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The Truth About Gesture. Part 3

The writer of this chapter once observed an instructor drilling a class in gesture. They had come to the passage from Henry VIII in which the humbled Cardinal says: "Farewell, a long farewell to all my greatness." It is one of the pathetic passages of literature. A man uttering such a sentiment would be crushed, and the last thing on earth he would do would be to make flamboyant movements. Yet this class had an elocutionary manual before them that gave an appropriate gesture for every occasion, from paying the gas bill to death-bed farewells. So they were instructed to throw their arms out at full length on each side and say: "Farewell, a long farewell to all my greatness." Such a gesture might possibly be used in an after-dinner speech at the convention of a telephone company whose lines extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but to think of Wolsey's using that movement would suggest that his fate was just.


The physical attitude to be taken before the audience really is included in gesture. Just what that attitude should be depends, not on rules, but on the spirit of the speech and the occasion. Senator La Follette stood for three hours with his weight thrown on his forward foot as he leaned out over the footlights, ran his fingers through his hair, and flamed out a denunciation of the trusts. It was very effective. But imagine a speaker taking that kind of position to discourse on the development of road-making machinery. If you have a fiery, aggressive message, and will let yourself go, nature will naturally pull your weight to your forward foot. A man in a hot political argument or a street brawl never has to stop to think upon which foot he should throw his weight. You may sometimes place your weight on your back foot if you have a restful and calm message - but don't worry about it: just stand like a man who genuinely feels what he is saying. Do not stand with your heels close together, like a soldier or a butler. No more should you stand with them wide apart like a traffic policeman. Use simple good manners and common sense.

Here a word of caution is needed. We have advised you to allow your gestures and postures to be spontaneous and not woodenly prepared beforehand, bat do not go to the extreme of ignoring the importance of acquiring mastery of your physical movements. A muscular hand, made flexible by free movement, is far more likely to be an effective instrument in gesture than a stiff, pudgy bunch of fingers. If your shoulders are lithe and carried well, while your chest does not retreat from association with your chin, the chances of using good extemporaneous gestures are so much the better. Learn to keep the back of your neck touching your collar, hold your chest high, and keep down your waist measure.

So attention to strength, poise, flexibility, and grace of body are the foundations of good gesture, for they are expressions of vitality, and without vitality no speaker can enter the kingdom of power. When an awkward giant like Abraham Lincoln rose to the sublimest heights of oratory he did so because of the greatness of his soul - his very ruggedness of spirit and artless honesty were properly expressed in his gnarly body. The fire of character, of earnestness, and of message swept his hearers before him when the tepid words of an insincere Apollo would have left no effect. But be sure you are a second Lincoln before you despise the handicap of physical awkwardness.

"Ty" Cobb has confided to the public that when he is in a batting slump he even stands before a mirror, bat in hand, to observe the "swing" and "follow through" of his batting form. If you would learn to stand well before an audience, look at yourself in a mirror - but not too often. Practise walking and standing before the mirror so as to conquer awkwardness - not to cultivate a pose. Stand on the platform in the same easy manner that you would use before guests in a drawing-room. If your position is not graceful, make it so by dancing, gymnasium work, and by getting grace and poise in your mind.

Do not continually hold the same position. Any big change of thought necessitates a change of position. Be at home. There are no rules - it is all a matter of taste. While on the platform forget that you have any hands until you desire to use them - then remember them effectively. Gravity will take care of them. Of course, if you want to put them behind you, or fold them once in a while, it is not going to ruin your speech. Thought and feeling are the big things in speaking - not the position of a foot or a hand. Simply put your limbs where you want them to be - you have a will, so do not neglect to use it.

Let us reiterate, do not despise practise. Your gestures and movements may be spontaneous and still be wrong. No matter how natural they are, it is possible to improve them.

It is impossible for anyone - even yourself - to criticise your gestures until after they are made. You can't prune a peach tree until it comes up; therefore speak much, and observe your own speech. While you are examining yourself, do not forget to study statuary and paintings to see how the great portrayers of nature have made their subjects express ideas through action. Notice the gestures of the best speakers and actors. Observe the physical expression of life everywhere. The leaves on the tree respond to the slightest breeze. The muscles of your face, the light of your eyes, should respond to the slightest change of feeling. Emerson says: "Every man that I meet is my superior in some way. In that I learn of him." Illiterate Italians make gestures so wonderful and beautiful that Booth or Barrett might have sat at their feet and been instructed. Open your eyes. Emerson says again: "We are immersed in beauty, but our eyes have no clear vision." Toss this book to one side; go out and watch one child plead with another for a bite of apple; see a street brawl; observe life in action. Do you want to know how to express victory? Watch the victors' hands go high on election night. Do you want to plead a cause? Make a composite photograph of all the pleaders in daily life you constantly see. Beg, borrow, and steal the best you can get, BUT DON'T GIVE IT OUT AS THEFT. Assimilate it until it becomes a part of you - then let the expression come out.

Questions And Exercises

1. From what source do you intend to study gesture?

2. What is the first requisite of good gestures? Why?

3. Why is it impossible to lay down steel-clad rules for gesturing?

4. Describe (a) a graceful gesture that you have observed; (b) a forceful one; (c) an extravagant one; (d) an inappropriate one.

5. What gestures do you use for emphasis? Why?

6. How can grace of movement be acquired?

7. When in doubt about a gesture what would you do?

8. What, according to your observations before a mirror, are your faults in gesturing?

9. How do you intend to correct them?

10. What are some of the gestures, if any, that you might use in delivering Thurston's speech, page 50; Grady's speech, page 36? Be specific

11. Describe some particularly appropriate gesture that you have observed. Why was it appropriate?

12. Cite at least three movements in nature that might well be imitated in gesture.

13. What would you gather from the expressions: descriptive gesture, suggestive gesture, and typical gesture?

14. Select any elemental emotion, such as fear, and try, by picturing in your mind at least five different situations that might call forth this emotion, to express its several phases by gesture - including posture, movement, and facial expression.

15. Do the same thing for such other emotions as you may select.

16. Select three passages from any source, only being sure that they are suitable for public delivery, memorize each, and then devise gestures suitable for each. Say why.

17. Criticise the gestures in any speech you have heard recently.

18. Practise flexible movement of the hand. What exercises did you find useful?

19. Carefully observe some animal; then devise several typical gestures.

30. Write a brief dialogue between any two animals; read it aloud and invent expressive gestures.

21. Deliver, with appropriate gestures, the quotation that heads this chapter.

22. Read aloud the following incident, using dramatic gestures:

When Voltaire was preparing a young actress to appear in one of his tragedies, he tied her hands to her sides with pack thread in order to check her tendency toward exuberant gesticulation. Under this condition of compulsory immobility she commenced to rehearse, and for some time she bore herself calmly enough; but at last, completely carried away by her feelings, she burst her bonds and flung up her arms. Alarmed at her supposed neglect of his instructions, she began to apologize to the poet; he smilingly reassured her, however; the gesture was then admirable, because it was irrepressible. - Redway, The Actor's Art.

23. Render the following with suitable gestures:

One day, while preaching, Whitefield "suddenly assumed a nautical air and manner that were irresistible with him," and broke forth in these words: "Well, my boys, we have a clear sky, and are making fine headway over a smooth sea before a light breeze, and we shall soon lose sight of land. But what means this sudden lowering of the heavens, and that dark cloud arising from beneath the western horizon? Hark! Don't you hear distant thunder? Don't you see those flashes of lightning? There is a storm gathering! Every man to his duty! The air is dark! - the tempest rages! - our masts are gone. - the ship is on her beam ends! What next?" At this a number of sailors in the congregation, utterly swept away by the dramatic description, leaped to their feet and cried: "The longboat! - take to the longboat!"

- Nathan Sheppard, Before an Audience.

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