The Fall of Byron and the Oscar Wilding of Johnny Depp

Yves here. Johnny Depp may seem to some to be a poor modern incarnation of the classic romantic hero, in the tradition of Lord Byron, but you might reconsider that view after seeing The Libertine or Don Juan DeMarco. And like it or not, Depp, who really is a very talented actor, has managed to exemplify the fate of too many Bryon-styled heroes, and a useful point of entry into how a famous type (and for good reason, since there are plenty of real-world examples) is now very much out of fashion.

By Rosemary Bechler, who worked as a university teacher, in political journalism and in the peace movement, becoming the Chair of the National Peace Council in 1995-6. In 2000, she co-founded Peaceworkers UK and joined the team piloting openDemocracy. She edits Can Europe Make It? and has recently published with David Adler, DiEM25’s A Vision for Europe, (Eris, second edition, 2020). Cross posted from openDemocracy

I know he is a devil, but he has something of the angel yet undefiled in him, which makes him so charming and agreeable that I must love him be he never so wicked. Loveit, Etherege’s Man of Mode (1676).

I first thought of Oscar Wilding as a syndrome after a packed matinee performance of a stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the Cambridge Arts Theatre in the late 1970’s. The undisputed heroine of this version was Elizabeth Bennet’s mother, intent on marrying all her daughters off well. If there was not a standing ovation for the wealthiest property exchange secured in the closing scenes, there was escalating rowdy applause, and one other striking feature – the glorious Fitzwilliam Darcy and his noble friend, Bingley reduced to walk-on parts, a couple of limp-wristed dandies insufficiently grateful for their narrow deliverance from the decadent world of aristo privilege.

This intrigued me, since I was studying the villain-hero from Milton to Byron, with particular reference to Samuel Richardson’s immortal character, Lovelace. For me, the proud aristocrat, Darcy, was far closer to the two rich tributaries Richardson had combined in his villain’s portrait, the ‘archangel ruin’d, and the excess/Of glory obscured’ of Milton’s seducer Satan, and that Anglican Don Juan, the restoration rake, wit and poet at the court of Charles II, the Earl of Rochester. What millions of women have admired in such figures for hundreds of years is their capacity to love women for themselves, either disreputably in the plural, or singly as precursors of the great Romantic lovers – in both cases with an excess going far beyond the calculations and constraints of bourgeois property exchange, or patriarchal law and order.

So here was a fall indeed! Previously I had been amused by the lengths to which male literary critics seemed willing to go to diminish the Rochesters, Lovelaces and Byrons in their readers’ eyes. But now I began to notice the considerable impact on the whole tradition of what I can only call a bourgeois revenge.

It was there from the outset, of course, the Spanish hellfire reserved for Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan, and immortalised in the title of Mozart’s opera, Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, though the effect is somewhat undermined after so much glorious music by the vindictive little closing fugue that restores order though not much else to nearly everyone who survives; there too, in Rochester’s deathbed renunciation of libertinism and conversion to Anglican Christianity turned into a hugely popular pamphlet of the time by his mother and her chaplain, Gilbert Burnet. Nor does it end there. Fast forward to the ruin that Charlotte Bronte was willing to inflict on her Rochester, Emily on her Heathcliff, or the thrashing to within an inch of his life that Eugene Wrayburn undergoes for Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, the terrible remorse of a stricken Eugene Onegin, or de Winter of the soul endured by the aristocratic hero (and adoring heroine) of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Something remarkable happens when we get to Lord Byron. As Childe Harold’s fiction – ‘What Exile from himself can flee?’– converts into Byronic fact, this punishment trope morphs from literature into life. Which is obeying which? We, and Byron, can’t be sure. The same unstable amalgam informs the plan for forthcoming cantos of Don Juan he sent to John Murray in 1821:

I meant to take him on the tour of Europe… and to make him finish as Anarchasis Cloots in the French Revolution… to have made him a Cavalier Servente in Italy, and a cause for divorce in England, and a Sentimental Werther-faced man in Germany, so as to show the different ridicules of the society in each of these countries, and to have displayed him gradually gâté and blasé, as he grew older, as is natural. But I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest.

There is a wilful quality to these destinies, but it is a wilfulness extending far beyond the tortured protagonists tragically coopted into their own falls. The great Byronic heroes of the Hollywood screen have been particularly prone to this. Think of Marlon Brando, the nonpareil among these fallen Lucifers, closely followed by a rebel hero appropriately christened at birth James Byron Dean. Add in the damaged beauty of fellow Actors’ Studio heart-throb, Montgomery Clift.

Johnny Depp is surely the most curious of them all. On at least two occasions Depp signed up unerringly for the reactionary narratives most out to get Don Juan. Don Juan deMarco (1994) takes as its basic premise the ‘Don Juan complex’ – a miserable twentieth century theory which argues that these seeming paragons of masculinity only conceal an arrested psychosexual development. By way of compensation, DeMarco’s Byronic flashbacks rekindle the marriage of none other than Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway, (you can almost hear Byron growling, but what could be more bourgeois than that?) Then in 2004, Depp allowed himself to play Rochester in the film adaptation of that extended act of bourgeois revenge which was Stephen Jeffreys’ stage play, The Libertine (1994). Here all the obsessions with lechery and debauchery have their venereal field day. It is as if Depp is determined to get his punishment in first, so keenly does this Rochester go to his untimely death. This could only have ended in disaster.

Yet, for all the wreckage, we will still remember Gilbert Grape as a “shimmering knight”, and the perfectly egalitarian reciprocity of innocence and knowingness almost worthy of “Là ci darem la mano”, in Depp’s dance with Juliette Binoche in Chocolat. No, whatever kind of ritual Oscar Wilding is, it cannot erase the dazzling early promise of all these beautiful men.

This piece was originally published in the Splinters December edition.

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