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THE ORATORY OF THE PLATFORM.
I CLASS under this general title all the various speakings that are addressed to the public at large, on matters of public concern, and as distinguished from those addressed to selected persons to whom you speak as a citizen, and not in a professional capacity. The distinction, which is of some importance, will be recognised at once by the instance of a Member of Parliament. When he addresses his constituents, seeking for election, his oratory is that of the platform. When, being elected, he addresses the House of Commons, he speaks in his professional character as an M.P., and the strain of his oratory will be that which I have endeavoured to describe in the letter that treats of the Oratory of the Senate.
The Oratory of the Platform has some characteristics common to all times, places and assemblies, and which are essential to the successful practice of it. But, in addition to these universal features, certain special qualities are required for various kinds of platform speaking, according to the various natures of the occasion, the subject, and the audience. I will first endeavour to give you a brief sketch of the general characteristics which you should study to comprehend, and then I will suggest what has appeared to me to be the special characteristics of some of the most important kinds of platform oratory.
A public meeting is moved by two great levers, one of which is supplied by the speaker, the other by the audience. You stir the people by your voice and words, but enthusiasm is supplied by themselves, caught by one from another, and reflected again and again from mind to mind. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for the most accomplished orator, talking to a single man, or even to half-a-dozen men, to stir their hearts to tumult or inspire a fit of uncontrollable passion. There is wanting the silent sympathy by which mind communicates with mind, as if by the subtle influence of some undiscovered medium by whose agency the impressions of one mind are inaudibly and invisibly impressed upon all other minds within its sphere. The phenomena of panics and of popular frenzies and delusions place beyond question the fact of the existence of such a sympathy, and the orator must avail himself of it upon the platform, if he would put forth the full power of his art.
True, this sympathy is never kindled by argument alone. The most perfect logician the world has ever seen would fail to awaken the feelings of his audience, even while commanding their loftiest admiration and securing their heartiest applause, for the skill with which his reason has addressed itself to their intelligence. The better minds among the audience may be held in willing thraldom by a clear and convincing argument; and, if that alone be the object of the orator, he may be proud of his success ; but the minds so to be won are few among the many—the multitude must be moved by more stimulating appeals: argument fails because ordinary minds cannot understand it; the feelings alone are common to all humanity, and through the feelings alone, therefore, can mixed assemblies be commanded.
To secure the sympathies of an audience, it is in the first place necessary that you should be at one with them. The process is not wholly on your part. The most eloquent speaker cannot move an assembly entirely at his own pleasure—there must be some predisposition on the part of the listeners to sympathise with him ; they must meet him, as it were, half-way. Consequently he is compelled to consult their prejudices. Let him run counter to these, and his influence is gone. It has been said, indeed, of speakers, as of writers, who court popularity, that they can achieve it only by expressing in more apt words than the listener can employ the emotions already lurking in the minds of those whom they address; that, in fact, the orator does but fire the train that has been previously laid. A brief experience will satisfy you how true is this. The lesson to be learned from it is, that to succeed upon
the platform, you should, as a rule, shun argument in its own shape, though sometimes you may venture it, if cleverly disguised. But, inasmuch as a speech cannot be all declamation, and you must appear to aim at convincing even when you are only persuading, there is a resource always readily accepted as a substitute for argument-narrative, simile, and type. If, for instance, you wish that a certain proposition should be accepted as truth; should you proceed to prove it by an argument,
you would send half your audience to sleep, or throw them into a state of uneasy bewilderment. But tell them an anecdote that carries with it the desired conclusion, or typify the teaching, or introduce a striking simile, and eyes and mouths will open, and the comparison or the incident will be accepted with unquestioning readiness, however illogical the process, and however unsatisfactory the reasoning.
It is a great art, in platform oratory, to have a nice and rapid perception of the temper of your audience, and coolness and courage to retreat when you
yourself treading on dangerous ground. A keen eye will tell
you in a moment if you are going too far; nay, by a kind of instinct, you will feel the shadow that is passing over the minds of the assembly, and if you are wise, you will withdraw as gracefully as you can. unable to describe the aspect that indicates this incipient repulsion ; but you are conscious of a sudden shadow upon the upturned faces, and a chill that comes over yourself and freezes your energies. The best antidote to this, and the surest cover for your retreat, is a joke, if you can perpetrate one at such a moment; a laugh is a certain restorative to good humour, and the folly will be forgotten in the fun.
Your manner upon the platform should be deferential. A mixed audience is far more self-important and tetchy than a select party of the educated and intelligent. The more nearly an assembly resembles a mob, the more exacting it is of professions of respect. All the famous mob orators whom I have heard appeared to me to owe much of their power to the extreme deference they exhibited towards the people before them. King Mob feels an affront—and resents it, too-as readily as any other potentate. But you may take it as a maxim that an audience, whatever its composition, is more easily won than commanded.
Another quality essential to success upon the platform is good humour, and good temper must be combined with it. You know the difference between them. Good humour is the foundation of geniality; it is the habitual condition of a mind that looks on the sunny side of things, a kindly disposition, a cheerful temperament, an inclination to be rather blind to faults, and very discerning of virtues. Good humour is near of kin to good nature, though not identical with it. Its presence is always written upon the countenance, and bespeaks favour for the Orator before a word passes his lips. Good temper is not exhibited until the occasion calls for it, and then it is a quality of the highest value. In all mixed assemblies of a public character, and especially in political gatherings, opposition is tolerably certain to appear in some shape, often in forms calculated, and possibly designed, to produce vexation and anger. Nothing so baffles your opponents and wins for
the sympathy and support of the friendly and indifferent, as imperturbable good temper. Meet abuse and gibes with a smiling face ; answer them with a joke, and you will turn the laugh against your assailants. Under any imaginable provocation, keep your temper; it will secure you the advantage everywhere. Lose your temper, and you are yourself lost ; you give the victory to your opponents.
Another needful quality of Platform Oratory is courage—moral and physical. As you should never betray anger, so you should never exhibit fear. In the fiercest conflicts of rival parties you should maintain