'Accustomed as I Am...'
A LECTURER never knows what the lady and gentleman are going to say whose painful duty it is to introduce him. Sometimes they don’t, either — a fact which must be counted among the hazards of a supposedly safe profession. As a person who has spoken almost everywhere in this country, except in Union Square and Columbus Circle, I have come to realize this to my sorrow.
‘Gentlemen,’ said a toastmaster I shall never forget, as he pushed back his chair one night, struck the table with his gavel, and smiled airily in my direction. ‘Gentlemen,’ he repeated, while the waiters left the room like Skull and Bones men. ‘Gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?’
As the fellow members of his organization were making up their minds whether or not to give him what he asked for, I felt almost at ease watching him. My hand did not shake in its usual fashion when I downed that last tumbler of ice water, or tremble as I puffed my final cigarette. The toastmaster had proved a charming dinner companion. He had been gay, kind, comforting. Furthermore, he had his own theories about public speaking — theories which he had expressed with such assurance that I blushed as I thought of my own habitual nervousness. ‘ Stop worrying about what you are going to say,’ he had laughed halfway through dinner when he saw me scribbling more notes on the menu than Tolstoi could have needed for War and Peace. ‘Relax. I don’t believe in preparing a speech.’ He had confided this while I was gulping my fifth cup of black coffee (my dinner) and he was pushing a two-inch slab of steak toward his hungry mouth. ‘ Nope — preparation’s no good. Spoils the charm of the thing; kills the gaiety. I just wait for the inspiration to come to me when I’m on my feet — and it never fails.’
At last the fatal moment had arrived. He was on those enviable feet of his, and after several minutes had gained the silence he desired. ‘Gentlemen,’ said he again, ‘we have bad news for you tonight. We wanted to have Isaac F. Marcosson speak to you, but he couldn’t come. He’s sick. (Applause) Next we asked Senator Bledridge to address you on “Migratory Workers,” but he was busy. (Applause) Finally we tried in vain to get Dr. Lloyd Grogan of Kansas City to come down and speak to you. (Applause) So instead we have — John Mason Brown.’ (Silence)
At least my friend, that inspirationalist, the genial toastmaster, got my name correctly. For this I shall always be grateful. Giving a speaker the name his parents gave him can help a lot. It does away with confusion all the way around. At the outset it prepares an audience for the worst. It can even give the speaker a certain amount of much-needed confidence. Right as Juliet may have been when, with lovers in mind, she spoke of the aliases under which a rose can retain its scent, she was wrong about lecturers. On the platform, as Gertrude Stein knew in the moment of her great ‘defy’ of Luther Burbank, a rose is a rose is a rose. And a Captain Fighting Bob Bartlett is not a Maurice Hindus is not a Dorothy Thompson, and never can be.
Brown, you would think, is an easy name. It could not be easier, unless it were Smith or Jones. But speaking is a tricky business, and most introducers are not as self-assured as was my inspirational toastmaster. Although in his fashion they may depend upon inspiration, they are not apt to be as certain as he was that it will come. I have known it to descend upon them, however, and in floods. They are never more inspired than when it comes to rechristening you. Some of them could enjoy a lucrative future naming Pullman cars. Perhaps it’s just a gambler’s instinct on their part to raise the ante. Perhaps it’s Freudian. Perhaps in their hearts they are wishing you were someone else. In any case, that wish of theirs can become contagious.
My face used to fall, almost as much as the collective hopes of the audience would rise, when, after hearing all the preliminaries, the chairman would turn graciously towards me, arm extended, and say, ’Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I introduce to you tonight Mr. Heywood Broun.’
Once I faced an especially hard assignment. A delightful professor had had wished upon him the Judas-ram job of leading me to the slaughter. We had been talking in the wings about an anthology he was preparing. His particular interest was Maxwell Anderson, and he was endeavoring to determine which of Mr. Anderson’s plays to include. When the signal was given and we walked on to the stage to sit in those thrones fit for Doges which are usually reserved for introducers and speakers, his book — and not his unpleasant duty of the evening — was still uppermost in the professor’s mind. That night I was Maxwell Anderson. Three times he referred to me as such. Finally, remembering the Bellman’s insistence, ‘What I tell you three times is true,’ I almost began to feel like Maxwell Anderson.
These may serve as instances of that malady known as ‘chairman’s inspiration,’ which must be set down as an occupational disease as surely as is ‘housemaid’s knee.’ Even more common is that mixture of confusion and amnesia to which all public speakers can be heir. If the introducer is subject to this more frequently than is ‘the speaker of the evening,’ the reason is that the chairman’s job is more difficult than the visiting lecturer’s. The lecturer, after all, is speaking before strangers and knows he can always take a train out of town as soon as he has done his worst. One of the chief guarantees of his health is that he is in reality an escapist. Not so the chairman. He faces an audience composed of relatives, friends, and business rivals or associates. Usually his wife is in the front row repeating his speech with him, so that you begin to think the hall has an echo. He knows he has to live with these people the rest of his life, which means living down whatever slips the evening may bring forth. No wonder he is nervous.
Those slips can be many and various, and for them only those who have never done any public speaking would dream of holding the chairman responsible. Once a charming lady who had won a gold pencil from Dale Carnegie was introducing, at a luncheon at which I spoke, an actor who had toured the previous season in the Skinner revival of Candida. ‘Ladies,’ she said, her eyes sparkling and her voice breathy with excitement, ‘it gives me great pleasure to present to you Mr. Richard Cromwell, who, as we all know, spent last winter traveling with Cornelia Otis Skinner in Canada.’
One reason for these dislocations of the tongue and memory is that some introducers seem to lead very active lives. Sometimes, of course, they are pinchhitting for a wise department head who has managed to leave town before the fateful afternoon or evening. Hundreds of obliging relatives have been known to die just in time to make these precipitous exits possible. The substitutes meet you at the station or backstage in a high state of excitement. ‘Mrs. Purdy,’ or ‘Mr. Green,’ they begin, ‘was called away suddenly an hour ago. Now just what is it, Mr. Mason, that you want me to say about you?’ You soon learn that this is only their polite strategy to find out who you are without calling in the FBI. ‘Oh, anything,’ you reply, ‘anything,’ with your face beet-red from embarrassment, ‘ anything.’
Thereafter, if they are not too distracted arranging their corsages or adjusting their black ties, these substitutes will make a last-minute dash through the circular which your manager has thoughtfully sent out ahead of you.
‘First we will hear the report of the membership committee,’ they sometimes begin, with their arms resting on the lectern as if they were just about to deliver — in person — their annual message to Congress. Whereupon a mildvoiced little lady stands up in the middle of the audience to say that owing to the poor quality of the lecturers this year the membership has fallen off badly, and earnestly recommends a much better program for the coming season.
‘And now the finance committee’s report, please.’ At this point a lady or a gentleman gets up to say that the organization is not doing so well because of all the money it has had to pay to speakers. The audience applauds this vigorously.
‘Now,’ says the preoccupied type of introducer, with that special clearing of the throat which always means it is your turn to get into the tumbril, ‘now I’m sure all of you have been looking forward, as much as I have, to this evening’s program. It’s too bad the Junior Basketball game took place tonight and that the big meeting for the Community Chest is right now going on at the Town Hall, or I feel sure we’d have a better attendance. Mrs. Ribbens, who was looking forward to this as much as we all have been, had to leave town only an hour ago. As you all know, we have with us tonight’ (at this point the circular is hurriedly extracted from the notes), ‘we have with us tonight a man who was born — well, that really doesn’t matter, does it ? — at any rate, he has been living — in Boston — no, New York since then. He is — uh — uh — a theatre editor and has written books which I am sure all of you have read, such books as — well, books you must all have read. Perhaps Mr. Mason — uh — uh — Brown will tell us more about them and himself. His subject is — well, he will probably announce that, too. Mr. Mason.’
The opposite of the overburdened introducer is the one who seems to have the time to make a specialty of introductions. Chairmen of this type are usually full of erudition, deeply interested in the drama, and apt to begin by saying, ‘Since the Greeks, when Thespis first . . .’ Thereafter, before quoting ‘All the world’s a stage,’ they are inclined to give a more minute chronicle of the theatre’s past than Mantzius was able to get into six stout volumes. When they are through discoursing on the drama of the Greeks, the mediæval liturgical plays, the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, Ibsen’s influence, and the reasons why Abie’s Irish Rose and Tobacco Road were successes in spite of the critics, with a few passing references to the Nō plays of Japan, your train is usually just pulling into the station. All you can think of is the legendary speaker who was scheduled to appear somewhere in New York in the late afternoon and in Philadelphia that night. He had begged the New York chairman to be brief, pointing out that he must catch a train, but the chairman talked for forty-five of the sixty minutes supposedly allotted to the speaker. Said the chairman in conclusion. ‘Mr. So-and-So will now give us his address.’ ‘You bet I will,’ the irate lecturer is supposed to have said; ‘it’s 575 Park Avenue.’ And with that he stomped off the platform to dash for the station.
Certain introducers can be classified as inspirational, nervous, preoccupied, or over-leisurely, and there is also the cheerless chairman — the solemn, Cromwellian soul who tries to calm you, when you are waiting offstage, by saying, ‘I think I ought to warn you that ours is probably the coldest audience you will ever have to face. Our people are seriousminded. They don’t laugh easily; in fact, they hardly ever laugh at all — that is, unless they are laughing at you. They are very intelligent, most of them being university people, you see, and if there’s one thing they hate it’s anything topical. I only tell you this because I’m certain you will agree with me that to be forewarned is to be forearmed.’
Almost as depressing as the cheerless chairman is the cheerful one — the one who laughs gaily and says, ‘Well, well, well, well. Now don’t you worry. Everything’s going to be all right. I think you’ll never find a friendlier group than ours. It’ll take almost anything, so I’m certain you’ll get by.’
Another variety is the Calamity Jane. This type invariably tries to hearten you, during those final moments of refrigeration when both your courage and your thoughts stand in desperate need of defrosting, by telling you how awful all of your predecessors on this year’s program have been.
‘You know,’ this kind starts off with a twinkle as genial as Saint Nick’s, ‘Soand-So was here last month. And was he terrible? We had him for Husbands’ Night. And most of the men when he was through said they’d have gone home five minutes after he had started if they hadn’t been afraid of walking in their sleep.’
‘But what about Whozit?’ you ask, suddenly rushing to the defense of someone you have never met or cared about before. ‘I see he was on your list.’
‘Indeed he was,’ the program chairman chuckles. ‘Indeed he was. But, believe you me, he won’t be again. He was dreadful. You couldn’t understand a word he said. We wrote to his manager when he had gone, and demanded a rebate. What is more, we got it. Come on, now. Better put out that cigarette. I’m afraid it’s time for you to begin. Look out! Don’t drop it! What are you trembling for? Good luck. Oh, by the way, speak as loud as you possibly can, will you please? The acoustics in our auditorium are notoriously bad — dead spots all over the place — and the Public Address system has just gone on the blink.’
‘Now, Belle, it’s going to be all right,’ says the husband of the lady who is to present you and who has suddenly begun to keen in the front seat of the car like a chorus of unhappy fisherwomen in an Irish play. ‘I know you will be fine. Won’t Belle be fine, Mr. Brown?’ asks the husband. Forgetting whatever you were trying to remember about your own speech, you bow to the inevitable. ‘Of course she will. Don’t worry. It’s easy.’
’But I can’t! I won’t go on,’ moans Belle in a state of genuine collapse. There is a pause. Then a sudden rally. ‘You see, I’m dreadfully scared, Mr. Brown, because this is the first time I have had to do this kind of thing. Oh Lord! I wish I’d never gotten into it! I know it’s silly, but I’m petrified! Henry, I’m petrified! I’m sure I’ll disgrace you. I’ll have to read it, even though I promised Grace this afternoon that I wouldn’t. I tell you I’m petrified! I was scared at luncheon — but now! Oh, Henry! Henry, did you bring the aromatics?’
By this time the auditorium has been reached, and you have begun to feel as nervous about Belle as Belle does and as Henry does. Henry has disappeared, mopping his brow. ‘Good luck, girlie,’ he has said in parting. ‘Chin up! You couldn’t be worse than Evelyn was.’ With that, Henry has gone to take his place out front. Belle has meanwhile been drawn to the mirror above the dressing table like an astronomer to the Milky Way. The drone of the audience is heard through the curtains and it unnerves Belle.
‘My tummy! My tummy!’ she sighs, with an expression usually reserved for the English Channel. ‘It’s full of butterflies!’
Your one hope is that moths won’t emerge.
‘Now calm yourself, Mrs. Tremens,’ you say, patting her on the back as if she were a baby about to bring up a bubble, and trusting her husband will understand if he returns. ‘It’ll soon be over. All things come to an end.’
‘No! No! No! It won’t,’ she insists, opening her evening bag to spread a neatly written manuscript before her on the dressing table. ‘I knew it! I knew it! I can’t remember a word of it, and I had it all by heart.’
‘May I help you?’ you ask, putting your own notes in your suitcase and locking it. Suddenly an interne’s calm descends upon you.
‘Oh, I know it’s silly, but would you?’ laughs Belle, passing her manuscript to you in a hand quaking with palsy.
‘Now then, let’s try it.’
“‘Ladies and gentlemen,”’ begins Belle, clearing her throat like a motorboat having a hard time getting started, and at last speaking in an astral voice: ‘“Ladies and gentlemen” — There! I told you. I haven’t the vaguest idea what comes next.’
‘“Ladies and gentlemen,”’ you repeat, ‘“the — ”’
‘No! No! Don’t tell me,’ she insists. ‘“The—the” . . . Now, let’s see. How could it go on from there?’
‘“Ladies and gentlemen,”’ you say firmly, reading her script to her, ‘“the Broadway theatre is a long way from here, but we are hoping it will be nearer us tonight. It gives me great pleasure to introduce —”’
By now it is ten minutes after the announced starting time.
‘Don’t you think we really ought to get going?’ you ask. ‘Why don’t you just read it? No one will know.’
‘Never! Never!’ says Belle. ‘I promised Grace I wouldn’t. And anyway she said she’d kill me if I did.’
Someone knocks timidly on the door. It is Henry. ‘Dear,’ says he, puffing from the dash up the aisle of the auditorium, the plunge down the stairs by the box office, the long run through the basement corridor, and the climb up the truncated steps leading to the stage. ‘Grace thinks you ought to begin. They’re getting restless.’
So out you go, following Belle on to the stage to those chairs. For what seems an eternity Belle remains seated, doing her best to resemble Queen Mary at the Durbar. You try to whisper a few nothings to her, to indicate how much at home you both are. Bui, in addition to palsy, Belle now seems to have developed a sudden and acute attack of deafness. After five repulses, which have made the audience wonder what you could possibly have done to insult Mrs. Tremens in the wings, Belle at last rises. Swaying somewhat unsteadily, she advances to the lectern to grab hold of it as if it were a mast and she a sailor imperiled in a Conrad typhoon. Clutched in her hand you can see the manuscript of her introduction. In a moment or two she spreads this out before her and reaches in her handbag with magnificent defiance for her tortoise-shell glasses.
A new peace — a calm decidedly outward — has descended upon her. Only to the speaker is Belle’s fear now evident. He, after all, can see what the audience cannot. Though Belle’s voice is firm when she starts off with ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ and her hands are propped so that they cannot shake, Belle’s back contrives to tremble beneath her tight satin skirt like jelly in the wind.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ she begins, bowing right and left at the sheet of paper before her as if the whole audience were sitting on it. Thereafter she never lifts her eyes from her written speech until, with a very pained look, she has expressed the pleasure it has given her to introduce you — whereupon she looks around in tragic confusion, smiles when she has at last spotted you, and rushes back to her seat to reread the manuscript, fearful lest she may have omitted part of it.
No matter how calm or nervous, conscientious or inspired, a chairman may be, he or she still presents one problem to the speaker to which neither the introducer nor the audience ever gives much thought. That is what to do, where to look, how to act, while you are being introduced. It seems simple enough from the front.
A chair — one of those chairs — is near the centre of the stage. According to the protocol of the platform, the one nearer the entrance is usually yours. Supposedly all you have to do is to walk from the wings to that chair and then sit down on it and wait. But that walk of no more than ten or fifteen feet can seem an eternity. It is apt to be one of the unremembered interludes in the life of any person who has ever taken it. Twenty boards can unite to form a plank. You are in a trance, doing a conscious act unconsciously, driven forward only by the motor of your pounding heart. Matters are not helped by your knowing there is always the chance that the chairman may forget which of the seats he has agreed to occupy and that the two of you may be caught playing ‘Going to Jerusalem’ in public.
When, in some manner unknown to you, you have at last reached your place, graver difficulties arise. The chair may be one of two kinds. Either its high back and its seat, though covered with petit point, may conceal boards so stiff that you are sure the committee must think your sacroiliac needs righting, or it is one of those low-set leather chairs which emit embarrassing noises as you sink down on to the air-filled cushions, and from the depths of which only a derrick can remove you. Once seated, you reach for the arms as if they were the hands of a long-lost friend. After you and the chairman have indulged in those preliminary whisperings, and have smiled broadly at jokes passed between you that neither of you has heard, the chairman rises to start his introduction.
Then your troubles begin in earnest. Even before he has finished saying ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ you are apt to have crossed, uncrossed, and recrossed your legs so many times that you must look from out front as if you were trying to dance the Highland Fling sitting down. Suddenly realizing that poise is desirable, you quiet your shins by wrapping your feet around the far-sprung legs of the chair.
‘We have with us tonight . . .’ the chairman goes on. By now you have begun to do strange things with your hands. You have patted them together as if at any moment you were about to applaud yourself. You have surveyed your fingers with a baby’s wonder and an interest no manicurist has ever shown. As the chairman continues, you have started that weird gesture known only to expectant lecturers, that act of public and dry libation in which you seem to wash the face (and every part thereof) with the hands but without benefit of soap and water. These physical activities, these setting-down exercises, get you so warm before the real gymnastics of the evening have started that, while the chairman is still trying to remember your occupation, you have reached in despair for your handkerchief and begun waving it as if you were a Morris dancer. Strangers in the rear of the auditorium have on occasion been so startled by what they have mistaken for friendly salutations that they have even been known to wave back.
These are not the only betrayals of embarrassment which as a lecturer you try clumsily to control. There are others, and their causes are valid, very valid indeed. When, for example, a frustrated biographer is at work on you, telling you your life story in detail, should you appear as bored as the audience is? Or should you look surprised? When the place of your birth is mentioned, should your eyebrows arch with amazement into an ‘Is that so?’ formation? When the college you remember slaving at is named, should you shake your head and whisper to yourself, ‘Well, well, well. Do tell. So he went there? How very interesting!’ When the introducer insists you are a dramatic critic, and says that you see plays on Broadway, should you make it clear that you are as astounded as anyone else by all this, and mutter audibly, ‘Fancy that, Hedda. Fancy that!’ And if he goes so far as to mention some of your books, should you set a good example by crying ‘Well, I’ll be!’ and whipping out a notebook and a pencil to write the titles down?
On those rare occasions when the chairman gets his circulars mixed and has confused your case history with that of Eve Curie, John Mulholland, or Commander Byrd, is it or is it not forgivable for you to shake your head in gentle protest and indicate regretfully you have one, and only one, life to give to your country’s lecture platform, and the introducer is taking it and someone else’s in vain? Or should you play dead, exhibiting no more interest in the proceedings than a corpse does in the funeral oration he has provoked? When you are paid a compliment, every word of which drips with jasmine, honeysuckle, and unearned increment, and you feel diabetes sugaring your blood stream, should you show you have not forgotten ‘Veritas’ was printed on your college shield by shouting‘No! No!’ Or should you meet kindness with kindness by crying ‘A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel!’
Ought your eyes to be fixed on the footlights, the ceiling, the balcony, your wrist watch, or the introducer? And if upon the introducer, where? If he has struck a forensic attitude, should your eyes trace the outlines of his invisible toga? Or if she has struck a posture suggestive of the Venus de’ Medici should your face express gratitude that she is better-dressed than the original?
If a giggling friend is winking at you in the fifth row, should you wink back? Or should you try to achieve that faraway look at which certain lecturers excel in their moment of being introduced, when they make it clear that their minds are in the clouds, that they are first cousins to Yogis, that the affairs of this world do not interest them, and that — ntellectually, at least — they have not as yet made their entrances.
No matter how much being introduced may embarrass you, you miss the introducer at those organizations where he does not appear. It is when you are placed in solitary, and are waiting for the signal to be given, that you become the victim of worse fears than have ever paralyzed a chairman. It is after an experience of this sort that you are most apt to kneel down by your trundle at the hotel in the dark hours of the night and thank God you are the kind of speaker who needs an introduction.