Playwright Stephen Jeffreys, despite his gifts as a writer, despite his fascination with the milieu, and despite his obvious admiration for Wilmot’s rarified obscenity, seems unable to find the dramatic stakes in his play.
The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys. Directed by Eric Tucker. Co-presented by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston and Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company, at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through September 22.
By Ian Thal
Stephen Jeffreys’ 1994 play, The Libertine (from which he adapted the screenplay of the 2004 film starring Johnny Depp) opens with John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester warning the audience: “I do not wish you to like me.” His reasons? Wilmot cites his amorality and sexual promiscuity while strutting about as if he imagines himself to be a villain equal to Richard III. It is 1675 and the aristocrat, poet, and satirist has returned to London after a brief exile to reunite with his entourage of fellow libertine wits, George Etherege (Brooks Reeves), Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset and 1st Earl of Middlesex (Daniel Duque-Estrada) and their youthful and ill-fated sidekick, Billy Downs (Troy Barboza). Joining the boys at the table is Jane (Megan O’Leary), Rochester’s favorite prostitute.
Jeffreys has created a robustly amoral world in his play, one in which royal affairs of state mingle effortlessly with the flesh trade. The playwright has a gift for language and structure: whereas some playwrights would be content to have a play-within-a-play, Jeffreys presents a theater-within-a-theater when he recreates the lustful bustle of the Dorset Garden Theatre. Even as the players Lizzie Barry (Olivia D’Ambrosio) and Harry Harris (Duque-Estrada in a secondary role) perform Thomas Otway’s Alcibiades, the “orange girls” act out their roles, which is not only to sell oranges but to procure actresses for the audience members with enough ready cash for the dalliance.
Though audience members pelt her with abuse and produce, Barry gives a performance in Alcibiades that enthralls Wilmot. He offers to train her as an actress, promising to make her into the greatest actress of her day. In fact, Barry went on to become a renowned actress, and Wilmot and Barry were lovers: he fathered one of her two children (Etherege fathered the other). Still, the story that Barry came into her own under Wilmot’s tutelage is generally regarded as apocryphal. But in Jeffrey’s version of events Barry establishes that she is a woman who owns her sex as much as she owns her artistry.
Stories of transgressive artists who suffer under censorship and philistinism are always timely. However, this is not one of those stories. The reign of Charles II (Richard Wayne), known as the Restoration, came at at time when most sectors of society had explicitly rejected the Puritan values of the Protectorate theocracy that had preceded it. The comedies that appeared on Restoration stages were bawdy, actresses considered it to be good business to sell their sex to noble patrons, and the King openly acknowledged that he had fathered twelve children by seven different mistresses (he even had a frisky turn with some of Rochester’s partners).
Neither the crown, nor the aristocracy, nor the commoners are remotely upset that Rochester writes exquisitely pornographic verse — they only seem annoyed he didn’t apply his considerable talents to other endeavors (the widespread censorship of Wilmot’s work only occurred during the Victorian era — nearly two centuries after his death). In truth, the literature of the Restoration provides a profound rejoinder to the old chestnut disseminated in far too many high school English classes that the dirty jokes in classic plays were put in to pander to the lower classes — the upper classes supposedly attended the theater for subtle poetry and only tolerated the low humor.
Charles routinely offers Wilmot the opportunity to advance his literary career, presenting him as a poet to foreign dignitaries, commissioning him to write and direct a play, even encouraging him to enter politics. But Rochester chooses to either look for anarchistic ways to irk his king or destroy himself through his hedonistic excesses (he died at the age of 33, most likely due to syphilis or some other venereal disease exacerbated by alcoholism).
Consequently, Jeffreys doesn’t give us a transgressive artist who is a critic of the social or political order as in Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade. Neither is he an ancestor of Lenny Bruce in his monologues and court appearances, nor a study of a transgressive artist the-powers-that-be are compelled to dismember as in Doug Wright’s Quills (another historically inaccurate play that has the Marquis De Sade as its protagonist). Amadeus manages to define the disconnect between moral virtue and artistic virtuosity as a theological problem; Mikhail Bulgakov’s Cabal of Hypocrites (a play that deserves to be better known) explores the plight of the satirist who is buffeted by the targets of his ridicule. In The Libertine we merely get a man who cannot get his act together because he can’t moderate his enjoyment of drink, prostitutes, and mistresses. He is not a nail for want that a kingdom is lost, nor are any of the other characters, whom he disappoints time and time again, lost without him. His wife, Elizabeth Malet (it is never noted that his wife and lover are both named Elizabeth), remains Countess of Rochester, and is content with his deathbed conversion; Charles remains on the throne until his death in 1685; Elizabeth Barry never marries and has a lucrative and acclaimed period on the stage. Even Sackville and Etherege end up with far more successful literary careers. Etherege established himself as one of the great playwrights of the era with his 1676 comedy, The Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter, whose character Dorimant is believed to be based on Wilmot (to the latter’s resentment, if we are to believe Jeffreys).
Jeffreys, despite his gifts as a writer, despite his fascination with the milieu, and despite his obvious admiration for Wilmot’s rarified obscenity, seems unable to find the dramatic stakes in his play. This libertine has no real antagonist, no social order to bring down, no hypocrisy to expose (indeed, hypocrisy seems generally tolerated, if not celebrated, as part of life among the upper classes during the Restoration.) Furthermore, given Wilmot’s enthusiastic embrace of excessive drinking and whoring, we do not have examples of mature struggle so much as an extended adolescent tantrum from a man who ignores the steadying advice of both his monarch and his wife, both of whom are patiently forgiving.
The historical Wilmot was a complex character, and surely Jeffreys could have found some episodes in the poet’s short, yet eventful, life to generate a compelling plot. Instead, he has Barry lamenting that the same writer who created ribald satire was also an intellectual capable of profound insights — without ever bringing that thinker on stage. The play’s one-note emphasis on adolescent rebellion (his wife observes that Wilmot’s atheism and anti-monarchism are not rooted in philosophical rebellion so much as an expression of spite towards any power greater than himself) means that Jeffreys’ Wilmot comes off as neither a figure of comedy nor of tragedy. He is not even an intriguing fusion of the two.
Jefferys does not seem to know how he wants to resolve Wilmot’s story. The penultimate scene portrays Wilmot’s renunciation of debauchery and conversion to Christianity, but in the epilogue, set either beyond the grave or beyond the fourth wall, he still taunts the audience about how he does not want to be liked (though one gets the feeling that he does want to be). Indeed, the audience has little opportunity to even vicariously enjoy Wilmot’s sexual adventures: he continually brags about his prowess, but the single time he attempts an erotic conquest on stage he’s drunk, sad, and unable to sustain an erection. Perhaps this misifre foreshadows the big musical number, “Signior Dildo” which, though written in 1673 for an entirely different occasion, is presented as Wilmot’s attempt to fulfill Charles’ commission (one can hardly excuse Jeffreys for this slight anachronism — – it’s too fun a piece not to stage). The King is not amused.
Nonetheless, despite the thin plot, The Libertine sumptuously portrays the period’s baroque aesthetics and lustful humanity. And the Bridge Rep’s presentation, (a revival of Eric Tucker’s 2010 New York production with the Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company) is well up to the task. Placing both audience and players on the stage of the Wimberly Theater, the action is played in a stripped-down black box space in which Tucker, who also doubled as scenic designer, restricts his scenery to about a dozen screens that are swiftly rearranged to form walls, chambers, and corridors, creating a vast world out of very basic elements
Susanne Miller’s costume designs are deliciously rococo for the upper classes, with flowing decorative motifs, and functional for the working classes, whether they be a tavern hostess, a stage manager, prostitute, or servant. The wigs, from the ridiculously artificial varieties worn by the upper classes or those meant to be the character’s real hair (as with the case of Jane), are well executed.
Aubrey Snowden’s choreography makes many of the set pieces, such as the pall mall game, striking, and gives the audience a taste of the stylized movement vocabulary of actors in the centuries before the rise of naturalism.
The cast is generally solid with Rodriguez, Eric Doss, and Sarah Koestner returning from the original production. Rodriguez’ performance captures the brilliance, debauchery, and petulance of Wilmot, both when his wit strikes home and when his japes backfire. Doss entertains as his servant Alcock, who enjoys the adventures his employer takes him on, even as he realizes a good thing is soon to end. The already extraordinarily tall Richard Wayne becomes a truly towering presence in his high heels as King Charles, relaxed both in his exercise of the powers of state and in his enjoyment of royal privilege. Koestner provides an intelligent portrait of Wilmot’s wife, Lady Elizabeth Malet, a woman who is keenly aware of her husband’s vices. Wilmot’s entourage of Downs, Etherege, and Sackville, played by Barboza, Reeves, and Duque-Estrada, make for a good supporting cast, with Duque-Estrada particularly good in the double role of the know-it-all thespian Harris.
Megan O’Leary’s performance as Jane expresses the character’s excitement at being caught up in the antics of the royal court (the “Merry Gang”), while also resigned to her lot in life as a prostitute from the lower classes. Olivia D’Ambrosio plays Lizzie Barry with an intelligence that befits the part when she plays opposite Rodriguez. But she does not quite dramatize Barry’s development from an actress in need of Wilmot’s training to a leading woman of the Restoration stage (perhaps this transformation is an unfair demand to put on any actor.) D’Arcy Dersham is wry and knowing as the Dorset Garden stage manager Mrs. Luscombe. The accents are generally well performed, especially in the case of actors who double as characters of different social classes.
Fuse interview with Artistic Directors Olivia D’Ambrosio and Joseph Rodriguez.
Ian Thal is a performer and theatre educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere, and on occasion served on productions as a puppetry choreographer or dramaturg. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is currently working on his second full length play; his first, though as-of-yet unproduced, was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. Formally the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.