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A Masterful Play, A Very Human Drama,
This review is from: The Madness of King George (Paperback)
In the fall of 1993 I saw the brilliant British import "The Madness of George III" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) with the superb Nigel Hawthorne in the title role. The beautifully structured play by Alan Bennett was entertaining and on another level highly enlightening. Playgoers come away with an understanding of palace politics and operations as well as an insight into Parliamentary political party maneuvering.
The king who ruled from 1760 to 1811, probably through a bout of porphyria has a severe mental breakdown. His servants call attention to his urine which has turned blue. The worthless profligate son, the Prince of Wales, means his father no good and hopes that his condition will deteriorate so he can be named Regent. Quack doctors are called in, and the bloodletting, blistering, and emetics that they prescribe are like torture. Medical science at the time of the play's action (1788-89) was primitive and more like voodoo. The mad king wins over the audience because he is suffering such hardship from his malady and from the constant "cures."
The king says, "I am not going out of my mind; my mind is going out of me." His pages have to take on the difficult task of treating their master as a mental patient rather than as a royal personage. One of the pages, Fortnum, leaves the king's service and forms the famous high end food store on Piccadilly called Fortnum and Mason's.
A doctor who knows how to treat mental patients, a medical man and clergyman, Dr. Willis, is called in by the king's backers. He treats his patient firmly, sometimes having him strait-jacketed, bound in a chair, even gagged if he thinks the king's language is prurient. The king must be exercised and his spirit broken like a horse, says Willis.
The king and his wife Queen Charlotte have a loving relationship calling each other Mr. King and Mrs. King. This is a very witty and literate play. Readers will laugh when they hear lines that have modern applications. The author says his protagonist "goes off the rails." At the beginning of the play a mad woman tries to assassinate the king, ironic because he will soon be unhinged. Early on the king says "what, what" as a conversational gambit. People around the king realize he has come back to sanity when he again says, "what, what." George at his low point says, "I am the king. I tell. I am not told. I am the verb, sir. I am not the object."
The movie version was outstanding and faithful to the play, but it did not dwell on the complexities of political intrigue and voting blocs the way the play does. George, when sane, was a very shrewd and knowledgeable sovereign who endorsed a simple agricultural life style and knew a great deal about his people. He lost the American colonies so that subject was anathema to him.
Do not be misled; this is a very human and dramatic play. We cannot help but feel deeply for the suffering of a human being who is courageously fighting off his affliction. We cheer for him and his family when he makes it back to sanity. The dramatic give and take of family struggles make us think of Shakespeare's Lear. It's a brilliant piece of theater.