Continuing the ‘Monarchy Week’ theme on the eve of the Queen’s official birthday, a play by His Theatrical Magnificence Alan Bennett that demonstrates the perils of putting all your constitutional eggs in the one royal basket, what with Royals actually being fallible human beings prone to the same weaknesses as you and me.
The Madness of George III tells the story of ‘Farmer George’, the King who sort of lost Britain America but at least gave us lots of lovely books that now provide a feast for bibliophile eyes in the British Library (see below), and whose recurrent mental illness led to the establishment of the Prince of Wales regency in 1811. Incidentally, I wonder what old Charlesy the 67-year-old apprentice thinks of that bit of the story, especially when the Prince of Wales says: ‘My life has been waiting…To be heir to the throne is not a position; it is a predicament.’ I re-imagined this as follows:
‘Come on mother, I want a go on the throne now! You’re far too old for this.’
‘No Charles. One must learn to be patient. I may be 90, but as the poet R Kelly said, age ain’t nuthin but a number.’
As it’s Bennett, there are of course lots of touching elements to this play, particularly the scenes where the ill King, in pain, seeks the support of his wife. These displays of vulnerability provide a striking contrast to the approach of those initially too scared to intervene in the King’s health, as seen in this exchange between the King’s equerry and his physician Baker, who refuses to examine the ill King:
GREVILLE : Whatever his situation, His Majesty is but a man…
BAKER: You’re the kings equerry with radical notions like that?….With any patient I undertake a physical examination only as a last resort; it is an intolerable intrusion on a gentleman’s privacy. With His Majesty it is unthinkable.
They then make the scenes where he is subjected to some horrendous treatment to address his illness even more poignant:
KING: I was the verb, the noun and the verb…Now I am the object, the King governed, the ruler ruled.
Overall this play offers a fascinating insight into the nature of King/Queenship and, by setting George’s struggles against the backdrop of contemporary politics (all that Whigs N Tories stuff), it brings to life the essential interplay between the political direction of the nation and the person of the King at that time: ‘We live in the health and well-being of the Sovereign as much as any vizier does the sultan.’ It is interesting to compare this with the powers of our Liz, which – let’s be honest – no one really understands. Does anyone understand? Anyone?
If you can’t get to see this great play performed, its 1994 film adaptation starring Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren is absolutely brilliant. Enjoy.