On Being Dull Without a Manuscript

THE public schools of our town have just announced a great program of lectures for their teachers, designed to keep them up to date in their subjects and brush them up generally. With it they have sent out a brief notice to the effect that experience shows that interest is greater if the lecturer does not use a manuscript. And this brings to acuteness the age-long problem about lecturers, which is, in a word: Are we really duller with, or without, a manuscript?

Of course the lecturing profession cannot but regard this as a sinister omen. It was once enough if we instructed and informed. Must we now strive also to interest, amuse, and entertain? If even schoolteachers are to require this, what of the general public, the women’s clubs, the Iyceums and extension circles? The seasoned lecturer cannot but regard this warning with apprehension, alarm, and even dismay.

It has been well said that many audiences like to see the lecturer take the platform provided with a thick bundle of typewritten sheets, for then they feel satisfied that he has made ample preparation and they are going to ‘get something to take away,’ as they say. It creates a pleasant atmosphere of security, too. No fear that he will forget, or not know when to stop, or give out in half an hour. Lecture audiences of all types resent it bitterly when the lecturer subsides after fifteen or twenty minutes, or even half an hour. They feel that they have been defrauded. The least the lecturer can do is to occupy the time. Perhaps they have ordered their cars for nine-thirty and will have to stand around until then.

In a great university chapel, the Sunday preacher fell lamentably short — in time at least, giving out after fifteen minutes. Most disconcerting, for the choir, accustomed to a full forty-five minutes of eloquence, was still out on the lawn, and had to be gathered in with most unseemly haste.

On the other hand, the lecturer, with or without a manuscript, may go on for an hour and twenty-three minutes, completely exhausting his hearers. But even this they prefer to being short-changed, as they describe it, with a twenty-minute lecture; that is a wrong they cannot forget or forgive.

Moreover, rules are dangerous. The most amusing lecturer on this continent is probably a Canadian gentleman who, as I remember it, always uses a manuscript. On some occasions he ostentatiously crumples each page as soon as he has read it, and drops it on the floor, as if in fine scorn of it; he can write reams of such stuff, he seems to say; he does not need to hoard it. The listeners gain a flattering impression that it is for them only that this brilliant display of humor has been created, though a few base skeptics may suspect that he has a carbon copy of it all in his desk.

There is another school of thought about this matter, however. There are the lecture committees in universities, which cherish the indefatigable hope that the lecturer may say something worth publishing and may actually proceed to publish it. And if he appears and chats glibly with his audience in the well-known conversational style, they are annoyed. One spirited academician, after such an evening, asked me heatedly if the lecturer had been ‘drinking.’ Indeed great is their wrath, for they know well that, while everybody has had a pleasant evening, nothing is going to come of it in the way of a stately volume, to the greater glory of Alma Mater.

Nor is this a local phenomenon. We hear it in the ‘interior’ (as they say in Washington) and on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. There is still a public for the manuscript lecturer.

Think too of the radio lecturers. Poor fellows, usually confined to a meagre twelve minutes, and adjured to hit the closing second ‘on the nose,’ as their mentors elegantly put it, they cannot indulge in the conversational method; they follow what they call their script. Even the most eloquent of them all, chatting by the national fireside, reads his stuff. No, the radio is on the side of the old-fashioned manuscript method, except in the case of the brightest of programs, the question-and-answer broadcast, which is avowedly and unmistakably unrehearsed. Equally unrehearsed, however, is the dullest of all programs, where some hero of hockey or football is interrogated before the microphone as to the greatest play of his career, the future of the sport, and the prospects of his and other teams for the coming season — on hearing which the listener perceives clearly that the man’s place is on the ice or the turf, not on the air.

My interest in the matter is not a practical but a philosophical one. It all simmers down to this: Is a manuscript necessary to dullness, or can one be just as dull without a manuscript? I can do it either way myself, so I feel that I can discuss the matter without prejudice. I confess that I sometimes contemplate the pile of sheets before me on the reading desk with quite as much weariness as most of my hearers can — I know what’s in them; they don’t.

On the other hand, it is not impossible to be dull without a manuscript. In fact, it is the easiest thing in the world. And the beauty of the manuscript method is that it guarantees that the lecturer has made some preparation, although perhaps years before, for the occasion, and it is almost certain that by the time he has turned the last page he will have said something. Without the manuscript, you cannot be sure.

What about the Greeks? They were experts at the oration and the lecture too. They certainly wrote down their remarks, either before or after speaking. Which was it? Let the sculptors tell. In the Naples Museum stands Æschines; he is empty-handed. But in the Vatican stands Demosthenes, holding a scroll open in his hands, as though he had just paused in his reading. Which was the better man?

Which reminds us: When Æschines had retired to Rhodes, he once read in public his great speech against Ctesiphon, to which Demosthenes had replied. The Rhodians marveled that after such a speech the defendant had got off.

‘You would not wonder,’ said Æschines, ‘if you had heard Demosthenes.’

I was recently detailed to escort a successful but despondent author to a literary luncheon. He had been lecturing profusely about the city, and I asked him whether he prepared elaborately for these occasions.

He cast a scornful glance in my direction.

‘Oh, no,’ said he. ‘I never give it a thought beforehand.’