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«Rhetorical theory has long engaged with—and has been quick to distinguish itself from—theatricality, particularly in discussions of the fifth ...»

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“Je t’aime, Papa”: Theatricality and the Fifth Canon of Rhetoric in

Justin Trudeau’s Eulogy for his Father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Tracy Whalen

University of Winnipeg

Rhetorical theory has long engaged with—and has been quick to distinguish itself

from—theatricality, particularly in discussions of the fifth canon (pronuntiatio,

hypokrisis, or delivery). 1 Aristotle connects the art of delivery and the “actor’s art” in the

Rhetoric, but maintains the distinction between speaker/rhetor and actor; the rhetor is advised to make clarity, not flattery, the guiding principle of good speaking. Aristotle laments the state of oratory under democracy, where speakers, he felt, pandered to the crowd through theatrical flourish: “The honours of dramatic contests fall, as a rule, to the actors; and, just as, on the stage, the actors are at present of more importance than the poets, so it is, owing to the vices of society, in the contests of civil life” (1403b). Pseudo Cicero’s Ad C. Herennium continues the anti-theatrical bias (not to mention class bias) in its discussion of physical movement: “Accordingly the facial expression should show modesty and animation, and the gestures should not be conspicuous for either elegance or grossness, lest we give the impression that we are either actors or day labourers” (III.

XV.26). Jody Enders traces from Greco-Roman times a persistent tradition of equating theatricality not only with bad rhetoric, but also with the “emasculation of eloquence” (255). She points to the castrating language of Quintilian and Tacitus, who decry a once- rigorous rhetoric that, in the form of histrionic delivery and theatrical declamation, had


1 George Kennedy writes, “The prevailing meaning of hypokrisis in Greek is acting and the regular  word for an actor is hypokrites” (218, note 1). Jody Enders notes that “[t]he idealistic association of a  purified theatre with morality tended to anchor in questions of nobility, beauty, and character the  precept that hypokrisis (denoting acting, feigning, or counterfeit) was for orators, while hypocrisy was  for actors” (267).  1 Rhetor: Revue de la Société canadienne pour l’étude de la rhétorique 4 (2011) www.cssr-scer.ca   been mutilated and made soft. Such language revealed an anxiety about those who often successfully used these so-called effeminate techniques—women, homosexuals, and actors—and constituted a sustained effort to exclude such threatening candidates from hegemonic discourse.

Accusations of excess, insincerity, lying, and fakery have not been confined to the fifth canon of delivery alone, but are the same dispersions leveled at rhetoric as a whole.

Socrates tells Polus in the Gorgias that rhetoric, the counterfeit of a branch of politics, is not an art but a “knack” like cosmetics, which is “crooked, deceptive, mean, slavish, deceiving by shaping, colouring, smoothing, dressing, [and] making people assume a beauty which is not their own” (465b). 2 This antagonistic attitude towards rhetoric is particularly evident in seventeenth-century thinking. John Locke calls the artificial figures of rhetoric “perfect cheats,” as they arouse the passions and subdue the rational faculties (III, X, 34). Clergyman Thomas Sprat of the British Royal Society called for a “world without rhetoric, a world where people could speak of things as they really were, without the colourings of style, in plain language as clear as glass” (Bizzell and Herzberg 642). Not much has changed today: rhetoric is frequently contrasted with reality and keeps company with adjectives like mere, empty, or political (referring, of course, to the politics one does not identify with). Just as rhetoric scholars are critical of such definitions of rhetoric as deceitful and cosmetic, they might also question longstanding assumptions about the fifth canon as extraneous, supplemental, superficial—or in its selfconscious and explicit forms, insincere.


2 W.R.M. Lamb’s earlier translation (1925) favours the word rascally to describe rhetoric, a  particularly good term. 

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2000, when Justin Trudeau delivered a eulogy for his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who served as Prime Minister of Canada from 1968-1979 and again from 1980-1984. 3 Justin’s delivery was characterized by deliberate enunciation, gestures, and pauses. Canadian print reviews of the delivery revealed a dominant theatricality and anti-theatricality discourse. Trudeau’s delivery signified for some a moving moment, while for others it indicated aesthetic misjudgment and, more than that, insincerity—a perceived distance between genuine feelings and disingenuous performance.

Using theories of theatricality and rhetoric, this article problematizes traditional interpretations of sincerity as the congruity between inner feeling and outer performance.

Sincerity can be understood instead as an effect of media presentation. Further, the study of delivery cannot be confined to the gestures, vocal inflection, and facial expression of one live event, but must also consider media editing and the various uses that others will make of that performed moment. Rhetoricians Jim Ridolfo and Danielle Nicole DeVoss caution critics not to assume that “the time, place, and medium of delivery will necessarily be the same for both the speaker and the speaker’s audiences” (“Composing for Recomposition—History,” para. 3). Textual performances occur in a complex environment of technology, reproduction, remixing, and re-appropriation. This paper considers how Justin likely planned his delivery strategies, anticipating how his eulogy would be cut, pasted, reframed, and reconfigured across various media and ponders whether his selections travelled well. It explores, too, why some reviewers found the arguably self-conscious theatricality of this eulogy off-putting. Critics of Justin Trudeau’s


3 The eulogy can be viewed at the CBC Digital Archives,  http://archives.cbc.ca/society/family/clips/1620/  

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performance that made that fact explicit.

Theatricality and Rhetoric The terms theatricality and rhetoric are both shape-shifters when it comes to definition. Rhetoric centres on strategies of suasion and how it is instantiated through symbolic action, but also concerns itself (among other things) with writing and speaking well, the constitution of community, reasoning, incommensurability, and consensus building. Theatricality has been abstracted from its original associations with the stage to refer to everything from the smallest studied gesture to generally understood practices of human communication. Glen McGillivray refers to the “somewhat schizophrenic definitions of theatricality” (113) and argues that theatricality has been paired with terms like theatre, performativity, realism, and truth to suggest, ultimately, that one’s own philosophical position is the good one: “In this case, defining theatricality as empty, amorphous, unlocatable, and useful only in juxtaposition with something else is a common strategy” (McGillivray 112). Like rhetoric, theatre has been equated since ancient times with deceit, emptiness, illusion, impersonation, the feminine, and “the mimetic excess of artifice” (Postlewait and Davis 6).

These attitudes were particularly evident during the eighteenth-century elocutionary movement, a school of thought and practice that prioritized the manner of delivery in expressive declamation. Elocutionist instructors and readers were often disparaged for their artificial and excessive oral reading techniques. The movement has until recently been given short shrift in rhetorical studies, too. Dana Harrington suggests that the marginalization of the elocutionists in rhetorical scholarship stems from a

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not a sufficiently intellectual system of thought. Philippa Spoel has pointed to the elocutionists’ link with passion and embodied practice and the relegated place traditionally granted to both subjects in rhetoric’s anxious hierarchies. Despite a reputation for being theatrical, elocutionists did, in fact, prize decorous delivery and oral reading that was not too obviously performed. Jacqueline George contends that public readers were faced with the challenge of balancing theatricality and sincerity and declaiming with “performed naturalness”: “the experience of public reading required an appearance of authenticity; readers were charged with reading convincingly as well as correctly, conveying veracity even as they followed rules of correct speech” (372).

Elspeth Jajdelska, who contrasts the techniques of teaching reading in the seventeenthand eighteenth-centuries, argues that seventeenth-century oral reading was characterized by “strongly marked contrasts of emotions; high volume; slow tempo; a regular pattern of pitch variation—a ‘sing-song’ style” (143) that instruction in the eighteenth-century worked to abolish.

William Keith explains how in the early twentieth century the emerging discipline of public speaking in the U.S. moved away from the elocutionists’ expression model and towards plain approaches to speaking. Whereas the elocutionists celebrated the speeches of British and American politicians and viewed oratory as high art, public speech practitioners shifted the emphasis to democratic, ordinary communication for practical, professional contexts (Keith 251). James Winans and others in the public speaking camp focused on the “strategic dimension of communication” and on the needs of an audience, on function rather than style (Keith 253). These early practitioners were not in the main

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civil discourse and debate. They championed conversation as the guiding model for effective public speaking and saw these conversations as an important means of participating in democratic life. One can discern in the historical discourses of a onceemerging discipline, and can still discern today, a tension between the practical/functional element and the aesthetic/stylized element in the teaching and evaluation of public speaking. This tension was evident, as will be discussed, in the mixed reception to Justin Trudeau’s eulogy.

Close-up on Justin Trudeau The state funeral for Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1919-2000) took place on 3 October 2000 in Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal. There had been five days of mourning before this day, as the former Prime Minister lay in state at Parliament Hill and was then taken by train from Ottawa to Montreal, the train slowing down along the way so people could pay their respects. People lined the streets as Mounties flanked the car that took the casket from Montreal City Hall to the Basilica. Walking behind were Trudeau’s former wife Margaret Trudeau Kemper, from whom he had separated in 1977, and their two sons, Justin and Sacha; Trudeau’s sister, Suzette; and Montreal lawyer Deborah Coyne and her daughter with Trudeau, nine-year-old Sarah. The church was filled with wellknown international figures: Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter, Prince Andrew, Margot Kidder (who had been friends with Pierre for many years), and His Highness the Aga Khan.

Canadian politicians and celebrities included then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, Joe Clark, John Turner, and Leonard Cohen.

Outside the church in the streets thousands gathered, watching the funeral on large

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broadcast on television.

Pierre Trudeau had protected Justin and his brothers from the media gaze as they were growing up; the public, in fact, had not really heard much from Justin before this point. At the time of the funeral, Justin was a French and theatre teacher at West Point Grey Academy, an elite private school in Vancouver, and was spokesperson for Katimavik, a youth program for community development. After the 1998 death of his brother Michel in a skiing accident in British Columbia, a death that devastated the whole Trudeau family and very much so Pierre, Justin spoke publicly with the Canadian Avalanche Foundation to promote safety awareness. Justin was not a politician when he delivered the eulogy. It was not until 2007 that he officially entered the political ring when he contested the nomination for the Papineau riding in north-central Montreal and unseated Bloc Québécois candidate Vivian Barbot. He is currently the Member of Parliament for that riding, a notable accomplishment, given the Liberal’s dismal results in the May 2011 federal election.

On the day of the funeral, Justin stood at the lectern of the Basilica dressed in a black suit, grey shirt, and grey tie, with Pierre’s trademark rose in his lapel and a white handkerchief in hand. For most of the delivery, Justin was filmed front on and at relatively close range. He began with a small smile, raised his eyebrows, and slowly enunciated the words “Friends... Romans... Countrymen,” pausing between each word. He may have been counseled to speak slowly to accommodate the large physical space, potential audience clapping and laughter, or possible sound delays in media

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lower lip and sustained that pose, a gesture that was repeated throughout the oration. The delivery was punctuated by head nods, hand gestures (a finger pointed to the ceiling, for instance), eyes closing tight, and moments when Justin’s tongue thrust out between his teeth, a sign of excessive effort to carefully and forcefully enunciate words.

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