The opening event of 2016’s Arts & Humanities Festival can now be viewed on YouTube. In the talk chaired by Professor Alan Read, Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner discuss researching archives to write The Madness of King George III, the challenges of translating an acclaimed stage show to a multi-award winning film, and how they see George III.
By James Fisher
James is researching his PhD on the relation between agricultural books, knowledge & labour in eighteenth-century Britain, at King’s College London. He also works as the Academic Administrator, Georgian Papers Programme.
The mental illness of King George III and corresponding political crisis of 1788-89 was “a gift”, said the playwright Alan Bennett, speaking at the opening of this year’s Arts & Humanities Festival on Monday 10th Oct alongside theatre and film director Sir Nicholas Hytner. The king’s descent and recovery formed “a self-contained episode”, while the connection between an individual’s plight with national politics was perfect theatre: you couldn’t wish for “a more dramatic plot”. Thus the episode became the acclaimed play, The Madness of George III, later adapted into the Oscar-winning film.
This raises a series of questions: was the plot already there in the historical record? How much was in the eye of the playwright? And how does the eye of the historian differ?
“It’s a tragedy”, declares King George III toward the end of the film. He is not referring to his own personal story (or the film in which he appears), but to Shakespeare’s King Lear. In contrast the film tips heavily into the comic mode: parading the absurdity of royal ceremonies, juxtaposing the high and the low (a servant spit-cleaning the crown, a learned physician’s fixation with the king’s “stool”), but most importantly, the triumphal and cheerful ending. The difference is deliberate and the extended references to King Lear are made to accentuate the parallels and divergences. Bennett was re-writing Shakespeare. He tells the audience as much in the following lines voiced by the Lord Chancellor (animated by George’s apparent recovery):
“Have you read King Lear? Tragic story… Of course! If that fool of a messenger had got a move on, Cordelia wouldn’t have been hanged, Lear wouldn’t have died, and it would all have ended happily. Which I think would have made a much better ending, because as it is, it’s so damned tragic.”
In the film the messenger, George himself, does arrive on time to avoid the tragic ending, performing his sanity for Parliament to prevent the passing of the Regency Bill and the effective end of his reign.
No doubt some of the dramatic potential Bennett saw in the 1788-89 regency crisis was because he already knew the dramatic tale of Shakespeare’s mad king. A twentieth-century dramatist reading about the life George III would inevitably see Lear, with countless other lesser characters and subplots from wider culture. The decision to end with the recovery in 1789 rather than the demise of a blind and deaf old man in 1820 allowed the film to finish on an upward trajectory. This king would not end as Lear had.
The relation to Shakespeare’s tragedy is indicative of the complex blurring of literature and history. Shakespeare derived his character from the pre-Roman legendary King Leir of the Britons, as described in the twelfth-century chronicle of Geoffrey of Monmouth, through a potentially diverse range of sixteenth-century histories and plays. But in earlier versions, Cordelia lives and restores Lear to the throne. The tragic ending was introduced by Shakespeare.
Such are the circle of influences that shape the narrative of a king’s madness: screenplays upon histories upon scripts upon chronicles upon legends upon – what? Think of the profusion of stories that were filtered through Shakespeare’s quill in the early 1600s; elements of which found their way into the minds of the politicians, physicians and courtiers in 1788, even the King’s own collapsing faculties, and were scattered through the hall of mirrors of action-interpretation-reaction; the sum total, again, combined and refashioned through the typewriter of Alan Bennett in the early 1990s.
Yet the story has a twist: after the Restoration in 1660, it was the adaptation by Nahum Tate that formed the basis for the staging of King Lear for the next one hundred and fifty years. And Tate’s revision had a happy ending. The King Lear known in the 1780s was not the same tragedy that we know today. However, the king still exhibited a violent madness and the comparison with the malady of George was all too painfully obvious. The play was eventually banned from the stage in the period of his final and inescapable mental retreat from 1810 to his death in 1820.
Each history hides a tale; each tale has a history.
However, in a famous scene, Bennett uses Lear in another way: it is through the public reading of Shakespeare’s play that George is shown to have recovered his sanity: “Your Majesty seems more yourself.” It is, ironically, his ability to play a role that is not himself that demonstrates his capacity to truly be himself. This is a common definition of madness: the inability to distinguish between what is real and what is fiction. The fact George can perform as a fictional character and know that is what he is doing signifies his return to normality.
The film as a whole is an exploration of the complex relation between kingship and madness. As Dr Willis remarks, “the state of monarchy and the state of lunacy share a frontier”. How do you tell if a king has delusions of grandeur? The behavioural treatment of Dr Willis seeks to break down the King into a mere human being, to separate the individual from his office of kingship – that is, to remind the King that he is only playing a role. “I have remembered how to seem”, the King says with fresh lucidity.
Many historians accept that the practice and writing of history involves a necessary act of imagination. The arguments of Hayden White that historical writing mirrors literature and relies on narrative forms for meaning and interpretation have been influential and controversial. We do not need to accept the full structuralist baggage of tropes and emplotments to appreciate the way “literary” forms shape historical writing and interpretation.
What plots do historians see in the archives? What beginnings and endings, characters and agency, tragedies and parodies? But more than this: what narratives do historical actors see and experience and how does this shape their behaviour? Did George III perceive himself as a tragic hero?
It is often said that the particular value of history is the way it blends the arts and sciences. Perhaps we could say it is the peculiar madness of historians to artfully confuse fiction and reality, until the latter achieves meaning.
Karin Wulf (Director, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Professor of History, College of William & Mary)
As we consider the range and depth of materials emerging from the Georgian Papers Programme it’s clear that any number of historical subjects will be newly framed or newly illuminated. And it’s likely that a more subtle perspective on King George III will be among the project’s outcomes. Historians have interpreted eighteenth-century attitudes to the English king who last ruled North America differently, with some arguing for a more benign view of the monarch and a harsh view of his ministers, and others finding an intensity of opposition to the monarch himself as well as monarchical rule. And though he ruled Britain for a long time, one way or another Americans usually encounter George III in the context of the prelude to, war for, and conclusion of the Revolution. In this context it’s useful to think about how and why the monarch Americans most closely associate with the American Revolution is imagined in popular culture.
Americans have a trove of popular images of King George III on which to draw, but some are more accessible than others. A key cultural text is an import: The Madness of King George, the film adaptation of Allan Bennett’s play starring Nigel Hawthorne and featuring Helen Mirren and Rupert Everett. The film advances the (now-discounted) theory that the king suffered from porphyria, and grapples at times sensitively with his increasingly fragile mental health. The film was well reviewed, with Hawthorne and Mirren’s performances as King George and Queen Charlotte particularly praised. Despite the central theme (the king’s madness and his relationship with the Prince of Wales), the New York Times reviewer focused on American independence. In the review titled “Going Mad without Being a Sore Loser,” Janet Maslin pulls out a key reference to the American problem: “We must get used to it,” King George eventually sighs about the nation formed from his American colonies. “I have known stranger things. I once saw a sheep with five legs.”
But Americans also have a large fund of home-grown images of King George. The king is often a key figure in brief children’s histories of the American Revolution. For example, prize-winning children’s author Jean Fritz’s marvelous book, Can’t You Make them Behave King George? originally published in 1977 and illustrated by the prolific Tomie dePaola, is a favorite. Fritz has written a host of quaisi-political histories of early America for young readers, including And then What Happened Paul Revere (1973) and Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution (1987). Her biography of America’s last king begins with his childhood and ends just after the Revolution. A sympathetic reading of the king’s rule, Fritz emphasizes his (well-documented) desire for order and sense of responsibility. The Revolution arrives, then, as an affront to both. In dePaola’s emblematic cover illustration the king slumps in resignation.
All of these and more have been overwhelmed in the last year by the brilliant, cheeky, counterpoint character of George III in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster hip-hop musical, Hamilton. Plenty of Americans have been exposed to Hamilton in any number of online venues including a live performance at the 2016 Tony awards, a clip of Miranda performing the first song at the White House in 2009 back when he was still developing what would become Hamilton, and the ever-popular Ham4Ham shows, a short burst of performance held weekly outside the Broadway theater and posted on Youtube. On October 21 a PBS documentary about the musical, “Hamilton’s America,” will air, the musical opened in Chicago last month, and will arrive in London’s West End next fall.
Played originally on Broadway and on the cast album by Jonathan Groff, the role of King George III draws a sharp contrast between the inheritor of a kingdom and the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,” Alexander Hamilton. Miranda’s lyrics especially, but also the music and staging, urge Hamilton’s audience to think about how history is made in the moment but more significantly in the later telling. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is one of the key refrains.
By means of affect, accent and posture Groff offered a modest variation on Fritz’s more gentle children’s story. The king feels entitled, in every sense of the word, and his values and goals are diametrical to those of the young revolutionaries–but he’s also a canny judge of people and circumstances. Although he’s on stage for fewer than 10 minutes, and singing for not quite 7, King George has some of the musicals’ best lines. In essentially the same melody, in a style evoking an early Beatles ditty, his three songs trace the arc of the revolutionary conflict. In the first, what Miranda has described as a sort of creepy break-up song, the king reminds the colonies that “Oceans rise/ empires fall/ We have seen each other through it all.” and that “when push/ comes to shove/I will send a fully armed battalion/ to remind you of my love! Da da da da dat…”
Unlike other musical numbers, King George always sings alone. His second appearance takes place after the Battle of Yorktown when he wonders how the new nation, now decisively independent, will function. “You’re on your own,” he sings in his faux posh accent, shifting then to interject a stylized American “Awesome, Wow!” before querying “do you have a clue what happens now?” In Hamilton the Revolution (2016), the book that Miranda authored with Jeremy Carter offering an inside look at the origins and making of the musical, he suggests that the third song was unplanned. Some characters insist on their place on stage. This third song jumps ahead fifteen years to contemplate transitions in American leadership: “They say/ George Washigton’s yielding his power and stepping away/ ‘Zat true?/ I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.” And then he relishes the notion of John Adams as Washington’s successor: “Oceans rise/ Empires fall/ Next to Washington, they all look small/ All alone/ Watch them run/ They will tear each other into pieces/ Jesus Christ this will be fun. Da da da dat…”
Groff was nominated for a Tony for his performance, one of three from Hamilton nominated in the same category; the award went to Daveed Diggs, who originated the dual roles of the Marquis de LaFayette and Thomas Jefferson. When Groff and two actors who played King George off Broadway or as stand-ins lip-synched “the Schulyer Sisters” in Hamilton’s famous pre-show, Ham4Ham, as “the Schulyer Georges” the subversion wasn’t just in the gender-bending. This song is a bit of Destiny’s Child era Beyonce on Broadway—three sisters of the wealthy Schuyler family play a key role in the musical. One of them marries Hamilton, and another is his intellectual soulmate.
Having Groff appear as the senior sister, the brainy Angelica Schuyler, makes an even more compelling counterpoint for George III than Hamilton himself. Schuyler’s lines invoke revolution beyond the aims of the revolutionaries: “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine/ So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane/ You want a revolution? I want a revelation!” It’s not only a revolution against monarchy, but patriarchy she’s aiming for. Groff’s King George/ Angelica: “So listen to my declaration/ We hold these truths to be self-evident/ That all men are created equal/ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson/ I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!” This is a King George that American millennials –and maybe their British counterparts, too–can love.
The Georgian Papers Programme will likely bring a more nuanced view of George III into view. Though he, too, loved an intellectual woman, and fresh perspectives about Queen Charlotte are likely to be a key aspect of new research in the Georgian Papers, it’s unlikely we’ll see a version of the king that approximates either the role Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote or the one Jonathan Groff has performed (on stage and on Youtube). Still, it’s important to appreciate the distinctive place of America’s last king in its popular culture.
This post and others also appear on our sibling GPP site at the Omohundro Institute.