Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The King’s Speech and I

This past Shabbat the rabbi at my synagogue talked about the movie The King's Speech as part of his sermon. He used the movie as a way of relating to Moses' speech impediment. The King's Speech chronicles the struggles of King George VI with his stammer. As the younger son, it might not have been of critical importance, but then his older brother Edward VIII had his "women problem" (funny how the rabbi had to talk around the fact that Edward VIII was forced to abdicate his thrown after less than a year due to his marriage to his mistress, a twice divorced American divorcee). George VI eventually sought the help of a radically eccentric speech therapist and went on to deliver some of the most inspiring speeches of the Second World War. Soon afterwards I saw that Orson Scott Card also had given the movie high marks. With endorsements like these I figured I had to go see it.

This was hardly an exciting movie and at two hours does drag a bit. The film covers an interesting political story, with sex and romance, but it is not a political or a romantic film. The movie deals with World War II, but it is not a World War II movie. The movie could have been a comedy, but it has way too much respect for its lead character to make this a comedy. What you do have is a very human story with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush giving some of the best back and forth acting I have seen in a long time. Rush certainly steals the movie as its sole source of comedy, but Colin Firth gives the best portrayal I have ever seen of living with stammering. That probably owes something to the fact that I cannot think of any other serious film explorations of the topic. I say this as someone who struggles with a stammer. What particularly struck me is that the stammer is one that is similar to mine. Like George VI, the real problem for me is less repeating syllables even if that sometimes is the result, but in finding one's voice getting caught and being unable to get out the words that are in one's head.

In the movie George VI is able to overcome his stammer by a combination of singing and letting out strings of curse words. These are both useful in that they allow a person to get around inhibitions, which is usually the true cause of any stammer. For George VI these inhibitions were growing up as the younger prince, in the shadow of a far more glamorous older brother and an often abusive father. I am not much into swearing, even if I take a certain pleasure in spouting out things that other people find bizarre and even offensive. This has the benefit of allowing me to take control of a situation and make it my own instead of having to constantly fashion myself to suit others. What has really worked for me is singing. I have a good head for lyrics, even if I cannot actually sing on key. Knowing that my singing is something that only I will ever enjoy and that it is something just for me, operating on my terms, in a way, makes it all the more helpful. Obviously I cannot sing every time I talk, but I can usually maintain some sort of rhythm. As long as I have that rhythm I can avoid the worst of my stammering.

I doubt that I will ever be able to truly overcome my stammer and I liked the fact that the movie did not have George VI overcome his either. But I do believe I have managed to become a relatively decent public speaker, though certainly one with an odd sounding voice. A side effect of my rhythm speaking is that I go up at the end of syllables. Hopefully I will never have to lead a nation though a world war; being able to stand in front of a classroom full of students will suit me just fine.

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