Today I write out of sympathy for a certain artefact in our collection, as it happens to be one that sadly often gets overlooked because it causes fear amongst children and makes even the most intrepid visitor feel uneasy. I am, of course, talking about ‘Bertie’, the Ventriloquist dummy that was created by Thomas Mortley Clare. Bertie is currently situated in our far corner cabinet where our Victorian artefacts are. Whenever I work at Central Museum I find that people never fully appreciate the context provided about the Dummy and its owner. They are often too appalled by its features, which is a shame as these instruments of entertainment are the remnants of a very old and almost extinct art form. This piece will provide more contexts on ventriloquism during the time of Mortley Clare and also look into its origins and relationship with religion to help understand why it has gained such a supernatural legacy.
Thomas Mortley Clare was a local ventriloquist, who played a grand total of 62 years. He performed his first act in 1901 at the Avondale Concert in Forest Hill, London and performed his final piece in Benfleet in 1963. Bertie was not his only Dummy, as he had a ‘family’ of dummies that included such characters as ‘Dad’, ‘Jack’, and ‘Jane’. Associating inanimate objects as close relatives may seem crazy; however it was common for ventriloquists to develop close relationships with their dummies, as it encouraged the illusion that the dummies were indeed as real as they performed. Another famous ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, was also well known for his close relationship with his puppet named ‘Charlie McCarthy’, and the two were very popular, as he genuinely made the audience believe that the dummy was real! Looking at Bertie’s features however, it is a wonder how any dummies with that similar design could be deemed real. If anything it only exhibits the immense skills the ventriloquists had to pull off the illusion.
Bertie was created in the 1880s, when the conventional double act of the cheeky dummy and the Ventriloquist was first developed by the performer Fred Russell and his partner ‘Coster Joe’. Bertie’s head was made out of papier-mâché and would have had similar features to ‘Coster Joe’, as in those days it was important to give the dummies exaggerated features, like big piercing eyes and large rosy cheeks. These cosmetic features were significant for the act to work, especially during the Victorian era, as the acts were often performed in large venues so people could appreciate every movement on the dummy’s face.
The Early performances of ventriloquism did not involve a doll. In fact, the use of a dummy before the late Victorian period was often scorned as unmanly and those that used such props were not skilled enough to fool the audience using their ability alone. Instead, performers would have conversations with fake people in another room or in compromising situations often involving talking to chimney-sweeps up chimneys, or a more famous example, where the performer would talk to a ‘boy-in-the-box’. The voice would be muffled or clear depending on whether the lid was open or closed. In England, it finally made its way onto stages in the late 18th century, performing at travelling fairs alongside other dark and mysterious acts including; magicians, escape artists and
clowns. The popularity grew further as variety shows became popular again in the 19th Century. In America, Ventriloquism was a regular act in the Vaudeville touring variety shows since its creation in the 1860s. With growing public exposure in America, similar shows were created in Britain and the rest of Europe.
As we look at ventriloquism during the time of Mortley Clare and its development as an act for people’s pleasure and amusement, so far we have yet to discover why ventriloquism has left itself such a dark and mysterious legacy. I feel that to do this we must dig deeper in the origins of the word and how ventriloquism has been perceived in its original forms.
Ventriloquism derives from the blending of two Latin words. The first is “Ventre” which means the belly and “Loqui” which is to speak, so ventriloquists were originally known as “Belly Speakers”. During the medieval period it was not seen as a clever trick, rather a mental illness or a demonic possession to those who were superstitious. Historians have often expanded on the role ventriloquism played in religion as part of the ‘divine struggle over the soul’, however it was not portrayed to be an act on the side of God. The skill has been referenced as far back as the 9th century, by the extremely pious Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius, as ‘the wickedness which lurks in the belly and deserves to dwell in the cesspool’. His opinion was not an exception, as professions that involved ventriloquism such as Oracles and Soothsayers were widely condemned by Christians as evil and Pagan. Oracles gave the illusion that they were able to allow the dead to speak to the living, whereas Soothsayers claimed that they were speaking as though God was speaking directly through them. Although these people were not Pagan, they were also prosecuted by the Church for being false prophets and turning people from the true path of God.
The modern perspective of ventriloquism embodies both the supernatural side and the entertaining light-hearted comical side of the performance. Although ventriloquism today is rarer to see on television or other media outlets than other acts, there are still a few ventriloquists with worldly renown. In America, Jeff Dunham is a famous ventriloquist with his funny yet edgy puppet ‘Achmed the dead terrorist’. A little closer to home, in Britain’s Got Talent (2009), a man by the name of Gareth Oliver impressed both the judges and the public with his performance of ‘O sole mio’, a well-known Neapolitan song, sung through his puppet ‘little tenor’. Most will remember of course the nation’s favourite ‘Orville the Duck’. Ventriloquist Keith Harris graced us with Orville’s first television appearance in 1982. He and Orville have appeared on our screens all the way through to 2015, including featuring in Peter Kay’s cover of Tony Christie’s ‘Is this the way to Amarillo’. The dummies they use however are a lot more aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The features are more suited to the modern audience, moving away from the Victorian style of ventriloquist dummies like poor old Bertie.
However they have not been completely forgotten. Instead they have joined the ranks of the Oracles and the Soothsayers due to their new association with the supernatural. Films that aired as far back as 1945 like the film ‘Dead of night’ through to modern day like ‘Dead Silence’ (2007) have highlighted the relationship between the dummy and its creator and have given it a dark twist. As mentioned before, Ventriloquists would lead the audience to believe that the dummy was alive. However now film writers would have us believe that they are certainly alive through some dark ritual like in ‘Devil Doll’ (1964) where the ventriloquist would absorb their dead victim’s spirits into the dummy to make them come alive!
In the medieval period illusionary tricks like ventriloquism were often found on the wrong side of the church. They were forbidden acts, seen as evil, due to those using them to take advantage of peoples religious and superstitious beliefs for their own gain. The mysteries of Ventriloquism continued through to the Victorian era when dummies were introduced. People were shocked at the relationships between the ventriloquist and the props, and made people question whether or not the performer genuinely believed the children were real. Film makers of Horror have exploited this in more recent times, allowing it to fall back into the category of dark magic, believing that ventriloquists believed that the dummies were real due to dark rituals or simply out of madness. What we have to remember though is that Ventriloquism is an art form that requires one to give the illusion that those who do not exist are real. Performers give their props complete personalities that are so impressive they still captivate audiences today.
Liam Reah, Museum Officer