Johnny Depp Network Your number one place and online resource for all things Johnny Depp since 2004!
November 8, 2005   Articles No Comments

Tennyson and Bronte loved his poetry. So why is the Earl of Rochester remembered only as a drunken lech?

Barry Didcock on the slow rehabilitation of a 17th century rake and libertine

HIS lyrics were peppered with obscenities and satirised peers and rivals alike. He scandalised polite society by partying hard with actresses and prostitutes and yet he has won many fans, among them feminist critic Germaine Greer. He was implicated in at least one murder, was an early practitioner of “dogging” and had a number of alter egos, including Dr Bendo. He could regularly be found quaffing claret in city nightspots and among his many affectations was a pet monkey. Predictably, he died young. And now Johnny Depp is going to play him in the movie biopic.

But this is no rapper with an itchy trigger finger, no rock star with a death wish. Instead it’s a description of John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, the most notorious rake and libertine of the 17th century. He was also a poet and playwright but despite being championed by Defoe, Voltaire and Tennyson, his verse had been all but excised from the canon of English literature when Graham Greene picked up the mantle in the early 1930s. Greene wrote a biography called Lord Rochester’s Monkey, but even it was deemed too fruity for his publishers, Heinemann, who feared prosecution under the obscenity laws. Only in 1974 did it finally see the light of day.

In a preface to that first 1974 edition Greene describes his book’s troubled genesis, stating (a little bitterly) that when he started the project Rochester was still viewed as a pornographic writer whose works were kept under lock and key in the British Library, ‘denoted there with donnish whimsicality by the Greek letter phi’. Moreover, he noted, the only modern biography was one published in German in 1927, while an English language edition of the poems destined for America in 1926 had been stopped at customs in New York. Every copy was destroyed.

Thirty years on, Germaine Greer is just one of many critics to have published books about Rochester, and his poetry is freely available. For Greer, he is one of a troika of great 17th century poets along with William Shakespeare and John Donne.

This month he gets another boost with the movie release of The Libertine, which stars Depp as Rochester and John Malkovich as his on-off drinking buddy, Charles II. Based on Stephen Jeffreys’s award-winning play and directed by Laurence Dunmore, it features Samantha Morton as Elizabeth Barry, the most famous of Rochester’s many mistresses, and Rosamunde Pike as Elizabeth Mallet, a woman the 18-year-old Rochester abducted and who later became his wife.

Depp, who viewed Rochester’s original manuscripts in the British Library in preparation for the part, is already being talked of as a credible Oscar contender . But the film has an 18 certificate and sticks, in language and content, closely to the spirit of the man who wrote poems about premature ejaculation (‘A touch from any part of her had done’t’ – and the next line’s even saucier) and once celebrated the pleasures of outdoor sex in a poem called A Ramble In St James’s Park. So, will America once more find Rochester too hot to handle?

“The puritanical New Christian lot will find the film incredibly offensive, but it will be great for Rochester’s ghost to be the subject of controversy again,” says Stephen Jeffreys, who adapted his play for the screen. “There’s a lot of nudity. It’s a sexy film. There’s one scene where Johnny Depp got so into it he kept adding more and more swear words. I conceived it as quite a profane script and it’s even more so in the performance.”

Leave a Reply