The ‘page/stage divide’ is much discussed, and considered by many to be mythical. For all the chest-beating about spoken word being contemporary here’s Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113), writing to the historian Cornelius Tacitus (AD56-117) and discussing the page/stage divide in the First Century AD. The discussion is about legal speeches, and these were frequently published at the time. Then, as now, there was more than a little theatre to the law courts.
I’ve previously blogged his complaints about Hollywooding.
Book 1, Letter 20 – translated by Betty Radice.
…it is argued that there is a great difference between a speech as delivered and the written version. This is a popular view, I know, but I feel convinced (if I am not mistaken) that, though some speeches may sound better than they read, if the written speech is good it must also be good when delivered, for it is the model and prototype for the spoken version. That is why we find so many rhetorical figures, apparently spontaneous, in any good written speech, even in those we know were published without being delivered: for example, in Cicero’s speech against Verres: ‘An artist? – now who was he? thank you for telling me: people said it was Polyclitus.’ It follows then that the perfect speech when delivered is that which keeps most closely to the written version, so long as the speaker is allowed the full time due to him; if he is cut short it is no fault of his, but a serious error on the part of the judge. The law supports my view, for it allows speakers any amount of time and recommends not brevity but the full exposition and precision that brevity cannot permit, except in very restricted cases. Let me add what I have learned from the very best of all teachers, experience. On the many occasions when I have been counsel, judge, or assessor, I have found that people are influenced in different ways, and that small points often have important consequences. Men’s powers of judgement vary with their temperaments; thus they can listen to the same case but reach different conclusions, or perhaps the same one by a different emotional reaction. Moreover, everyone is prejudiced in favour of his own powers of discernment, and will always find an argument most convincing if it leads to the conclusion he has reached for himself; everyone must then be given something he can grasp and recognize as his own idea.
Regulus once said to me when we were appearing in the same case: ‘You think you should follow up every point, but I make straight for the throat and hang on to that.’ (He certainly hangs on to whatever he seizes, but he often misses the right place.) I pointed out that it might be the knee or the heel he seized when he thought he had the throat. ‘I can’t see the throat,’ I said, ‘ so my method is to feel my way and try everything – in fact I “leave no stone unturned”.’ On my farms I cultivate my fruit trees and fields as carefully as my vineyards, and in the fields I sow barley, beans and other legumes as well as corn and wheat; so when I am making a speech I scatter various arguments around like seeds in order to reap whatever crop comes up. There are as many unforeseen hazards and uncertainties to surmount in working on the minds of judges as in dealing with the problems of weather and soil. Nor have I forgotten the words of the comic poet Eupolis in praise of the great orator Pericles: ‘Speed marked his words, and persuasion sat upon his lips. Thus he could charm, yet alone among orators, left his sting behind in his hearers.’ But ‘speed’ alone (whether by that is meant brevity or rapidity or both, for they are different things) could not have given Pericles his power to persuade and charm had he also not also possessed a supreme gift of eloquence. Charm and persuasion require fullness of treatment and time for delivery, and a speaker who leaves his sting in the minds of his hearers does not stop at pricking them, but drives his point in. And again, another comic poet* said of Pericles that ‘he flashed lightening, thundered and confounded Greece’. It is no curtailed and restricted style but a grand oratory, spacious and sublime, which can thunder, lighten, and throw a world into tumult and confusion.
‘All the same, the mean is best.’ No one denies it, but to fall short through over-compression is to miss the mean just as much as to be diffuse and go beyond it. The criticism ‘spiritless and feeble’ is heard as often as ‘excessive and redundant’, when one speaker does not cover his ground and another goes outside it. Both fail, through weakness or vitality, but the latter is at least the fault of a more powerful talent, if a crude one. In saying this I do not mean to praise Homer’s Thersites, ‘unbridled of tongue’, but Odysseus with his ‘words like flakes of winter snow’; and I can also very much admire Menelaus who spoke ‘at no great length but very clearly’. But, if I were given my choice, I prefer the speech like the winter snows, one which is fluent and vigorous, but also expansive, which is in fact divinely inspired.
‘But a lot of people like a short speech.’ So they do, if they are lazy, but it is absurd to take their idle whim as a serious opinion; if you followed their advice you would do best not in a short speech but saying nothing at all.