The guises of Rochester
By ALEXANDER LARMAN
A revival of Stephen Jeffreys’s 1994 play about John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, opens in London on Thursday, starring Dominic Cooper as the peerless peer. Whether Cooper can embody the two distinct sides of Rochester – "the devil incarnate and the angel undefaced" – remains to be seen, though sceptics might wonder whether the star of Mamma Mia! can convey the melancholy poetic imagination of a man who once described himself, in a letter to his mistress Elizabeth Barry, as "the wildest and most fantastical odd man alive". But whatever happens on stage at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Cooper will be following in a strange and, in its own way, noble tradition.
The libertine poet was one of the greatest celebrities of his time. Able to walk with the king (unless he had been banished from court) yet keep the common touch by consorting merrily with prostitutes and down-and-outs, Rochester was both loved and loathed by those around him. He was sufficiently well known for his friend George Etherege to immortalize him as Dorimant in his play The Man of Mode (1675), from which the dichotomy between demonic and angelic is drawn.
Although the play’s subtitle, Sir Fopling Flutter, refers to its outrageous fop character (who was based on the "man of fashion" of the day, Beau Hewit), Dorimant is the protagonist; he is a dashing, devil-may-care seducer, of whom "a thousand horrid stories have been told" but whose charisma is underscored by intelligence and wit. Rochester’s greatest poem, "A Satire against Reason and Mankind", is referred to in the play, when the servant of Dorimant's former mistress Loveit announces: "Your knowing of Mr. Dorimant, in my mind, should rather make you hate all mankind".
The play ends happily, with Dorimant pledging fidelity to the witty Harriet: "The first time I saw you, you left me with the pangs of love upon me, and this day my soul has quite given up her liberty". Rochester’s own end five years later was less happy, as, racked by tertiary syphilis, he succumbed to madness and died at the age of thirty-three. Immediately after his death, a myth grew up, masterminded by his puritanical mother Anne, that he had repented of his sins on his deathbed; this version of events was popularized by Anne’s chaplain Robert Parsons, whose funeral sermon proved a wildly popular bestseller, skilfully combining an improving moral message with hints of salaciousness.
Funeral sermons for the notable were often published, but normally sold no more than a couple of hundred copies; Rochester’s sold thousands, making it hugely lucrative. It went through no less than twenty-four editions in the course of the following century, and became one of the standard texts of repentance and forgiveness. This Rochester became a totem for the god-fearing Victorians; the treasurably kitsch painting The Death of Rochester or A Last Request of the Earl of Rochester (1850) by Alfred Thomas Derby depicts a pallid Rochester on his deathbed in the arms of his wife Elizabeth, being ministered to by a clergyman, complete with a heavenly light shining from the window, presumably to take Rochester's penitent soul up to heaven. The only things lacking are a stirring rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus and the text of Luke 15: 11–32 – the Parable of the Prodigal Son – plastered underneath.
Other depictions of Rochester as a more complex figure have proved more enduring. Anthony Hamilton’s ghostwritten memoirs of Philibert, Comte de Gramont, a French nobleman who had been at the Restoration court in the 1670s, featured Rochester as an arch (in both senses) seducer; described as "the man in England who has least honour and most wit", he is determined to bed as many women as possible, and gets into amusing scrapes with the queen’s maid of honour, Goditha Price, and her rival for Rochester’s affections, a Miss Hobart. Replete with hammy dialogue and tongue-in-cheek authorial moralizing, the book is entertaining enough as a kind of Restoration comedy redux, but the flowery writing and somewhat clichéd presentation of Rochester signal that this can be safely disregarded as fantasy.
This idea of the poet as little more than a libertine persisted, however – not helped by Samuel Johnson in Lives of the English Poets (1779): "in a course of drunken gaiety, and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness". Nonetheless Johnson's book inspired Charlotte to name her brooding hero Mr Rochester. It is conceivable that she was also familiar with William Henry Ainsworth’s Restoration potboiler Old St Paul’s (1841), in which Rochester, as usual characterized as a cunning lecher, appears in disguise – as, of course, does Brontë’s Rochester.
The twentieth century saw surprisingly few fictional appearances of Rochester, and when he was depicted, it tended to be in "popular literature" as a stock rogue-seducer reformed by the love of a good woman, as in Barbara Cartland’s bodice-ripper A Serpent of Satan (1979). Anyone who has ever trudged their way through a book in Cartland’s oeuvre will know what to expect: a virginal heroine, a wicked lord, coyness in the final bedroom scene, and much breathy dialogue along the lines of "I must be dreaming . . . . I did not even dare to pray that you would love me". It was not until Jeffreys’s play that Rochester received a more high-profile depiction, especially in the 2004 film version of The Libertine, in which Johnny Depp channelled his then recent portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow (even reprising the accent) and conveyed something of Rochester’s charm and charisma but little of his decency, his capacity for intellectual brilliance or his emotional turmoil. More recently, Tom Hardy played Dorimant in a 2007 revival of The Man of Mode at the National Theatre; connoisseurs of Hardy’s flamboyantly eccentric performances on screen would have been disappointed by his toned-down restraint, as his co-star Rory Kinnear stole the show (and the plaudits) as Sir Fopling Flutter.
Nancy Carroll and Tom Hardy in The Man of Mode, National Theatre, 2007
It will be fascinating to see how Cooper (at thirty-eight, five years older than Rochester when he died) will interpret this most mercurial and indefinable of literary figures. Most people have their own interpretation of who Rochester was, whether it is the angel undefaced, the devil incarnate or something in between, and that is how it should be. As Rochester himself wrote, musing on what posterity might have in store for him after his death:
All my past life is mine no more;
The flying hours are gone,
Like transitory dreams given o’er
Whose images are kept in store
By memory alone.
Whatever is to come is not:
How can it then be mine?
The present moment’s all my lot,
And that, as fast as it is got,
Phyllis, is wholly thine.