Now We Are Pope, Martin Foreman’s one-man show about Frederick Rolfe‘s Venetian exile, recently completed a London run and is now headed to the Edinburgh Fringe. “Although the play itself is a work of imagination,” quoth the production notes, “all the incidents referred to in Now We Are Pope either took place in real life or are taken from Rolfe’s fiction.”
This, you may be aware, isn’t the first stage outing for Rolfe (a.k.a. Baron Corvo, who was born on this day in 1860), nor the first to blend the author’s biography with his written creations. Peter Luke‘s play Hadrian VII, written in 1959 but not staged until 1967, draws inspiration from Rolfe’s 1904 novel Hadrian the Seventh, which was recently listed as one of the 100 greatest books of all time. Literary consensus had hitherto suggested it wasn’t even one of the 100 greatest books of 1904, but the tale of an embittered writer rejected from holy orders (as Rolfe was), who improbably finds his balding pate residing under a papal tiara, has proved remarkably resilient.
The printed edition of Luke’s play (first published in 1968) bears the title The Play of Hadrian VII, drawing attention to the construction of the piece and the play of personae within. The life, work and literary avatars of Rolfe – those created by himself and others – form a cross-border region in which identities transgress the conventional frontier between reality and fiction at will (see here for a bewildering Corvine jumble of the actual and the artificial). Luke further blurs the demarcation by inducting the author of Hadrian the Seventh into his own creation while his other proxy, George Arthur Rose, is shuffled off to a seminary. The scene where the two meet leads to one of the play’s true LOL lines, as the rector warns His Holiness, with admirable understatement, that Rose “is not what I would call a good mixer”.
Luke’s words, of course, are merely a blueprint for a complete work of art whose every manifestation is different from the last. How wonderful to have seen Derek Jacobi, for instance, gnashing his molars on a plywood Vatican in the 1995 production. But there are consolations; the reader is privy to such winning stage directions as “There is a silence while MRS CROWE vacillates between her outraged feelings as a landlady and her concupiscent inclinations as a woman.”
Although not precisely specified, the plot appears to a unfold over a period of a few days, focussing on Rolfe’s whirlwind elevation to pontifical glory before he is brought low again by a bitter and mean-minded world. This leaves Rolfe’s past to be replayed as accusation and counter-justification, and his Venice years in an unexamined future. In the play, as in the book, the small matter of fulfilling the apostolic succession and leading the world’s largest religious organisation is as nothing to Rolfe’s primary task, that of defending his life and its manifold failures. While characterising his reign as a return to the discarded virtues of the Mother Church, Rolfe is above all a fundamentalist of self.
Numerous lines are taken directly from Hadrian the Seventh, but it is the psychological insight which makes Luke’s play so much more rewarding than a mere staged version of the novel would have been. “Why, O God, have You made me strange, uncommon, such a mystery to my fellow-creatures?” implores Rolfe at one stage. “Am I such a ruffian as to merit total exile from them?” But this impassioned cri de cœur is a leading question, and the only satisfactory answer, Luke shows us, is one which positions the supplicant not merely outside, but above.
There are certainly enough flashes of Rolfe’s lexical incontinence – ‘hierarch’, ‘aeonial’, ‘myrmidion’, ‘consistory’ – to satisfy those drawn to his highly idiosyncratic style (while not quite in the league of translating Finnegans Wake into Chinese, it makes you wonder how difficult it must be to recast Rolfe’s aureate prose into, say, French). However the demands of the stage mean that the reader/audience receives a vivid impression of Rolfe’s utter cussedness without living through his grievances in what feels like real time, as the book requires. His every spike and barb, Rolfe would have us believe, results from the sins of others, sins either of commission or omission. “I have been provoked, abused, calumniated, traduced with insinuation, innuendo, misrepresentation, lies; my life has been held up to ridicule and to most inferior contempt.” But it is above all his own highly difficult nature, we come to realise, that condemns him to life-long exile from grace. “We look upon you as a deeply injured man […] injured only by himself.” Rolfe directs these words to the man who is about to assassinate him, but could just as well be addressing a mirror.
While Luke had a long and successful career, particularly in television, he never again lit up the stage as he did with his first play. Like A. J. A. Symons, author of The Quest for Corvo, Luke looked to this obscure relic of Edwardian literature for inspiration, but even beyond the grave Rolfe was never satisfied with mere attention. He monopolised the peak of their literary powers and, vampire-like, bled the vitality from their ensuing careers; Rolfe was, in every sense, a hard act to follow.
Luke’s play arose around the same time as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with which it is thematically akin (however the querulous, self-sabotaging Rolfe is somehow both George and Martha, a one-man game of Get the Guest). Like that play – and this is where it transcends Rolfe’s dogged exceptionalism to alight upon a universal truth – Hadrian VII is ultimately about the necessity of living with illusion. With his papal delusion swept away in a cloud of incense, the closing scene sees Rolfe stripped of his manuscript of Hadrian the Seventh, his few pathetic possessions and – most importantly – his remaining fantasies. And, like the end of Albee’s masterpiece, it is utterly devastating.
The Play of Hadrian VII | Peter Luke | André Deutsch, 1968 | Find on World Cat