Readorama: Winston Churchill went melodramatic to rally Brits

The vivid metaphor used by Winston Churchill in Fulton, Mo., in 1946 — the “iron curtain” descending upon Eastern Europe — didn’t originate with the former British prime minister.

Jonathan Rose, author of “The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor,” lists several writers who had invoked the term in a specific geopolitical context before and after World War I.

Churchill later said he knew of none of those references. The term, he insisted in a 1951 interview, came from the world of theater and referred to the iron safety curtain that swiftly would be deployed to protect the audience from a sudden fire.

It’s one of many examples, Rose said, of how Churchill found much of his ringing political rhetoric in the books he read or the theatrical productions he enjoyed. “He was a fan of theater all of his life, and he perceived politicians to be performers on the public stage,” said Rose, who speaks in Kansas City on Wednesday.

“Churchill was always conscious of his audience and the effect he was having on it.”

In his literary references, Churchill made canny choices. In 1940, the writing of contemporary British authors Aldous Huxley and George Orwell often portrayed the world as morally ambiguous, Rose said.

But faced with German bombing of London, Churchill turned to a familiar device he knew would resonate with British citizens of a certain age: Victorian melodrama.

“Melodrama is black and white struggle, a fight between good and evil in which the hero at some point has his back to the wall but ends up winning,” Rose said.

“That is what Churchill told the British people in 1940: that they had everything against them, and they had their backs to the wall but that they were going to win anyway.

“He was able to tap into this obsolete form of theater to rally the British people.”

Churchill gave no rosy spin to the threat then facing Great Britain and insisted upon describing just how dire the situation was. But that choice was strategic, Rose said.

“The Nazis made a mistake by doing the opposite,” Rose said. “They kept saying they were going to win the war, and when the war went badly, they lost the German people.”

Rose speaks at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Grant Hall, 5227 Holmes St., at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The English-Speaking Union is a sponsor of the event, as are the UMKC theater, English and history departments.

It is free and open to the public.

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