"The King's Speech" and the Elocutionist

I saw the movie “The King’s Speech” about the elocutionist, Lionel Logue, an Australian who helped King George VI with his speech problem. For those not familiar with the movie King George VI of England was literally thrust onto the throne upon the abdication of his brother, Edward, in 1936. In 1936 Britain as well as the world stood on the brink of a World War the likes of which had never been seen nor has been seen since. King George VI believed himself totally unprepared to lead Britain and the other democracies of Europe in this massive conflict and rightly so. His brother, not he, had been groomed from birth to succeed his father as King. Among the various shortcomings perceived by George VI, imaginary or not, was the very real problem of lifelong stuttering.

The King’s name before he became King was Albert followed by a litany of titles. His family had shortened it to “Bertie”, a commoner’s nickname, certainly not one befitting a future King. It may never have come into existence had Bertie been slotted to wear the Crown at an early age. Bertie had tried numerous “cures” for his speech problem, among which was consulting with Lionel Logue in 1926 when he was still the Duke of York. Bertie’s treatments with Lionel were successful in that he was able to reduce the stammer to an occasional hesitation. At the age of 41 in 1936, Albert Duke of York, now the King of England, suddenly needed to concentrate as never before on solving his speech problem in order to be the King that he and the world could look up to. Thus we have the story of Lionel Logue, the man who was the King’s elocutionist and, as much as possible for a commoner, friend.

I became interested in who Lionel Logue was beyond the story set out in the movie. It turns out that he was quite an interesting fellow in his own right. He went to college in Australia at the end of the 18th century and there he studied elocution with a professor Edward Reeves who purged a good deal of his Australian accent. After college he became Reeves’ assistant. He eventually settled in Perth where he taught elocution, public speaking and acting. Later he went to London and set himself up as an elocutionist, public speaker and actor.

I asked myself, what an elocutionist is, exactly, and how could a person earn a living being one. Because of my theater background and I am familiar with the fact that there are people who are hired by movie producers to coach actors concerning various accents required for specific roles. In fact I had recently read an article that Kevin Spacey had consulted with such an expert concerning the Southern accent he uses in the hit show “House of Cards”. But these people who consult for movies are a very rare breed, not at all commonly found in your average American city. What I discovered is that the art of elocution and elocutionists such as Lionel Logue, once very common, have all gone the way of buggy whips and rug beaters i.e., they are all but extinct.

Just what is elocution and how popular was it at one time. In consulting the ever insightful Wikipedia I found that Elocution has been described as pronunciation, grammar, style and tone, or the skill of clear and expressive speech, especially of distinct pronunciation and articulation. Elocution was a core subject taught in schools and universities in the 19th century. It became more popular with the rise of a middle class in Britain, Europe and the United States in the 1800’s. There were a number of texts used and students drew selections from what were called Speakers. According to Wikipedia by the end of the 19th century, several Speaker texts circulated throughout the United States, including “McGuffey’s New Juvenile Speaker“, the “Manual of Elocution and Reading”, the “Star Speaker” and the popular “Delsarte Speaker”. A typical curriculum would include, Articulation, Inflections, Accents and Emphasis, Instructions for reading Verse, The Voice, and Gesture.

At one time elocutionists like Lionel Logue were plentiful and in high demand. Elocutionists were sought out by people who had a desire to improve their manner of speech. Students were taught that how one speaks is a very important component of success in all aspects of life. Business persons, educators, lawyers, Judges, Doctors and all manner of what we now refer to as blue collar workers, recognized that one’s standing and reputation in the community and the world at large was dependent to a high degree upon one’s manner of speaking.

Why it is that we in this country as well as all the English speaking countries have abandoned elocution and seemingly place little regard on this subject? Why is it that what was for hundreds of years an integral part of school curricula does not exist today in schools or universities at all? These are very interesting questions which could be the basis of a good deal of research and discussion. Suffice to say that in my opinion we as a country are the worse for not having this in the schools today. We should ask, why do we not? Why are there so few if any Lionel Logues today? More on this in my next article.

Dr. Carolyn Koos