Based on the life of John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester (1647-80), poet, satirist, and philanderer, Stephen Jeffreys's play knits together the best documented threads of Rochester's life into a tale that includes assorted cohorts: King Charles II (also no stranger to sexual adventuring), Charles Sackville (poet and courtier), George Etherege (playwright and actor), and a host of others; Among them the two most important women in his life -- Elizabeth Malet, the kidnapped heiress who became his wife, and the famous actress Elizabeth Barry who was his major passion.
"Given the play's title, you might expect it to be appalling. But...Jeffreys' work is so rigorous in its emotional truth, so complex in its intellectual arguments, and so comical when comedy is the only fallback position, that nothing...seems gratuitous... The play's pivotal character…is a man who has essentially backed himself into a corner. When we meet him in 1675, he is just 28, a writer and dramatist of reputed brilliance, a sexual adventurer of polymorphous tastes, a feverish alcoholic and reigning mischief-maker. He amuses the degenerate but shrewd king...But his irreverence is losing acceptability and Rochester is sternly reminded that 'there is a time to be FOR things.' Caught in a state of arrested development, he continues to compulsively test the limits of his society... Most perilous of all, however, Rochester is a romantic. When he falls madly in love with Elizabeth Barry...the young actress he attempts to mold, he is confronted by a woman who is more than his match. And his downfall is set in motion… Barry loves Rochester but refuses to become his sacrificial lamb. Rochester's wife…may be a more conventional woman, taking her husband back, again and again as he staggers home in sickness and desperation. But...she, too, is no pushover. And in this subversively feminist play, even the prostitute...is on to Rochester and pragmatically makes her way past him. Framing this vicious tug-of-war between men and women is a morally corrupt society rotting from the top down. The Libertine deals with classic moral issues in a vivid, contemporary way. And as our national political scene erupts with talk of 'values,' it raises piercing questions about all forms of extremity." (Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times)