Who was the most melodramatic actor of the 20th century. Bela Lugosi? Vincent Price? Winston Churchill?
Winston Churchill??? Yes, according to author Jonathan Rose, Churchill was the greatest melodramatic actor on the greatest stage ever- the stage of world history.
“Sometimes the lives of millions depend on what their rulers read,” says Rose, Professor of History at Drew University and author of the award-winning book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class (2001).
He draws on this past work to inform us that “for the Edwardian working classes, melodrama was a documentary.” Rose quotes G. K. Chesterton, who said in 1909 (when Churchill as a young man was in government) that compared with modernist realism “melodrama is much more like life.” Chesterton goes on to explain “if we wish to lay a firm basis for any efforts to help the poor, we must not become realistic and see them from the outside. We must become melodramatic, and see them from the inside.”
According to Rose, “that was Churchill’s method” and here we have the central thesis of his masterly book that explains some of Churchill’s actions for the first time. Rose has identified a key element of Churchill’s persona that has been lacking in other accounts, and by looking at certain major actions of his life through the lens of melodramatic art we can finally appreciate his true genius.
“Churchill understood how melodramatic contrivance could be in war reportage.” It was through reporting for newspapers on various wars fought by the British Empire that Churchill first became known, and this is where he honed his skills as a writer who employed melodramatic prose.
But unlike other writers who simply wallowed in such prose, Churchill had a special purpose that led him to the heights of power and fame. “Every word Churchill wrote,” says Rose, “and every battle he fought for free expression, was a blow struck against personal annihilation.”
Of course, not everybody was a fan. The Morning Post newspaper said “Mr. Churchill’s instinct for the melodramatic was blossomed into megalomania.” That was in 1915, 30 years before he became Prime Minister.
Rose quotes a speech from that year that he says “sounds like a first draft of the ‘Finest Hour’ speech of 1940. The basic message is identical. We are all of us actors on the stage of history, all of us collective authors of the grand narrative of British history, and any reverses we suffer only enhance the drama.” And it worked, especially on the enemy when it counted. In 1941, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s right hand man and Minister of Propaganda, wrote in his diary that Churchill’s rhetoric of adversity secured him “in a position that makes him totally immune from attack. Churchill did the right thing when he promised the British ‘blood, sweat and tears.’”
It was another PM, Neville Chamberlain, “who recognised Churchill’s greatest strength and greatest weakness: that he governed with the tools of a poet or playwright.”
Thus, for Churchill, “the Second World War had become a grand melodrama with a good old hero and splendid villain,” writes Rose. French General DeGaulle said “Winston Churchill appeared to me, from one end of the drama to the other, as the grand champion of a great enterprise and the great artist of a great history.”
He was, as Rose quotes Isaiah Berlin explaining in 1949, “an orator of prodigious powers, the savior of his country, a mythical hero who belongs to legend as much as to reality, the largest human being of our time.”
Rose has written a superb book and unlike many books about Churchill, one that really needed to be written.
The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor (516 pages) is $35 hardcover or $25 paperback from Yale University Press. Visit their website: www.yalepress.yale.edu