Everybody listens to the king’s speech
What happens to those who strive to resolve their stutter? Through the cures of Lionel Logue and the story of Prince Albert, later King George VI of England, we discover that everything is possible and every limit can be overcome
The room of the library was almost full when I arrived. The guests were already on the stand, and my emotion was more vivid than ever, as usual on these occasions.
Peter Conradi, journalist who works for the Sunday Times, and Mark Logue, Lionel Logue’s grandson - authors of “The King’s speech” – were in Milan to tell their successful story, and most of all the legacy of a man who made history: King George VI of England.
Other guests besides the authors included Dr. Caruso, psycho-therapist and speech therapist, a young translator and the director of Tecniche Nuove, a publishing company which had the vision to bet on this novel, translating it in Italian and selling it in our country.
The atmosphere was immediately friendly from the beginning and the conversation lasted for almost two hours in a very pleasant and cozy environment. The point-blank question on who in the audience had already watched the movie, asked in a perfect and perky Italian from Peter Conradi, prompted almost all in the audience to raise their hands, in a number which was much larger than the one of those who later admitted to have read the book. No surprise from the authors, or from me. The movie industry often carries a novel to success, even though the book is often much richer and absorbing than its cinematographic adaptation.
And this is just the case, since the book is not just a beautiful novel, but first of all a historic document, being the faithful transcription of Lionel Logue’s – Prince Albert’s, Duke of York and later King George VI of England, speech therapist - notes and reflections.
The plot is well known: England had to face two monumental events in the ‘30s of last century. First and foremost, a painful and hard war in Europe which later spread to the whole world; second, the death of King George V, in 1936, whose succession to the throne was delicate due to the adversity of the period.
George V’s first-born Edward VIII abdicated for sentimental reasons which did not conciliate with the role of king. Next in line to the throne was the king’s second son Albert, Duke of York, destined to personify not only the symbol of an engaged Nation, but also to face apparently insurmountable psychological hardships since his childhood. His first true battle was against his own limits.
Albert, confidentially called Bertie, had a stammer since his childhood, and he almost surrender to the idea of not being able to speaking in public with ease, after experimenting diverse therapies and consulting with specialists. The love and intuition of his wife Elizabeth convinced him to accept Lionel Logue’s cures. Logue was a sort of healer of Australian origins, an expert in speech therapies – as he asked to be called – who treated Albert just as an ordinary patient, obtaining his confidence through a simple test. He asked him to read a passage from Hamlet while listening to music in a headset. The prince would later surprisingly discover, by listening to his recorded voice, that he had been able to read it without stuttering.
Thanks to his unorthodox methods and extraordinary empathy, Lionel was able to build an intense and positive human relationship with Bertie, which went beyond the aseptic relationship between doctor and patient, and will be also able to secure forgiveness for not disclosing that he was not a real doctor. His sensitivity showed to the future king that therapies do not need labels: the human relationship, collaborations and willingness of both patient and doctor determine the success of a cure.
Said Lionel to the Prince after their first meeting “I can heal you, but we will not obtain any result without your commitment”. Since that day on, Lionel dealt with a commoner, not with a king, in order to share Bertie’s own suffering.
This is the point where the book soul shapes up, where the movie, according to the two authors, loses steam. Like in mirror effects, the perspective of the novel are turned upside down, even though they remain harmoniously entwined. While the historic and cultural background, including plots, masks and wars, backs away in the backlight of the distance, a delicate, conflicting and almost unknown human affair is portrayed in the foreground, characterized by friendship, respect and gratitude.
“Think a moment of a stutter…” was the invitation to ponder the problem by the two authors, who took inspiration from their novel to test the sensitivity of all of us. Stuttering is an apparently minor and almost funny flaw. Truth is, this is a disabling condition for any person who has to face the self-assurance of the rest of the world. This burden is especially heavy for kids, who become the object of easy mockeries, which in turn unleash insecurity and deep, long lasting emotional sufferings. Stutter is a disease even harder for a young man whose destined is being the King of a Nation. A King is expected to be strong, authoritative, self confident, able to show the whole world a fierce leadership through which his people can attain victory, security and affluence, since He is the foundation of his Nation ambitions. A King must communicate this attitude through facts and his presence and speeches, without hesitating in front of his citizens and cynical enemies.
“Stutter in the Thirties – Dr. Caruso explained – was an evident albeit elusive defect, whose causes were unknown, and speech therapy was not recognized as a medical specialization yet.” Little Bertie grew up inside a shell of apparent discretion, actually shame that his family felt, especially his strict and authoritarian father, who appeared inflexible with the apparent flaws of a hard to deal with son. Bertie was not loved neither understood. “Grown and educated – Peter Conradi, extremely likeable as usual, went on – without love and paternal encouragement, was soon convinced that his overstated shyness was due more to intellectual inadequacies, which caused him a further lack of self-confidence. Thus, while his soul was oppressed with anxiety, doubts and frustration, Bertie had to face social pressure from the outside. He was compelled since his childhood to learn three languages at the same time – French, and German besides his native English – a burden which contributed to his inner confusion. He was also forced to correct his approach to writing, since his family did not want him to be left handed. Finally, he had to cope with the inferiority complex with respect to his older brother, far more dexterous and enterprising than him. The Prince’s sensitive soul was marked with deep wounds, which worsened his pronunciation defect.
Today, we know that stutter is due to genetic factors, and the family and psychological environment can contribute to the disease, but are not the ultimate causes. Today we also know how to intervene, and in spite of many charlatans and quacks who pretend to have magical recipes, serious medical associations exist and propose safe and professional therapies. Prince Albert could exclusively count on his wife’s love, his own goodwill and the extraordinary leadership provided by Lionel Logue, the only one who treated the disease as a curable, physical problem, not as a mental one, through complex muscular relaxation techniques, control of breathing and pronunciation exercises, all under the effect of an intense empathy with his patient.
Mark Logue later explained that he never met his grandfather, and got to know him through his letters, which were used for the book and the movie. “It was a true emotional adventure – he told us – to assist to my grandfather’s “new birth” after so many years, especially with such an extraordinary and unexpected media resonance. All letters were pencil written and in good conditions…”. These letters testify the intense bond between Lionel and the future King, well beyond therapy, which lasted until King George VI’s death in 1952.
The friendship and mutual respect between the two men created a positive atmosphere in the Court too. The Queen Mother wrote Lionel a letter to personally thank him for his precious help to the King after her son’s death. During the therapies, Lionel, fair and generous man, became part of the daily life of the royal family: he spent Christmas time with them, was with Bertie in every public event, first as Duke of York and later as King George VI. Lionel became like a father to him and accompanied him through his existence, well aware that this “son” would sooner or later learn to walk on his own.
And this is what happened: the insecure kid became a man little by little. And the paralyzed young man who could not speak in front of people and to the radio, almost as swallowed up by the audience, unable to pronounce a hard word such as “King”, with that insurmountable K…well, only a pale memory remained of the kid.
Today King George VI is remembered for his reforms and his policies, and his demeanor which enabled him to lead and represent proudly his Nation. His success was synthesized by his memorable speech, that he gave standing from the height of his power, supported by the sincere love of his wife, daughters, and obviously of Lionel Logue. And now, thanks to the book “The King’s speech”, little Bertie is part of the History as an example of strength, willingness, perseverance and fairness, all qualities that the King had. Without those, even the ability of Lionel would not have helped the King neither left trace.
“My granddad Lionel was usually very discreet in his job and never told professional secrets to anyon” - concluded Mark Logue, who is in charge of his grandfather archive – “He never tried to sell his story and when there were rumors about a theatre piece about his life in the ‘80s, the Queen Mother opposed it. Her will was, until she was alive, that no scene would be allowed”. Thirty years have passed indeed before the story became public and later a movie, which was strongly supported by movie makers, who got convinced by Logue’s letters of the historic and scientific interest of his story. This is witnessed by the fact that many projection rights support English and American medical communities dedicated to stutter treatment. Now, building on the success of a movie which has been translated in 25 languages thus far, several stories on Lionel Logue’s life are being told, which have been transforming him from pseudo-doctor to historic and media myth.
Still, the only authentic story is narrated by “The King’s speech”. Mark Logue was smiling, almost embarrassed and surprised by the huge coverage, but he was certainly proud of his grandfather for his contribution to the image of King George VI in the world.
The meeting gave space to several questions and funny jokes – although the them was absolutely serious – and was concluded by one last provocation from the authors, who were curious to know if any speech therapist was in the audience. To my surprise, a big tall white haired man stood up just ahead of me and thanked the authors wholeheartedly. Then he introduced himself: “I am not a speech therapist, but I used to have a stutter”. I was impressed with his self-assurance, proof of his personal victory over the disease. The short intervention from his man was a further confirmation that this book is much more than a history book, and that authors were able to recreate a hidden psychological dimension, with rare sensibility and respect, while giving a masterful representation of the historic context.
The authors finally left with this recommendation: “Read the book, because the movie is beautiful, but the book much more!”
As I left the room with the book under my arm, I thought again of the sensations of the meeting, and the vivid speech by Peter Conradi’s took the lion share, almost as the opposite to the discreet presence of Mark Logue. Conradi transmitted a spontaneous sympathy, with his vaguely Mediterranean attitude, and I asked myself if he knows about a famous Italian comic book of the ‘40s., the “Balilla”, who will be remembered by not-so-young reads for its strong aversion to the English and its support to the Germans.
A not-so-nice cartoon on King George VI was on the cover page every week and said “King Little George of England, for fear of the War, begs for help Minister Big Churchill…”. and then a fantasy episode followed, which used to portray the British as the unlucky ones, and the Italians as the insolent winner, naturally thanks to the help of their German fellows.
Now, I would rather think that neither Peter Conradi or Mark Logue know that. What matters is, their book gave new life to a brave king, and renewed his regal human dignity and his true symbolic value for History.
07 November 2011 Teatro Naturale International n. 11 Year 3
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