A Writer's Diary of His Journey with The Libertine

From a curious introduction to the Earl of Rochester, Stephen Jeffreys has lived with this larger-than-life character for nearly 40 years. The Libertine first swaggered on to stage in 1994 and since then he has been to the New World, been played by Johnny Depp, and has finally arrived at the Citizens Theatre in a re-write that Jeffreys is calling 'The definitive version'.

Read Stephen's 'intermittent' diary below, and see the Earl on stage here.

A visit to my dentist Gerald Lightman provides me with a surprise present. Gerald, a cultivated chap with interests in music and literature, is clearing his bookshelves of any matter unsuitable for his inquisitive thirteen year old daughter. One item up for relocation is a green Olympia press edition of Sodom, a play by John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester. Working through his list of patients, Gerald concludes that I would be the most appropriate recipient for the book and hands it over. On reading Sodom, I realise that, despite an early exposure to the work of the Pip Simmons Theatre Company and Michael McClure, this is quite the filthiest play I have ever read, featuring extensive bouts of buggery, fornication and other practices (including, at one point, some pornographic topiary). The volume features a skeletal biography of Rochester which gives an account of the Earl’s short, restless life, his poetry and his battles with Charles II. I add Wilmot to my mental inventory of approved people and resume my life as a supply teacher in Hackney.

At the invitation of Max Stafford-Clark, I join the staff of the Royal Court Theatre in the part time job of Literary Associate. My role is to be that of a playwright inside the building liaising with playwrights outside the building. Each Friday I attend a script meeting where participants rummage through a document called ‘the grid’ - essentially a road map of the future of new playwriting in the UK and beyond. While the bulk of the grid is given over to a list of sixty or so plays which the Court is considering for production, there are several intriguing sub-sections, including one devoted to writers who are being wooed and subjects that might interest them.  Here, one Friday, I find the name of a highly talented contemporary alongside the legend ‘play about the Earl of Rochester.’ I experience a spasm of jealousy and remain in Max’s office for a quiet word at the end of the meeting. The Earl of Rochester, I explain, is my territory.  Max, rightly throws my intervention back at me: “If it’s your territory, then write it”  and commissions the play on the spot. I reflect that I have discovered an unusual way of liaising with playwrights outside the building.

The second Earl is proving remarkably resistant to my dramaturgical assault. There are two problems: he did too much and it’s very unclear what it all meant. The first problem is unusual.  In converting biography into dramatic fiction, one usually has to invent a great deal to cover the blank spaces in the protagonist’s life. This is different. Wilmot was only thirty-three when he died, but I find myself discarding his service in the navy, a couple of duels and an abduction of the wealthiest heiress in the country - material which would normally be gold dust but which, in such a hectic life as his, is surplus to requirements. The second problem is worse. Sometimes you begin a play aware of its underlying meaning, knowing that, to paraphrase Arthur Miller, you could paste a single sentence to the typewriter telling you what the play was about to keep you on the right track. This is the other sort of play: you know you’ve got to write it but you don’t know why and you don’t understand what it’s about.  Some months in, I don’t have much to show for my work except a dozen 5”x3” record cards denoting scenes (‘Sundials’, ‘Training Barry’, ‘Bendo’) pinned to my study wall. These keep swapping places with each other without providing any greater insight.   And the pressure is now on:  Max is leaving the Royal Court and will be setting up, with Sonia Friedman, his own company Out of Joint. My play, now called The Libertine, will be paired with Etherege’s The Man Of Mode as the company’s first show next autumn.

APRIL 1994
The first problem - selecting, shaping, ordering and setting the temperature for the different events in Rochester’s life has now been solved. Indeed, when I come to write the screenplay, the sequence of scenes will seem so inevitable that undoing this work will take nearly as long as doing it. But I’m still working on instinct. I’ve arrived at my structure by a process closer to necromancy than analysis. It feels right, but I’ve still no idea where the centre of the play is.

Word comes through that Steve Eich and Randy Arney, the two directors of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre are in the house. I catch sight of them at the end of the show, standing on the theatre’s steps. Their story is that they are looking for a play for John Malkovich to star in. They think they’ve just found it. Unfortunately, Catherine Seymour, the bookshop manager has just sold the very last of the five thousand play texts. I rush back into the building and, finding some friends, relieve them of their copy, promising to replace it when the second edition comes out.  In the Fox and Hounds round the corner from the theatre, I hand it over to Steve and Randy. They tell me John will be in touch. Such late night promises, inevitably made on licensed premises, are a familiar feature of the playwright’s life.

But Malkovich does call less than a week later. He’s modest, courteous and, above all, decisive. He’ll do the play. There are no maybes. He’s up for it.

John Malkovich as King Charles II in The Libertine
Chicago is astonishingly cold, colder even than legend has it. Al Wilder who plays Etherege reckons it the coldest winter he’s ever known here. Terry Johnson, my fellow British playwright, is directing.

We’re into the second week of rehearsals when John sidles towards me and says: “Do you want to make a movie out of this ?” John has his own production company Smith Malkovich.  Smith turns out to be Russ Smith who used to run Steppenwolf. Russ, it seems will produce the movie. He makes a few appearances in the rehearsal room, suddenly materialising, listening attentively for half an hour or so and then disappearing. 

Later, at one of the matinee previews, I arrive just before the interval, wanting to see the second half which is still problematic. Two people are already drinking at the bar as I watch the chaps smashing up the sundial on the foyer monitor. They’re talking excitedly: “It would make a great movie”. I turn my head towards them for a second and one of them immediately corrects the false impression he’s given. He gestures at my play on the monitor: “Not this. This would make a lousy movie  We’re talking about something else.”

Disaster strikes. At midnight, on their website, the Treasury announce that our method of funding is illegal.....

At a stroke the British Film industry comes to a halt. The carnage is widespread. A movie which is days away from shooting in Africa is paralysed. My friend Deborah Moggach’s book is abandoned. A million pounds worth of sets depicting eighteenth century Amsterdam are trashed. There are rumours that exceptions will be made, that movies as close as ours to principal photography will be spared. We’re the leading example in all the newspaper stories.  The publicity is great except that we may soon have nothing to publicise. Deadlines for announcements pass with no word from the Treasury. It becomes clear that there will be no exceptions, that the Treasury ship is carrying torpedoes but no lifebelts. Russ, as big an Anglophile as you can find, is bemused. He won’t work here again. Everyone admits that ‘double dipping’ is being abused, but for a Labour government – even a ‘New’ Labour government - to implement such a policy change overnight to the detriment of the British Film Industry indicates the extent to which the Blairite coup has succeeded.

The style of this piece of sabotage is classic New Labour: some policy wonk scribbles down the idea on the back of an envelope and the bulldozer is set in motion. There is, famously, no reverse gear: worse, there is no steering. It is not the least achievement of this government that they have succeeded in making Harold Wilson (who cared deeply for the British film industry) look left wing.

The mood at Elstree is sour. Unemployment is around the corner. Chase Bailey flies in from Paris to throw some money at the wage bill.  John, making Colour Me Kubrick on the Isle Of Man, is allegedly trying to switch the production up there. Russ wanders round the studio flagellating his back with a leather knout like a medieval monk. The joke is so unfunny one can only surmise that he thinks it will do some good.
Rosamund Pike and Johnny Depp in The Libertine
Malkovich, the Hero of Douglas, arrives on set.  Yesterday he wrapped Colour Me Kubrick.  Today he has to go on cold, acting with Johnny Depp for the first time in what looks like his most difficult scene - the one where Charles busts Rochester as Bendo and informs him that he no longer harbours any hopes for him.  All this right at the end of a long, freezing day. Watching on the monitor, he seems too restrained, almost nervous.  In the summer, watching the first cut I see that he’s bang on the money. 

The shooting has shifted to Montecute, the country house where Lord Birkenhead, having refused to install a telephone, spent an uncomfortable weekend in 1923 wondering if he had been made Prime Minister. (He had not. The King sent for Stanley Baldwin instead).

Everyone is talking about the scene between Rochester and his wife Elisabeth Malet which was shot yesterday. By all accounts Johnny and Rosamund stripped the varnish off the beams with the intensity of their acting. Laurence, chewing relentlessly under his trademark grey cloth cap, plays the scene back on the monitor for me with justifiable pride. 

We move to Wells Cathedral where the circular chapter room will stand in for the House of Lords. Wells is in the grip of Depp fever since a couple of hundred local extras have been hired to play their Lordships. And a remarkable sight they are too. Peter Owen, the hair and make-up designer, tells me he believes this to be the largest number of full-bottomed seventeenth century wigs ever assembled in a single room. After hours of primping and re-positioning and some shooting of the footage prior to Rochester’s entrance, Johnny is suddenly there, without any warning being given to the extras. Hauling himself around on crutches with a gold nosepiece covering the Earl’s syphilitic one, he gives a devastating rendition of the speech I wrote in Denmark Street six years before. It lasts a shade under ten minutes in which he harangues, teases, amuses and chills the House, getting right in the noses of the startled estate agents and solicitors who have turned up for the day. They respond well, and the best faces in the crowd as they react to the star carry something of the mixture of dread and admiration that Rochester’s contemporaries would have felt for him. 

There are two sad moments in the day. One of the older extras slips on the uneven stairs and has to be taken away in an ambulance. Then, later, I have a conversation with T.P. McKenna, the great Irish actor who is playing a two line role as the Lord Chancellor. I remember queuing early in the morning outside the Aldwych as a teenager to see him in Harold Pinter’s production of Joyce’s Exiles. He reminisces about that for a while and then says thoughtfully: “This will be my last film”. Late in the day I have the satisfaction of knocking up a two minute speech for him which will be used as background to a scene between Rochester and the King. His sonorous actor’s voice rolls my hastily written text around the ancient room and I enter some private writerly heaven.

But, of course, when the film is made, the speech and TP’s performance are so far in the background that no-one can hear them. TP dies a few months after the film comes out.

That evening Russ, John and I meet Bruce Robinson and his family for a pub meal. Johnny is scheduled to join us, but, having put in a twelve hour day, he now thinks nothing of sitting in his trailer for three hours signing autographs and doing photos for fans. He appears close to closing time for a glass of wine and spends another half hour pressing the flesh on the way out of the pub. There is an extraordinarily even quality to his energy and attention. He doesn’t seem to suffer from the jags and drifts which characterise most people’s mental life. He has, in the original sense of that much debased word, charisma: in a different time and place he might have been a religious leader. While I’m observing Johnny, a young woman called Bernadette checks that I’m the writer and then asks me for my autograph. A day of rare events.

A curious phenomenon: much time is rightly expended on the sets of period films in achieving and maintaining historical accuracy in costumes and wigs. But when it comes to language, the only person who seems to care when an obviously anachronistic phrase is used through a slip of the tongue or improvised to cover an unforeseen gap, is the writer - who is unlikely to be present. The usual counter to this objection is that it can be sorted out in post-production. But this isn’t always true: firstly someone has to spot the gaffe, second it has to be remediable (the right words sitting happily on the lips of the wrong ones), third the required actor might be filming three thousand miles away when required for sound dubbing. Today I’m called away for half an hour and an unmistakeably post 1970’s expression has slipped into the script. On this occasion I let it go. Everyone’s worried about the running time and I can’t envisage today’s scene making the cut. (It doesn’t).

Which brings us to 2014, and the Citizens Theatre's new production of Stephen's play. The play opens on Sat 3 May with Martin Hutson playing the role of the debauched, self-destructive Second Earl of Rochester. 

The Libertine Sat 3 - Sat 24 May
 Find out more about The Libertine at the Citizens Theatre and book tickets.