Addie Lang's lesson in appropriate gestures
Washington — This is as good a place as any, perhaps to review the study of appropriate gestures to accompany declamatory selections of the Franklin Sixth Reader and Speaker (Boston, 1847).The place is the old Hale Farm which has been turned into a private boarding school for young people of South Lee, N.H., under Miss Lavinia (Vinnie) Holloway, a protege of Mrs. Jeremiah Smith. The living room seats 18, and Miss Vinnie turns to the introduction, "Gesture in Elocution." There are 65 pictures of a young man in a frock coat illustrating the passions and emotions elicited by the selections, with gestures of the hands, and facial changes that range from ecstacy to anguish.
The Reader, as the preface explains, is designed to give "somewhat more of an elocutionary character than either of its predecessors in the series." Indeed they allow a gamut of emotions from "Death and Burial of Little Nell" to "Spartacus to the Gladiators," not to mention "Charge of the Light Brigade".
The class finished work on the first chapter last week: "The Voice in Elocution," broken down into seven sections: Force, Volume, Movement, Pitch, Slides (i.e., "variations of pitch from "shrill" to "deep"), Stress, and Quality. Now it is taking up the five divisions of "Gestures". Miss Vinnie's expression is concentrated. She does not heed the stamp of the horses in the barn or the drawling hen outside the window. Will Addie Lang be the first to recite, she asks? Remember that the gesture must be appropriate to facial expression. Just to review the latter, remember that Grief wrinkles the brows . . . Disdain partly closes the eyes . . . "Anger closes the mouth firmly, holds the body erect, shuts the teeth, and clinches the fists."
They covered all that last week. Today there is an even more challenging task: projecting abstract qualities. The book says, "Abstract qualities, when successively enumerated, may be imagined to occupy different locations and may be alluded to by corresponding gestures of place, thus . . ."
"What would content you? Talent? No. Enterprise? No. Reputation? No. Courage? No. Virtue? No. Holiness? No. The man whom you would select must posses not one, but all of these."
Ready, Addie? Go ahead!
Addie loses herself in the problem. Miss Vinnie is so absorbed that it is impossible for the watchers to titter. Furthermore, the Reader's instructions are commandingly explicit. They go:
"On the world talentm the gesture might be directly to the front, as though talent were located between the speaker and the audience in front of him. On the word enterprisem the hand might gesticulate a little to the right of where the gesture was made on talent,m as if enterprise lay beside talent and not far distant from it. On the word reputationm the hand may be carried still further in the oblique direction, as if reputation were in the third place. . . ."
All right then; now the climax. Addie's face is suffused. Miss Vinnie's expression urges her on. Even the hen outside has stopped squawking. What does The Sixth Reader say?
"On the word onem the gesture may be directly to the front, and with the index finger. On the word allm a wave of the hand from the front around to the right, so as to include all the qualities that have been enumerated in their respective locations."
It is tremendously effective. Addie's eyes flash with commanding power. There is a little burst of applause from the audience, led by Addie's cousin. Susie Lang. But Miss Vinnie wants to make another point. She reads the next paragraph:
"Perhaps, however, it would be better to locate the different qualities one above the other, marking talentm by the hand at the height of the elbow or a little lower, and letting the hand rise successively on the other qualities, thus making a climax, holinessm carrying the hand high toward the zenith. The positions of the hand in the consecutive gestures need not be in a vertical plane; they may better rise obliquely to the rightm . . . ."
So the scene fades from the group discussing the issue. It is terribly complicated. Sides form: should the qualities be located by gesture one abovem the other, or sidem by side?m I have the dog-eared Reader before me now, with a note from my mother, Susie Lang, (written years and years afterwards) naming some of the scholars -- Lizzie and Annie Sherbourne; Clara Thompson (or "C'd"); Alice Fog and her brothers, Elmer and David; and the rest. After tumbling out of class it is hard not to use hortatory gestures and surprise Will Plummer down at the store.
In fact the question lingers: should those abstract qualities be spread out for observation or piled high before the audience? It is a problem that can puzzle one of Miss Vinnie's scholars at odd moments for a lifetime.
It bothered Addie, I think. Here at the end of the Introduction to the Sixth Reader on a vacant half-page before the Selections, I find her name written down boldly and a little defiantly, in the mood of one demanding "not one, but allm of these talents". Addie B. Lang South L ee, N.H. May 16th 1881.