Verbal Energy

Higgins, Logue, and 'The King's Speech'

A current film adds another language coach to the pantheon of cultural heroes – and this one actually lived.

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Move over, Henry Higgins. Here comes Lionel Logue.

You could free-associate for some time before the terms "speech therapist" and "hero" popped up together. But Geoffrey Rush's performance in "The King's Speech" as Lionel Logue, the Australian who saved Britain's George VI from his stammer, gives the English-speaking world another hero alongside Professor Higgins. And Logue was a real person.

You might call "The King's Speech" an anti-Pygmalion story. Higgins was the phonetician whom George Bernard Shaw invented as the hero of his play "Pygmalion," based on a Greek myth about a sculptor who falls in love with his creation. In Shaw's play, adapted as the well-known musical "My Fair Lady," Higgins teaches a flower girl to speak like a lady so that he can win a bet. He puts a veneer on her and makes her what she was not.

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In "The King's Speech," on the other hand, Logue gets "Bertie" to be what he has been all along. He helps him find his voice to become George VI. Both stories are strong statements of the power of spoken language to convey identity and authority.

The title of the film is a subtle bit of wordplay. The king has to master his stammer. He has to fix his speech – his capacity for speaking – before he can successfully give his speeches.

The film opens with an unbearable scene in which Bertie is unable to deliver a speech to close the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1925. The film concludes a decade and a half and two kings later, when Bertie, now George VI after the death of his father and the abdication of his older brother, takes to the airwaves to address his people on the outbreak of World War II.

The story invites comparison with President Roosevelt's mastery of radio for the "fireside chats" that led the American people through the Great Depression and World War II. The patrician president had a knack for seeming to make his way into every American's living room. And intimacy is often seen today as the hallmark of radio as a medium.

"The King's Speech" gives the sense, though, of radio broadcasts as public events, even global events, in real time. The scenes of the vast BBC control rooms in the film remind us of the even vaster spread of the British Empire. I've read that people actually used to get dressed up to go sit before the set in the living room. This film makes me believe that.

And yet – the film is also about the power of intimacy. The king's constricted speech is traced to his constricted upbringing. A left-hander forced to write with his right hand, young Albert was also forced to wear metal braces to correct "knock knees." He endured stomach trouble as a boy and ridicule from his older brother, even as a grown man. When Logue asks whom in his family he was close to growing up, the prince responds without irony, "Nannies."

Logue may have been the first "ordinary Englishman" the prince had ever met – never mind that Logue was a transplanted Australian. "Superhuman sympathy" was a key ingredient of Logue's unconventional therapeutic approach. Arguably he was the king's first and only real "friend," and the man to whom he spoke his speeches.

The fictional Higgins turned a fictional flower girl into an even more fictional princess. The real Logue helped turn a real prince into a real king.

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