Episode 98 – “The Dummy”

The form of comedy practiced by ventriloquists was popular through the 1960s, a holdover from the vaudeville era. The ventriloquist appears with a prop, her or his dummy, usually a large doll, placed on the lap, or on a chair next to the comedian, and the movements of the dummy are clearly carried out by the ventriloquist, to whom the dummy is joined. The audience knows that the dummy is a dummy, a lifeless hunk of wood, screws, wires, in appropriately sized clothes. The illusion is that a dialogue takes place, a dialogue between the ventriloquist and the dummy. The illusion is the skillful artistic creation of the ventriloquist, who does all the speaking, but some of that speaking appears to come from the dummy, rather than from the ventriloquist. Again, the audience knows that the appearance of a dialogue between the dummy and the ventriloquist is a mere appearance or illusion, but it is an illusion where important features correspond to the actual features of “real” dialogues, and for this reason the ventriloquist’s act engages the audience. Goldblatt and Hagberg call it “illusion without deception” (p. xi).  Like any work of fiction, the fiction must have some things in common with reality.

This fact alone makes ventriloquism a fertile ground for philosophical reflection on the nature of language and communication. The ventriloquist has to understand the nature of real dialogue, in order to create the illusion of it occurring between a human speaker and an inanimate object. Clearly, controlling the mouth of the dummy is important, as is making it appear that one’s voice is coming from the dummy when it speaks, and also  making sure that the ventriloquist’s mouth does not appear to move when the dummy speaks. But that’s not all that’s needed: The ventriloquist must put the appropriate words into the mouth of the dummy. That is, the ventriloquist has to create a dialogue that is in important respects just like one would have with a real person, or at least with a real person pretending to be a dummy.

In the opening gag between Jerry, the ventriloquist, and Billy, the dummy, Jerry plays with the fact that he’s talking to  a doll, noting that when he expresses his superstitions he knocks on wood, and then he demonstrates by knocking on Billy’s head. Billy responds by claiming that he would be a better ventriloquist than Jerry. And then Billy demonstrates it: they switch roles. Billy appears to be projecting his voice onto Jerry. The audience knows who is really speaking, but is titillated by the idea that the control can be reversed.

The ventriloquist’s act , then, is all about distinguishing imagination from reality, and also about infusing reality with the imagination. An audience has to buy into something to find the ventriloquist’s act compelling. We have to accept that the ventriloquist is not merely talking to himself. We have to buy into the appearance, without being deceived, or at least by being willingly deceived. The ventriloquist creates the deception, and so knows that it is a deception. But can this condition fail? Can the ventriloquist be deceived by his own deception? That’s what has happened to Jerry.

Perhaps it is more appropriate to call what the ventriloquist creates a representation rather than an illusion. A painting of a landscape is a representation of a landscape. It’s possible, though unlikely, that one, even its creator, could mistake the representation for the thing represented.  But the representation created by a ventriloquist is different. It is not a static object, but a dynamic object responding to the input from its environment, though it requires a persistent connection to its creator to  so respond. And it also represents what it is not, that is, an autonomous person, independent of the person whose lap it occupies.  Willy is an active, dynamic representation of a person who is independent of Jerry.  And in this case, it is Jerry who is deceived.

When Jerry asks: “How can you be real when you’re made of wood?”, Willy replies: “You made me real.”   Willy is the creation of Jerry. Willy’s thoughts are really Jerry’s thoughts.Whatever claims the dummy makes, are really claims of the ventriloquist.The problem is that they are not under Jerry’s control. That can be true for anyone; we often find ourselves thinking of things, spontaneously imagining things that we haven’t willed to imagine. In Jerry’s case these imaginings are not spontaneous, but recurring and persistent, and very scary. Jerry takes a creation of his own mind for something outside of him.

Further Reading:

François Cooren , and Bruno Latour; Action and Agency in Dialogue: Passion, Incarnation and Ventriloquism (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2010)

David Goldblatt , and Garry L. Hagberg;  Art and Ventriloquism (Routledge, 2005).

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