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After Dinner Speeches - Ancient And Modern

( Originally Published 1901 )

An idea of the real meaning of after-dinner speaking may be obtained from the feudal feasts of earlier times. The old lord or baron of the Middle Ages partook of his principal meal in the great hall of his castle, surrounded by guests, each being assigned his place in formal order and with no small degree of ceremony. This hall was the main feature of the castle. There all the family and guests met on frequent festal occasions, and after the feasting and the hour of ceremony and more refined entertainment was over, retired to rest in comparatively small and humble apartments adjoining, though sometimes they would simply wrap their cloaks about them, and lie down to sleep on the rushes that littered the floor of the great hall.

After the " rage of hunger was appeased "—which then, as in our day, and back even as far as the time of the ancient Greeks, was the first business in order—came the social hour, which meant much to the dwellers in those dull, comfortless old barracks

for the great castles of that day were little better than barracks. The chief gave the signal for talk, music, or story, previous to which, any inquiries or conversation, other than the briefest question and answer about the food or other necessary things, would have been considered inappropriate and disrespectful. There probably was present some guest, who came under circumstances that awakened the strongest curiosity or who had a claim upon his entertainer. Such a guest was placed at the board in a position corresponding to his rank.

After resting and partaking of the repast, it was pertinent to hear what account he could give of him-self, and courtesy permitted the host to levy an intellectual tax upon him, as a contribution to the joy of the hour. Seated at the head of the table the chief, or, in his absence, a representative, made the opening speech—the address of welcome, to use the term familiar to ourselves. This might be very brief or at considerable length; it might suggest inquiries of any of the company or merely pledge an attentive and courteous hearing to whatever the guest might utter; it might refer to the past glory of the castle and its lord, or vaunt its present greatness and active occupation.

But whatever form it might take it was sure to consist—as addresses of welcome in all ages have done—of two words, by dexterously using which, any man can make a good speech of this character. These two words are "We" and " You;" and all else not connected with these is irrelevant and use-less. They do not constitute two parts of the same speech but ordinarily play back and forth, like a game of battledore. Who " we " are; what " we " have done; how " we " saw " you;" what " we " have heard of " you;" how great and good " you " are thought to be; the joy at "your" coming; what " we " now want to learn of " you;" what " we " wish " you " to do; how " we " desire a longer stay or regret the need of an early departure—all is a variation of the one theme—" we " and " you."

The old Baron probably said all of this and much more in a lordly way, occupying a longer or shorter time, without ever dreaming that he was making a speech. It was his ordinary after-dinner talk to those whom chance or fortune brought within his walls. Or, if he prided himself upon being a man of few words, scorning these as fit only for women and minstrels, he would simply remind the guest that he was now at liberty to give such an account of himself, and to prefer such requests as seemed agreeable to him.

The guest was then expected to respond, though this by no means was the rule. The host might wish first to call out more of his own intellectual treasures. This he would do by having other occupants of the castle speak further words of welcome, or would call upon a minstrel to sing a song or relate some deed of chivalry.

When the guest at last rises to speak, it is still the two pronouns with slightly changed emphasis that play a conspicuous part. The " we " may become " I;" but this is no essential change. Where " I " or " we " have been; what " I " have done, suffered, or enjoyed; how and why " I " came here; how glad "1 " am to be here; what "I" have known and heard of " you;" how " we " may help each other; what great enterprises " we " can enter upon; how thankful for the good cheer and good words " we " hear.

In the baronial hall, which foreshadowed the family fireside of later days, the drinking was free and co-pious whilst the other portions of the entertainment were of a general character and quite protracted. Mirth, song, the rude jest, anecdotes of the chase or of a battle, or a rehearsal of the experiences of every-day life, were all in place. Sometimes, the guests, overpowered by their libations, are said to have fallen under the table and to have slumbered there till surprised by the pale morning light. There was little need of ceremony in such feasts, and there is little need of formality or constraint in the far different festal occasions of the present time.

When no guest, either by chance or invitation came to the castle, less variety could be given to the after-dinner entertainment, and many expedients were required to pass the long hours that sometimes hung heavily on their hands. Then the use of " Toasts " became an important feature. The drinking also was expected to arouse interest, but if it went on in silence and gloom or amid the buzz of trivial conversation in different parts of the hall the unity of the hour was marred and the evening was voted dull—the lord himself then having no more honor than his meanest vassal. But the toast—no matter how it originated—remedied all this. A compliment and a proverb, a speech and a response, however rude, fixed the attention of every one at the table, and enabled the lord to retain the same leader-ship at the feast that he had won in the chase or in battle. He might himself propose a toast of his own choice or give another permission to propose it. He might then designate some humorous or entertaining clansman to respond; he might either stimulate or repress the zeal of the guests, and give unity to each part of the entertainment and to the whole feast. For these reasons the toast rose into popularity, and is now often used—possibly it might be said generally used if our own country alone be considered—even when no drinking at all is indulged in.

Let us now take a look at an after-dinner hour of the present day; one of the very latest and most approved pattern. The contrast will not be without interest and value. The fare at the dinner is always inviting. The company is large. Good speakers are secured in advance. Each is given an appropriate toast, either to propose or respond to. Suppose it is a New England society celebrating Forefathers' Day in New York. The chairman (who is usually the president of the society) rises, and by touching a bell, rapping on the table, or in some other suitable manner, attracts all eyes to himself. He then asks the meeting to come to order, or if he prefers the form, to give attention. Then he utters a few graceful commonplaces, and calls upon a guest to offer the leading toast—not always the chief or most interesting one. Whenone is reached in which there is a lively interest, some distinguished person such as Chauncey M. Depew, the prince of after-dinner speakers, comes to the front. We give an outline of one of his addresses on Forefathers' Day, delivered December 22nd, 1882, in response to the toast, " The Half Moon and the Mayflower."

In reading this address the " We " and " You " cannot fail to be noted. Mr. Depew said he did not know why he should be called upon to celebrate his conquerors. The Yankees had overcome the Dutch, and the two races are mingled. The speaker then introduced three fine stories—one at the expense of the Dutch who are slow in reaching their ends. A tenor singer at the church of a celebrated preacher said to Mr. Depew, " You must come again, the fact is the Doctor and myself were not at our best last Sunday morning." The second related to the 'inquisitiveness of a person who expressed himself thus to the guide upon the estate of the Duke ofWestminster: " What, you can't tell how much the house cost or what the farm yields an acre, or what the old man's income is, or how much he is worth? Don't you Britishers know anything?" The third story, near the close, set off Yankee complacency. A New England girl mistook the first mile-stone from Boston for a tombstone, and reading its inscription " 1 M. from Boston," said " I'm from Boston; how simple; how sufficient."

The serious part of the discourse was a rapid statement of the principles represented by the Dutch pioneer ship " Half Moon " and the Pilgrim " Mayflower;" the elements of each contributed to national character and progress. (For speech in full see Depew's Speeches, Vol. I.)

Other toasts and responses followed; eloquence and humor mingled until the small hours of the night. Probably not one of that pleased and brilliant assemblage for a moment thought that they were doing at this anniversary what their old, barbaric ancestors did nightly, while resting after a border foray or Viking sea raid.

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