The After-Dinner Speech
( Originally Published 1922 )
After-dinner speaking is much practised in America today. Clubs, classes, societies, fraternities, and civic committees of every kind and description come together to eat and drink, and then to listen to speeches suited to the time and place. The youngest as well as the oldest are called upon for after-dinner speeches. At alumni dinners the writer has heard trembling old men who have been out of college sixty years respond to toasts aptly, briefly, eloquently; and recently he attended a banquet where two boys spoke one not yet through grammar school with skill and true feeling.
The banquet used to be a society event. The guests came together for pleasure and sociability pure and simple. The feast was the chief thing; and it was usually sumptuous, and pro-longed, and marked by gaiety, relaxation, and high spirits. Indeed, high spirits, in times gone by, was a chief promoter of joviality and relaxation. Wine was considered an absolute necessity for good fellowship. It was thought that nothing but liquor could properly loosen the tongue and warm the heart into a fraternal glow. Intoxication was no disgrace; and the man who sought his inspiration from other sources than the flowing cup was thought sour and puritanical. Customs have changed greatly in our day. Good fellowship and social merriment amid surroundings perfect in taste and beauty, creature comforts, flowers, music, spotless linen all these still prevail at a thousand banquet boards. And there is still the flowing bowl; but it cheers and not inebriates. Today, though, people gather at the feast to take counsel, to report upon the progress of some civic or church campaign, or to talk over plans and policies, educational, political, religious, or philanthropic, quite as often as they do for social pleasure and unrestrained hilarity. Whatever may be the motive that draws them together, social grace, engaging conversation, and bright after-dinner speaking should always mark such gatherings.
In remote times, song and jest and story were not supplied chiefly by the guests themselves, but by a minstrel, or jester, or by hired actors. However, the nature of the entertainment did not differ much from that of our own time. Some years ago, M. Jules Jusserand, the French Ambassador to the United States, in the opening words of a toast to Washington, said: "Years ago, centuries ago, at the time when our ancestors all lived in Europe, they used to gather together, as we do, on solemn occasions. They partook of banquets, and after the banquets they listened to speeches. An account of what were after-dinner speeches at a time when Thule was still the end of the world and Columbus had not yet crossed the Atlantic has come down to us. The account is in very old-fashioned English and in alliterative verse; modernized it reads thus:
" 'When people are feasted and fed, fain would they hear some excel-lent thing after their food to gladden their heart. Some like to listen to legends of saints that lost their lives for our Lord's sake, some have a longing to harken to lays of love, telling how people have suffered for their beloved. Some covet and delight to hear talked of courtesy and knighthood and craft of arms. "
Successful after-dinner speaking requires good taste; it re-quires preparation; it requires adroitness; and it requires the friendly submerging of one's self in the spirit of the hour. The speaker may easily make or mar the occasion. It may be supposed, of course, that full provision has been made for the palate and the eye and all the other requirements of mere sense by the host and hostess, or the caterer. It may be taken for granted, too, that the guests themselves, as the various courses were being served, have provided "a feast of reason and a flow of soul." No doubt the merry jest has oft gone round and oft the cup been filled. But the evening is to reach its climax in the speeches. How important, then, that the toast-master and the three or four speakers of the evening should have sensed completely and delicately the purpose and motive of the meeting!
There is no more critical task than that assigned to the toastmaster. He is both to strike the keynote, and to keep the tone true throughout the program. This calls for tact, wit, good sense, good humor, and decision. It requires, too, the most careful and thoughtful preparation beforehand. It is the duty of the toastmaster to shift the curtains; to adjust skilfully the lights and shadows, so that the chief actors may appear to the best advantage; to touch off the fireworks of wit, wisdom, and eloquence; and, in case the company is so fortunate as to have secured one, to set off the giant firecracker. He must be both grave and gay, both daring and discreet; for he is expected to shoot folly as it flies, to drop deep-sea bombs now and then under dullness and stupidity, and, in an emergency, to throw about emptiness and pomposity his smoke-screen of protection. So the toastmaster must be a full man, an exact man, and a ready man all in one. Above all, let him be deft, and brief, and free from the vanity of making a half dozen speeches himself in the course of the evening.
Grace, brevity, playfulness these are prime qualities of the after-dinner speaker. The choice after-dinner speech is little short of an art product. It must express or interpret a social mood an emotion common to the assembly and it must leave an impression of unity and completeness. Since brevity is of its very essence, it must make the most of its materials. The theme, therefore, should be clear, the end in view distinct, the development facile yet orderly, and the climax both sudden and satisfying. Just as the lyric or the short story allows no Waste and requires both orderliness and progress, and an outcome foreseen and provided for, so the after-dinner speech should reveal plan, restraint, and harmony, yet be so true to the time, the place, the audience, and to the speaker himself that art appears artless.
The original sin, the mortal sin, and, it would seem, the incurable sin of after-dinner speakers is prolixity lengthiness. A dull speech can be endured if it is short. An utterance that is in bad taste may pass and be forgotten, if we do not have to taste it long; and a speech, even, that is a pitiful failure will not distress us unduly, if only it will fail promptly. But from the endless speech there is no deliverance! And when one endless speech follows hard upon another, and a glance at the toast list reveals the fact that the speaking has only well begun, then despair may well settle down upon the company; their last estate will prove more terrible than their first. The men and women who bore us at our feasts by long speeches are not deliberately cruel. Ordinarily, they are sane and kindly people; indeed, they are usually people who are highly respected in the community. Their crime is not an act of depravity, but of ignorance. Mr. Burges Johnson, in a brilliant article in The Atlantic Monthly of October, 1919, entitled Is After-Dinner Speaking a Disease? humorously maintains that the guilty people who torment us with long speeches at our public feasts "hypnotize themselves by gazing into the upturned eyes of a waiting audience" and, as a result, lose all sense of time, courtesy, the rights of others, and their own best interests. Mr. Johnson sets down many instances (diverting to read about, but how dreadful to have experienced!) to enforce and illustrate his theory.
I sat and listened while an eminent senator wrecked his chances for the presidency by talking at us actually for hours, dis-regarding all consideration of those who were to follow him, blind to every evidence of unrest in the audience facing him, deaf to the poundings and shufflings that even their sense of courtesy could not repress.
Once upon a time I attended one of those annual social occasions in New York City where the sons of some distant commonwealth get together for the sake of good fellowship and the renewal of early associations. Both of the senators who represented that state at Washington sat at the head of the table; both were to speak, and there were other speakers to be heard as well. One of the senators talked for fifty minutes, and the other talked for an hour and twenty minutes, and the guests departed at intervals throughout the evening in a state of gloom and depression. Similarly, at a dinner in Washington, a speaker of the House of Representatives held an obviously fidgety audience of dinner guests beneath his gaze and used up the entire balance of the evening, so that other speakers whose names appeared upon the program had to be omitted altogether.
The habit of triteness is a deadly one among speakers at banquets. They are likely to use the same old set forms and worn-out phrases even the same stale jokes that their fathers and their grandfathers used. They seem to think that they must indulge in a certain amount of local allusion and conventional flattery; that they must work in a bit of quotation every so often; and, above all, that they must sprinkle in a few funny stories, no matter how ancient, how inapt, or how poorly told. Now every occasion that is worth while yields its own choice flavor, its own peculiar fragrance; and it is the part of the chosen speaker to sense what is unique in the event that has called the company together. He should be keen to discern the atmosphere. that gives distinction to the place and the hour. He should saturate himself in this atmosphere, should extract its subtle charm, and then render and interpret it with freshness and surprise. Why should the same worn, treadmill path be trod each time a company assembles to eat and drink and make merry? Why should the same jests and jokes and stories, as smoothly worn as a much-used coin that left the mint fifty years ago, be put into circulation? The minting mill is still at work turning out quarters and gold eagles as clean-cut and shining as any glistening, clinking beauty of the past. Trust your own good brain, and let your glowing heart throb out its own true new music. After all, it is the unexpected that happens. It is what chances that gives us the most pleasure. And next to the delight that comes from pure chance, is the virtue of expecting the unexpected and of being ready for it. No doubt the choicest flashes of wit, the most brilliant sallies of allusion and satire, will shine out like shooting stars or stray blossoms on the surface of the hastening stream. That this is likely to be true, does not exempt one from the duty of preparation. The long intense search beforehand for what is apropos never comes amiss. The more skilful and experienced the speaker is the more certain he will be to have in reserve a William Tell shaft to loose at need. The more expert the slinger, the more sure he will be to have a few smooth round pebbles gathered by the brook-side, hid away in his bag for use against wandering Goliaths. But above all things, let him not go forth as the champion of his people in some strange Saul's armor of anecdote or quotation that does not fit him, but only trips and betrays him! In plain words, let the story or the illustration fit the occasion; do not force the occasion to fit the anecdote or the speaker.
1. Every time you have a chance go to dinners and banquets where speeches are to be made. Study the speeches that you hear. What makes the good ones good, the bad ones bad?
2. Have a class dinner at which there will be short speeches or toasts. Make these fit the occasion. Choose a live toastmaster, with wit and resource enough to fill every little gap with good cheer and laughter.
3. Mark Twain made one of his best after-dinner efforts on the subject of Babies. Eating Soup, Regrets, Hope, Mirrors, etc., have all been used as titles for successful banquet speeches. Make up programs for two or three dinners.
4. Study the following for suggestions. Note how the speaker makes his speech fit the occasion; how he includes those things that will make an appeal through the experience of his audience; how he combines sense with wit; how well he begins, how gracefully he ends.
(Speech of Samuel L. Clemens [Mark Twain] at a banquet given by the Army of the Tennessee at Chicago, Ill., November 13, 1877, in honor of General Grant on his return from his trip around the world. Mark Twain responded to the toast, "The Babies: as they comfort us in our sorrows, let us not forget them in our festivities.")
Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: "The Babies." Now, that's some-thing like. We haven't all had the good fortune to be ladies; we have not all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies, we stand on common ground for we've all been babies. (Laughter) It is a shame that for a thousand years the world's banquets have utterly ignored the baby, as if he didn't amount to anything! If you, gentlemen, will stop and think a minute if you will go back fifty or a hundred years, to your early married life, and recontemplate your first baby, you will remember that he amounted to a' good deal and even something over. (Laughter)
You soldiers all know that when that little fellow arrived at family headquarters, you had to hand in your resignation. He took entire command. You became his lackey, his mere bodyguard; and you had to stand around. He was not a commander who made allowance for the time, distance, weather, or anything else. You had to execute his order whether it was possible or not. And there was only one form of marching in his manual of tactics, and that was the double-quick. (Laughter) He treated you with every sort of insolence and disrespect, and the bravest of you did not dare to say a word. You could face the death-storm of Donelson and Vicksburg, and give back blow for blow, but when he clawed your whiskers and pulled your hair, and twisted your nose, you had to take it. (Laughter) When the thunders of war sounded in your ears, you set your faces towards the batteries and advanced with steady tread; but when he turned on the terrors of his war-whoop (Laughter) you advanced inthe other direction, and mighty glad of the chance, too. When he called for soothing syrup, did you venture to throw out any remarks about certain services unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman? No; you got up and got it! If he ordered his pap bottle, and it wasn't warm, did you talk back! Not you; you went to work and warmed it. You even descended so far in your menial office as to take a suck at that warm, insipid stuff yourself, to see if it was right! three parts water to one of milk, a touch of sugar to modify the colic, and a drop of peppermint to kill those immortal hiccoughs. I can taste that stuff yet! (Laughter)
And how many things you learned as you went along! Sentimental young folks still take stock in that beautiful old saying, that when baby smiles in his sleep it is because the angels are whispering to him. Very pretty, but "too thin" simply wind on the stomach, my friends. (Laughter) If the baby proposed to take a walk at his usual hour half-past two in the morning didn't you rise up promptly and remark (with a mental attitude which wouldn't improve a Sunday school much) that that was the very thing you were about to propose yourself? Oh, you were under good discipline. And so you went fluttering up and down the room in your "undress uniform"; (Laughter) you not only prattled undignified baby-talk, but even tuned up your martial voices and tried to sing "Rock-a-Bye Baby on the Tree-top," for instance. What a spectacle for an Army of the Tennessee! And what an affliction for the neighbors, too, for it isn't everybody within a mile around that likes military music at three o'clock in the morning. (Laughter) And when you had been keeping this thing up two or three hours, and your little velvet-head intimated that nothing suited him like exercise and noise, and proposed to fight it out on that line if it took all night "Go on." What did you do? You simply went on till you dropped in the last ditch! (Laughter)
I like the idea that a baby doesn't amount to anything! Why, one baby is just a house and a front yard full by itself; one baby can furnish more business than you and your whole interior department can attend to; he is enterprising, irrepressible, brimful of lawless activities. Do what you please you can't make him stay on the reservation. Sufficient unto the day is one baby. As long as you are in your right mind don't ever pray for twins. Twins amount to a permanent riot; and there ain't any real difference between triplets and insurrections. (Great laughter)
Among the three or four million cradles now rocking in the land there are some which this nation would preserve for ages as sacred things, if we could know which ones they are. For in one of these cradles the unconscious Farragut of the future is at this moment teething. Think of it! and putting a word of dead earnest, unarticulated, but justifiable, profanity over it, too; in another, the future renowned astronomer is blinking at the shining Milky Way with but a languid interest, poor little chap, and wondering what has become of that other one they call the wet-nurse; in another, the future great historian is lying, and doubtless he will continue to lie until his earthly mission is ended; in another, the future president is busying himself with no profounder problem of state than what the mischief has become of his hair so early; (Laughter) and in a mighty host of other cradles there are now some sixty thousand future office-seekers getting ready to furnish him occasion to grapple with the same old problem a second time! And in still one more cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious commander-in-chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind at this moment, to trying to find out some way to get his own big toe into his mouth, an achieve-ment which (meaning no disrespect) the illustrious guest of this evening also turned his attention to some fifty-six years ago! And if the child is but the prophecy of the man, there are mighty few will doubt that he succeeded. (Laughter and prolonged applause)