Practical criticism: speak the speech
The distinction of Barak Obama's presidential campaign was a sense that words matter, that they can express a person's truth. Our public discourse, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been both muddied and diluted in recent years. We expect spin, distortion, sheer mendacity. The poverty of recent political language fosters cynicism, but the heartfelt reaction to Obama's oratory suggests our own surprise that we can be stirred by speech, that our readiness to believe in a mature public talk has been lying dormant, and is ready to awaken.
Today's inauguration speech in Washington was serious, less emotive than some Obama has given. But amid the noble Lincoln rhythms and the unexpected nod to Jerome 'pick yourself up' Kern, it displayed a writer's gift for tingling , intimate images and word choices. The dead in Arlington cemetery whisper through the ages. The pioneers of the republic huddle in the blood-stained snow. And just 60 years ago, we are reminded, the new president's own father might have been turned away from a local restaurant.
It wasn't just Obama who rose to the occasion - Dianne Feinstein opened the ceremony with a stirring invocation, and the Rev Joseph Lowery closed them with a delightful twinkle. Elsewhere, the words were less well-judged - including the poem by Elizabeth Alexander, which sounded prosaic and inconsequential immediately after the solemn rhythms of the new president's address.
When was the last time you saw an actor command the stage as Obama did the podium? British actors are supposed to be iambic naturals, but even the most impressive investigators of text - in the last couple of years there's been Ian McKellen's King Lear or Fiona Shaw in Beckett's Happy Days - delve into fracture and contradiction rather than cresting the mighty roll of language. Actors and directors distrust grandstanding, doubt a figure who plants their feet centre stage and makes the spotlight hold steady till they are done speaking.
Modern stage writing is similarly dedicated to disrupting the surface of speech, scrabbling at polished phrases and questioning orotund certainties. Portrayals of the powerful burrow and niggle: Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon projected the disgraced president's face in huge close-up on a screen above the stage action, acknowledging that his face might betray him sooner than his own words. In his new play Gethsemane, David Hare finds British politicians' speech cramped and pusillanimous; they're terrified of saying anything so interesting that it might subsequently come back to haunt them.
Obama's rhetorical triplets and pauses which gather up attention mark a change to that notion that political speech is a disingenuous gruel. The words are rich and sustaining, the ideas sturdy and defiant, the delivery secure. Let's hope the action will now suit the word.
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