Chapter XXX. After-Dinner And Other Occasional Speaking
The perception of the ludicrous is a pledge of sanity.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays.
And let him be sure to leave other men their turns to speak. - Francis Bacon, Essay on Civil and Moral Discourse,
Perhaps the most brilliant, and certainly the most entertaining, of all speeches are those delivered on after-dinner and other special occasions. The air of well-fed content in the former, and of expectancy well primed in the latter, furnishes an audience which, though not readily won, is prepared for the best, while the speaker himself is pretty sure to have been chosen for his gifts of oratory.
The first essential of good occasional speaking is to study the occasion. Precisely what is the object of the meeting? How important is the occasion to the audience? How large will the audience be? What sort of people are they? How large is the auditorium? Who selects the speakers' themes? Who else is to speak? What are they to speak about? Precisely how long am I to speak? Who speaks before I do and who follows?
If you want to hit the nail on the head ask such questions as these.1 No occasional address can succeed unless it fits the occasion to a T. Many prominent men have lost prestige because they were too careless or too. busy or too self-confident to respect the occasion and the audience by learning the exact conditions under which they were to speak. Leaving too much to the moment is taking a long chance and generally means a less effective speech, if not a failure.
1 See also page 205.
Suitability is the big thing in an occasional speech. When Mark Twain addressed the Army of the Tennessee in reunion at Chicago, in 1877, he responded to the toast, "The Babies." Two things in that after-dinner speech are remarkable: the bright introduction, by which he subtly claimed the interest of all, and the humorous use of military terms throughout:
Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: "The Babies." Now, that's something like. We haven't all had the good fortune to be ladies; we have not all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies, we stand on common ground - for we've all been babies. It is a shame that for a thousand years the world's banquets have utterly ignored the baby, as if he didn't amount to anything! If you, gentlemen, will stop and think a minute - if you will go back fifty or a hundred years, to your early married life, and recontemplate your first baby - you will remember that he amounted to a good deal - and even something over.
"As a vessel is known by the sound, whether it be cracked or not," said Demosthenes, "so men are proved by their speeches whether they be wise or foolish." Surely the occasional address furnishes a severe test of a speaker's wisdom. To be trivial on a serious occasion, to be funereal at a banquet, to be long-winded ever - these are the marks of non-sense. Some imprudent souls seem to select the most friendly of after-dinner occasions for the explosion of a bomb-shell of dispute. Around the dinner table it is the custom of even political enemies to bury their hatchets anywhere rather than in some convenient skull. It is the height of bad taste to raise questions that in hours consecrated to good-will can only irritate.
Occasional speeches offer good chances for humor, particularly the funny story, for humor with a genuine point is not trivial. But do not spin a whole skein of humorous yarns with no more connection than the inane and threadbare "And that reminds me." An anecdote without bearing may be funny but one less funny that fits theme and occasion is far preferable. There is no way, short of sheer power of speech, that so surely leads to the heart of an audience as rich, appropriate humor. The scattered diners in a great banqueting hall, the after-dinner lethargy, the anxiety over approaching last-train time, the overfull list of over-full speakers - all throw out a challenge to the speaker to do his best to win an interested hearing. And when success does come it is usually due to a happy mixture of seriousness and humor, for humor alone rarely scores so heavily as the two combined, while the utterly grave speech never does on such occasions.
If there is one place more than another where secondhand opinions and platitudes are unwelcome it is in the after-dinner speech. Whether you are toast-master or the last speaker to try to hold the waning crowd at midnight, be as original as you can. How is it possible to summarize the qualities that go to make up the good afterdinner speech, when we remember the inimitable serious-drollery of Mark Twain, the sweet southern eloquence of Henry W. Grady, the funereal gravity of the humorous Charles Battell Loomis, the charm of Henry Van Dyke, the geniality of F. Hopkinson Smith, and the all-round delightfulness of Chauncey M. Depew? America is literally rich in such gladsome speakers, who punctuate real sense with nonsense, and so make both effective.
Commemorative occasions, unveilings, commencements, dedications, eulogies, and all the train of special public gatherings, offer rare opportunities for the display of tact and good sense in handling occasion, theme, and audience. When to be dignified and when colloquial, when to soar and when to ramble arm in arm with your hearers, when to flame and when to soothe, when to instruct and when to amuse - in a word, the whole matter of appropriateness must constantly be in mind lest you write your speech on water.
Finally, remember the beatitude: Blessed is the man that maketh short speeches, for he shall be invited to speak again.
The Rapidan suggests another scene to which allusion has often been made since the war, but which, as illustrative also of the spirit of both armies, I may be permitted to recall in this connection. In the mellow twilight of an April day the two armies were holding their dress parades on the opposite hills bordering the river. At the close of the parade a magnificent brass band of the Union army played with great spirit the patriotic airs, "Hail Columbia," and "Yankee Doodle." Whereupon the Federal troops responded with a patriotic shout. The same band then played the soul-stirring strains of "Dixie," to which a mighty response came from ten thousand Southern troops. A few moments later, when the stars had come out as witnesses and when all nature was in harmony, there came from the same band the old melody, "Home, Sweet Home." As its familiar and pathetic notes rolled over the water and thrilled through the spirits of the soldiers, the hills reverberated with a thundering response from the united voices of both armies. What was there in this old, old music, to so touch the chords of sympathy, so thrill the spirits and cause the frames of brave men to tremble with emotion? It was the thought of home. To thousands, doubtless, it was the thought of that Eternal Home to which the next battle might be the gateway. To thousands of others it was the thought of their dear earthly homes, where loved ones at that twilight hour were bowing round the family altar, and asking God's care over the absent soldier boy.