What Does It Mean to Have a King?

Apropos of the Netflix series "The Crown," speechwriter Hal Gordon reminds us of Sir Lawrence Olivier's eulogy of King George VI.

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At my church’s last parish supper, I was chatting with the rector about that new Netflix series The Crown, which dramatizes the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Father Willard was impressed by the scenes that showed the Queen’s coronation in 1953, and he said that he was particularly moved by the moment of the Queen’s anointing.

In reply, I remarked that perhaps the best indicator of the reverence that the British people had toward the monarchy at that particular moment in time was the eulogy that Laurence Olivier delivered on the death of George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s father, the previous year.

Olivier’s speech was recorded, and later issued as a commercial LP on the Caedmon label, which is how I happened to hear it. It may well rank as one of the actor’s best performances, particularly since on this occasion he wrote his own lines.

Olivier opens on a note of high drama:

“The king is dead, long live the king!" has been an oft-repeated cry in the night through the centuries of British history…The phrase carries with it all the clattering horses’ hooves, the clanging gates, the hurried whispers, the bright shouts, the lights and the darknesses of our island history…

But soon his tone becomes less histrionic and more personal:

The emotions of the last few days have brought forth a question which is being asked quite frequently: What does it mean to have a king? And how is it possible for whole nations to feel a personal sense of grief in the passing of one who must be for all except a very few no more than a symbol? A symbol, moreover, which is immediately carried on, uninterrupted by death.

I think I can express what is felt: The idea of a representative personage with the constitutional right to advise, born to his task and therefore entirely beyond the reach of party political influences, is very attractive and comfortable to us—and invites us to believe in the possible ideal of a man in authority…

To express a little more warmly our feelings for the monarchy, one could say that it is for us as though we had two families—our own, and our royal family…The King is our father, the Queen our mother, and their children our royal brothers and sisters. In the death of our King we feel the dumb strangeness of a father gone.

My own LP recording of the speech disappeared years ago in the course of one of my many moves. But I did an Internet search and found that the recording is available on YouTube.

The sound quality is excellent. The only drawback is that the note that accompanies the recording is incorrect. Olivier did not deliver the eulogy at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, but at the Church of the Transfiguration in Manhattan, which is also known as “The Little Church Around the Corner.”

That church has been associated with the theatrical profession since 1870. Back then, a famous American actor named Joseph Jefferson approached one of the snootier churches in the neighborhood with the request that it bury an actor friend of his who had just died. (Actors, even as late as 1870, were not considered “respectable.”) The rector refused Jefferson’s request, but rather condescendingly informed him that “there is a little church around the corner where it might be done.” To which Jefferson replied, “Then I say to you sir, God bless the little church around the corner!”

Once I was staying at a hotel in Manhattan, and found to my surprise that the now-famous “little church” was right across the street. I attended Evening Prayers there. But that’s another story.

Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.

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