Orator Characters

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Introduction to Character Type

"Orator" characters refer to a particular character type used to satirize the lessons in oratory that were popular in the mid- to late-eighteenth century. Such instruction was given by figures like Thomas Sheridan. Richard Brinsley Sheridan's biographer Linda Kelly describes the oratory craze:

Thomas Sheridan’s talks on oratory and elocution were a great success. His lectures at the Pewterers’ Hall and Spring Gardens were attended by as many as sixteen hundred subscribers, each paying a guinea apiece. He spoke at Oxford and Cambridge, receiving an honorary degree from each university. He traveled to Edinburgh, where he received yet another degree and where he gave lessons in pronunciation to notables concerned to lose their Scots accents, amongst them Alexander Wedderburn, later Lord Loughborough, and the young James Boswell. Boswell, with his natural tendency to hero worship, was an enthusiastic admirer of Thomas Sheridan. He called him ‘my mentor, my Socrates’, and so far benefited from his teaching that Dr Johnson, whom he met soon afterwards, told him kindly, ‘Sir, your accent is not offensive' (Kelly 16-17).

As Boswell's case points out, education in elocution was a simple and effective way of networking and ultimately of rising in society. The sheer popularity of Sheridan's lectures in oratory led this genre to become the object of satire on the London stage. Several plays in this collection satirize the oratory trend, with the most prominent example being Samuel Foote's The Orators (1762), in which Foote acts the part of an instructor of oratory and several 'pupils' demonstrate what they have learned to the audience, achieving an effect of great hilarity. The elevated language with which the students are instructed contrasts with their thick accents. Foote demonstrates the tone, rhetorical devices and vocabulary which characterize the orator:

FOOTE. Having thus compleated our lecture on the eloquence peculiar to the bar, we shall produce one great group of orators, in which will be exhibited specimens of every branch of the art. You will have at one view, the choleric, the placid, the voluble, the frigid, the frothy, the turgid, the calm, and the clamorous; and as a proof of our exquisite skill, our subjects are not such as a regular education has prepared for the reception of this sublime science, but a set of illiterate mechanics, whom you are to suppose assembled at the Robin-hood in the Butcher-row, in order to discuss and adjust the various systems of Europe; but particularly to determine the separate interest of their own mother country (Foote 58-59).

Interestingly, the only plays that satirize the orator trend -- The Orators, as well as Samuel Foote's The Trial of Samuel Foote, Esq., for a Libel on Peter Paragraph (1763; published 1795) and George Colman the Elder's The Manager in Distress (1780) -- were written by theatre owners, perhaps a comment upon a rivalry between the theatre and the schools of oratory. In the latter play, several actresses abandon the Manager (Colman himself) to go to work for orators, claiming that the career change will result in less work and more pay, a direct comment on the insecurity of the theatres about this popular public pastime. Although this character type occurs only rarely, it is significant in that it is a satirical comment upon competing public diversions. Further, an examination of the satirical portrayal of Thomas Sheridan in The Orators offers insight into the lectures on oratory to which all members of the Sheridan family must have been exposed, which might particularly aide an analysis of the literary development of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Works Cited:

Foote, Samuel. The Orators. London: J. Coote, G. Kearsly, and T. Davies, 1762. Literature Online. 13 August 2008. http://lion.chadwyck.com/toc.do?action=new&divLevel=0&mapping=toc&area=Drama&id=Z000079935&forward=tocMarc&DurUrl=Yes

Kelly, Linda A. Richard Brinsley Sheridan. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997.

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List of Plays

The Manager in Distress (Colman)

The Trial of Samuel Foote, Esq., for a Libel on Peter Paragraph (Foote)

The Orators (Foote)

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©2008 Arden Hegele