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The Fall of Fonthill

Some Notes by Brian Miller

[With some additions, in square brackets, by Jeremy]


Male Female & Boys








(17 + 30-50) (Port.) [A LADY]

DRYSDALE (30s) (Scot.)


WYATT (30s)

PARSON STILL (40s-50s)




[GROOM (one liner)]

TAYLOR (one liner)


NEWSHEET VOICE 2 (two suggested)


[BANDMASTER (one liner)]








Probably between five and six of the above cannot double; but another five or six could double and even triple. I estimate a cast size of around 1112. [And my additions, all small parts or one-liners, should also be playable by the cast we have already.]

WILLIAM BECKFORD (Lead) Scenes 2-24: c.1776 to c.1790

Beckford ages 16 to 30.

WILLIAM BECKFORD (Lead) Scenes 25-42: c.1807 to c.1825

Beckford ages 47 to 65.

LITTLE BECKFORD Scene 1: c.1770

Beckford aged 10.

I envisage Beckford going into distinct middle-age after Scene 24. Prior to that he is a youth and youthful-sounding man. He is said to have possessed a light, musically pleasing voice capable of great charm; this should seduce us to some degree in itself towards pity for him and render lyrical the more ecstatic moments - otherwise he may seem merely selfindulgent. After this point (that is, from Scene 25 onwards), he becomes to some degree crabbed and coarsened, though it is also said that he didn't seem to age physically very much until extreme old age. A 'Peter Pan' to all intents and purposes. (As a child, he was somewhat spoiled and wilful.) He was not camp as a young man and seems to have despised effeminacy then; one suspects that a few camp characteristics crept in later on.


Aged 58 at this time, the last year of his life (1770). A voluble politician, something of a thorn in the establishment's flesh, very much an anti-Tory Whig, despite his great wealth. Tends to play to his audience, as if he was never out of Parliament. Essentially vulgar in the selfmademan sense. Is said to have spoken 'with a strong colonial accent', since he was born in Jamaica, of a plantation-owning family. But it is doubtful whether that should be reproduced, whatever it was. [Though certainly his diction should be coarser, it seems to me, than that of his son and his wife. His glance could be ferocious, and he frequently terrified people with it.]


William's mother, older middle-aged. Something of a tartar, she is a daughter of the aristocracy. Whether always happily-expressed or not, her concern for William is well-intentioned and genuine.


Beckford's drawing-tutor and one who influenced the boy's life profoundly. Something of a mystery man, for Beckford destroyed all his letters. I suggest he had a powerful and persuasive personality, especially to an impressionable youth, and that he had homoerotic leanings, whether or not he introduced young Beckford to them, which may have been the case. He was certainly Beckford's closest confidante for a long time. (Incidentally, the father of a more famous painter, J.R. Cozens.) Suggest around 40ish. [To some, was known by his nickname, Sir Dingy Digit.]


Only son of Viscount Courtenay, and portrayed here aged 11 to 13 - unbroken voice throughout. Something of what Beckford thought of him, though perhaps idealised, can be found from Beckford's descriptions of the character of Gulchenrouz, from 'Vathek'; Gulchenrouz is based on 'Kitty' Courtenay: "This Gulchenrouz was ... the most delicate and lovely creature in the world ... His sweet voice accompanied the lute in the most enchanting manner ... and, though he had passed his thirteenth year, they still detained him in the harem ... Nouronihar [Louisa] loved her cousin more than her own beautiful eyes. Both had the same tastes and amusements; the same long, languishing looks; the same tresses; the same fair complexions; and, when Gulchenrouz appeared in the dress of his cousin, he seemed to be more feminine than even herself ..." "... A giddy child, immersed in softness ..." and more 'womanish' than Nouronihar herself. It is clear he is meant to be quite a stunner, and would no doubt have [might well have] become the 'school tart' at any public school. But the nature of Kitty's feminine appeal (Beckford and Louisa referred to the boy as 'she' in their letters, partly no doubt as a cover but partly also, one suspects, because it was fitting) was wholly bound up in his immature boyhood androgynous charm, a completely natural blend. Courtenay retained his winsome ways into adolescence, but by then the charm had worn off as the diverging maturity showed up a more distinct effeminacy for what it was. It seems this was not to Beckford's taste.


Beckford's cousin, portrayed here at age 25. Married to an older man she doesn't love, Louisa's is a personality turning hysterical by dint of a long repression of her emotional and physical needs. Intelligent and perceptive, she cannot help but fall for the beautiful Beckford, not least because she finds his image of suffering attractive. So carried away by him is she that she uses his longing for 'Kitty' to keep in with him. Later, as she saw that Beckford only used her as a sounding-board, she tired of the feveredly romantic passions (with no real substance) and 'got over' him. [Not sure about this last sentence.]


Italian born and brought up in Portugal, so one presumes some sort of Portuguese accent as a youth (becoming progressively modified the longer he resides in England). A sunny, warm person whose southern temperament was singularly free of guilt hang-ups over sexual matters, Franchi's deep love for and devotion to Beckford was genuine - perhaps the only enduring relationship of Beckford's life. It is important to try to show the boy not as a camp opportunistic gigolo but as the first person of genuinely Latin passions Beckford had come across. (He was to meet more, of both sexes.) Franchi, though married with children of his own, lived separated from his wife and shared Beckford's sexual tastes. He died, very gouty and rheumaticky, in his 50s in 1828 - three years after Fonthill fell. The bond between himself and Beckford was stronger than a master-servant relationship, though would have ceased being sexual when Franchi grew up. [Maybe probably but not certainly.] As Beckford was attracted to his singing as a boy, he must have had a pleasing light voice. (N.B. In the first scene Franchi is 14 years old [Though there is also evidence to suggest he may have been 17 - J.S.], we next come across him in his 30s. I expect dramatic licence would be allowable in starting him off with a completely broken adult voice, provided it is light, so that the same actor may bridge the years.) [He is described as "always laughing and constantly good tempered, he restored warring factions between indoor and outdoor servants".] [At some point along the way, he had got himself a wife and daughter whom he had deserted to follow Beckford. See "England's Wealthiest Son", page 230 - J.S.]

A sensuous, passionate, kindhearted and very beautiful Latin boy becomes a middle-aged man of many years' later. True to his general type - he has become very plump. I also imagine that he is just a bit of a "queen". Not too much, but enough to merge with certain Latin characteristics to make for an effete if not too effeminate foreign gentleman in England. He probably dyes his hair and touches up his features with a bit of rouge. He is halfway to being Beckford's matronly "wife" in plump middle-age and addresses him as "my dear" [?] (He was certainly outlandish enough in appearance to rouse the suspicions of the Fonthill neighbours. And while Beckford's sexuality may be in some doubt, there seems to be little that Franchi was an active homosexual and may even have been a homosexual procurer - Beckford certainly asked him to be one. Franchi might also have frequented one of the London male brothels that was later raided.)

All this is important because it goes with Beckford's general "decline", if you like. Through no fault of his own, Franchi's transformation into middle-aged queenliness is the outward manifestation of the decline of Beckford's lyricism into something harder and more cynical, even despairing. But they stick to each other, because Franchi is so genuinely devoted, and perhaps something of the old Latin subservience continues to appeal to Beckford. [Until finally they do split up and Gregorio dies, in 1828, poor, unhappy and alone.]

Smaller Roles


[Scottish tutor. Worried parents may spoil child through over indulgence.]

Reasonably youngish Scots tutor to Little Beckford. [He has been called "Dry as Dust Drysdale".]


Typically fussy tutor and sycophantic to his 'betters'.


Middle-aged family solicitor to the Beckfords. (Actually there were 3 Wildman brothers serving the Beckfords in various capacities; here they've been conflated to one.) Mainly seen as openly exasperated by Beckford's wilful peccadilloes, but for business and legal reasons.


Lord Chancellor of England during this time and friend to the Beckford family. Not a particularly outstanding politician; inclined to the easy life and swimming with the tide. Afraid of the ruthless Lord Loughborough's designs on his political office. I picture him as heavy and port-drinking-florid, which may not have been the case.


Beckford's wife. Aged early twenties, and very agreeable in every way. Unfortunately not a lot of scope for dramatising her in this play. Had she lived she might well have been a steadying influence on Beckford, who certainly needed one throughout his life. Like Mrs Beckford, of Scottish aristocratic stock, but I don't think a Scots accent is applicable in either case. Eighteenth-century Scots aristocrats were very unScottish, and perhaps that branch of the aristocracy still is!


One of Beckford's Hamilton cousins. A young girl, early twenties, and obviously a good sort all round. Again, I would not have thought a Scots accent appropriate.

WHITE (40s)

[Solicitor who replaced the Wildmans. Something of a poet's imagination infuses his imterpretation of disasters in a far away country he's never been to.]


Beckford's Fonthill architect. A rather bohemian character; certainly his enthusiasm for the Gothic revival carries him dangerously away. He gained the reputation for buildings which both were splended, and apt to fall down.

PARSON STILL (one brief sermon extract)

Typical local prurient parson.


Gunpowder dealer. Powerful but common accent. Aged wealthy purchaser of Fonthill Abbey from Beckford. Fussy and deaf. [He is a nouveau riche, far more nouveau even than the Beckfords, so his diction should not be too refined.]


Aged. Wiltshire accent.


Strong Wiltshire accent. Important in that he helps bring the play to a close.


I suggest two alternating male voices will do. [Possibly 3 - J.S.]


Fashionable writer.]

One-liners and Very Small Parts










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