The answer, according to Dr. Ladd and his co-author, Dr. Lachlan Ditchburn, is “quite possibly more than 100 years ago and probably long before.” The earliest use of ventriloquism is “more likely to have been for scientific or psychological purposes than for theatrical ones.”
Another explanation for how ventriloquism became popular in the American theater is the influence of British ventriloquists in the first quarter of the 20th Century. The most prominent British ventriloquist of this period, John Gaunt, began his career as an actor in a musical by the English comedian, John Cleese. Gaunt became a successful ventriloquist, and later performed at the London Palladium, London’s most renowned theater.
“It’s pretty clear that ventriloquism was invented by an American ventriloquist in the 1920s,” said Dr. Ladd. “The origin of our modern theater is a long-term cultural tradition dating back to the earliest ventriloquism.”
“That’s a good thing, because you wouldn’t want to change the tradition and try to make it fit your times.” The modern theater is a rich part of American history, says Dr. Ladd.
Ventriloquism has become so popular in recent decades in the United States that the theater recently changed its rules on what can be performed onstage, requiring that actors must not do any of the things that were previously allowed: bare hands, bare feet or a single hand holding a cue card to play a musical number. The current rules were written by theater critic Roger Ebert.
“For over three-quarters of a century the rules at play on the stage in the United States have been the same. There’s a lot of reason to support the way these plays are written and the way actors are chosen to play the parts,” said Dr. Ladd, a historian and cultural analyst whose specialty is the history of theater. “When you look at all this historical context, it really seems that what you’re seeing in the current theater is a very good adaptation of a very old stage tradition.”
With the increasing number of American ventriloquists, it’s tempting to imagine this new tradition as another addition to America’s cultural heritage. Yet the American theater isn’t alone. Britain’s most venerable theater, the National Theatre, has made it a mission to bring theater back to America’s youth — by making an
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