By Kyle Francis
Everyone loves an asshole.
Infamous, though often glossed over because of their bawdy nature, the writings of John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, are sometimes credited as the earliest incarnations of pornography. Just as Larry Flint probably won’t be remembered with fawning adoration, the boozing, whoring Rochester isn’t a popular historical figure, awesome though he is. Not everyone has heard of the Earl, but ‘a self-loving, slutty, drunk bastard,’ is a pretty good summation. The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys is a contemporary play capturing the life of Rochester as he debauches his way through Restoration-era England.
“I think there’s always been an obsession with the ‘bad boy’ in the media,” says Kate Newby, the director of University Theatre’s production of The Libertine. “Maybe he’s a bit of a bastard, but I think Rochester is very passionate more than anything, any artist can relate to the theme of censorship.”
Newby herself dealt with censorship and audience discontent in the ’80S when the morality squad protested one of her shows. Nothing serious came of the incident but the resonance it has with events in the play is remarkable. While she doesn’t expect any vocal objections to the content or presentation of The Libertine, she recognizes the explicit nature of the play could upset more sensitive viewers.
“I asked everyone before I even cast them if they would have any problems with the content,” recalls Newby. “If [the audience] has a problem [with the graphic content] I’d say ‘get over it.’ You can sit through a film and deal with it, it’s just more intense because it’s actually happening right there in front of you at the theatre.”
Taking place during the 1600s, The Libertine manages to be prescient to both its time period and our own. While drinking and womanizing aren’t exactly new actions for an English playwright to take, Rochester realized the immorality of what he was doing but just didn’t give a damn. Indeed, he proudly questioned the moral foundations set before him, caring little for the consequences. Well, maybe until he died of syphilis. He might have cared a bit then.
“Rochester is considered one of the greatest English poets,” remarks Newby. “At the end of the play, Rochester challenges us to think about who has the right to censor an artist? Who decides what’s right? What’s moral? To me, it doesn’t condemn or praise it either way, it just asks the audience to decide for themselves.”
The Restoration-era may be chronologically close to Shake- speare’s time but the flowery language, epic plots and cross-dressing men definitive of Elizabethan theatre are nowhere to be found. Displaying every aspect of Rochester’s excessive life in detail, The Libertine is complete with lewd language, degrading sex and the vicious beating of a police officer.
Not unlike a modern playwright, Rochester is a lusty, intoxicated, extremely entertaining guy. Chalked full of more assholes than a six-hour porno, The Libertine promises to be a rollicking good time.