History

As Webster 1913 says, the word ventriloquist comes from the Latin ventri, stomach, and loqui, speech, a translation of the Greek word engastrimythos (en, in; gaster, stomach; mythos, word or speech) denoting someone whose voice is produced from the stomach. Rather than our modern-day image of a man in a tuxedo with a wooden dummy, the first ventriloquists were mystical figures, generally women, who were thought to be possessed by spirits of various kinds.

Oracles

Eurycles was a famous engastrimyth, or ventriloquist, in Ancient Greece. He is mentioned in Aristophanes’s play The Wasps, and was supposed to be able to make oracular predictions by means of a demon that lived in his chest.

The Oracle of Delphi is not thought to have been a ventriloquial oracle, as the only accounts of that type date from much later and are unreliable, but the idea of female oracles that received prophecy from the earth in some way was certainly reinforced by the fame of the Delphic prophetesses. In fact, it was often believed that the oracular spirit entered through the vagina, and spoke through that opening as well.

As late as 1529, an Italian bishop, Augustinius Steuchus, wrote about contemporary oracles:

In our own times, we have seen ventriloquial women; as they sit, a little voice is heard to issue from their genitals and responds to questions: I would have liked to hear them, not because I attach any credence to them, but in order to gain understanding of the prestige of the demons, for they certainly have prestige, and also a miserable kind of vanity. They give rise to terrible errors and incredible calamities.

Possession

During the Christian era, ventriloquism was generally seen as possession by spirits, whether holy or unholy, a famous example of which is Elizabeth Barton, known as the Holy Maid of Kent. Barton was an English servant girl whose long illness in 1525 resulted in trances and visions of what were said to be souls in the afterlife. The Church accepted her as legitimate, and she was taken to a chapel where she was miraculously cured after a prophetic fit.

Thomas Cranmer describes the fit:

When she was brought thither and laid before the image of our Lady, her face was wonderfully disfigured, her tongue hanging out and her eyes being in a manner plucked out and laid upon her cheeks; and so, greatly disordered.
Then there was a voice heard speaking within her belly, as it had been in a tun, her lips not greatly moving; she all that while continuing by the space of three hours in a trance.
The which voice, when it told anything of the joys of heaven, it spake so sweetly and heavenly that every man was ravished with the hearing thereof. And contrary, when it told anything of hell, it spake so horribly and terribly that it put the hearers in a great fear.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth Barton took it upon herself to warn Henry VIII that divorcing Catherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn would have terrible consequences. As a result, she was arrested in 1533 and confessed (likely under torture) to having faked her visions. She was sentenced to death, and hanged in 1534.

The Maid of Kent was rather unusual in that her ventriloquism was thought to be possession by a holy spirit; most subsequent possessions were taken to be demonic, with predictably unpleasant consequences for the possessees.

Scientific Understanding

By the middle of the 18th century, scientific thought had progressed to the point where magic was not automatically thought to be the explanation for every unusual occurrence that presented itself on the village green. Some thinkers, such as for example Conyers Middleton, even went so far as to attack Church doctrine on miraculous happenings.

Middleton argued that no true miracles had occurred since the times of the Apostles, and that subsequent so-called miracles, including cases of ventriloquial prophecy, were the works of fakes and charlatans, and often the result of collusion between exorcist and possessed. Middleton:

Now may of us have seen, and may still see perhaps this day, a sort of these Ventriloquists, who by a particular formation of their organs, managed by art and practice, could speak in such a manner, as to persuade the company, that the voice did not procede (sic) from them but from some invisible being: which they could direct likewise so, as to make it seem to come, from what part of the room they pleased: by which means, weak and ignorant people have been terrified almost out of their senses, believing it to be the voice of a Spirit or Daemon. (Punctuation all Middleton’s)

Middleton also cited evidence of people who had learned to speak without tongues as further proof that it was quite possible to counterfeit these types of spirit voices.

The 1758 Encylopèdie, ou dictionnaire raissonè des sciences, des arts, et des mètiers , edited by Denis Diderot and Jacques d’Alembert, also made mention of a scientific basis for ventriloquism, while suggesting that the term itself was inappropriate:

It is very likely that supposed ventriloquists were merely tricksters, because the mechanism of the voice does not allow for the enunciation of words unless the which is modified to produce sound issues from the mouth and from the nose, and especially by the former of these two routes. Moreover, even supposing it were possible to speak by drawing air back into the lungs, it the sound would be held in the chest rather than the stomach; thus, it would be improper to call those who produces this artificial voice ventriloquists, because it could never be that they could be speaking from the stomach.

Diderot himself in fact wrote a ventriloquism-related novel, Les Bijoux indiscrets . In the novel, the imaginary sultan Mangogul has a magic ring that gives him the power to make women’s genitals (the “indiscreet jewels” of the title) speak, confessing their inmost secrets. The book was unsurprisingly banned, though more for its political satire than its racy subject matter.

Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit

Though the image of the ventriloquist with a talking dummy, e.g. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, is what immediately springs to mind for most of us, the dummy did not come into use as a standard prop until the 19th century. By the mid-18th century though, ventriloquists had begun to appear as entertainers only, without the mystical dimension to their performance, and some of these did use talking head props in their routines. They usually performed outdoors, at fairs or carnivals, and were generally regarded with the same lack of respect as other itinerant performers.

In the beginning of the 19th century, ventriloquists began to move indoors, performing in theaters and concert halls, and becoming celebrities in their own right. One of the most famous of these was Alexandre Vattemare, a French performer who popularized the “polylogue,” a dramatic scene where all the voices were performed by Vattemare, and seemed to come from all around the stage. He advertised his show as “An entirely new Comic, Characteristic, Vocalic, Mimitic, Multiformical, Maniloquous, Ubitiquarical Entertainment,” which was titled The Rogueries of Nicholas.

Vattemare was soon followed by several other famed practitioners of the ventriloquial art, including Charles Mathews and William Edward Love (who actually billed himself as a “polyphonist”). They were all celebrated by audiences and press alike, and inspired poems by many famous and not-so-famous writers of the day, including Walter Scott:

Above all, are you one individual? I know
You must be at the least, Alexandre and Co.
But I think you’re a troop–an assemblage–a mob–
And that I, as the Sheriff, must take up the job;
And, instead of rehearsing your wonders in verse,
Must read you the Riot Act, and bid you disperse!

According to Steven Connor, the author of Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (from which I got all the above quotations), “there is one literary embodiment of ventriloquism which seems to have been responsible more than any other text of this period, and perhaps any other performer or performance, for programming and keeping alive popular attitudes about ventriloquism.”

This was the wildly successful novel, The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, Ventriloquist, written by Henry Cockton, an enigmatic figure about whom little else is known. Valentine Vox was apparently a Tom Jones-style comic novel, originally serialized, with the hero having all sorts of wild adventures and playing ventriloquist tricks on various people along the way. Cockton tried to duplicate his success with a sequel, Sylvester Sound, the Somnambulist, but not even this attractively alliterated title could produce comparable sales.

Ventriloquism for Dummies

(sorry, unavoidable)

The first to popularize what we now think of as the traditional dummy was Fred Russell, a British ventriloquist working in the 1880s. His dummy, Coster Joe, was a small Cockney boy, and other more famous ventriloquists such as Vattemare and Mathews followed suit.

Of course, no discussion of ventriloquists' dummies would be complete without mentioning Charlie McCarthy. McCarthy, of course, was the inseparable partner of Edgar Bergen, the most (and possibly only) famous ventriloquist of our age. Bergen and McCarthy were, oddly, huge radio stars, and went on to make many movies together. When most of us think of ventriloquism, it is usually Charlie McCarthy, with his signature monocle, that comes to mind.

Since the death of Edgar Bergen, there has not been a widely acclaimed ventriloquial act, (besides kiddie shows like Shari Lewis and Lambchop) and generally the art is about on a par with mime on the scale of Coolness in Entertainment. What with CGI extravaganzas like The Matrix in competition, seeing some guy with a talking doll just doesn't quite measure up for a night on the town. Probably the closest thing we have these days is Puppetry of the Penis.


How To Do It

All right, so now we've gotten the history out of the way, you realize the dangers of using your ventriloquial skills to influence political figures, and understand that it is unlikely a spirit of prophecy will enter through your genitals and tell you whether you should bet on Susan Lucci in the Daytime Emmys pool.

You also feel that you probably have more than enough friends, and can afford to take the loss when some of them would prefer not to be seen with a person who talks through a dummy.

You are now ready to begin your study of ventriloquism.

The Basics

Okay, so there are basically two types of ventriloquism: Near Ventriloquism--the kind with the dummy, and Distant Ventriloquism--the kind where you "throw" your voice. Note that you can't actually throw your voice. It is only an illusion.

In my research for this node, I have read several books on the art of ventriloquism. Nearly all of them are written by Fozzie Bear-style guys with lots of really bad jokes in the little sidebar thingies, except for Edgar Bergen's. His book seems to be written with the express purpose of preventing anyone else from ever becoming a ventriloquist.

Therefore, I will ignore all of Bergen's advice and give you an overview of what the Fozzies say, as their instructions actually make sense and are physically possible. Dan Ritchard, in his Ventriloquism for the TOTAL DUMMY (capitalization his) gives a useful list of "Seven Rules of Ventriloquism":

  1. Don't move your lips or jaw.
  2. Relax your lips and keep them slightly parted.
  3. Use your tongue to make sounds.
  4. Use a contrasting voice.
  5. The actions of your partner must be synchronized to that voice.
  6. You must maintain the illusion that your partner is acting independently from you.
  7. Think beautiful thoughts. No, I don't mean that you should contemplate sunsets. I mean that if you think "bird", the chances are greater that what you say will eventually sound like "bird".

Sound Substitutions

Most sounds in English can be made fairly easily without moving the lips. (Ventriloquism in other languages is beyond the scope of this investigation, but the general principles should be the same.) The main difficulty in maintaining the ventriloquial illusion lies in substituting other sounds for those which cannot be made without visibly moving the mouth. Here is a list of these sounds, with substitutions.

W

Substitute "oo". For example, for "where", say "oo-ere". For "sweet", say "soo-eet". (For "Dude", just say "dude".)

TH

You don't need to substitute anything, but practice keeping your tongue behind your teeth so it doesn't show.

F

Substitute a soft, unvoiced "th" as in "thick". For "fork", say "thork". Remember to think "fork" and it will sound more like the real thing.

V

Substitute a voiced "th" as in "there". Make your tongue flatter, and say "than" for "van".

M

Substitute "n" or "ng". For "ham", say "hang". For "mother", say "nother".

P

Substitute "k" or "t". Try to form the "t" with your tongue farther back in the mouth than usual.

B

Substitute "g" or "d". This should be the same as "p" but voiced.

You Must Practice. No, Really, I Mean It.

Practice in front of a mirror. If you are a really big dork, you can videotape yourself.

To warm up, start out by humming and gradually work up to that motorboat noise. This will relax your lips and tongue. It's also kind of fun, as long as no one's watching.

Practice reading poems or tongue twisters without moving your mouth. Don't forget to think the word you mean, not the word you're saying.

Once you feel like you're getting used to the idea, make up a funny voice for your dummy and get craaaazy!


Sources

Bergen, Edgar. How to Become a Ventriloquist. Dover Publications, Mineola, NY. 2000 reprint of 1938 edition.

Connor, Steven. Dumbstruck: a Cultural History of Ventriloquism. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000.

Gandelman, Joe. Ventriloquism Revealed. North American Assoc. of Ventriloquists, Littleton, CO, 1995.

Ritchard, Dan. Ventriloquism for the TOTAL DUMMY. Villard Books, New York, 1987.

Ven*tril"o*quism (?), n. [See Ventriloquous.]

The act, art, or practice of speaking in such a manner that the voice appears to come, not from the person speaking, but from some other source, as from the opposite side of the room, from the cellar, etc.

 

© Webster 1913.

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