The field covered by the present volume is not entirely unoccupied. One of the earliest publications in this line is an anonymous English work, very dignified and conservative. The speeches it furnishes are painstaking, but a trifle heavy, and savor so much of English modes of expression, as well as thought and customs, as to be poorly adapted to this country. Two works have appeared in this country, also, one being intended apparently for wine parties only; the other, while containing a number of gem-like little speeches, fails to give the aid which is sought by the ordinary tyro, and is calculated rather to discourage him; giving him the impression that it is more difficult to become an acceptable after-dinner speaker than he had ever supposed. While a few of the best things in the latter volume are availed of, a different method is pursued in the present work. Outlines of speeches are preferred to those which are fully elaborated; and the few plain rules, by which a thing so informal and easy as an after-dinner speech may be produced, are so illustrated as to make their application almost a matter of course. Good-humor and brevity, an outline and a story–what more is needed, unless it be that serene self-confidence which enables a speaker to say even foolish and absurd things, with the assurance that all goes down at a public dinner? What if you are not the most brilliant, humorous, and stirring speaker of the evening? Aim to fill your place without discredit; observe closely those who make a great success; the next time you may have a better outline or more telling story, and become, before you know it, the leader of the evening.
It is not intended to give rules or directions for the order either of drinking or feasting. That field is fully occupied. But the custom of making addresses at the close of a feast has, been so thoroughly established, and so frequent are these occasions, that a gentleman is not fully equipped for a place in society, if he cannot gracefully offer or respond to a toast, or preside at a gathering where toasts or other forms of after-dinner speaking are expected. It is the aim of this manual to help the beginner in this field.
AFTER-DINNER SPEECHES–ANCIENT AND MODERN
An idea of the real meaning of after-dinner speaking may be obtained from the feudal feasts of earlier times. The old lord or baron of the Middle Ages partook of his principal meal in the great hall of his castle, surrounded by guests, each being assigned his place in formal order and with no small degree of ceremony. This hall was the main feature of the castle. There all the family and guests met on frequent festal occasions, and after the feasting and the hour of ceremony and more refined entertainment was over, retired to rest in comparatively small and humble apartments adjoining, though sometimes they would simply wrap their cloaks about them, and lie down to sleep on the rushes that littered the floor of the great hall.
After the “rage of hunger was appeased”–which then, as in our day, and back even as far as the time of the ancient Greeks, was the first business in order–came the social hour, which meant much to the dwellers in those dull, comfortless old barracks–for the great castles of that day were little better than barracks. The chief gave the signal for talk, music, or story, previous to which, any inquiries or conversation, other than the briefest question and answer about the food or other necessary things, would have been considered inappropriate and disrespectful. There probably was present some guest, who came under circumstances that awakened the strongest curiosity or who had a claim upon his entertainer. Such a guest was placed at the board in a position corresponding to his rank.
After resting and partaking of the repast, it was pertinent to hear what account he could give of himself, and courtesy permitted the host to levy an intellectual tax upon him, as a contribution to the joy of the hour. Seated at the head of the table the chief, or, in his absence, a representative, made the opening speech–the address of welcome, to use the term familiar to ourselves. This might be very brief or at considerable length; it might suggest inquiries of any of the company or merely pledge an attentive and courteous hearing to whatever the guest might utter; it might refer to the past glory of the castle and its lord, or vaunt its present greatness and active occupation.
But whatever form it might take it was sure to consist–as addresses of welcome in all ages have done–of two words, by dexterously using which, any man can make a good speech of this character. These two words are “We” and “You;” and all else not connected with these is irrelevant and useless. They do not constitute two parts of the same speech but ordinarily play back and forth, like a game of battledore. Who “we” are; what “we” have done; how “we” saw “you;” what “we” have heard of “you;” how great and good “you” are thought to be; the joy at “your” coming; what “we” now want to learn of “you;” what “we” wish “you” to do; how “we” desire a longer stay or regret the need of an early departure–all is a variation of the one theme–“we” and “you.”