Bertie’s Stammer or The King’s Speech ?

In my study of management and narrative, I occasionally confront a work that challenges the genre’s boundaries. So is The King’s Speech in or out? Is it primarily a buddy story and a therapeutic saga rather than a political or managerial story? Anticipating that to be the case, I concentrated recently on overtly managerial movies like The Social Network and Inside Job and explicitly political movies like Fair Game and Client 9. Then I turned to The King’s Speech.

Even in a constitutional monarchy, the monarch has some responsibility for governing. As the movie’s King George VI put it, “I am the seat of all authority because [the people] think that when I speak, I speak for them.” The movie was titled “The King’s Speech,” rather than “The King’s Stammer,” to indicate that it ultimately concerns, not just the king’s personal disability, but the impact of that disability on the exercising of his role in government. So, yes, The King’s Speech is in.

Andrew O’Hehir, the reviewer for Salon and, as his surname suggests, no supporter of the monarchy, with a bit of condescension summed it up as an “old-school openhearted audience-pleaser aimed at a wide adult public,” but concluded it was “both a great night at the movies and a terrific yarn of unexpected human and historical depth.” I agree completely with O’Hehir. Here is my explanation why The King’s Speech resonates on several levels.

I have developed a conceptual framework for understanding political or management narratives. It’s a four quadrant diagram, with the protagonist’s narrative arc on one axis and the narrative arc of the organization or polity in which the protagonist is located on the other axis. For both the protagonist and the organization/polity there are two possible outcomes, renewal or decline. The conceptual distinction between the protagonist and his/her organizational or political context makes explicit the managerial aspect of the narrative.

Without characterizing all four quadrants, let’s look at the one The King’s Speech inhabits. In it both the protagonist and the polity experience renewal. This is what I call the heroic narrative, or “feel-good” movie, or O’Hehir calls an “open-hearted audience pleaser.”

At both the level of the protagonist and the polity, there is much with which the audience can identify. Bertie’s symptoms were most acute speaking in public. Glossophobia, as it’s called, is so common a fear that Wikipedia tells us that 95 per cent of all public speakers – and all of us at some point speak in public – experience it. It is thus a movie about the King conquering his fear to the extent that he could give – with the broadcasting studio coaching of his speech therapist Lionel Logue – a serviceable speech. But it is also about Logue’s achieving personal vindication and professional respectability, because in his success with the King, he overcame the suspicion that, lacking credentials and using unorthodox methods, he was a charlatan.

The renewal of the polity is also set out very clearly. Bertie’s brother Edward VIII was a royal disaster. Not only was he in Mrs. Simpson’s thrall, attributed by Bertie’s wife Elizabeth to “certain skills she acquired at an establishment in Shanghai,” but from the nature of his socializing and his conversation he entirely lacked the thoughtfulness and gravitas to be king. The imminent war demanded a king who could play his appropriate part, and, with his stammer under control, King George could do that. As events unfolded, the most important contribution the royal family made to the war effort was the physical bravery of remaining in embattled London. The movie defines the renewal of the polity as the end of the era of appeasement and British resolve to fight Nazism. Historically, this cause is still one with which audiences most readily identify.

The movie has some of the visual markers of the heroic narrative arc, for example it begins with Bertie’s disastrous attempt to speak at the 1925 Empire Exhibition, and most of the movie is set in deep British fog. In contrast, after the King makes his speech calling the nation to war, he goes to the balcony of Buckingham Palace, waving to the gathered crowd in bright sunlight.

The speech itself could have been presented triumphally, but that would have been over the top, as well as unfaithful to the record. Logue was in the room with the king when he made his broadcast to the nation and the empire, urging him on, syllable by syllable. We see that Logue has marked up the text, to indicate emphasis and phrasing for every word. Triumphal music (Land of Hope and Glory?) could have accompanied the speech, but wisely director Tom Hooper chose the 2nd movement funeral march from Beethoven’s 7th symphony. Its lugubrious chords echoed the King’s painstaking efforts and labored diction. The music ends with only a hint of optimism, reflecting the historical outcome that the king will, with supreme concentration, be able to play his appropriate role in the war effort.

Bertie’s process of renewal, described by New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden as “a semi-improvisatory mixture of elementary gymnastics, primal scream therapy, and psychoanalysis” was very democratic and contemporary. It first involved breaking down class distinctions and indeed lese majeste. Then the interaction between patient and therapist depicted what New Yorker critic Anthony Lane termed “not a slice of Masterpiece Theatre but a [psychoanalytic] case study.” This process of archeology of the mind entailed digging back into repressed memories of the aspects of Bertie’s upbringing that led to his stammer. It reminds me of Ishiguro’s emotional archeology of the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day. This, too, is something that resonates with audiences.

The movie ultimately has thematic unity in the idea of finding one’s voice. At the personal level, Bertie finds his. At the monarchical level, Parliament, speaking for the nation, rejects the besotted appeaser Edward III, choosing his more patriotic, more dignified, and wiser brother George VI as spokesman. At the political level, soon after the events presented in the movie, Parliament will overthrow the misguided appeaser Chamberlain and replace him with the defiant orator-warrior Winston Churchill.  The nation will have found its true voice.

As is always necessary, the actors – Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and a supporting cast that includes the aristocracy of British cinema and theatre – were, to a person, excellent. But my point is structural, namely that director Tom Hooper and writer David Seidler presented this slice of recent British history in a way audiences find compelling and inspirational. A+.

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