Early phonograph records are a wonderful resource for understanding the acting styles of the turn of the century. Acting on the English and American stage before the late nineteenth century has frequently been described as featuring a “presentational” style with formulaic poses and gestures that were tied to specific expressive meanings. As the actor’s body was ostentatiously displayed in codified expressions, so too was the voice. Voice instructional manuals from the 1890s charted out connections between specific pitches and timbres of the voice and their meanings on the stage. In one manual from 1891, we are told that a “Bright” tone of voice relates to “Cheerfulness or Vitality,” a “Pure” voice to “Beauty,” and a “Gutteral” voice to “Hatred”. Performances found on some phonograph recordings from the turn of the twentieth century provide examples of how a voice trained in this manner might have sounded. Consider two recordings featuring Len Spencer, one of the most prolific phonograph artists in the 1890s and 1900s. A remarkably versatile performer, Spencer recorded comic skits, songs, as well as famous speeches and dramatic scenes. An example of that last category can be heard on Spencer’s “Flogging Scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Edison 1904), which also features a stark contrast between a “pure” and “gutteral” vocal style. The record begins with Tom’s low, rich voice slowly intoning, “I’ve come at last to the veil of shadows. My heart sinks and the tears roll from my poor old eyes.” Spencer then quickly shifts to a high-pitched, raspy sneer for the cruel overseer, who tells Tom, “Quit that howlin’. So you’ve made up your mind to run away, huh?” For the rest of the record, Spencer alternates between these two characters and their starkly defined vocal styles.
Spencer’s vocal performance of each character is steady and consistent: the patterns of the voice do not so much adapt themselves to the meaning of particular lines, as represent the unwavering moral nature of the characters. One might even say that, in some regards, the lines become superfluous, or, as Simon Frith has stated in regard to the singing of popular music, the words function primarily as the “signs of a voice.”
By the turn of the century, this presentational approach to acting was in the process of being eclipsed by a more modern style and vocal training was one of the primary ways in which a shift in the acting styles of the late nineteenth century was understood. The new representational style of acting featured an attempt at a more “natural” style with fewer gestures, posturing and raised voices. The kind of vocal training outlined above would have been inappropriate for the psychological, drawing-room dramas coming into vogue at this time. Another record featuring Len Spencer can illustrate that the conventions of the stage voice were becoming outmoded by the early teens. Some of Spencer’s most famous work was done in conjunction with Ada Jones, one of the first female recording stars. In “The Crushed Tragedian” (Edison 1911) Spencer plays a pompous actor named Richard Chatterton who encounters a street-smart city girl played by Jones.
The girl’s distinction between acting on the stage and in films nicely demonstrates how the status of motion picture performers at this time was unclear. Chatterton becomes a laughable figure to the extent that he has fallen in love with his own voice, as can be heard by his extravagantly rolled r’s and grandiose tones. Those affectations are thrown into stark relief by Jones’ comparatively natural Bowery dialect. This record suggests that the vocal conventions of the histrionic stage were becoming all too audible as conventions to many listeners: a stylistic shift in which new media like cinema and the phonograph were playing an important role.