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May 3, 2011

Madness of George III glosses over the true King George

A play combining the fascinating epoch of England’s King George III with the shrewd and intelligent eye of playwright Alan Bennett is incredibly alluring. Bennett, who won the Tony Award for Best Play for The History Boys (2006) and was nominated for an Academy Award for the film adaptation of The Madness of George III, is nothing if not talented. George III’s 60-year-long reign is remembered best for Britain’s defeat in the American War of Independence. However, it was also a time of sweeping social and political change, attendant upon an inexorable sweep towards democracy, in which an English king still attempted to reassert monarchical authority. One goes to Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Madness of George III, which first premiered in 1991, not so much interested in the peculiar nature of that king’s bout of lunacy, but in what it represents and who King George really was.

Director Penny Metropulos has directed a talented company of actors, led by the captivating Harry Groener in the title role. David Lively as Lord Thurlow and James Newcomb as Dr. Willis also gave particularly fine performances. The theatergoer expecting a rich exploration of Europe’s social upheavals of the 1780s and 1790s will be sorely disappointed in The Madness of George III, which never really seems to fill itself out as a play. Indeed, I left the theater with the feeling that I had just sat through what was more of a research report than a play. The Madness of George III opens with a brief picture of everyday life in the king’s household, with a couple of monologues pointing out the king’s punctilious knowledge of Britain’s industrial resources and agriculture and his interest in such ostensibly humble subjects as pigs and “good husbandry.”

We are then introduced to the king’s handpicked Tory prime minister, William Pitt the Younger (Nathan Hosner), and the opposition leader of the Whigs, Charles James Fox (Jeff Cummings).Yet I can’t say I really came to know the true King George at all after this brief introduction, before he is overcome by illness and rendered an entirely different person. The only source of drama thereafter is if and how the king will recover from his madness.

The political situation surrounding the crisis is not particularly interesting. Pitt’s government is being steadily undermined by its attachment to an incapacitated sovereign, with the Prince of Wales (the overly foppish Richard Baird), waiting to seize royal authority. The king’s doctors are mystified by the illness, and a former Churchman is called in whose approach is to keep King George bound in shackles until he learns to behave himself. Bennett’s portrayal of absurd 18th century medicine and the comic relief it provides also tends to get old rather quickly.

It is certainly possible to see a great deal of symbolism in King George’s madness in its historical context. Democracy and modern industrial capitalism are taking hold, and the power of a hereditary monarch seems, more than ever, to be far too tenuous a foundation for effective governance. The tide of history seems rather to have turned in favor of the Whig leader Henry Fox’s vision, that government should be “prodigal, rather than thrifty,” and against Mr. Pitt’s idea—too late to give it any real thematic significance in this play—that the essence of government is “economy and the elimination of waste.” With the rise of bourgeois democracy, the notion that the virtues of the household are also those of the nation state—an idea symbolized by the authority of a single ruling family—is beginning to sound passé. One could, indeed, read King George’s illness as a symbolic result of that disastrous assertion of royal authority that was the king’s hard taxation policy against the Americans. King George knows that the time for monarchs has passed and can no longer stomach (both literally and figuratively) the flattery of a court life that serves to reaffirm such authority. Had Bennett emphasized any of these themes more clearly, possibly through a more personal exploration of King George’s character, The Madness of King George would be a more compelling drama. As it is, fine acting aside, we have a banal version of King Lear in which Lear is fully mad by the end of Act I, and the whole essence of the drama is whether anyone will find a way to cure him.

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