Surprisingly, The King’s Speech is the front-runner for Oscar nominations this year. It is not an action film; there is no graphic sexual theme to it; the music is not unique or overwhelming; the cast is low-key and highly verbal. None of these have added up to the criteria for Oscar nominations over the past decade or more.
Yet, the story of Queen Elizabeth’s father’s struggle with a speech stammer has captured the imagination of the public and made this one of the big film hits of the decade. One need only watch the film to understand why. It is poignant in a way that films usually are not. The struggle of a major public figure with a speech impediment is painful, especially with the factor of the outbreak of World War II and the need for the King to play a major role in encouraging his people. This is not a fictional plot; it is history. The implications of the King’s potential appearance as a weak figure are overwhelming.
We know the outcome of the story before the first credits begin to scroll in the opening moments. There is no mystery about how the King fares and what the result of World War II will look like. But what the viewer may not have known was the personal struggle of the King with this personal and embarrassing weakness. Even further, we have never heard of the story of the man who led the King through this struggle and brought him to a place of public adoration…speech patterns having been adjusted in a major way.
The man responsible for assisting the King in his speech therapy is not a certified Speech Therapist. He is an elocutionist, a practitioner who worked individually with persons with speech disorders using non-traditional methods of therapy. In some ways, an elocutionist could be compared to a chiropractor in the decades of the fifties and sixties. (Today, chiropractors are highly-skilled, well-trained medical practitioners, respected by Medical Doctors and frequently assigned to positions in major hospitals throughout the country.)
My mother was an elocutionist. She was basically self-taught, relying upon methods she developed through reading and attending a few workshops. But for the most part, she developed her own method of elocution, using poetry and short readings as her tools for correcting stutters, slushes, and other common speech disorders. Her “patients” came to our house for a weekly session in which they read poetry to each other, and read short stories giving emphasis to words and phrases which called for concentration and mental energy.
Some of my school friends were here patients and they developed a warm relationship with my mother throughout their “therapy.” It was amazing to hear the changes in their speech patterns over the course of a year or two. One of her clients was a good friend of my mother’s who had Tourette’s Syndrome. She never really lost her physical gestures and stammer, but in the course of her time in my mother’s care she developed a sense of peace with her condition and became a more public person, unashamed by the tossing of her head, shaking of her body, and stammering of words.
I suspect that, given other circumstances, my mother would have gone to college and studied speech therapy. But that wasn’t in the books at the time she began her work career. I don’t think she ever saw elocution as a lesser practice; to the contrary, her love of poetry and short stories (particularly humor) was more than a therapeutic method. She became known as a performer of dramatic literature in the community and was engaged to write short presentations for events.
I found myself remembering my mother’s elocution practice as I watched the film The King’s Speech. There was a time when the credential of the elocutionist came into question. The King’s support, however, was the same as that which I experienced in the support of my friends and neighbors who would never have disparaged the work my mother did with them.
Until now the term elocution was something of an archaic word, known only by a handful of people at any one time. But, thanks to this movie, the practice is re-emerging to be known as a legitimate form of speech therapy. My mother would be happy.
Photo Credit: cmc-northeast.org