Cheeky boys

Dumbstruck: a cultural history of ventriloquism

Steven Connor <em>Oxford University Press, 449pp,

This year I attended the annual Vent Haven International Convention of Ventriloquists, which takes place in a sort of mock-medieval motel in North Kentucky. There are only a few hundred serious vents left in the world and they know that, to put it mildly, the heyday of their art has passed. Accordingly, they stick together in one big mutual support group, within which news of any vent-related incident is rapidly relayed. One of the hottest bits of gossip in Kentucky was that a "very clever" Englishman was working on a book about ventriloquism, and here it is.

It is strange to think of this incredibly erudite work by a professor of literature being sold at next year's convention alongside such familiar titles as The A to Z of Corporate Ventriloquism and How to Get Booked on Cruises, but I'm sure that Dumbstruck will be there - it is easily the best account of the dark business at the roots of the art.

Connor's subject is ventriloquism in the wide sense (meaning general vocal trickery) and, more broadly still, the very otherness of the disembodied voice. Early on, the intangibility of his subject provokes some pretty fraught sentences: "The very possibility of the world of coming and going, the fact that I am able to learn that my voice both comes from me and goes from me, may be programmed in part by the exercise and experience of my voice." However, once his narrative is under way, he settles down into a scholarly but wry style that is a pleasure to read, in a challenging sort of way.

As any vent will proudly tell you, ventriloquism is a Latin translation of a Greek word meaning "speaking from the stomach", and it is in Greece that the story begins - with the Delphic Oracle, the mythological priestess who vocalised the thoughts of Apollo while sitting on a tripod over an all too metaphorically significant crack in the ground. In the last century BC, the Oracle began to be spoken of in terms of ventriloquism, raising the question of whether she was regarded as a mere intermediary or something more. The femaleness of the Oracle becomes significant as Connor dissects the "complex circuit of identification and associations between earth, utterance and the female body, especially the genitals". He traces the way that oracular prophecy became associated with sexual frenzy, and ultimately he presents the Oracle as a symbol of the disturbing ambiguity of the voice.

In medieval times, a connection was formed between possession and witchcraft, and case histories of possession are analysed, including that of Thomas Darling. He argued with the devil within him, just as Michael Redgrave contended with the dummy Hugo in the sequence about a deranged ventriloquist in the film Dead of Night. From these histories the point emerges: how else can possession manifest itself, except by strange and other-worldly speech? No wonder vocal trickery was such a dangerous game.

By the 18th century, however, the associations of prophecy with ventriloquism were weakening, and those professing to speak in the voices of others were usually entertainers. Dummies were not yet involved; instead, the ventriloquist would throw his voice - to produce a faraway-sounding voice without moving his lips. (I noticed in Kentucky, incidentally, that the vents revered the distant-voice specialists as the purists of the art.)

Dummies arrived in the mid-19th century, and they coincided with attempts to develop a talking machine. The most mesmerisingly poignant people in a book filled with such characters is Professor Faber, a down-at-heel Viennese gent who constructed, in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, a Frankenstein-like figure of pedals, rubber tubes and metal pipes, with a large, dead-eyed automaton head. As air was passed through the machine, it made utterances in a hoarse, sepulchral voice. Because of the public's lack of interest, Faber destroyed his machine and then himself, but Alexander Graham Bell heard about the contraption from his father, and apparently learnt from it.

Connor concludes that ventriloquism as show business may be almost dead ("say the word without moving your lips, and what comes out is "then-triloquism"), but that the aural enigmas behind it never will be. It is good to be told about these, especially in such an overwhelmingly, and arrogantly, visual era as our own.

Andrew Martin's novel, Bilton, is published by Faber & Faber