By Nathaniel Adams
Written by Ron Hutchinson
Directed by Simon Green
Starring Ian Kelly and Ryan Early
Lounging nude in a bathtub, George Brummell holds a razor to his throat. Will he remove his stubble, or end his life?
This stark suicidal pose we opens Ron Hutchinson’s semi-biographical play about the life of Brummell, starring Ian Kelly. I quickly feared a sensationalized portrait of a madman, but this was immediately assuaged by the wit and rapport between Brummell and his fictional valet Austin, the only two characters in the play. Kelly is of course the author of the recent highly acclaimed biography of Brummell. The valet, played by Ryan Early, is a well developed character in his own right, and is used as a rational foil for Brummell’s idealistic eccentricities. Throughout the production Brummell dresses and undresses, allowing the viewer to experience a metaphorical “revelation” of sorts, candidly privileged to see the famed dresser undressed.
The action takes place on one day close to the end of Brummell’s life when he is living in poverty in Calais. The occasion is special because King George IV, who as Prince Regent had been Brummell’s close friend and benefactor, is passing through Calais. Much of the play focuses on Brummell’s famous “Who’s your fat friend?” insult, blaming much of Brummell’s downfall on that fateful line. This reduction of the myriad complex reasons for Brummell’s exile to one bon mot might be factually inaccurate, but in the context of the play beautifully illustrates the man’s priorities and core beliefs.
A legitmate concern is that Ron Hutchinson’s play would try too hard to draw parallels between Brummell’s world and today, such as comparing a true individual of stylistic genius and originality to the off-the-peg, store-bought and ultimately sterile trend of metrosexuality. As Dandyism.net’s Nick Willard has mentioned in his review of Kelly’s bio, the hype surrounding this resurgence of Brummell-related studies is off-putting to anyone genuinely interested in the history of dandyism. The constant attempts by marketers to proclaim Brummell an early example of today’s cult of celebrity (for example, the overused declaration that Brummell was “famous for being famous”) can often seem to relegate Brummell to the level of a celebutante, instead of the original, fascinating man he was.
Hutchinson’s play, however, succeeds in showing the depths of Brummell’s nature and his neverending conflicts and contradictions of character. If the play succeeds masterfully at anything, it is placing Brummell in the context of his times. While his contributions to style, fashion, and wit are often obvious, the play goes deeply into the complex and often contradictory attitudes toward class which are presented by Brummell’s unique position.
Brought to light through the interaction with his valet, as well as his venting of his opinions of the king, we see Brummell’s stance vacillating between an egalitarian point of view and a firm belief in class mobility. For example, Brummell speaks of his father the state official when it suits his purpose. However, he just as easily calls upon the working-class credibility of his grandfather the valet. In addition, the play illustrates the interesting fact that someone of Brummell’s class background was able to ascend as high as he did in society and exist socially, if only for a time, on a level equal to that of the prince.
In addition to the class aspect of Brummell, we are shown how he is a figure marking several turning points: the end of an age of elegance, the beginning of industrialization, and a sartorial shift toward subtlety and dignity. Brummell’s utopian visions of all men spending their time dressing instead of fighting might appear naïve and irrational, chiefly because such views are no longer unique. However, in him these ideas reflect an almost existential philosophy. Brummell declares that because life is so fleeting and actions have such little meaning, the only way to overcome the futility of life is to make it pleasant through beauty. And, as is so crucial to any understanding of dandyism, Brummell teaches the audience that creative productivity (i.e. painting, writing, sculpture) of any kind is not a necessary component of art. Brummell preaches that life itself can be the ultimate work of art.
The theater was filled with the usual demographic of New York City off-broadway theater-goers: somewhat confused-looking white middle-class octogenarians from the suburbs. Listening to them talk to one another, it was clear that few had any idea of who Brummell was, and that most of them were there simply because they wanted something to do in order to keep themselves active. One must realize that the real test of the play is not only whether or not it meets with the approval of students of dandyism, but whether the rest of the audience would walk away with some deeper understanding of a subject who has been trivialized by many.
When the play ended, I overheard audience members discussing how much they had learned, and one gets the sense that they were now able to feel a newfound sympathy for the man without declaring him wholly pathetic. To be sure, the Beau had many problems, many surely of a psychological nature. Both Hutchnson and Kelly manage to accurately portray Brummell’s neuroses and uncertainties while admirably preserving the dignity of the man who created such a vital art form and lifestyle.
Mr. Kelly’s next project (now in post-production) is a BBC film version of his book, which, if half as good as this play or his biography, could well turn out to be known as the definitive Brummell film.