The King’s Mouth

By: Matthew Battles
March 1, 2011

The moment at which The King’s Speech discloses its politics comes when the royal family is gathered to watch newsreel footage of the newly installed King George VI’s coronation; “Bertie” having just negotiated the throes of his investiture, successfully uttering the series of short formulae necessary to solemnizing the ritual of succession, the small group —Elizabeth, the queen and future Queen Mother; daughters Margaret and Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth II, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who officiated the proceedings — have settled in like a happy family round the telly to watch the newsreel footage of the event. They’re in the midst of agreeing that the ceremony was a great success when the film cuts to footage of Hitler’s speech at a recent Nuremberg rally. The Archbishop (Derek Jacobi) wishes to shut off the projector at this point, presumably to protect the royal family’s delicate sensibilities. But princess Elizabeth winningly invites the Archbishop to take a seat, and the family settles in to watch Hitler’s furious declamation. After a moment, one of the girls asks, “what’s he saying, Daddy?”

“I don’t know,” replies King George VI. “But he appears to be saying it rather well.”

It’s at this point that the tensions — and the stakes — of The King’s Speech reveal themselves. The film, which has been both pilloried for its historical inaccuracies and praised for its privileging of the personal over the political, is in fact a highly political movie. Only its politics are unconscious and obscure to itself; they present themselves more as symptom than agenda. Here, speech is the ground of authority and the proof of power — and yet speech delivered too well can mislead and create great evils. True speech is that which overcomes some disability, is scoured by laboring towards mastery over the bourgeois subject, to sort out one’s relations with self and family.

The film’s triumphal march through awards season never was impeded by critiques of its many historical liberties. When it comes to the story of Edward’s abdication and the royals’ relationships with Parliament and their stances towards Hitler in the years leading up to the war, the film is a mess, as many have pointed out. Indeed, the list of departures from the historical record is long, and hardly confined to the political; throughout, chronology is trimmed, biography made to rhyme with mythology, reality redacted and refined. But such cuts and warps are the usual stuff of historical drama; quibbles may be satisfying, but they’re rarely anything like illuminating in the end. Redactions can obscure, but the obfuscations are revealing. I’m interested in the dream of power that seems to be revealed by the way The King’s Speech tells its story.

To watch the historical George VI deliver a speech is to witness an overcoming; the struggle taking place between fluency and breakdown is palpable. And yet by the time of his opening of the 1938 Empire Exposition, seen below, George has gained the upper hand, and his upper lip is right stiff.

What George VI accomplished in the time of his reign by overcoming, however, Colin Firth’s king must accomplish for us, the audience of The King’s Speech, by coming to terms. Throughout the film, the king’s disfluency is presented primarily as a psychological problem. (It’s worth noting that speech pathologists generally understand such psychologically-induced stuttering to be rare; more frequently, neurological or mechanical problems are to blame. Jonah Lehrer addresses the issue of the Freudian approach to stuttering with characteristic lucidity in a recent blog post.) The king’s family of origin — the royal family — is spectacularly dysfunctional in all the ways we’ve come to expect. George V, remembered by many as a would-be bourgeois holed up in the comparatively modest royal cottage of Sandringham House pasting stamps into albums, is the very model of the distant and domineering father; poor mothering (also called into question by contemporary testimony) plays its wonted role as well. As a child, “Bertie”— a nickname that’s an invitation to stammer in ridicule — was pinched by nannies and stuffed into painful leg braces to overcome “knock knees.” He tears up when recalling the trauma of the death of a younger brother, the epileptic Prince John, whose own maladies kept him shut away from public view.

The family valences of The King’s Speech are so striking because the film asks us to partake in a kind of ethical suspension, to set aside our own values with respect to love and marriage (not to question them, but merely to suspend them). His odious politics and personal vacuity aside, what King Edward wanted — to look past prejudice and marry his beloved divorcée — was by today’s standards perfectly reasonable. And yet in its portrayal of Edward and Wallis Simpson’s boozy, decadent approach to royal householding —“kinging,” as Edward glibly puts it — the film invites us to identify with the normative family dynamics of the Bertie and Elizabeth, to side with the dominions’ grim ministers and their gray dismissal of the King’s desires. Edward chops down the ancient trees of Balmoral Castle to improve the view; he searches the cellar for Wallis’s favorite vintage while leaving the mess in Europe for “Herr Hitler” to sort out. With Bertie and family, we get bedtime stories and stuffed animals.

*

Fixing on these family dynamics, Lionel Logue — the disruptive, patient, and rogueish speech therapist, played by Geoffrey Rush — takes an approach to treatment that is essentially psychotherapeutic in nature. He prescribes exercises and diction practice; in a whiggish move, he intuits the deadly effects of cigarette smoking (which Bertie’s previous doctors told him would “relax the larynx”; George VI died of lung cancer). But at its core, his approach is a pastiche of classic talk therapy. Logue gets the King swearing and singing; he has him play with toys; he goads him to explore his earliest memories and the childhood traumas already mentioned. “You don’t have to be afraid of what you were afraid of when you were five,” he tells the king at a crucial juncture in the course of treatment.

But this therapy has a political element as well, in which true speech, psychotherapeutic integration, and proper family functioning are the basis not only of an integrated psyce, but of a functional polity as well. From the beginning, Logue insists on “absolute equality” in the context of treatment. Poo-pooing the titles and honors due royal dignity, he asks the prince by what name he would like to be known; Firth’s prince responds by laboriously reciting his christened name, Albert Frederick Arthur George — a comically cumbersome name, spilling from the mouth of the prince like a tattered ermine train, which acts as a kind of formula for the stale modes of royalty. Logue then proposes that he call the stammering royal by his family nickname, “Bertie.” “Only my family calls me that,” protests the prince. “Perfect,” Logue declares.

The psychotherapeutic method is in play, however glancingly; Logue has set himself up as a surrogate and an object of transference not merely familial, but also political in character. Gradually it becomes clear that this politics is about the coronation of the bourgeois subject, the sovereignty of the liberal individual. And such sovereignty is far from the same thing as emancipation. When a petulant King Edward protests the proscription against a royal marrying a divorcée by exclaiming, “have I no rights?”, the stuttering prince replies, “many privileges, few rights.” Here is the dilemma of the modern liberal subject: presumptive global royals, we’ve exchanged our rights for privileges. The film doesn’t question this dilemma, however, but approves it; the message would seem to be that we should Keep Calm and Carry On, that when it comes to consumption and attention and all the duties of our modern life, we should lie back and think of England. That we must also enjoy our privilege does nothing to reduce the force of the injunction.

*

When coronation time comes, the King is forced to recognize that Logue is not so well credentialed as he would have liked to believe. The jealous Archbishop has made inquiries, finding that, contrary to the King’s assumptions, Logue is no kind of doctor at all. Suddenly branded a charlatan and a quack, Logue protests that he never claimed to be a doctor, that his training is all based in experience, that there are “no initials after (his) name.” In fact, by the time of coronation George already had made Logue a Member of the Victorian Order, entitling him to the post-nominal letters M.V.O— another bit of history repressed by the dream of The King’s Speech, and a very particular kind of departure from the lessons of the history. Throughout the film, Logue’s therapeutic authority has rested precisely in his reckless disavowal of the canons of respectability. We’ve seen the failure of the good doctors and Royal Society Fellows with their blind fealty to tradition (in a hapless application of classicism, the first therapist we see practices the marbles-in-the-mouth treatment for stammering recommended by Demosthenes; playing Bertie’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter asks if the procedure has been shown to work since the Golden Age of Greece — turning the future Queen Mum into a skeptic and avatar of the scientific method). Now, Logue — his very name a sigil for the power of the Word — makes of himself the ultimate man of the people: uncredentialed, lacking in orders and titles, he asserts his invisibility and radically private subjectivity over and against his own golden tongue and his impeccable manners. Throwing himself into the chair of King Edward, the coronation throne of British monarchs since the 13th century, Logue starts cracking jokes about the Stone of Scone, the coronation totem of the Scottish kings secreted in the chair’s base, and remarks that people have carved their names in the scored and time-bitten oak. With reckless brio, Logue makes himself into a Lord of Misrule, casting the hoary rituals of imperial dignity into doubt. It’s nothing less than a ritual coup d’etat, which the king is forced to put down orally, proclaiming “I have a voice!” in a shout that rings throughout the Abbey, echoing off stones that cover the bones of poets and kings. Later, when the climactic moment arrives and the King prepares to deliver his first wartime speech, he and Logue are shut in a room together with the great microphone between them. “Forget everybody else,” whispers Logue, “and just say it to me.” Here, the transference is complete; the refining medicine of love and friendship gives access to authentic address. Logue’s surrogacy not only as a brother/father but as The People — the claim he staked in the critical pre-coronation showdown — is complete.

It seems worth noting that The King’s Speech emerged as a stage play (whose author, David Seidler, won a screenplay Oscar) during the years of another George’s reign — that of George II, frequently styled “W”— and was developed as a film in the midst of the transition from Bush to Obama. We’ve witnessed a flipping of the valences of fluency and authenticity in political speech, from the famously disfluent Bush to the cadences of Barack Obama. His various malapropisms and tongue-tyings were taken by political allies as the seal of authenticity, while antagonists found his slips of tongue embarrassing and offensive. Obama’s oratorical gifts, reflexively, are held in contempt by those who fear him, while his followers praise and cherish his words. In another flight of historical fancy, The King’s Speech recapitulates this dilemma in the testament of Churchill, who claims that his own speech impediment held him back — until he chose “to make a virtue of it,” bringing verbal disability into concert with oratorical virtuosity, putting disfluency at the service of historical agency.

It’s tempting to believe that in its positive portrayal of trauma overcome, The King’s Speech rights the wrongs of past poetics of the crippled sovereign; where Richard II’s infirmities are the outward expression of inner corruption, George VI’s strength in the face of adversity is a positive valuation of disability. And yet I wonder — for after all, it’s rather a lot to expect those afflicted with speech pathologies to shoulder the burden of bourgeois family dysfunction for the rest of us. The Bush-Obama paradigm only proves that the power of speech is a neutral value, that the canons of fluency provide no moral or political guidance whatsoever. And yet our limbic responses to the spoken word furnish powerful and contrasting experiences; they provide an emotional basis for intuitions regarding political authenticity that are hard to supress or deny. I want to say that The King’s Speech is partially a working-through of these intuitions, an attempt to resolve conflicting ideals of politics and the spoken word. It’s modern mythology — to the powers of the one-eyed king and the one-handed king, we can add the travails of the tongue-tied king. It’s a dream of agency collapsing the personal into the political, resolving the problem of the sovereignty of bourgeois subject in normative family functioning, the power of the word, and the will to speak power to truth.

What do you think?

  1. Haven’t seen the movie, and probably won’t. Yet reading this was a pleasure — an essay appropriately and thrillingly eloquent; perhaps even a touch cunning for its gathering rhythms.

    All of which, of course, only reaffirms the conclusion. Bravo.

  2. This is powerful, insightful stuff — what’s the highbrow-middlebrow-nobrow-quatsch angle? Or am I being too reductive?

  3. Thanks, Josh. Left implied is the notion that this is a middlebrow movie par excellence… the middlebrow formula slides from overcoming to coming-to-terms. And there’s this identification of the(post-) bourgeois subject with the powerless privilege of a constitutional monarch, which I think explains some of the fascination middle-class Americans have for the royals today.

  4. That’s what I thought but you know me, I never leave anything implied. I’m the Bruttu of cultural criticism.

  5. Matthew, There’s so much here that I’ll be thinking about for a while. I’m reminded of all the Old Testament kings who had some infirmity as well, the better to be recipients of divine aid. King Asa with the foot problem, etc.

    I hadn’t thought about how the rhetorical styles of Bush and Obama pretty neatly cancel each other out in the claim to authenticity.

    And have you seen Animal Kingdom?

  6. Also, that Slate piece redeemed True Grit for me, but only slightly. (I’m from the exact area of Arkansas where it’s set, and all those actors trying to sound grizzled and Southern ended up seeming like they had Demosthenes’ marbles in their mouths.)

  7. Great article, but I must dispute your brow rulings- The King’s Speech is best understood as middlebrow in intention but infinitely muddied in execution, courtesy of the art direction. It begins in a concrete stairwell and remains, not so much stagey as claustrophobic throughout. The dark lusterless colour schemes, the long, close takes invasive in intimacy and emotionally pornographic in dredging Colin Firth’s mutilation, subvert the open, objective compositions of a Merchant and Ivory production. Style in artistically circumscribed projects is oftentimes a wish. The King’s Speech doesn’t believe in historical dramas. It believes in nothing but its wallpaper.

  8. My comments from earlier this week must’ve disappeared! So many good things here—I’ll be thinking about the king types for a while. Aren’t all the Old Testament kings shown to have an impairment in some way? King Asa with the foot problem and such. The better to receive divine aid.

    I hadn’t considered the depressing neutrality implied by the neat Obama-Bush opposition. I’ll watch the rhetoric now with an altered lens.

  9. Hi, I loved the essay, having just written a short grumble about the movie from a covertly psychotherapeutic point of view on my new blog. I completely agree about its muddlement, tho I would have said that it collapses the political into the personal, as my essaylet implies. Anyway, I’m thrilled to have finally checked out hilobrow after years of urging from James Parker…

  10. Himal, it’s a pleasure to have you aboard as a reader. Next stop: contributor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.