The Academy of Motion Pictures was right to select The King’s Speech. It probably was the best picture of last year, although I also have a fondness for The Fighter. Both pictures were inspiring tales about overcoming adversity.
For even the King of England can be an underdog. King George VI was subjected to a cold upbringing, and pressured by the high expectations placed on an English prince. A stuttering habit made public appearances ordeals. His obstacles were no less daunting than the poor management and family problems that dogged the boxer Mickey Ward.
George VI was helped to overcome this habit by the speech therapist Lionel Logue, an amateur actor. After regular sessions held in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the King was able to make the radio speeches that helped to boost public morale during the second world war.
Seeing the film, I wondered if the playwright George Bernard Shaw had followed the King’s progress. Shaw was in England at the time, and very much alive. Shaw, as an orator, playwright and director, paid particularly close attention to matters of speech and elocution. He had, of course, written Pygmalion, in which a phonetics professor transforms a poor flower girl into a lady by helping her achieve an upper-class accent.
I have always been intensely interested in Shaw, and this interest has invariably tied to Pygmalion. As a child I saw the film version of My Fair Lady, the musical adaptation of Shaw’s play, and started writing soon thereafter. In college I saw, on TV, the 1938 film version of Pygmalion, and this, like a lunar force, moved me toward becoming a playwright.
So I would surmise that Shaw paid close attention to George VI. But Pygmalion and The King’s Speech have as many differences as they have similarities. Lionel Logue is shown in the film as being the King’s friend, and truly caring for him as a person.
But there is much that could be said in modern psychology parlance about Henry Higgins, Liza Doolittle’s speech teacher. Higgins is critical of her to the point of what would now be called verbal abuse. Higgins justifies this by believing that his work is done in the names of Science and Art. The end justifies the means.
But Higgins also can express no romantic interest in Liza, and this she cannot stand. Later in the play she leaves him, walking in the footsteps of Ibsen’s Nora. This reversal is something far different than the events of The King’s Speech.
Liza ultimately is revealed as the victor. She matures as a woman, a development that is more significant than her speech change. Higgins does not mature. He remains a Victorian intellectual unable to immerse himself in life.
People have had trouble with Pygmalion’s harsh conclusion as far back as its 1914 London premiere. A romantic conclusion, where Liza returns to Higgins, was given in both the 1938 film and My Fair Lady, which is based more on the film than on Shaw’s 1912 play.
But Pygmalion has survived, and is now produced often in its original nonmusical form. Its challenges also remain, for it is as challenging as The King’s Speech is inspiring. The depths of this fascinating work have not yet been fully plumbed.