Account of the Performances of the Ventriloquist M. Fitz-James. 

M. Fitz-James, a celebrated ventriloquist, who performed in Paris in 1802, exhibited his art in London in 1803. Mr. William Nicholson, an acute and sagacious observer, has given the following account of his performances.

After a comic piece had been read by Monsieur Volange, M. Fitz-James, who was sitting among the audience, went forward and expressed his suspicion that the ventriloquism was to be performed by the voices of persons concealed under a platform, which was covered with green cloth. Replies were given to his observations apparently from beneath the stage; and he followed the voices with the action and manner of a person whose curiosity was strongly excited, making remarks in his own voice, and answering rapidly and immediately in a voice which no one would have ascribed to him. He then addressed a bust, which appeared to answer his questions in character; and after conversing with another bust in the same manner, he turned round, and, in a neat and perspicuous speech, explained the nature of the subject of our attention; and from what he stated and exhibited before us, it appeared that by long practice he had acquired the facility of speaking during the inspiration of the breath with nearly the same articulation, though not so loud, nor so variously modulated, as the ordinary voice formed by expiration of the air. The unusual voice being formed in the cavity of the lungs is very different in effect from the other. Perhaps it may issue in great measure through the trunk of the individual. We should scarcely be disposed to ascribe any definite direction to it, and, consequently, are readily led to suppose it to come from the place best adapted to what was said. So that when he went to the door and asked, "Are you there?" to a person supposed to be in the passage, the answer in the unusual voice was immediately ascribed by the audience to a person actually in the passage; and upon shutting the door and withdrawing from it, when he turned round, directing his voice to the door, and said, "Stay there till I call you." The answer, which was lower, and well-adapted to the supposed distance and obstacle interposed, appeared still more strikingly to be out of the room. He then looked up to the ceiling, and called out in his own voice, "What are you doing above? - Do you intend to come down?" to which an immediate answer was given, which seemed to be in the room above. "I am coming down directly." The same deception was practised, on the supposition of a person being under the floor, who answered in the unusual but a very different voice from the other, "that he was down in the cellar putting away some wine." An excellent deception of the watchman crying the hour on the street, and approaching nearer the house till he came opposite the window, was practised. Our attention was directed to the street by the marked attention which Fitz-James himself appeared to pay to the sound. He threw up the sash and asked the hour, which was immediately answered in the same tone, but clearer and louder; but upon his shutting the window again, the watchman proceeded less audibly, and all at once the voice became very faint; and Fitz-James, in his natural voice, then said, he has turned the corner. In all these instances, as well as others which were exhibited to the very great entertainment and surprise of the spectators, the acute observer will perceive that the direction of the sound was imaginary, and arose entirely from the well-studied and skillful combinations of the performer. Other scenes which were to follow required the imagination to be too completely misled to admit of the actor being seen. He went behind a folding screen in one corner of the room, when he counterfeited the knocking at a door. One person called from within, and was answered by a different person from without, who was admitted; and we found, from the conversation of the parties, that the latter was in pain, and desirous of having a tooth extracted. The dialogue, and all the particulars of the operation that followed, would require a long discourse, if I were to attempt to describe them to the reader. The imitation of the natural and modulated voices of the operator, encouraging, soothing, and talking with his patient, the confusion, terror, and apprehension of the sufferer, the inarticulate noise produced by the chairs and apparatus, upon the whole, constituted a mass of sounds which produced a strange but comic effect. Loose observers would not have hesitated to assert that they heard more than one voice at a time; and although this certainly could not be the case, and it did not appear so to me, yet the transitions were so instantaneous, without the least pause between, that the notion might be very easily generated. The removal of the screen satisfied the spectators that one performer had effected the whole.

The actor then proceeded to show us specimens of his art as a mimic; but here the power he had acquired over the muscles of his face was fully as strange as the modulations of his voice., In several instances he caused the opposite muscles to act differently from each other; so that while one side o his face expressed mirth and laughter, the other side appeared to be weeping. About eight or ten faces were shown to us in succession as he came from behind the screen, which,m together with the general habits and gait of the individual, totally altered him.

In one instance he was tall, thin, and melancholic; and the instant afterwards, with no greater interval of time than to pass round behind the screen, he appeared bloated with obesity, and staggering with fulness. The same man at one time exhibited his face simple, unaffected, and void of character, and the next moment it was covered with wrinkles expressing slyness, mirth, and whim of different descriptions. How far this discipline may be easy or difficult I know not, but he certainly appeared to me to be far superior to the most practised masters of the countenance I have ever seen.

During this exhibition, he imitated the sound of an organ, the ringing of a bell, the noises produced by the great hydraulic machine of Marly, and the opening and shutting of a snuff-box.

His principal performance, however, consisted in the debates at the meeting of Nanterre, in which there were twenty different speakers, as is asserted in his advertisement; and certainly the number of different voices was very great.

Much entertainment was afforded by the subject, which was taken from the late times of anarchy and convulsion in France, when the lowest, most ignorant part of society, was called upon to decide the fate of a whole people by the energies of folly and brute violence. The same remark may be applied to this debate as to the other scene respecting tooth-drawing, namely, that the quick and sudden transitions, and the great differences in the voices, gave the audience various notions, as well with regard to the number of speakers, as to their positions, and the direction of their voices."

M. Richerand, who saw the performances of Fitz-James at Paris, takes a different view of the matter from Mr Nicholson. He says, that every time the ventriloquist exerted this unusual peculiarity, he suffered distension in the epigastric region; that sometimes he perceived the wind rolling even lower; and that he could not long continue the exertion without fatigue. Richerand believes that the whole mechanism of this art consists in a slow, gradual expiration, drawn in such a way that the artist either makes use of the influence exerted by volition over the muscles of the parietes of the thorax, or that he keeps the epiglottis down by the base of the tongue, the apex of which is not carried beyond the dental arches.

He always made a strong inspiration just before this long expiration, and this conveyed into the lungs a considerable mass of air, the exit of which he managed with such address. Repletion of the stomach, therefore, greatly incommoded the talent of M. Fitz-James, by preventing the diaphragm from descending sufficiently to admit a dilatation of the thorax, in proportion to the quantity of air that the lungs should receive. By accelerating or retarding the exit of the air, he can imitate different voices, and induce his auditors to believe that the interlocutors of a dialogue kept up by himself alone are placed at different distances. (To be continued in next Number.) [In fact, never continued.]

From `Account of the Performances of different Ventriloquists, with Observations on the Art of Ventriloquism', Edinburgh Journal of Science, 9 (1828) [252-9], pp. 256-9.

Compiled by Steven Connor. as part of The Dumbstruck Archive, a continuing, online supplement to Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).