Simon Schama: The lost art of great speechmaking





It was well after midnight on February 7 1787 when Richard Brinsley Sheridan MP got up in the House of Commons to flay the hide off Warren Hastings, the impeached Governor of Bengal.

The chamber was packed to the rafters, notwithstanding the 50-guinea price for tickets. By the time Sheridan was done it was six in the morning and no one had moved.

But virtuoso marathons of oratory weren't at all unusual in that distant golden age of eloquence (and they were a lot more fun than the Castro all-nighter).
Arguing for law reform in 1828, another celebrated silver-tongue, Henry Brougham, clocked six hours and three minutes and again no one budged. But then they both knew their spellbinding craft backwards.

Brougham had written essays on oratory (his favourite being Demosthenes) and at Edinburgh University had heard the great master of rhetoric, Hugh Blair (no relation), whose published lectures supplemented Cicero's De Oratore as the two great primers of studied eloquence, ancient and modern.

Sheridan took his stagecraft into the chamber, fulfilling Cicero's ideal that the orator should resemble Rome's star tragedian Roscius: "When people hear he is to speak all the benches are taken ... when he needs to speak silence is signalled by the crowd followed by repeated applause and much admiration. They laugh when he wishes, when he wishes they cry."

When did you last hear a speech that good? Tony Blair's epideictic performance at the Labour Party conference last year won admiration even from his foes, but by and large the digital age is cool to rhetoric and, as the enthronement of the blogger suggests, prizes incoherent impulse over the Ciceronian arts of the exordium and the peroration.

State of the Nation addresses to the US Congress - that theatre of sob-sisters and ra-ra patriotism - most usually confuse passion with sentimentality, and since they are worked up by industrial teams of speechwriters, lack one of the elements thought indispensable to great oratory: integrity of personal conviction, the sound of what Cicero, following the Greeks, called ethos.

The robotically choreographed antics in which Democrats and Republicans alternate standing o's every five minutes is the opposite of the free-spirited audiences Cicero had in mind submitting themselves to the persuader's art....

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William Mandel - 4/28/2007

CHECK MY WEBSITE, WWW.BILLMANDEL.NET. WHERE YOU CAN HEAR MY TESTIMONY TO THE HOUSE (OF REPRESENTATIVES) UNAMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE IN 1960 AND MY NATIONALLY TELEVISED TESTIMONY BEFORE SEN. JOE MCCARTHY IN 1953. THE FORMER WAS REBROADCAST ON PACIFICA RADIO DURING EVERY FUND DRIVE FOR THE NEXT FORTY YEARS. THE LATTER, RECENTLY REDISCOVERED BY GERMAN FILM MAKERS DOING A DOCUMENTARY ON MCCARTHYISM, IS BRINGING THEM TO CALIFORNIA IN JUNE TO FILM ME.

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