By Peter Kanelos
The Madness of George III opens with a flurry of action: a madwoman breaks through a crowd and assaults the King of England. What might function as the climactic moment in another play—the attempted assassination of a king—is simply the initiating event here, laying out the matrix of issues that intersect in Alan Bennett's work: sanity and insanity, loyalty and betrayal, violence and pity, transgression and forgiveness. What is attempted suddenly and in the open at the beginning of the action is carried out surreptitiously, slowly, and more perniciously throughout the rest of the play.
Medieval and early modern theories of kingship held that the king had two bodies: simultaneously an individual person and the material embodiment of the nation, his body was, quite literally, the body politic. To do violence against the monarch was to transgress upon the very sanctity of kingship and to violate the bonds that held the nation together.
Yet forces were at work to strip away the layers of custom and tradition that distinguished the king from other men. When the English Civil War culminated with the beheading of Charles I in 1649, faith in a divinely sanctioned monarchy received a mortal blow. Although the Stuart line of succession would later be restored, the physical violence against the person of Charles precipitated conceptual violence against the notion of kingship, the consequences of which would reverberate in the centuries to come.
By the reign of George III (1760–1820) the monarchy had ceded much of its authority to a political system centered on the Parliament. And while the crown was not yet reduced to the largely ceremonial role it holds today, it was by then well on its way. George III still maintained authority over his nation, but he could exercise it only indirectly, primarily through the appointment of his chief minister—William Pitt, at this moment in history—who led the parliamentary majority. The king did, however, retain substantial reserves of soft power, able to influence policy and legislation through the residual sense of the sanctity of his office. That aura of sacred privilege proved an obstacle to the political ambitions of George III's political opponents, the Whigs, led by Charles Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (the prolific playwright and author of School for Scandal).
What The Madness of George III chronicles is the attempt by the opposition to turn the king's illness into an occasion to seize power and promote a political agenda. To achieve these ends, the king's body is systematically violated, degraded, handled: science, in the persons of medical professionals, asserts its authority over what had previously been held to be sacred. On the one hand, this appears a step in the march of the development of liberal democratic governance, spurred by the Enlightenment's faith in reason over revelation; on the other hand, it is Machiavellian opportunism. One of the brilliant aspects of this play is to show how these phenomena are intertwined.
To reduce the king to human scale is also to humanize him and, through his suffering, to elicit pity. Although George III has never had a shining reputation in Britain (the Whig historians won the battle for his story), playwright Alan Bennett's human, affable, pitiable king has especially interesting resonances for American audiences.
It was against this monarch that in 1776 we perpetrated our own version of regicide. When we think of the Declaration of Independence we most often recall the early passage concerning our equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet the precondition of that divinely sanctioned equality is the leveling of hierarchies. Most of the document is a list of grievances against George III: "He has refused to assent to laws..., "He has constrained our fellow citizens.., "He has incited insurrections..., and so forth. The conclusion reached by Jefferson is that, "A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
But we must register the personalizing effect of this document. Although their conflict was really with Parliament, the colonists understood instinctively that the sort of break that they wanted to make entailed a break with inherited loyalties. When the king becomes a "he," stripped of majesty, he is then capable of being assessed by his equals, who can judge whether he is a despot. It is difficult however, to square that assessment with the image of King George present in this play and, looking at the forces of self-interest that are at work, we are compelled to examine carefully our own revolutionary assumptions and motivations.
Louring over the events of this play are those of another revolution, then playing itself out in France. The bloody tumult from across the Channel makes its way into Bennett's drama only obliquely. Yet just over the edge of the horizon is the most literal sort of attack on the king's body, the guillotine having the final, brutal word in another, parallel story. History is indeed written by the victors. But it is the purpose of art, as The Madness of George III testifies, to call those readings into question.
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