The King's Speech

September 12

October 20, 2019

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare

by David Seidler
directed by Michael Wilson

A Scholar’s Perspective

By Stuart Sherman, Professor of English at Fordham University

Like most events in our lives, theatrical performances tend to catch us mid-aspiration. Day and night, at whatever level of consciousness, we spend much of our time hoping to do better, either at something (tennis, piano, cooking, chess) or as something (friend, parent, earner, lover, spouse…).

Good plays work this truth for all it’s worth. They place ardent aspirers upon the stage, confident that we, possessed by our own hopes of betterment, will find identification near-irresistible. Think of Eliza Doolittle, heroically rounding her vowels and hardening her h’s in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady.

In The King’s Speech, playwright David Seidler plucks a kindred story from relatively recent history, and stages it with several twists. His protagonist—Albert (“Bertie”) George (1895–1952): Duke of York, a stammerer since childhood, and second son to the King of England, George V—begins by resisting aspiration at every turn. Birth order will secure him from becoming king, and he regards his stammer as beyond repair.

Nonetheless, a repairman cometh: Lionel Logue, a commoner with his own complicated history of aspiration. A failed actor, he now earns a living teaching others to improve their speech. Under Logue’s sturdy, quirky influence, Albert, still resistant, feels the pull of aspiration. The process and the prospect of improvement begins to fascinate him. The men converge in a fraught and halting dance of self-remaking. And then the Duke has greatness thrust upon him: when his newly crowned older brother abruptly abdicates, Bertie becomes King George VI.

Theater has always been a particularly potent venue for tracking such transformations, because transformation is its core M.O. Actors are always assuming new roles; mastery of speech in may modes is indispensable to their art, and we remain at least subliminally aware of their self-remaking from the moment they step on stage.

But the particular appeal of The King’s Speech arises in part from the ways it has played its transformations across several media—even, in a way, across media history. What made Albert’s speaking skill historically pivotal was the power of radio, to extend the reach and grasp of those who know how to wield it, and to disgrace and debilitate those (like Albert at the start) who do not.

Lately, from within our ever-ascending Babel of texts and images, radio can sometimes feel a little ground-floor. The King’s Speech reminds us that in any epoch, the chief medium of the moment matters enormously. Winston Churchill figures here as Albert’s foil, his pointedly effectual opposite: tuba-voiced and fabulously articulate, he, alongside Franklin Roosevelt (and, for that matter, Adolph Hitler), showed in ways unprecedented the power of new media (radio, film), for better and for worse, to change the world.

Our own present-day ways of moving among the different media will matter in this play too. After decades of research, Seidler first drafted it as a play, recrafted it as a film, and the reshaped it once more for the stage. (The scripts thus trace their own long and winding arc of aspiration: the movie secured for Seidler—himself a childhood stutterer—an Academy Award for best original screenplay.)

Plays tend to do transformation differently from movies, partly because, while movies are always fixed and finished products by the time we first encounter them, live performance is intrinsically more open-ended and present-tense. The outcome can feel less inevitable, more precarious, and therefore more involving, as we mesh the characters’ aspirations with our own in real time.

This trick of theater has been in operation a long while. Not for nothing does Lionel Logue, frustrated actor, particularly pride himself on his delivery of the opening monologue from Shakespeare’s Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent”), wherein Richard declares to us his ambition to become king, no matter how many murders it will take to get there. That is the play, and this the moment, in which the young playwright seems to have discovered human aspiration as a near-inexhaustible audience attractant, so powerful and pervasive as to eclipse even ordinary morality: for more than half of the play, and through many murders, we’ll find it difficult not to root for Richard as we have, in gentler terrain, for the likes of Eliza Doolittle.

But here again, Seidler tweaks the ancient formula. At the start of Shakespeare’s play, Richard enters and addresses us alone, or, in the initial Latin stage direction, solus: at once solitary and (in the cross-language pun) soulless. The King’s Speech, by contract, remains soulful from start to finish. It entwines two men, a failed player-king and a reluctant real one, within one shared and deepening endeavor. Thanks to theater’s mysterious cohesions, we share in it too. “I’m not what I ought to be,” goes a line that recurs in many Gospel songs, “But I’m not what I used to be.” Playwrights plot their plays, as we our lives, along that arc, and help us travel in good company.

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