In a decades-earlier life, as a student of Victorian literature, I read cover to cover all four hefty volumes of Henry Philip Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, which still occupy a place on my living room floor next to a bookcase. This journalistic series by a high school dropout, in his twenties the co-founder (along with Mark Lemon) of the political/social satirical magazine Punch, consisted of interviews of members of the lower class on downwards, including those hard at work, though treading water, on the right side of the law, those who have given up, and criminals, also barely staying afloat. People of all ages and both genders were among those interviewed by Mayhew. The first three volumes appeared in 1851; the final volume, in 1862.
For a literary encyclopedia aimed at public library patrons and the young, I wrote about Mayhew, including the following:
In 1849, during a devastating cholera epidemic, Mayhew began writing a series for the Morning Chronicle about conditions requiring sanitary reform in poor sections of London. In “A Visit to the Cholera Districts of Bermondsey,” for example, Mayhew wrote, “As we passed along the reeking banks . . . [a narrow slip of the water] appeared the colour of strong green tea . . . it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink.” Mayhew also addressed the current political economy. The underpaid labor that industrialists, unregulated, required to maintain their competitive edge, Mayhew felt, is what created poverty, not the overpopulation . . . [cited by others].
These pieces formed the basis for London Labour and the London Poor . . . [Mayhew’s] interviews with all manner of lower-class people, according to novelist and journalist William Makepeace Thackeray, resulted in “a picture of human life” that is “wonderful,” “awful,” “piteous,” “pathetic,” “exciting and terrible.” A street vendor of baked potatoes, for instance, seems overwhelmed by how hard it is for him to eke out an existence and yet speaks without rancor: “’Such a day as this, sir . . . when the fog’s like a cloud come down, people [wary of rotting potatoes] looks very shy at my taties . . . money goes one can’t tell how, and ’specially if you drinks a drop, as I do sometimes.’” A sixteen-year-old girl’s account of what led to her life as a prostitute shows herself the victim of a more direct cruelty in addition to circumstance: “’I am an orphan. When I was ten I was sent to service as maid . . . [The wife of my employer] beat me with sticks as well as with hands. I was black and blue, and [after about six months] I ran away. . . .’” In this massive work . . . critic Regenia Gagnier has noted, “Mayhew reported the effects of the environment upon the streetfolk without comment.”
Mayhew’s study of poverty was influential, in particular lending support to social and sanitary reformers, and eventually helping to found the modern science of sociology. In addition, there is his literary merit. Mayhew, critic John D. Rosenberg has written, “edits, shapes, and intensifies, until we are stunned by the slang beauty and inventiveness of the spoken voices he recreates. . . . Mayhew should be credited with evolving a new art form, a kind of dramatic monologue in prose.”
Olivier Stockman, the principal (and brilliant!) writer and the editor of The Fool, draws upon Mayhew’s tome for the film’s varied lower-class portrait. Beautifully directed by Christine Edzard, who also worked on the script, The Fool is an unsentimental satire of scandalous cross-classing by the clerk of a theatrical booking agency, who in effect has booked himself for a long-running gig in Victorian society, where his appeal principally lies in two quarters: his presumed wealth; his apparent financial wizardry. Lowly Mr. Frederick’s lofty persona is named Sir John, reminding us of another, more famous Sir John who also crossed classes, but, slummingly, in the opposite direction.
Indeed, The Fool begins with the performance of a Shakespeare play, although not one with Falstaff in its cast of characters. As we enter, The Tempest is just ending (“We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on . . .”), and the reception by the well-upholstered audience signals the passage of Shakespeare from the popular and royal realms to the domain of enthusiastic poseurs. In Victorian London, one “attends” the theater to certify (for oneself and others) one’s high opinion of oneself—the self-delusion that has poised some to be fooled by Mr. Frederick’s deceitful illusions. In a sense, society is too selfconscious to be aware of the unreality outside itself, but in its midst, that has been taking advantage of it. The insularity of these individuals is encapsulated in the notion that all such “acts” as Mr. Frederick has perpetrated at their expense are confined to the stage.
A posh after-theater party hums with gossip about another fraud and cheat and rumored class-crosser, who (unlike Sir John at this point) has been “found out” (“ . . . the greatest rogue there ever was”!). One of the gentlemen wonders aloud what will become of privilege if there is no good way of distinguishing between pretenders and the truly privileged, and a thickly rouged elderly woman, the Dowager Duchess (Patricia Hayes, hilarious and oddly affecting), courting attention, lavishly delights in the whole scandal, loudly lamenting that the culprit isn’t in attendance: “There is nothing more amusing as the face of someone who’s been found out—unless, of course, it is the face of one of those who have been taken in by him!” This woman is largely ignored; her singular loud jocularity is too rough for genteel society. Indeed, the whole matter of the outed “Mr. Wesley” is impolite and unworthy of touching one’s glove with. The talk about Wesley continues in the film, and at one point Sir John himself crosses paths with it in a fine home where he is a welcome guest.
The after-theater party of the haves is contrasted with the backstage activities at the theater and interactions between the humble individuals there and other common folk. Hamlet is set to follow The Tempest into the theater, and a blind man movingly speaks of his love for the play, which he has committed to memory, noting with irresistible humility that blind people have a relatively easy job of memorizing voluminous material. I hunted down a number of blind beggars whom Mayhew interviews in London Labour and the London Poor and couldn’t find this particular remark (which doesn’t mean that it isn’t somewhere there!); but it makes for a great moment, as do another poor soul’s savoring of a small piece of buttered bread, and the introduction of Mr. Frederick/Sir John, who ironically enters atop a descending platform stage—a visual lowering of the lofty fraud into his more humble reality.
Alternating between passages of the high and the humble, the film, set in 1857 London, presents a vision of a fractured society. Particularly in the humble passages, Edzard evokes a richly detailed Dickensian atmosphere. One might say that Mayhew was the journalistic equivalent of Dickens in this regard, and one is reminded that Edzard directed Little Dorrit (1988).
Another irony permeates the film: even some of the well-heeled are perpetually worried about money. Indeed, it is such anxiety that helps account for the susceptibility of the rich to be deceived and bilked by frauds masquerading as peers or as financial wunderkinds. Greed certainly plays a part, but even this contributes to Stockman and Edzard’s systemic (rather than character) critique because of the insecurity that money-based society engenders. One never has enough money really to feel secure; one must pursue the promise of windfalls.
Do actual poor people exist for some of the rich as a trap into which the latter fear that they themselves might someday fall? If so, is there a degree of guilt that afflicts the rich, however mightily they attempt to suppress it, owing to the unfairness of class divisions and social circumstance? Do posh people unconsciously fear a kind of contamination from the poor that might retributively reduce their own circumstance? Or in fact have the posh succeeded in banishing the poor from their actual and mental ranges of vision?
Mayhew’s own work, including the newspaper articles and London Labour, had helped effect a transaction, if you will, between the high and low, and evolutionist writings were helping to identify humanity as a single species in contradistinction to the various classes socially fragmenting it. Evolutionism thus also effected a kind of imaginative transaction between the high and the low; it constituted what today we might call a deconstruction of society.
Mr. Frederick/Sir John embodies these “transactions.” He is a social transvestite, and his fraudulent impersonation, by the danger it poses to him of psychic disintegration, suggests the social danger of a nation, and a world, divided into haves and have-nots. (Points of allusive reference: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; the sometime class-crossing conjecture about Jack the Ripper that inspirits Peter Medak’s 1972 film The Ruling Class, adapted by Peter Barnes from his own play.) Someone who knows his dual identity warns Mr. Frederick that his masquerade is endangering his soul, creating the likelihood that he will begin, if only a little, to begin seeing things through the eyes of those with whom he interacts as Sir John. This suggestion, which Mr. Frederick defensively dismisses, sets the mental stage for an astounding passage, a quarrelsome encounter between unkempt, combustible Mr. Frederick and fastidious, aloof Sir John for which the whole film has been a preparation. The Fool has alternated between passages of the two, showing the high world and the humble, without any sort of bridge between these alternating scenes. (We are never shown, for instance, Mr. Frederick dressing up as his persona, Sir John). It is as though we have been watching two different characters. Now in their unexpected confrontation, Sir John defends his bilking and cheating, noting that England “is a commercial country” and that everyone cheats, as “[a] man must do what he can.” But it isn’t “all the same,” Mr. Frederick cries out at him(self), distinguishing between those who do whatever they can, including cheating, in order to survive and those who do this in order to prosper more and more greatly. Mr. Frederick’s defense of the poor is allied to his own confusion of identity: “Who is me? I’m so adaptable, you see.” This hint (on the part of the filmmakers) of evolutionary “survival of the fittest,” connecting Social Darwinism to Darwinism, suggests the tragic lot that befalls the poor, who are opposed and oppressed, in one way or another, by the rich and their own environment (including themselves). They truly must do whatever they can to survive. Sir John’s foppishness and superior attitude seem to hold such people in contempt. The scene cuts back and forth between each half of Mr. Frederick/Sir John (that is the most precise way to put it), with the “two” of them never sharing the same frame; a variation on Tennyson’s poem “The Two Voices” is thus bodied forth, and the sum betokens the broken society that Mayhew, among others, endeavored to make whole. Mr. Frederick and Sir John each call the other a fool, clarifying the film’s title.
As it happens, this self-conversation leads to Sir John’s flamboyant resolution of his identity crisis, for which Edzard surprises us with a directly overhead shot. It is Sir John’s self-outing in the world of high society.
The Fool gets richer and stronger with each fresh viewing. It even prevails with Derek Jacobi in the lead. Jacobi’s theatricality is utterly absorbed and made useful by the contrasting halves of his fascinating dual role.
I can’t always follow the particulars of Sir John’s financial machinations (this kind of practical stuff is hard for me!); but the film is sheer pleasure just the same.
Please note: You can purchase the DVD of this film at http://www.sandsfilms.co.uk. The company’s DVDs, “All Region,” will play on any DVD player. I also heartily recommend two other films by Edzard that are available at the Sands site: As You Like It (1992) and The Children’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (2001), each of which uses the play as its script.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.