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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1935

The Plunket Medal Contest, 1935

page 49

The Plunket Medal Contest, 1935

To strike home, orations must deal with live subjects. The art of convincing, moving and galvanising men into action is no academic study; it arose and reached its peak of development in the fierce clashes of partisan interest. The ancient greats and the moderns (vide, as does any conscientious Plunket Medallist, Great English Orations, Everyman, P.B.A.) rose to epic occasions and passionate flights, taking their audiences with them in their enthusiastic affirmations. True oratory is a guide to action; it occurs genuinely when a great personality, borne along the current of great events, takes a hand in influencing those events. "In the beginning was the word."

But to approach our own contests, after these soarings. There seems something patently artificial in the idea and practise of eight sleekly-turned-out young men and women getting up deliberately and in turn before a Concert Chamber audience, and for twelve minutes each producing oratory. Or, rather, performing oratorically; conditions of the contest are such that it inevitably lacks spontaneity and warmth.

Within these limitations, it would seem that the contestants' only hope of overcoming the inherent dullness of the occasion lies in choosing a subject with life and blood in it. In your twelve minutes, it's no use skilfully exhuming a well-preserved but thoroughly dead corpse. Whether it was lived in the recent or distant past, the life of your "famous man or woman in history" must mean something in the lives of your audience to-day. It must throw light on present problems, and deal with events that can come to life, if he's an old-timer; must vivify and freshly interpret the actual experience of the audience, if he's a relatively modern.

These may seem Utopian considerations, but at least they give future competitors some hint of how to avoid the cadenced pomposities of funereal eulogy that seem to be the characteristic and fatal mark of most Plunket Medal orations. Revolt from this tradition was noticeable this year. Several contestants tried to do the thing freshly, and showed some originality; while the plane of oratory was seldom reached, there was a definite advance in variety and interest.

The first speaker was Mr. Sellers, on Robert Clive. His splendid platform appearance was marred by nervousness, betrayed, in a stiffness of gesture, and insufficient, although at times explosive, variation in volume and modulation of his speaking. With a more exciting subject, Mr. Sellers will be impressive in future contests.

Speaking on Gustav Stresemann, Mr. McElwain at times approached more nearly to impassioned oratory than any of the other speakers. His choice of subject was excellent—a contemporary who was borne up in the great currents of the post-war European scene, and the drama of whose life and conflict was consequently alive to the audience. Mr. McElwain wisely limited himself to salient aspects of Stresemann's life, without trying to cover its whole scope. Unfortunately, his elocutionary equipment was not equal to his subject matter; he was handicapped by a thinness of voice and lack of gesture.

Mr. Scotney chose John Brown, the surrounding elements of whose life and struggles were roo remote to make him an appealing figure. A brusque stridency of voice, manner and gesture, surprising in so experienced a speaker, marred the first portion of Mr. Scotney's speech. When he soft-pedalled, he was much more pleasing to listen to, and the last minutes of his speech were genuinely moving.

Miss Souter turned to the New Zealand scene in her speech on Te Kooti. She was well prepared and very confident, but her speech seemed rather more glib than passionate. It was due partly to the inherent mediocrity of her subject, partly to the episodic manner of her treatment, that she quite failed to capture the interest or stir the imagination of her audience.

An infinitely engaging Mr. McGhie followed. In the countless P.M. orations of the past there can have been few so original as this one on Robert Burns. As witness the reactions of the audience; they either liked Mr. McGhie or they hated him—at least they reacted. Highlights of his amusing performance were a spurious Scottish accent, that waxed and waned with the audience's approval, mouth-filling rodomontade, so purple as to amount at times almost to a burlesque of a Plunket Medal address, and extensive poetic quotation (with and without quotation marks) from the works of the bard. Mr. McGhie's voice and manner were well suited to his buoyant treatment.

page 50

Mr. Griffiths, the next speaker, gave an object lesson in the wrong kind of Plunket Medal address. He delivered his dull catalogue of the virtues of an ancient Greek with all the emphasis and passion of a repetition of the multiplication table. He had set himself the impossible task of raising Pericles from the dead, and his maiden Plunket Medal speech quite failed to carry conviction.

Miss Shortall was another story. The stormy and eventful life of Michael Collins was within our time, and by ably treating the most dramatically significant scenes of his life, she made him appear a genuinely great and sympathetic figure. Miss Shortall scored with an easy naturalness of manner, a well-modulated voice and a pleasing flow of language. But she lacked fire, and missed her opportunities to rise to passionate climaxes through an unnecessary restraint of treatment. In total effect, her speech was moving, but not consistently nor deeply so.

It remained for the winning speaker, Mr. Tahiwi, to turn his splendid gifts to the treatment of an intrinsically mediocre subject. Mr. Tahiwi immediately impressed by his assured mastery of his equipment and his material—pleasing voice, good presence and graceful gestures. His apologia for Henry VIII. was never an oration, but in contrast to the other speakers, he displayed a complete maturity and mastery of his resources. He delivered a perfectly polished after-dinner speech.

The judges, Professor von Zedlitz, Rabbi Katz and Mr. O'Leary, awarded the medal to Mr. Tahiwi, and placed Mr. McGhie second and Miss Shortall third. Their spokesman, Professor von Zedlitz, perhaps over-diplomatically side-stepped individual criticism of the speakers. Instead, he discoursed amusingly on horse-racing. Lord Plunket and the origin and conditions of the contest, and congratulated the Society on the standard of the speaking.