I am going to be portraying Mark Twain on the lecture circuit circa 1896.

I want to make the performance as realistic as possible, so that the sufferers (audience) can adopt a "willing suspension of disbelief" and imagine they really are back in that era.

The, or a, problem is amplification - I am tempted to use none (rather than wear a concealed mic) to reproduce the technology of the time as much as possible. But how did they do it? How were speakers of that pre-amplification era able to make themselves heard to large crowds?

Was it a matter of using the wooden floorboards of the stage as literal "sounding boards", bouncing their utterances off them, or what technique was used? Certainly they didn't shout their lungs out...


All of the comments are useful to one degree or another, but I would still like to know if the floorboards must be used as sounding boards; IOW, is it advantageous to "aim downwards" to bounce the sound off the wood?

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    They learned to project and enunciate. Read Cicero. There was an article on this in either BBC history of Science magazine in the last year - recovering the acoustics of pre-recording age speeches.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 19:26
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    @MarkC.Wallace - I'm hoping someone will make an answer of it, but Mark has it right. This is why a lot of preachers seem to be shouting at you when you watch them on TV: They've learned public speaking in environments where there may not be electronic amplification available.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 19:36
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    That said, I would not recommend the authentic route if you're going to be speaking to large crowds, especially if the audience will include children. People these days are accustomed to equipment being able to overpower idle chatter in most cases, so crowds tend to be rowdier. Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 19:42
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    Talk to your favorite retired drill instructor! Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 19:44
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    Mark Twain got his start as the Town Crier during the Mexican American War of 1846-1848...literally screaming for folks to buy the Newspaper he was working for...and buy that they paper Americans did then. In Ancient Greece they used an outdoor Amphitheatre of which there are innumerable examples. The Rome it was The Forum. You can see a modern day variant of the latter called "the United States House of Representatives" actually. Yes the public is invited and at one time indeed encouraged to attend. Imagine no interlocutor as a Politician in this day and Age... Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 20:57

2 Answers 2


From my knowledge as a theatre historian and speech coach, I would say, it is probably a combination of:

  • Projection and enunciation. Not only speaking loudly, but speaking clearly and probably a bit slower than we are used to. Actor training at the time fell more under the rubric of "elocution" than what we would consider "Acting."
  • Acoustics: most lecture circuit halls will be designed to hear lectures. I would NOT talk to the floorboards. In my practical experience in theatre, that only muffles or swallows your words.
  • I don't know that exact lecture tour, but I would check to find out what sizes of audiences he was speaking to. It may not have been as large as we expect today.

For comparison, Broadway shows were almost completely unmixed until the 1980s, and actors had to speak to an audience of hundreds or thousands without amplification.

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    Opera is still normally performed without amplification, in large theatres that seat 1000+ people. Projecting to an audience of that size is a major element of operatic singing technique. Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 21:38
  1. Project with a full lung Filling your lungs forces the air out more effortlessly and with more volume
  2. The Amphitheater The Amphitheater was designed to create a natural amplification of voices on stage. The audience seating is a series of staggered parabolas with the stage as the focal point, and the material dampens the sound you don't want (audience chatter) and rebounds the sounds you do (the voice from the stage).
  3. The mask many stage masks included acoustic amplification effects in them, they were hidden megaphones in a way.
  4. Practice Demosthenes was famous for practicing his orations on the sea shore with pebbles in his mouth.

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