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Notes for a play

Babel by Torchlight


The Fall of Fonthill

William Beckford was certainly one of the more remarkable inhabitants of Britain around 1800, indeed, one of the strangest men that ever lived.

From the time of his marriage, and the necessity of fleeing the country after the scandal with a young aristocrat called William Courtenay, to the final collapse of Fonthill, he was notorious. Gossip columnists in the journals of the day treated him with contempt. He was the subject of books. His own output of letters, journals, and other writings was prolific: even now not completely catalogued.

Fonthill, the gigantic folly he had constructed, was incredible, perhaps the most fantastic building ever built in England. The story centres around its construction and collapse - first the elements of discontent and ostracism in Beckford's life which led him to build it, the tragedy of his having to sell it and its collapse.

The climactic moment concerns the fall of the central tower at Fonthill, which causes Beckford to reassess his life in the moment of seeing what should have been its most enduring monument collapse.

He himself wrote;

'Like the low murmur of the secret stream

Which through dark alders winds its shaded way

My suppliant voice is heard - oh do not deem

That on vain toys I throw my hours away.'

I think a lot that is crucial to Beckford's life is present in that stanza from one of his poems. He wants to be liked for himself, not for his money, but he knows that the world's view of him is that he consumes his energies on 'vain toys' - the building of the Folly of Fonthill, his affair with the young William Courtenay, and others such as the Lisbon chorister Gregorio Franchi, his adultery with his cousin's wife, and entertainments such as he gave for the visit of Nelson.

The play concerns his search for happiness, fulfilment, and respect; and, though some may say he failed to find any of these, will hopefully help towards an understanding of his extravagant lifestyle. Humanity is enriched by the idea of Fonthill. The fact that it fell does not invalidate it.

Beckford was in some ways a very modern rich man - he used his wealth in the way that film stars and rock music stars do today. And he was a victim of a new type of gutter press journalism which was looking for victims, and is with us to this day.

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