fetcht up his center, he fetcht up his reserves. He fired by file, he fired by platoons, by company, by regiments, and by brigades. He opened his cannon, siege-guns down thar, Napoleons here, twelve-pounders yonder, big guns, little guns, middle-sized guns, round shot, shell, shrapnel, grape, canister, mortars, mines, and magazines, every livin’ battery and bomb a goin’ at the same time. The house trembled, the lights danced, the walls shuk, the floor come up, the ceilin’ come down, the sky split, the ground rockt—Bang! With that bang! he lifted hisself bodily into the ar’, and he come down with his knees, his ten fingers, his ten toes, his elbows, and his nose, strikin’ every single solitary key on that pianner at the same time. The thing busted and went off into seventeen hundred and fifty-seven thousand five hundred and forty-two hemi-demi-semi-quivers, and I know’d no mo’.”

Postcard of elocution class, Valparaiso University, postmarked December  14, 1909. 
Collection of Stephen R. Shook.
Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar giving a recitation at the National Cash Register Company (ca. 1890s?).  Photo courtesy of NCR Archives at Montgomery County Historical Society via National Park Service.

Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar giving a recitation at the National Cash Register Company (ca. 1890s?).  Photo courtesy of NCR Archives at Montgomery County Historical Society via National Park Service.

Cover of a book of poetry of James Whitcomb Riley, with the title taken from his poem, “The Elf Child,” or “Little Orphant Annie,” and a photo of Riley with children.

Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) produced some of the most recited poetry.  His popular and sentimental works also included “The Raggedy Man,” “The Happy Little Cripple,” “An Old Sweetheart of Mine,” “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s,” and “When the Frost is on the Punkin.” Riley was known for his portrayals of children and his “Hoosier dialect” poems.