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The Spike: or, Victoria College Review, 1939

Plunket Medal

page 25

Plunket Medal

One approaches the task of judging a Plunket Medal Contest with misgivings much the same as those experienced by the entrant. How is the speaker, you ask, to be oratorical without being theatrical? Oratory has its roots in inspiration whether this arises from the nobility of some cause or from the vividness of some personality. A prepared speech of the duration set by this contest has the same disadvantages as a poem made to order: it does not necessarily lack the sublime touch but presence of the inspirational factor is more likely to be due to accident than to design. This year the difficulty was surmounted by an Irishman speaking on an Irish theme: a happy combination that has had several successes in the thirty-three years of the "Medal."

The judges reaches the conclusion that of the nine speeches delivered that on de Valera was the most arresting, the one that came closest to their conception of the spirit of the contest. It was given with fire and spirit, but without prejudice or rancour. No one familiar with the mathematical precision of de Valera's nature could regard him as a particularly romantic subject for a moving address, and yet Mr. O'Connor made him live as an attractive character stimulated to great purposes by a belief in the essential nobility of his cause. It required no small effort to life this thin-lipped, long-nosed, fishy-eyed individual that newsreels present to us de Valera from the category of a soulless pedagogue into that of a Curran or a Parnell, giving the latter the picture in which posterity, and not Clark Gable, has set him.

It was these features that set the winning effort by a narrow margin above the second gained by Mr. Meek with his talk on Jiddu Krishnamurti. Arrangement of material and presentation were both more subtle and distinctive than in Mr. O'Connor's speech: indeed, the subject-matter lent itself to an impersonal and quiet treatment, and his method was admirable handled by Mr. Meek. But while Krishnamurti and his philosophical and religious theory provide food for speculative debate, his intellectual detachment makes him a difficult choice for this sort of oratorical contest. Some years ago, a speaker on Socrates found himself in like case, but leavened his sombreness by references to "Mrs. Socrates" which were greatly enjoyed by the less reverent of the audience.

Burke (Mr. A. L. McCulloch) and the Earl of Strafford (Mr. E. K. Braybrooke) ran a dead heat for third place. Both speakers rattled the dead bones of history with some skill, but the result could not produce more than drab and dreary picture drawn from eras in which we have little interest. There is no reason why such men should not be fit subject for oratory but, treated purely from an objective standpoint, they become mere catalogues of events or achievements: if they lack colour in themselves, some light and shade should be infused into the age which serves as their background. Mr. McCulloch laid considerable insistence upon Burke's attitudes and speeches. A man can be an artist in attitudes: Wilde and Whistler were; but a speech, once made, is generally as dead as last year's love, and the last way to create enthusiasm for a politician of yore is to repeat extracts from his speeches. Mr. McCulloch, also, should refrain from a habit of submitting his "character for your consideration" as if were a question either of probation or reformative. On the other hand, there was something of a "take it or leave it" manner about Mr. Braybrooke who gave us all the documentary evidence and invited us, as it were, to pass judgment upon the faces. As an essay, this address was to be highly commended: as a speech, it needed more life.

In "T. E. Lawrence," Mr. Edgley selected a colourful personality about whom it is not difficult to become enthusiastic. His introduction was excellent: the young and glamorous patriot, in his Arabian dress, seated amongst the world's most famous diplomats at the Versailles Conference. From that point, the treatment became objective—a piling up of factual data with which most of the audience must have been altogether familiar. But, behind all the known facts, Lawrence remains one of the enigmas of the age— page 26 recluse, speed-fiend, pacifist at heart—any interpretation of the underlying reasons would have provided oratory with a scope it can rarely find in more objectivity. Mr. Edgley, too suffers like many good debaters from the defect of speaking too fast—a desire, no doubt, to crowd the canvas and avoid elimination.

Mr. Renouf (Kagawa) spoke earnestly on a subject that seemed close to his heart, but it sounded at times, with its emphatic embellishments, like the letter of an early Victorian maiden. "It was too heavenly to meet you of all people in such perfect surroundings." He described Kagawa as one whose social work was without equal in the world to-day. It is no reflection upon Kagawa to say that his admirer failed to establish so extravagant an assertion, and the failure is mentioned to illustrate the necessity in contests of this kind of avoiding the fascination of superlatives. The horses that are doped with adjectives almost invariable weaken in the run home.

In his study of Lord Rutherford, Mr. Foley went to the opposite extreme and gave a speech entirely lacking in light and shade. This was not altogether the fault of the speaker. The fact simply is that neither Lord Rutherford nor his life are fit subject for a speech of the kind required to win the Plunket Medal. The splitting of the atom is a discovery of immense importance to science, but it is as impossible to become emotional about it as it is to become emotional about. Dr. Murphy's intestinal button. With the paucity of available material, the most experienced orator could not have aroused an audience by recital of Rutherford's technical experiments.

A similar difficulty did not apply to Prince Kropotkin, many-sided gentleman and spiritual adventurer. Mr. Lewin, however, produced a somewhat incoherent likeness, dulled by a poor delivery and ill-timed gestures. The tendency to punctuate a speech with gesture has perhaps been increased by the antics of totalitarian dictators, but it is slightly out of harmony with modern speaking and, unless performed with considerable ingenuity, is apt to strike a false note even in a sincere address such as Mr. Lewin's was.

Last but not least, we come to Mr. McDonald who handled Mustapha Kemal with discernment and a degree of pugnacity. Giving the appearance of being the youngest entrant in the contest, he made a good showing in his first assault on the "Medal." The speech was well-balanced, but here and there was a note of bathos that experience will correct.

After the presentation of the Medal of Mr. O'Connor, the Hon. W. E. Barnard, Speaker of the House of Representatives, made some interesting observations on Parliamentary Debate. Yet, it is not in the skilled debater nor in the stump orator that the Plunket Medal winner is to be found, but rather in a speaker who, having selected an interesting and outstanding personality, can make him live for at least a few of the short twelve minutes that are available for that purpose.

—W. E. Leicester.