Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren) consoles the “Mad King” (Nigel Hawthorne) in The Madness of King George. Photo courtesy of Photofest. Copyright 2008 Heldref Publications 72 Representing the Mad King: George Ill in the Cinema By David Chandler Abstract: The “madness” of George Ill has made him one of the best-known British monarchs but has also problematized his representation. The author briefly considers the significance of the essential absence of representations prior to the mid-twentieth century, before examining in detail compelling cinematic portrayals of the “Mad King” in Beau Brummell (1954) and The Madness of King George (1994).
Both films highlight the importance of George Ill’s relationship with his eldest son, and thus support a psychological explanation of his illness, but while Beau Brummell is sympathetic to the son, The Madness of King George casts the son as the villain. Both films proved relevant to their times; their different attitudes to George Ill reflect changes in the popular perception of the British royal family between the 1950s and 1990s.
Keywords: Beau Brummell, King George Ill, The Madness of King George, representation 73 74 JPF??”Journal of Popular Film and Television ing George Ill’s illness, often referred to as his “madness,” is the most amous illness in British history, and unquestionably the one with the largest impact on British society. Its significance can be measured in three principal ways: in the political consequences; in the change effected in popular attitudes to the monarchy; and in the influence on the understanding of mental illness.
The winter of brought the first “Regency Crisis”: the Prince of Wales, alienated from his father and a close friend of leading opposition politicians, would certainly change the government if George Ill was declared unfit to rule and he were appointed Regent. No other political crisis in British history, not even the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, which fascinated Walter Scott and inspired his development of the nineteenth-century historical novel, was so intrinsically theatrical, so focused on a family and generational drama.
Although the crisis passed??”the King recovered and no Regency was declared until 1811??”in many ways the effects of the illness were permanent. The Kings sufferings, and the advantage taken of them by his opponents, engendered widespread sympathy and made him genuinely popular for the first time in his long reign: no British monarch had been loved by the general populace since Queen Anne’s death in 1714. His recovery in 789 prompted a quite unprecedented outpouring of celebratory verses and addresses.
This newfound popularity ultimately led to a new and substantially enduring concept of monarchy in Britain, one in which the King (or Queen) was both parent and figurehead of the nation (Colley). The publicity given the Kings illness, moreover, led to “a fundamental change of attitudes” toward insanity, which became widely recognized, for the first time, as curable and “demanding of sympathy’ (Macalpine and Hunter 291). This essay examines the two principal cinematic representations of George Ill’s insanity.
It should already be obvious hat any fictional portrayal of the King’s “madness” must balance a number of sometimes contradictory concerns. Family drama was national crisis; illness and medical treatments (and opinions) were political capital; and competing claims enough, there is the central mysteriousness of the illness itself. George Ill recovered in 1789, but he was not cured. The illness unexpectedly returned in 1801, producing another Regency Crisis, though on a smaller scale than that of 1788- 89.
A third attack followed in 1804 and a fourth in 1810, from which George Ill never properly recovered. Senility and blindness combined with he old illness and by the beginning of 1812 he was living in a strange fantasy world of his own: a world he would only leave on brief, uncertain occasions during the remaining eight years of his life. Contemporaries referred to “delirium,” “insanity,” “lunacy,” or “madness,” but all his doctors recognized that George Ill’s illness defied easy categorization.
Even the Willis family of “mad doctors,” widely credited with having cured the King in 1789 and 1801, were puzzled. The illness, Robert Willis testified in 1810, had “never borne the characteristics of insanity [.. .] It never gets beyond derangement” (Brooke 383). There has been no shortage of posthumous speculation on the matter, and the two most influential theories can be mentioned here, as they will be relevant later. Manfred S.
Guttmacher, in America’s Last King (1941), maintained that George Ill’s illness was “manic-depressive insanity’ (xiii). For a quarter of a century this diagnosis was generally accepted, but in 1969 Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter dismissed what they called “the psychologizing mythology’ in George Ill and the Mad- Business (vii) and argued that the King had actually suffered from a little-known hereditary disease called porphyria, caused by disturbance in the etabolism of porphyrins.
This has since become the most popular explanation. The movement away from “[t]he psychoanalytic point of view’ to a “biological point of view,” or from “the study of the troubled mind’ to [the study of] the ‘broken brain” (Andreasen 150, viii), makes George Ill’s case a textbook example of changes in twentieth-century psychiatric thinking. Before looking at the cinematic portraits of the man widely known as the “Mad King,” the subject.
The late 1700s were the golden age of the English political print, and George Ill was repeatedly represented, making him “the first monarch to be recognized y ordinary men and women in the street” (Baker 6). Remarkably, however, there is only one known print in which the King was actually represented in his “madness”??”Thomas Rowlandson’s “Filial Piety’ of 25 November 1788. The print shows the King in bed, in an attitude of prayer, or despair, as the drunken Prince of Wales bursts into the room with two cronies, exclaiming: “Damme, come along, I’ll see if the Old Fellows??”or not” (Baker 109).
The print is obviously pro-King and government, like most inspired by the first Regency Crisis, but the fact that no others actually represent George Ill in his illness suggests that Rowlandson’s maginative glimpse into the King’s bedroom was understood as venturing too far. To show the King “mad,” albeit with dignity, while suggesting that his son was unfit to rule, was risky strategy.
And if this was true for the pro-King and government political faction, it is just as clear that it would have been an audacious gamble for the pro-Prince and Opposition faction to support their claims with degrading images of the distressed King; certainly they chose not to do so. In this way, the political tensions of 1788-89, followed by the extraordinary increase in the King’s popularity after these months of crisis, led to an ffective moratorium on representations of George Ill’s insanity.
During his final, long illness, two prints were made. In the first, he is obviously blind, but sage-like, looking rather like fictional representations of Homer (Plumb and Wheldon 184). In the second, the dignified fgure portrayed, dressed in something like Renaissance costume, is unrecognizable as George Ill, and there was insane, or even ill (Baker 213). Other, more disturbing, portraits were apparently made, but were kept hidden away, and to this day have not been published. Accordingly, not until the age of cinema was the public able to see epresentations of the horrifying reality respectfully suppressed in these early prints. Yet there was widespread fascination with the “Mad King” throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “All the world knows the story of his [George Ill’s] malady: all history presents no sadder figure than that of the old man, blind and deprived of reason,” the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray stated with a flourish in the mid-Victorian period (13: 780).
A century later Prince Charles was led to remark that “[i]f the average schoolchild remembers anything about history after leaving school he will remember that George Ill as mad” (Brooke vii). 2 In the late 1930s Metro-GoldwynMayer began considering a remake of an old silent film, Beau Brummel (sic) (1924), which had been based, loosely, on a very successful play of the same title by Clyde Fitch (1890). 3 The project was shelved during the war years, and only taken up again in 1951.
MGM’s Curtis Bernhardt-directed Beau Brummell, a spectacularly lavish recreation of early nineteenth-century England, was finally released in 1954. The story was still credited to Fitch, though it had been completely reimagined by scriptwriter Karl Tunberg4 and had little in common with the original play or the ilent film. Both these earlier versions of the story had ended with a scene of Brummell, the former darling of Regency society, impoverished and insane in French exile. (There was historical truth in this, for the real George Brummell [1778-1840] had ended his life insane. Intriguingly, in the 1954 film Brummell does not become deranged: he is last reconciled on his deathbed to his old friend, the former Prince of Wales, now George ‘V. As some rather pantomimic “mad” acting had been one of the main attractions of the earlier movie, this revision might seem surprising, were it not for the fact that Tunberg found a ay to include the insane George Ill in his version, and the existing mad inter- est in the Brummell story was accordingly displaced onto the King.
Beau Brummell’s was the first on-screen representation of an insane George Ill, which provoked controversy in Britain, as will be detailed later; it was also the first public visual representation of the “mad” King since Rowlandson’s print of 1788. Significantly, Beau Brummell predates by some years the “mad” King’s appearance in novels and musical works. 5 David Eldridge has recently argued that, because of certain sensitive issues concerning the marriages of the Prince f Wales, the future George IV,6 Tunberg chose to “present all events in the film [Beau Brummell] as if they took place before [.. 795,” and therefore that the Regency Crisis, which supplies the historical backdrop to the film, is that of 1788-89, “when Brummell was no more than ten years old” (8, 9). Such confusion was created that “it is small wonder that any references to dates are conspicuously absent throughout the production” (9). Eldridge’s case is fundamentally flawed, however, as Beau Brummell is littered with references to Napoleon, or “Bonaparte,” as the leader of France, which effectively dates the action to the years 1799-1815.
Moreover, the most significant historical event specifically referenced is the Treaty of Amiens of 1802. This is important in the script because it allows the main characters to discuss the Prince’s quarrel with Brummell indirectly, and establishes the short-lived peace that allows Brummell to exile himself to France. Tunbergs script is certainly full of anachronisms, but the film is far more historically coherent if the Regency Crisis represented is loosely understood the more serious one of 1788-89.
It seems, indeed, to have been the proximity of this second Regency Crisis to the Treaty of Amiens that inspired the asic chronology of the film, which can be understood thus: Brummell leaves the army (1798; historically accurate); he becomes friends with the Prince of Wales (c. 1799; historically accurate); Brummell advises the Prince to press for full rights as Regent on the grounds of his father’s “madness” (1801; histori- 75 cally plausible); Brummell exiles himself in France (1802; in reality, not until 1816); George IV becomes King and Brummell dies (combining events of 1820 and 1840).
Eldridge’s arguments suppose that a 1950s audience would know Prince George had married Caroline of Brunswick in 1795??”he is not married in he film??”but Tunberg safely assumes the audience’s ignorance of this detail. Beau Brummell presents a romanticized version of history, and though it shows a certain commitment to the facts of British politics circa 1801, the question of the Regency is wrapped up with a love story.
As with many historical films, Puffs advice to playmakers in Sheridan’s The Critic (1779) is still apropos: “where history gives you a good heroic out-line for a play, you may fill up with a little love at your own discretion” (2: 519). Encouraged by Brummell, the Prince wants to become Regent almost solely so that he can revoke the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 and marry the woman he loves, the Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert. Brummell persuades him that “the Kings insanity has been kept hidden, not from any delicacy, not from any sense of decency, but because Mr.
Pitt maintains the fiction that there is a King, and thereby maintains himself in power. “7 Proving public thus becomes critical to the Prince’s personal happiness. Beau Brummell is not a film about George Ill, and the King’s status in the story is largely determined by his relationship to his son, and to his son’s friendship with the charismatic Brummell. However, the one appearance of George Ill in the film is significant nough to be described in detail.
He is first seen in the evening, alone in a large apartment in Windsor Castle, playing an organ. He hears people approaching and slips away, but a footman discovers him hiding behind a curtain and announces that the Prince of Wales “and some other gentlemen” have arrived. The King tells him to “take a note to them [.. .] remember it, write it on your heart, Book of Psalms, Psalm 146, verse 3: ‘place not your 76 trust in princes. ” With these words, he suddenly extinguishes the candelabrum and violently knocks the footman to the ground.
He soon runs into another footman, who again announces he Prince’s arrival. This time the King quickly replies, “There’s no Prince of Wales, all London is underwater, he’s drowned, now women can be honest again,” before drifting into memories of the past: “He was such a pretty little boy. ” He agrees to see his son in the throne room and sits on his throne. Briefly alone, he prays: I’m going mad, I wish to God that I might die. Our Father, which art in Heaven, take away this malignancy from my brain, and make me well again.
Grant this one boon and I’ll ask no more. Allow me to see his golden head once again and take his little hand in mine. Then I may die, dear God, At the last moment the Prince is unable to see his father, and Brummell leads in Dr. Warren, the Prince’s doctor, and (with considerable historical license) Dr. Willis to inquire into the Kings health. The King is undeniably odd, though not clearly insane, and dwells on the “curse” of his sons: “A man can be blessed or cursed by the sons he bears.
IVe had nine sons and been blessed once. Frederick is a good son. ” Brummell insists on bringing in the Prince, correctly calculating that it will provoke a display of undeniable “madness. ” The Prince enters, kneels, and expresses his happiness at seeing his father so well. The King exclaims, “This is not my son! Frederick is my son! ” Increasingly disturbed, his final words are: mfou wish me dead, you want to kill me, but you’re going to die first! Frederick!
Frederick! Frederick! ” He attempts to strangle the Prince and is dragged away screaming. Robert Morley delivered a compelling and highly praised performance as George Ill, his oddly unfocused stares and erratic movements conveying an unforgettable impression of an insane and dangerous man; it is easy to agree with the contemporary critic who considered this the best part of the film, “a splendidly suitable barn-storming ad scene” (Review, Monthly Film Bulletin 2).
Tunberg had plenty of published his- he would often play music to himself torical material to draw on in construct- Oesse 3: 580-82). ing his “mad scene. ” The fullest biogThe “mad scene” then was researched raphy of George Ill available was John with (perhaps unexpected) care and skillHeneage Jesse’s Memoirs of the Life fully synthesizes several historical eleand Reign of King George the Third ments into a coherent whole.
But a certain (1867), an exceptionally detailed but bias was given to the material that greatly anecdotal account characterized by the simplifies history, uiting it to the Beau original Dictionary of National Biogra- Brummell story, which is ultimately about phy as “gossipy. ” Among contemporary the relationships between men (primarily biographies Guttmacher’s more focused the Prince and Brummell). was provided a manic-depressive interpre- caused by the failure of his relationships tation of the Kings illness.
All the ingredients of the film’s “mad scene” can be traced to these two works. The attack on the Prince of Wales, for example, derives from an incident that allegedly took place in November 1789, which the Prince himself later described: “He told ] that His us ??? Majesty caught him with both his hands by the collar, pushing him against the wall with some vioeau Brummell’s was the first lence, and asked him who would dare say on-screen representation of an to the King of Enginsane George Ill land that he should not speak out [.. as also the first public visual Oesse 3: 45). George Ill did tend to representation of the “mad” King J [and] exclaim that Fredersince Rowlandson’s print of 1788. ick, his second son, was “his favourite??” his friend” Cesse 3: 48). He did, famously, say: “l wish to with his sons, especially the Prince of God I might ie, for I am going to be Wales. These failures, in turn, are elsemad” (Guttmacher 200).
On another where attributed to the Kings excepoccasion, “he exclaimed that woman- tionally harsh and inflexible??”though hood was safe??”the Prince of Wales was undoubtedly well-meaning??”parenting dead,” and Tunberg connects this with style, which is well documented. In one George Ill’s confession, on 22 Novem- revealing speech the Prince says: ber 1788, “that during his recent period Do you know, Mr. Brummell, that my of intense excitement he thought there own father hates me? When I was a boy had been a great deluge” (Guttmacher