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A CurtainUp San Diego Review
The Madness of George III
When not insane, or pissing off American colonists, he was a sober, steadfast monarch. He remained faithful to his queen during their long and arranged marriage, producing 15 children (Queen Victoria was his granddaughter). Alan Bennett's 1991 play The Madness of George III (which became an award winning film in 1994) chronicles George III's mysterious illness and dramatic mental decline five years after the end of the Revolution (now thought to be the result of porphyria).
George fought tooth and nail to retain both his sanity and his throne. His son, the Prince of Wales, was waiting anxiously for his father to die, and made no attempt to hide his hunger to rule. George's court was ill-equipped to handle his mental instability, no policies having been made to handle a temporary transfer of power. England's government devolved into petty power struggles. The minority party allied itself with the Prince of Wales and plotted to overthrow George, his Prime Minister William Pitt, and their majority party while trying to get the Prince named as Regent. Meanwhile, Queen Charlotte brought in a host of ineffective doctors, laboring under the uninformed medical practices of the time. George was treated with blistering and purges and finally with an early form of behavior modification therapy, but nothing helped. Eventually the disease abated on its own, and George was able to return to the throne.
The play is less about George III specifically as it is about the boundaries between order and chaos, sanity and madness, good government and bad, and about the general human inability to control ourselves. How can we control millions if we can't control ourselves? It's also a thought-provoking companion piece to another of the Old Globe's repertory season, King Lear (my review). Both kings go mad; both lose power, at least temporarily; both are the subject of complicated plots to seize that power.
I foud Lear is a more nuanced production; since the supporting players in George II I are often little more than caricatures in a vintage political cartoon. Miles Anderson as the title character George is the best of an otherwise sadly one-dimensional ensemble. Even with Lear as a bookend, this George III is a victim of its own exaggeration. The subtleties of the various power struggles are often lost. The Prince of Wales (Andrew Dahl) is a fat buffoon, the doctors are bumbling idiots, William Pitt (Jay Whittaker) is apparently incapable of any emotion outside ruthless efficiency.
That being said, this play is not often performed, and it's a fascinating look into a royal life few Americans are familiar with. While I'd recommend Lear over George III , it's worth it to see both for their overlapping views on the downfalls of absolute monarchy--and, by extrapolation, the downfalls of government in general.
I'll be reporting on the third play in this repertory line-up, The Taming of the Shrew early next week.