Alfred Ayres (pen name of Thomas Embly Osmun)


Thomas Embly Osmun, was born in Summit County, Ohio, 26 February, 1826. He was educated at Oberlin College and in Germany and Paris, spending six years in Europe. He devoted himself to orthoepy (the art and study of correct pronunciation of words) and elocution. He had a regular column in Werner’s Voice Magazine that involved lists of words and how they should be pronounced properly.

Ayres worked as an elocutionist and instructor in dramatic art in New York City. He saw the emergence of drama schools as a potential threat and became a vociferous critic of acting schools. By publicly criticizing the mispronunciations of actors and the methods used in acting schools, Ayres induced the dramatic profession to observe a more severe and more natural standard of oratory. The paragraph below is a description of him by Hodge (1954, p. 562):

Ayres early lost faith in dramatic schools because, he claimed, they failed to pay attention to stage delivery which was the very core of acting to his way of thinking. Adept at straight talk, that often received publication in the New York Dramatic Mirror, he blasted the schools at every opportunity.

Excerpt from Ayres’ THE ESSENTIALS OF ELOCUTION (1897)

Elocution is the art of speaking language so as to make the thought it expresses clear and impressive.

All that is necessary in order to read well, is to speak naturally. But naturalness of all things is the most difficult to attain. Any one that can draw at all can draw something that would be readily recognized as an attempt to draw the human figure, but to draw the human figure so that it is true to Nature one must be a superb artist.

Natural reading is best done by speaking the language as we should speak it if the thought were our own, and the language came to us as we give it utterance.

Anyone who understands and appreciates an author will instinctively know what tones to read him in; a technical knowledge of gutturals and basilars, of pitches and whispers, will help not a whit.

After having carefully studied the passage to be read, being sure to understand the meaning fully, one should proceed to determine how it should be spoken in order to make the meaning clear:

1) Which are the words that should be emphasized.

2) Which clauses, being comparatively unimportant, should be lightly touched -- slurred.

3) Where the voice should be kept up, and where allowed to take the falling inflection.

4) Where the pauses should be made, the longest of which are always made between the thoughts.

In practicing, remember first to be CHARY OF EMPHASIS. Never emphasize a word unless you think the sense absolutely demands it. For example:

"The quality of mercy is not strained."

Thoughtless readers are sure to make either QUALITY or MERCY, or possibly both, emphatic. But the thoughtful reader sees that the making of either of these words emphatic puts a meaning into the line not intended.

To say that "The QUALITY of mercy is not strained" is to say that some other attribute of mercy is, or may be, strained -- the quantity, for example. And to say, "The quality of MERCY is not strained" is to say that the quality of something else is, or may be, strained.

The thoughtful reader sees that Portia says simply this: "Mercy does not come by compulsion, it comes of itself, it is spontaneous," and, having seen this, he has no difficulty in deciding how the line should be emphasized.

The second thing to learn in reading is properly to distribute the time, to be deliberate, to pause frequently and naturally. The accomplished reader always takes plenty of time. He that does not, he that hastens, never seems to be master of the situation, to have his task well in hand, and consequently he never is as effective as he might be. Nor must this deliberation appear in anything but in the frequency and in the length of the pauses. It must never appear in any drawling or dwelling on the words; they must always come clean-cut and sharply defined. Pausing properly does more than any other one thing to make one's reading natural and realistic.

I submit two or three speeches from Shakespeare with the pauses, at the least, approximately indicated. Pauses made with discretion vary, of course, very much in length; some are only momentary, while others may be measured by seconds:

Speak the speech --- I pray you --- as I pronounced it to you --- trippingly on the tongue --- but if you mouth --- as many of our players do --- I had as liefe the town-crier spoke my lines. --- Nor do not saw the air too much --- with your hand --- thus --- but use all gently --- for in the very torrent --- tempest --- and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion --- you must acquire --- and beget --- a temperance --- that may give it smoothness....

Natural tones are the tones of truth and honesty, of good sense and good taste. It is with them only that the understanding is successfully addressed; with them only that we can arouse and keep awake the intelligence of the listener, which is the object we always have in view, whether we speak our own language or that of another.

Writings by Alfred Ayres, arranged chronologically

Ayres, Alfred (1880). The orthoepist: A pronouncing manual, containing about three thousand five hundred words, including a considerable number of the names of foreign authors, artists, etc., that are often mispronounced. NY: Appleton.

Ayres, Alfred (1882). The verbalist: A manual devoted to brief discussions of the right and wrong use of words and to some other matters of interest to those who would speak and write with propriety. NY: Appleton.

Ayres, Alfred (1883). The English grammar of William Cobbett. Carefully revised and annotated by Alfred Ayres. NY: Appleton

Ayres, Alfred (1884). The mentor: A little book for the guidance of such men and boys as would appear to advantage in the society of persons of the better sort. NY: Funk and Wagnals

Ayres, Alfred (1886). The essentials of elocution. NY and London: Funk and Wagnalls Co. (Revised in 1897)

Ayres, Alfred (1894) Acting and actors, elocution and elocutionists: A Book about theatre folk and theatre art. NY Appleton

Ayres, Alfred (1901). Some ill-used words. New York: D. Appleton.

Ayres, Alfred (1903). Acting and actors, elocution and elocutionists: A book about theater folk and theater art, by Alfred Ayres [pseud.] with preface by Harrison Grey Fiske, introduction by Edgar S. Werner, prologue by James A. Waldron. D. Appleton, 2d ed., with supplement.

Writings about Alfred Ayres

Obituary (1902) Death of Alfred Ayres.; The orthoepist and critic succumbed to a stroke of apoplexy at the age of seventy six years. New York Times, Oct. 27, 1902, p. 9.

Barclay, Martha Thomson (1968). Alfred Ayres: Maverick elocutionist. The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 54, 3, 226-231.