By Chris Riemer
While campaigning for the 1912 presidency, Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest just before giving a speech to a large crowd in Milwaukee. Rather than go to the hospital, Roosevelt chose to speak for over an hour with the bullet still inside him.
Last week, in front of a crowd of students and North Adams locals, actor and author Timothy Mooney performed an excerpt from Roosevelt’s now famous speech, among sections from several other historically notable speeches. Mooney’s performance, titled ”The Greatest Speech of All Time”, sought to present each speech as it might have looked to its original audience: his mannerisms, vocal inflection, and demeanor changed depending on the individual he was portraying.
Selections included Socrates’ speech after having been sentenced to death, Frederick Douglass’s “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery,” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
Mooney kicked off the event by showing a video of Republican Phil Davison, who was running for Treasurer of Stark County, OH in 2010. In Davison’s speech, he moves around constantly, fumbles his words, and yells things like “I’m coming. Both barrels. Guns loaded!” at his audience. Later on, Mooney joked that he’d shown the video “to set the bar as low as possible” for his upcoming performance.
At the end of the event, Mooney conducted a poll to determine the audience’s favorite speech via applause. Although it was close, it was concluded that attendees enjoyed King’s speech (which he gave the night before his assassination) the most. The following is a quote from that night:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” (Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968)
Near the beginning of the event, Mooney performed an impassioned rendition of Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech, which occurred during Caesar’s funeral in Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar”. Mooney projected pages from the play on a wall behind him so that the audience could read their lines, encouraging Antony to continue speaking on the behalf of Caesar.
Although some of the pieces like the Gettysburg Address were fairly ubiquitous as far as famous speeches go, others like FDR’s inaugural address and Douglass’s talk at the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society were less well-known. When asked after the performance why he hadn’t chosen more controversial speeches, Mooney disagreed.
“Douglass was controversial. I had to softpedal him a little bit because he was really incendiary!” he said.
Mooney also explained that he’d read and practiced a couple speeches by female orators, including one by Emma Goldman, but had chosen to cut them from the performance either because they overlapped thematically with other speeches, or because he didn’t feel like he could properly perform a woman’s role.
Mooney often travels to give speeches and performances from a wide variety of theater genres. His website is www.timmooneyrep.com.