Alan Finlayson on Performance Rites: Rhetoric, Public Speech and Democratic Politics Today

On 20 October 2016, The Network for Oratory and Politics launched its new presence at the University of Birmingham with a public lecture by Professor Alan Finlayson (University of East Anglia). The lecture formed part of the Network’s autumn seminar series on ‘The creation of speech: from brainstorm to delivery’. An international expert on modern British political speech and oratorical culture, Alan Finlayson analysed the role of oratorical performance in modern political debate.


Alan Finlayson, University of East Anglia



Bust of Cicero, Vatican Museums, Rome

Aware of the presence of Classicists in the lecture theatre, Alan Finlayson started off with the Roman statesman and orator, Cicero. He argued that Cicero would have seen many parallels to his own society had he seen the current political situation: Empire going down, politicians performing politics, and the phenomenon of excessive or dramatic political performers whose ‘shows’ sometimes overshadow their content.

Deeply anchored in theories about political actors from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to modern political philosophers and scientists Jason Brennan and Jeffrey E. Green, Finlayson argued that political spectacles are nothing new, here to stay, and not a bad thing in themselves, in spite of modern worries about political spectacles as hostile to democracy. Moving on to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Finlayson used the example of the Roman general Coriolanus to show that lacking the ability to deliver speeches meant that Coriolanus could not play the role of leader and his people therefore not the role of the people. The performance of public speech was – and is – a crucial factor for leadership.


Frontispiece and title page of 18th century edition of Coriolanus, where Coriolanus is depicted as addressing a public audience.

The oratorical performance as indicator of leadership is indeed an established ritual which we see played out today in the Queen’s Speech (she has to give it but she is told what to say), the US President’s inaugural speech, UK party leaders’ speeches at party conferences, and the Prime Minister’s Questions each Wednesday in the House of Commons. All of these are necessary, by tradition or law, but nevertheless complicated speech occasions which are rituals to a greater extent than speech event.


Prime Minister Theresa May addressing the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions.

The importance of these occasions, as Alan Finlayson explained, is that these spectacles allow politicians and their audiences to dramatise political conflicts without the restrictions of rational discussion. These dramatisations can then create a narrative in which the audience or community can take part and mirror themselves. Finlayson exemplified this with Barack Obama’s commemorative speech at the 150th anniversary to abolish slavery in the US, in which Obama’s reference to the concept of ‘the original sin’ created a narrative about the abolishment of slavery and later Civil Rights Movement with which most Americans could identify and sympathise.

Finlayson’s point was that we need to allow these public occasions for speech to flourish in order for such narratives to be created and disseminated for the wider purpose of playing out political conflicts in front of a public audience. Yet, such places for public speech are disappearing in a concrete and a figurative sense: there are fewer politicians who simply stand up to speak to a public audience and modern media have changed the spectacles into so-called TV debates, which are staged to maximise the entertainment value rather than a truly political debate. Another problem in current politics is that we expect politicians to be ‘candid’ or ‘authentic’ but by continually recording their performances in front of different audiences, the media makes it impossible for politicians to tailor performances to their audiences while keeping their public persona consistent. Finally, Finlayson argued, the complex fragmentation of political audiences and diverging identities result in a ‘de-fusion’ of political performances. All these problems, Finlayson diagnosed as a crisis of rhetoric. One major solution to this problem is to have better performers and better stages for political speech to provide mirrors in which the people can find themselves and a shared identity.

The public lecture was followed by a lively discussion of the gender in political performances, the role of ritual and authenticity, and the possible ways out of the crisis of rhetoric.




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