The Cult of Pornographic Prose in The Libertine (2004)

*contains spoilers

Who was Lord Rochester (1647-80 venereal disease, liver disease and kidney failure), the main character of the Restoration set historical movie The Libertine? Played by Johnny Depp (1963-), who is near perfect in the role, his name was John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester… He died prematurely and his works, despite being of questionable taste, are still read well over three hundred years later.

The Libertine (2004) poster
Painting of Lord Rochester

Rochester was a ‘gentleman’ who loved sex and drink and probably opium. This rebel libertine poet of King Charles II’s (1630-85 uraemia) Restoration era liked pleasure and lived and breathed the theatre. People called Rochester a rake. The Libertine – and the meaning of this word is that it is a person devoid of most moral principles, a sense of responsibility or sexual restraints and a person who ignores and spurns accepted morals and forms of behaviour sanctified by the larger society – was based on the play about Rochester written by Stephen Jeffreys (1950-2018 brain tumour) in 1994… Jeffreys adapted the play for the screen. Back in the day of Rochester there was also a play written entitled The Libertine written by a Thomas Shadwell (1642-92) a contemporary of Rochester who wrote of a Don Juan character who was a “fearless man guilty of all vice” but it does not relate to the movie at all.

Playwright Stephen Jeffreys
Director Lawrence Dunmore
Depp as Lord Rochester before drink and venereal disease destroyed him

The film was directed by Laurence Dunmore (no info) who was a hands-on director who shot over 90 percent of the movie himself using a hand-held camera. The Libertine won Dunmore a nomination at The British Independent Film Spirit Awards of 2004. Unfortunately, the critics didn’t like it and it is certainly not a bright and colourful production with a big budget as many scenes take place in dimly-lit rooms such as taverns and theatres as well as London after the setting of the sun and deep beyond the midnight hour.

We follow Rochester through the short period of life and success through his extended periods of debauchery and further towards his demise due to his festering venereal disease. Depp was never a strong dramatic actor but he is more or less well cast for the role. As for the other women in his life, they are played by Rosamund Pike (1979-) as his wife and Samantha Morton (1977-) as the actress Elizabeth Barry (1658-1713) whose career was celebrated and buoyed thanks to Rochester.

Central to the movie is Barry’s stage performances which were lifted to the suspension of disbelief thanks to coaching by Rochester. With 30 readings of a role in one day, he took The Method to new heights even before it was invented. The Restoration was a period when women rarely had lead roles on the stage and often played the roles of men anyway. We must also remember the period when Rochester flourished was after the end of the Cromwells’ reign which saw theatre banned in England for many years before King Charles the Second’s Restoration returned them to the masses during a time in history which then became a period of excess… The movie celebrates theatre as a result… and that, well, other excess.

Published and often reviled
Rosamund Pike and Johnny Depp in The Libertine (2004)
Samantha Morton as Elizabeth Barry

Rochester’s poetry and works are said to have never been out of fashion and had a resurgence in the 1920s when poets such as Ezra Pound (1885-1972 intestinal blockage) hailed his genius. Here are some snippets of his ‘filth’:

“Bawdy in thoughts, precise in words, Ill-natured through a whore, her belly is a bag of turds, and let her c*nt be a common shore” …. “Cupid and Bacchus my saints are, may drink and love still reign, with wine I wash away my cares, And then to c*nt again” … “My pleasure for new c*nts I will uphold, And have reserves of kindness for the glo I grant in absence dildo may be used with milk of goats, when once our seeds infused. My prick to bald c*nt shall resort – Merkins rub off and often spoil the spout.”

According to biography, it is said that after his father died while Rochester was only eleven years old which then passed the title on to the boy, Rochester went to Wadham College, Oxford where at thirteen he “grew debauched”. King Charles II, who had given his father his place in the House of Lords, gave the boy a 500 pounds a year annual pension. It was then that Rochester toured Europe for three years returning aged 17 to London having been exposed to much European writing and thought. It was not long after that, he became involved with the abduction of a wealthy heiress and spent three weeks in the Tower of London before he apologised to Charles II. Rochester then served bravely in the navy and courageously in battle. He then married the woman he originally kidnapped and would eventually have four children.

Cromwell (1970) closed the theatres
The real Elizabeth Barry
John Malkovich as King Charles II

It was then that Rochester continued to debauch himself with a group of men called The Merry Gang which flourished for fifteen years of wild drunkenness and “extravagant frolics”. And it is around that period of The Merry Gang that the movie The Libertine begins…

The beginning of the movie has Rochester appear from the ether with a glass of red wine in his hand and Depp is young and very dashing with long hair like he had in Sleepy Hollow (1999) and so his discourse begins…ollowHo

“Allow me to be frank with the commencement: you will not like me… and you will like me a good deal less as we go on…” And those people will be “envious gents, repelled ladies” as Rochester tells us he’s “Up for it all the time” … and that goes for either sex! … “I am John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester … and I do not want you to like me.”

Enter King Charles II, played by John Malkovich (1953-), who finds there are insufficient funds in the nation’s treasury after a long spending spree… He has plans for Rochester. As for the libertine, Rochester is still a dashing long haired poet with a penchant of thrusting his hand between his wife’s legs during long coach trips to London and tasting the moisture or juice on his fingertips… It’s an erotic moment despite all the clothing. We know what’s going on.

Cut to the Marry Gang at their tavern and Rochester gives us a taste of what many men and women find forbidden when he tells the ‘boys’ about his latest reading of a poem to the king which definitely wasn’t meant for the monarchy: “In the Isle of Britain, long since famous grown for breeding the best c*nts in Christendom…” The poem which is possibly known as A Satyr on Charles II then delves into the inadequacies of the King in his chamber despite it being a command performance. It is said that the king and Rochester were close when the latter worked as a man servant for him.

But Rochester’s once close relationship with the king makes him think he can freely attack to monarchy along with the king’s mistress Nell Gwynn going for it in the royal boudoir.

The Libertine is more about the full-frontal attack of sexual language as a dirty and erotic tool as opposed to a ful- frontal sexual experience. There is no real shocking nudity or fornicating. There is an orgy in St. James Park however.

Tom Hollander as George Etherege
Etherege’s play about Rochester
The real George Etherege

One of the Merry Gang is Sir George Etherege (1636-91) played by Tom Hollander (1967-). Etherege wrote the play The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter (1676) which was seen to contemporaries to be about Rochester and it would be Elizabeth Barry who would take the role in the movie. It is apparently portions of this play used in the movie.

“Bit of a waste… shooting good jism up the lawful,” says one tart at the theatre about the folly of having sex with your wifre, the night Rochester first sees the struggling actress Barry of whom Etherege says: “She won’t do!”

In fact, this actress is rather hopeless… and it is interesting to note that Barry would have a child with both Etherege and Rochester. It is this fateful evening that Rochester is engaged by the king once again to possibly write a commissioned work and for him “to make great speeches and influence events” … Rochester would rather get pissed.

Rochester is somehow smitten by Barry despite herself being booed offstage. Yet she will be the future of woman on stage.

“In my experience those who do not like you fall into two categories – the stupid and the envious” Rochester tells the woman along with the fact she will be the finest actress the world has ever seen. Something which at the time came true despite the fact that Rochester has been “continually pissed for the last three years”. Barry was not a beautiful woman and she sees through Rochester’s attempt at flattery…

The slightly saucy Restoration (1995)
Depp’s time out for a bit of debauchery
Modern day eroticism without much eroticism in terms of the movies

“I think I can make you an actress of truth, not a creature of artifice,” he says.

It’s a good scene and the director has said that this film was a passion piece of Depp, Morton and Malkovich. It should be noted that Depp came from a poor upbringing in the state of Kentucky and it’s amazing how a boy from that state can disappear into the role of a Lord in a English Restoration drama.

Throughout the movie Rochester talks dirty with some women, acts coarsely but talks cleanly with others and yet he seems to respect Barry as an icon of the theatre in terms of sexual physicality and language. She is a lady in some respects. There are several scenes where Rochester uses a room as a theatrical stage himself, whether this is a coffee house or talking to the House of Lords… His character is charming or perhaps spellbinding even when he talks c*cks and c*nts … He is essential, he has genius and it is that enigma which often taints such artists, the self-destructive elements of their personality.

As for erotic, or dirty poetry and literature, it has been going on since the ancient Greeks and Romans way back before Christ. The Greeks even had a muse dedicated to erotic poetry in mythology named Erato. As for the real poets there is of course Sappho who taught women on the Isle of Lesbos. The Romans meanwhile had Ovid who was sent into exile for his trouble. Catullus was another poet who loved and had sex with both a man and a woman… and so on into the Middle Ages. I would say they’re literature are not of the dildo and c*nts of Rochester but to this day they have a great following. The fact some of the manuscripts still exist show an all-consuming love for them in the first place or a great coveting of these pieces of literature in being able to ‘turn on’ the reader in the realm of the senses. Today you just go to the local department store and pick up a copy of Fifty Shades of Gray or just go to your local porn site. Some people are too jaded for both. I guess Rochester titillates with his bawdiness but his use of sexual references to express disgust is perhaps unequalled. And like a Playboy magazine the world of erotic literature is endless and a person may take the choice to study these scribblings or pursue a life of pleasure enjoying the real thing. Rochester did both or so it would seem.

One of the muses named Erato
Sappho enjoys her garden
Catullus enjoys himself

“She was playing Little Clitoris” Rochester is told about an actress amid the confusion of his new play for the king which is hoped will raise money from the French government as the language in the movie continues to abide by his spirit and the play is about to begin in front of a packed audience. And the following show is another self-destructive disaster for Rochester as the French tell the king he should be executed for displaying scantily clad women dancing on stage with giant dildos.

Malkovich is priceless: “I hand you a chance to show your sly talent and what do you give me? A pornographic representation of a royal court where the men deal only in buggery and the women’s sole object of interest is the dildo!”

Rochester then flees into a binge as the symptoms of his venereal diseases become more apparent due to his drinking and whoring and there’s even the odd opium pipe hanging around at home.

Rochester was close to Charles II but seemed to despise and lampoon him
Another The Libertine (2004) poster

And we enter the last section of the movie. One could criticise that for a film, inspired and about the theatre, that is doesn’t have a standard three act or four act type design or perhaps it is presented more of notes or short poems strung together as a movie and masterfully so. The effect though is a little underwhelming, especially considering the so-called erotic nature of the subject. Some people may find the movie flat while others could watch it a second or third time. If it’s eroticism you want, you won’t get it and yet while the repulsion and mild shock value is there it is not nauseating, which is part of its fascination.

There are two strong scenes which help finish the movie and one of them is a heartbreaking one between Elizabeth Barry and Rochester where she said she never really considered him seriously as a partner … Meanwhile there is another scene where the dying Rochester, his nose missing from syphilis, goes to the House of Lords to help sway the vote for the king to be able to appoint his own successor despite the fact this successor is Catholic.

Rochester gets sicker as the movie progresses
Until his nose fell off…

He is reaching the end of his life when he says: “Do you think on our Lord Jesus Christ? He was cast, like me, into the wilderness. He was scorned and reviled. He was betrayed by his followers.” Rochester has seen a Merry Gang member who was also possibly his younger lover die possibly due to his own cowardice …. It is said a kiss featuring he and Depp was excised … while to behold Depp’s make-up in the latter part of the movie is kind of like looking at the painting in The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1945) which was about the moral decay of a man being displayed on a portrait kept secretly in his attic. Here we see the horrors of VD as it really was.

Is it just a question of morals that leads to a long life? A happy life?

Well, Lord Rochester wasn’t going to live long, but he possibly liked the idea of going to heaven and while he was recovering and again on his deathbed, the future Bishop of Salisbury sat by his side and discussed Rochester’s conversion to Anglican Christianity. In fact, a book was produced by the said bishop, which told of Rochester’s renunciation of libertinism as he converted. Scholars dispute its authenticity while in the movie Rochester’s mother burnt pornographic sketches and musings as her son lay dying.

In terms of history rather that the movie, it is said that after of the future bishop’s visits Rochester muttered his last words: “Has my friend left me? Then I shall die shortly” and early in the morning died “without a shudder or sound”.

There is a band named Lord Rochester with the song Southpaw
A famous Rochester portrait with his monkey
I hope it doesn’t contain imagery by the Marquis de Sade of poop dripping down people’s head and lips. I don’t like that sort of stuff!

The movie finishes beautifully with a candlelit Rochester once again appearing from the ether, his face young again as you would expect in heaven or limbo… But this is a movie and the voice of a heavenly contralto is in the background to his short speech … “Well, do you like me now?“ he whispers apparently drunk on the ecstasy of the afterlife without a wine glass in his hand… “Do you like me now? …” and he disappears again into the darkness as there is one more whisper: “Do you like me now?” … Fading into history forgotten and reviled by many. But for the theatre!

The Libertine (2004) trailer
Rochester’s stolen coffin plate
Latin poster

Rochester lived and died the theatre and the re-enactment of his deathbed scene was of a man who died at the age of 33 which was the same age as Jesus Christ. It is probably fitting that a scene in the first half and again in the second half is one of the rare shots of the director not using a hand-held camera but a crane which pans a circle around the theatre full of patrons. It is a defining use of camera moment where film and theatre collide, just as the screenplay is a movie and a piece of theatre, while also being a juxtaposition of reality and unreality as well.

Arrogant and decadent, Rochester life and loins was a part of the overflowing seed of the theatre after years of its banishment under Cromwell and he let it flow like the red wine until the bitter end.

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