George Smith, Memoirs and Anecdotes of Mr. Love, the Polyphonist

This extract is a collation of two later editions of Smith's Memoirs and Anecdotes of Mr. Love, of which many versions exist.

The basis of the extract is an undated edition published some time after the 1831 edition, which it revises; George Smith, Memoirs and Anecdotes of Mr. Love, the Polyphonist; To Which is Added An Explanation of the Phenomena of Polyphony...(London: n.d.), pp. 10-14. Collated with it in this colour are the substantial additions introduced in a later edition based on it, as follows: George Smith, Programme of the Entertainment: Preceded by Memoirs of Mr. Love, the Dramatic Polyphonist; Remarks on Single-Handed Entertainments; Anecdotes of Eminent By-Gone Professors; An Explanation of the Phenomena of Polyphony, &c.; Being Mr. Love's Improvement in Point of Distance, Power, Number of Voices, and Variety of Expression, On the Art of the Ventriloquist; In Which the Errors of Writers on the Subject, and the Impositions Practised on the Public By Pretended Teachers and Lecturers on the Talent, Are Clearly Pointed Out (London: n.d;  title-page reads 'Principally Selected and Abridged From the Octavo Volume Published By W. Kenneth, 1856'), pp. 3, 16-19, 20. Footnotes in the original texts are given in square brackets here.

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).

{When we take a retrospective glance at Ventriloquial Performances, as they were presented in this country forty years since, and behold them in the improved state they have attained in this present day - when we view the simple Ventriloquist, with his thin, solitary, fictitious voice, usually given to the insignificant automaton he carried in his knapsack; or produced from no greater apparent distance than from the hats, pockets, or persons of the by-standers, who were not unfrequently introduced upon the stage to facilitate the operation - when we contrast such bald and primitive illusory effects as these, with the ingeniously-constructed Entertainments, aided by the numerous characteristic assumptions, visionary personages, and rapid and effective changes of costumes and appointments, together with the still more astonishing alterations of countenance and figure, presented by the artist whose name appears upon our title-page, we feel that it is difficult to predict where improvement is to cease. Now that the antiquated system practised by the class of performers belonging to the by-gone time referred to, may be said to be fairly broken up, or confined to the most insignificant field of operation, it is impossible to say what unlooked-for vocal effects human ingenuity may be capable of achieving. In the sciences, and what are called the useful arts of life, we daily behold discoveries and improvements which appear little short of miraculous; and it is scarcely too much to expect, that in those which are mainly intended to occupy our moments of mirth and relaxation, a corresponding advance should be apparent.} 

{It has been remarked by physiologists, that in those cases in which the ventriloquial effects have been produced by the female organs of speech, there has always been a marked deficiency of power, that the artifical voices have been imperfectly defined, and that in number they have rarely exceeded two or three.}  

We shall now present the reader with the views of several scientific characters, as to the manner in which the various singular phenomena of Polyphony are effected. Considerable diversity of opinion upon this subject has always existed; and this is, doubtless, to be attributed to the very great rarity of meeting with the endowment in perfection: to the limited opportunities which those who have written on the art have possessed, of conferring with talented professors of it: and to the imperfect notion physiologists in general entertain of its first principles. The intelligent reader, who may be curious enough to interest himself upon the point, may by having many opinions placed before him at one view, be assisted in forming a judgment of his own, which may be more satisfactory to himself, than any among the number which have hitherto been presented to public notice. 

Mr Nicholson was of opinion, that artists in this line, by continual practice from childhood, acquire the power of speaking during inspiration, with the same articulation as the ordinary voice, which is formed by expiration. 

M. Richerand thinks otherwise. He says, that every time a professor of this art exhibits his powers, he suffers distension in the epigastric region; and supposes that the mechanism of the art consists in a slow, gradual expiration, drawn in such a way, that the artist either makes use of influence exerted by volition over 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 observes, that talented professors in this way possess the power of making a preter-naturally strong inspiration just before the long expiration; and thus convey into the lungs an immense quantity of air, by the artistical management of the egress of which, they produce such astonishing effects upon the hearing and imagination of their auditors. 

M. Magendie asserts, that professors of the Acoustic Art, although possessing no internal organization essentially different from the generality of mankind, invariably possess organs of voice and speech of unusual strength, suppleness, and flexibility. 

He says that experience has taught us instinctively, that sounds are frequently altered by a variety of causes: for example, that they become weak, more confused, and that their expression varies according as they are at a less or greater distance from us. Let it be supposed that a man at the bottom of a well is desirous of speaking to another at the top; he calls out, but his voice will not reach the ear of the person above, until it has received a certain modification dependant [sic] upon the distance. 

"Now if a person pay a particular attention to this modification, and endeavour to imitate it, he may be able to produce a vocal deception, which by constant practice would deceive the ear in the same manner as the sight of objects through a reversed telescope would deceive the eye. These illusions will, of course, be more or less numerous and complete, in proportion to the talent of the performer." Monsieur Magendie is doubtless in error, in common with many persons, to suppose that the vocal deception here spoken of, is produced in the same manner as genuine Polyphony. The deception referred to could not be produced, except by expansion of the muscles of the chest; whereas Polyphony, if genuine, is always caused by compression. It appears probable that he has been misled, by making observations upon some persons who have professed the art without possessing it; for it is matter of notoriety, that individuals have of late years put in a claim to the appellation of Ventriloquists, &c., and have even succeeded (by producing a certain amount of mirth and laughter) in affording some degree of amusement in public; and, at various intervals, during the last thirty years, many unprincipled charlatans have had the assurance and dishonesty to profess to teach it, and have frequently by these fraudulent pretences, realized considerable sums, without possessing the smallest portion of the genuine talent; but simply by the employment of mere mimicry, and the vocal deception spoken of by M. Magendie: - but this weak and trifling illusion, if it is worthy of the name, falls immeasurably short of the real power, in point of distance, power, number of voices, and variety of expression. It may not be unnecessary to add, that these self-styled teachers of the art, have never succeeded in imparting what themselves could seldom accomplish but in a very imperfect and unsatisfactory manner. Could they, by any possibility, succeed in it, as they profess to be able to do, it would put an end to all discussion on the subject at once. But, as we have observed, they have never been found capable of communicating it; and it may fairly be presumed, that - notwithstanding all the pretension they may make - they never will. 

The fact is that certain enthusiasts, ignorant of its true principles, occasionally fancy themselves possessed of ventriloquial power; and, being perhaps of opinion that some profit may be realized by its development and public exhibition, resolve to practise incessantly, and devote the whole of their energies to its cultivation. After the consumption of much time and labour, and incurring imminent risk of acquiring phthisis, bronchitis, and other diseases of the lungs and throat, by their unusual exertions, these mistaken persons are at length compelled to submit to the mortification of discovering that their hopes are visionary, and that there is no method of manufacturing ventriloquists (that is, true ones,) unless Nature has commenced the operation by placing at the disposal of the artist a certain quality of voice adapted to the purpose. However, their past labour and application must not be thrown away; and as they cannot venture to give an advertised exhibition of the art in public, which would be even tolerated, they set up for lecturers on the subject; and by asserting, in the face of all received opinions, the possibility of acquiring that power, in which they have not been able to attain even a moderate degree of proficiency, attract public attention towards themselves and their novel theories; and probably by this artful device realize in some cases, as much profit, as though they were as highly accomplished in the art as they could have wished themselves to be. The public, as may be expected, is quite willing to tolerate a very inferior specimen of vocal power, delivered by way of illustration in a so called philosophical and scientific lecture, when they would hiss down the same specimen in a regularly advertised entertainment. Occasionally the names of artists of celebrity are inserted in the bills and announcements of the merest pretenders, who profess to give imitations of the ventriloquial and polyphonic effects produced by some of the performers referred to. The object of this device is plain enough. Although the pretenders are quite incapable of producing a genuine ventriloquy in any form, the introduction of what they call imitations of the characteristic peculiarities of some celebrated performer, gives them a sort of pretext for inserting the adjectives "ventriloquial," "polyphonic," &c., in their fraudulent manifestos. 

Thus it may be perceived that the faculty may be imitated to a very considerable extent in the manner spoken of by M. Magendie, by persons who have flexible voices, a good ear, and a turn for mimicry; but however the IMITATION may, under particular circumstances, be made to deceive the ear, and entertain an audience for a short time, it would not bear comparison, for a moment, if brought into juxtaposition with the genuine accomplishment. Many pseudo-ventriloquists have at different times appeared before the public; and as, fortunately for the subjects they had in view, the art is less generally understood than almost any other, they have occasionally succeeded in causing the majority of their auditors to believe that they possessed the talent of ventriloquism in reality. Were the hearers, however, to witness the exertions of a genuine artist immediately after the imitator, the contrast would be as obvious to their senses as the difference between a waxen model and a living form. Were those hearers, however, to witness the exertions of a genuine artist immediately after the imitator, the contrast would be as obvious to their senses, as to [sic] the difference between the inanimate expression of a waxen model, and the grace and beauty of a living form - notwithstanding the effects produced by the counterfeit ventriloquy are sometimes found to resemble, but of course in a very inferior degree - those produced by the genuine talent. 

From the foregoing remarks it will be seen that many persons may suppose that they have heard the effects of Polyphony, who, in reality, have never witnessed any thing but an imitation, and possibly a very bungling and imperfect imitation of it; and we may here mention that one or two individuals (underlings, it is said, at some of the minor theatres) have been lately in the habit of obtaining admission on various false and fraudulent pretenses into the rooms engaged for Mr. Love's entertainments in London, and elsewhere, for the purpose, as it has since appeared, of transferring, as well as their memories (aided, in some instances, by the active employment of their pencils, and pocket memorandum-books during the whole time of the performance) would enable them, the most prominent and effective portions of Mr. Love's dialogues and sketches to their own brains. It had also been customary for them to deliver these mutilated remnants of pieces, at a low price of admission, at some of the obscure places of resort which are to be met with in most large towns. The garbled performances of the class of individuals referred to, afford an excellent illustration of the vocal deceptions just spoken of. Although ventriloquism or polyphony is almost entirely out of the question in these exhibitions, an effect is produced, somewhat resembling it; a most imperfect imitation, but still sufficiently tolerable, when the performer stands at some distance from his hearers, to pass current in the absence of the genuine talent; especially with audiences not possessed of any remarkable powers of discrimination. In these spurious ventriloquisms - although they may, and do, to a certain extent, serve as a vehicle for the introduction of comic dialogue, and answer the purposes of more transient amusement - astonishment, or any feeling akin to it, on the part of the auditor, is rarely manifested; the scientific enquirer witnesses little worthy of remark or explanation, and looks in vain for the delicate inflexions, and intonations, that give expression, and power, and nature, to the genuine accomplishment. These unblushing dishononourable and degraded plagiarists would most probably have been left entirely unnoticed in the undisturbed enjoyment of the meagre profits of their own piracies, but that it has lately been their custom to copy also the bills and public announcements of Mr. Love, almost word for word; and in a recent instance, during Mr. Love's absence on the continent, a professor of this kind, in London, venturing a little further than his predecessors, had the hardihood to make the experiment of assuming also HIS NAME, and at the same rooms, the London Tavern, which he had occupied the season previously. The pretender succeeded so far as to attract a tolerably crowded audience for one night, but the imposition being instantly detected, he found it prudent to pocket the amount received at the doors, and decamp with all imaginable expedition. Since Mr. Love's visit to the United States, several of his pieces have been taken by inferior artists, who have attended his rooms for a dozen nights in succession, for the purpose of writing down as many passages as possible, and afterwards putting them together, and in this manner producing a mutilated and wretched and vulgar copy. It will, no doubt, be observed, that, in almost all of the instances of the kind referred to, the greater part of the evening is occupied with feats of juggling, balancing, legerdemain, and other tricky and unintellectual frivolities; expedients to which a genuine vocal artist was never known to have recourse. It will, no doubt, be recollected that, in many instances, the greater part of the evening is occupied with phantasmagoria, and the smaller optical effects; or with feats of dexterity, legerdemain, and numerous other trickery and unintellectual performances, having no kind of connection, and not at all in harmony, with the vocal power advertised, a class of expedient in which juggle, fraud, confederacy, and other kindred devices, play a conspicuous part, and too often usurp the place of genuine talent and legitimate skill. [The expedients referred to are in general monstrously out of keeping with the intellectual character of an entertainment of the kind announced - a species of performance which is intended for the display, to the best advantage, of certain native vocal powers, and in which no charlatanerie or illusory effects can properly be permitted, unless such illusory effects are produced in a natural way, and not by any extraneous adjuncts or apparatus whatever. The obliquity of understanding which prevails on this subject among many persons is to be regretted. It is simply unjust and absurd to class the illusions of the genuine ventriloquist in the same category with the tricky effects of the juggler and the mountebank. The one exercises a gift bestowed on him by Nature; he produces illusory effects of the same legitimate character as those obtained by painting, optics, and dramatic representation; and which may be continually reproduced at pleasure; the other, by the use of previously-adjusted mechanical contrivances, aided in most cases by a concealed confederate, or several of them, besides a busy coadjutor on the stage, in the character and dress of a servant or attendant, effects a deception which can never be repeated after the working of the apparatus is once exposed, and the trick explained to the spectator. In the one case no preliminary preparation whatever is required to produce the illusion, nor is any artificial apparatus necessary; in the other, nothing can be done, unless everything appertaining to the exhibition is arranged beforehand. A modern philosophical writer [=David Brewster], in pointing out the distinction we no insist on, remarks: - "The ordinary magician requires his stage, his accomplices, and the instruments of his art; and enjoys but a local sovereignty within the presence of his magic circle. The ventriloquist, on the contrary, has the supernatural always at command. In the open fields, as well as in the crowded city; in the private apartment, as well as in the public hall, he can summon up innumerable spirits; and although the persons of his fictitious dialogues are not visible to the eye, they are as unequivocally present to the imagination, as if they had been shadowed forth in the silence of a spectral form." Let the conjuror receive whatever reputation or reward, the ingenuity displayed in the construction of his apparatus (whether invented or fabricated by himself or some one else, we need not stop to enquire too closely into), or his dexterity ion the use of it may seem to entitle him to; but do not let him, without remark or observation, confound the mysteries of his exhibition, which might be taught to all comers, with the purely natural and unacquireable illusions of the genuine ventriloquist.] This kind of performance it need scarcely be observed, requires none of those peculiar mental qualifications which are essential to the production of a successful monologue, and consist of devices adapted only to the taste of exceedingly juvenile, or exceedingly unsophisticated auditors. 

A true Polyphonist, although he cannot obtain his powers by tuition, may, like other artists, greatly improve by practice, study, and experiment; but, if an individual does not inherit the seeds of those powers from Nature, the most intense application will be of little avail. 

We have said that the talent of which we treat, although susceptible of cultivation and improvement by study, practice, and experiment, must, in the first instance, be inherent in those who possess it; and, therefore, an unlettered person of the most humble walk of life, is as likely to possess the faculty in perfection, in its simplest form, as any other man. {, the difference between the two being merely this - that the one, by the employment of various intellectual resources - a knowledge of the science of acoustics, a tolerable insight into the peculiarities of individuals and of nations, and an inherent power of simulating them in an agreeable and striking manner, is enabled to place whatever vocal peculiarities he may possess, before his audience in the most attractive and captivating form; the other, having no mental accomplishments of the kind to trust to, is capable of nothing but a bald and uninteresting display of certain imitative effects, which cannot gratify the ear of taste, or afford entertainment, except to the most undiscriminating hearers.} Several remarkable instances are recorded of individuals belonging to the peasantry in various countries, persons who had passed all their lives in rural obscurity, and had never heard any thing of the kind in other men, carrying these illusions to an astonishing pitch of excellence, to the infinite bewilderment of their rustic companions; but in one particular, persons of this description (howsoever great their natural talents must be) must fail. We allude to any attempt they may make to produce an entertainment calculated to afford gratification to a public audience. A few years ago an illiterate individual was discovered in an obscure village in Lancashire, who possessed some natural qualifications as a simple ventriloquist. An idea suggested itself to a couple of speculators, who happening to be sojourning in the neighbourhood, that by inducing the person in question to accept a certain weekly stipend something worthy of consideration might be realized for themselves in the shape of profit, from the public exhibition of his talents. The attempt was made. The man was newly equipped and turned, as he expressed it "into a gentleman;" a portion of moustache was allowed to remain unshorn to give him an outlandish appearance, (as John Bull, whether justly or not, has the credit in these cases of acting on a principle exactly the reverse of that adopted by every other people and nation of the face of the earth - a proneness to patronize foreigners more liberally than his own countrymen:) rooms were engaged, advertisements appeared, the towns through which they passed were unindated [sic] with bills and showy placards of thrice the ordinary dimensions; but notwithstanding all who saw him, admitted that he possessed abilities of a very peculiar description, the audiences never reached a remunerating number; even these gradually declined; ladies objected to the uncouth dialect and manners of the performer, and could not be prevailed on to remain above a quarter of an hour in the room. It was found impossible to make a permanent stand, the speculation failed, and the lapse of a few months saw the man reinstated in his native village at his original humble occupation, where our informant assures us he still resides. He yet occasionally gratifies any casual observer who may chance to witness his vocal peculiarities, although he could not awaken any interest in public. The natural explanation of this anomaly seems to be, that the mind is in a different state for receiving impressions of this description when an audience is assembled, to witness an advertised performance, than when it chances to meet with it unexpectedly; and a more carefully prepared feast is anticipated. In the present age of refinement it does not appear that any artist stands a chance of success in public, no matter how great soever his natural talents may be, unless he possess a reasonable share of education, so as to be capable of delivering his entertainments with a certain degree of propriety and effect: these should be arranged and written by a skilful hand, and should be possessed of taste, whim, and drollery; the crude thoughts of the performer, uttered as they arise, will not now amuse. It appears necessary that the entertainments should have some pretensions to the merit of some portion of originality, that they should be frequent;y and totally changed, and a constant supply of fresh impersonations introduced - they should assume a kind of dramatic form - every visible character should be well costumed and ably sustained, and the interest should be kept alive from the commencement to the close. It ought to be remembered that audiences do not now so much assemble for mere curiosity as for an evening's amusement. Hence we attribute the total failure of artists in this line, who are really clever, to their want of dramatic tact, and their incapacity for sustaining character; while it chances that on the other hand those, who have sometimes appeared in this way, who have had powers of humour, and ability to address an audience without glaring and offensive improprieties, have rarely had any genuine polyphony belonging to them. To insure permanent success in this department, it seems necessary for an individual to combine all the qualifications referred to, to possess besides considerable flexibility of feature, (so as instantaneously to destroy as it were his own identicy [sic],) and the power to assume any expression or alterations of countenance which the exigency of the subject matter may require. These purely natural qualifications should be aided by the minor auxiliaries of effective dresses, properties, and decorations. A man dining at a tavern pays for the style in which the feast is served, as well as for the feast itself. 

It is by no means improbable that many persons in past ages have possessed the power of producing a vocal illusion, who never was aware of their capability in that respect. "Although men are accused of not knowing their own weakness, yet as few know their own strength. It is in men as in soils, where there is often a vein of valuable metal which the owner knows not of. 

The reason why scenes and sketches of a comic nature are usually employed to illustrate the polyphonic effects, is simply that such scenes and sketches are found by experience to be suitable vehicles for the purpose, and are better calculated to draw houses. But if such considerations were out of the question, it seems probable that scenes of serious interest might be produced with equal or superior effect.