6:20pm Friday 3rd May 2013
By Dominic Smith
When French troops were killed in Afghanistan and Nicholas Sarkozy was the country’s president, he had to make a speech to the families of the deceased.
The requirement was to give some meaning and comfort to those left behind.
Few would recognise that he borrowed lines and ideas from a speech made 2,500 years ago by Pericles. The Athenian poli-tician was addressing a crowd at the annual public funeral for the war dead at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).
The connection did not escape the Belgian actor and member of the SKaGeN theatre school collective Valentijn Dhaenens, who says the oratory trade has changed very little in 2,000 years.
“I saw sentences Sarkozy had learnt from Pericles. Those speeches haven’t changed from the time of the ancient Greeks. When a soldier dies, you have to have comfort. We have not found another way to say that. It is always that the death had a meaning, for God and for the future of the country.”
The big difference is today’s politicians no longer talk for hours. Speeches run for lines instead of hundreds of pages.
It was in 1960s America when things changed most profoundly.
“There are more catchy phrases. They have been shortened for the media. When Obama talks, he starts with a joke to get the audience on his side and then he’ll say something difficult. He uses all the tricks.”
Dhaenens read a thousand landmark speeches with world historical importance in a year.
“I promised myself I would read one a day but I ended up reading a few more than 1,000. I didn’t have a concept in the beginning. I was hoping that the speeches would start communicating with each other.”
One speech which stood out was by German propagandist Goebbels, made in Munich to encourage women and children to get involved in the war.
“It is hysterical what he is saying but it is so well written. He used these long, beautifully-written sentences. A few months later I was reading General Patton’s D-Day speech.
“He needed to get the men over their fear. Most of those guys had never shot a gun. He used aggressive language, short sentences.
“I read them months apart but it was funny how they began to communicate with each other.”
Other shows Dhaenens has done with SKaGeN – a multidisciplinary, Antwerp-based group whose focus is to self-produce without stage managers and playwrights – include adaptations of Albert Camus’s work, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage Au Bout De La Nuit, and a play in the Belgian city’s train station at rush hour with the audience hidden on a balcony with headphones while the cast wandered among commuters.
“I wanted to do a show by myself, a monologue, something more intuitive that I could learn by heart,” adds the Flemish speaker, who also speaks French, English and German so well that he can tour all three countries painlessly.
He decided to make a show using only his voice. He sings and delivers the speeches on five different microphones programmed to sound like a sports stadium with a bad PA or a tinny horn.
“It’s amazing how someone with only his voice can change the course of history. In one big position in history a man can have the talent to say things to put thousands of people behind him. I am still amazed by that.
“With a talent for rhetoric, you can change world history.”
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