The method in Harry Groener's madness

May 18, 2011

Harry Groener is passionate about being analytical. To prepare for his role as the king in CST's The Madness of George III, he read seven books—including one focused on the king’s 15 children. Or was it 16? Either way, he says, “If you look at the dates, that’s almost one a year!”

Alan Bennett’s 1991 play hews to the historical record, right down to the three bumpers of spa water George III drinks at Cheltenham, Groener says, in an effort to cure what ails him—probably porphyria, a disease discovered a century later. Cycling through all the character’s inexplicable, excoriating physical and mental afflictions, this Tony-nominated veteran of Broadway, television, and film manages to establish the character’s bedrock decency.

“George III has been demonized,” Groener says, “made into the crazy king who happened to be crazy during the American Revolution. But no, this was way after that, in the winter of 1788, 1789. The fact that they lost the colonies was something he could not bear till the day he died. Parliament was what he had trouble with. He wasn’t the one who said about the colonies, ‘Oh, they’re just misbehaving, treat them like children and give them a spanking and let’s not hear anymore about it.’ There are references to him saying, ‘Is there any way that we can resolve some of the grievances?’”

The so-called mad king, Groener says, “wanted to set an example to the country—a moral example, a religious example: be good, be honest, be honorable. Be true to your wife, monogamous—and he was.” Groener describes the king’s relationship with the German-born Queen Charlotte (a wonderfully warm Ora Jones) as “sweet, because it isn’t the norm, right? You get married, you don’t necessarily love the person, but your duty is to marry and have children to continue the line. Once you’ve done that, and have a few sons, you’re more or less done.” Not George III, apparently.

Nattering on about his favorite subject, Groener says: “He was very well educated, of course, but he also educated himself. He loved going to talk to the farmers, he loved talking about agriculture, of course he loved pigs—he loved pigs! He could exhaust you because he was so energetic and could just talk and talk and talk about ANY subject. This was before he was ill. When he was ill he would talk for hours and hours and hours. Some of it was nonsense, some of it wasn’t. And he was aware of the fact that something was going terribly wrong. He did hallucinate. The physical symptoms started first, and then they went to affect his mind.”

“We can all sympathize with the pain this person is going through,” says Groener. “And I think we can all relate to the caretaking theme. Penny Metropulos, our director—both of us were very, very well aware. She’s going through it now with her husband and her mother-in-law, and my wife and I’ve just gone through years of it, with friends and with our parents. I’m sure that at least 25 percent of the audience, if not more, on any given night are going through that at this very moment. The dealing with this person who’s becoming incontinent, and no one was equipped to deal with that—certainly not Charlotte, certainly not the sons. It was left to the doctors, the equerries, to deal with this man and his condition.”

“I loved reading about this, it really is fascinating,” says Groener. “A lot of it, you just have it in the background, it’s peripheral—you can’t play it, but you just have it back there, and it grounds you, so that when you look at these people you have a little bit more information about who that actor represents. For me it just gives it more weight, it colors it more, it fills in the blanks.”