‘The Farce of Sodom’

The Farce of Sodom‘ (Ref: 194/F1/1) (also known as ‘The Quintessence of Debauchery’) is an erotic play published anonymously in 1694, but attributed to John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester.   The copy held at the Lowestoft branch of Suffolk Record Office appears to be the earliest of ten surviving handwritten copies in existence.  Research by the American academic and authority on 17th Century literature, Dr Nicholas Nace (see below), suggests it is of international importance.  It holds the dubious accolade of being the first literary work ever to be censored in England on the grounds of obscenity, but is considered to be one of the finest erotic satires and despite its content, the play is said to have been performed on a single occasion before a private audience at Court.  In the 2004 film The Libertine, Johnny Depp, playing Rochester as he drinks and debauches his way to an early grave, is seen staging Sodom in front of an outraged Charles II, with Rochester taking the role of the King of Sodom.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, 1647-1680 (c) Dillington House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, 1647-1680 (c) Dillington House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Dr Nace told the Record Office:

“The manuscript of The Farce of Sodom held at the Lowestoft branch of the SRO is one of only ten manuscripts of this infamous and highly unusual Restoration-era play in the entire world, and quite possibly the earliest of all ten manuscripts. Exactly how the anonymous Sodom came into being and circulated is one of the greatest bibliographical puzzles in the history of English literature. This puzzle, which remains largely unsolved, has preoccupied scholars from the US, Australia, Germany, and the UK.  The discovery of the unique Lowestoft Sodom has completely changed our understanding of how this play circulated in manuscript … Any further research into this play or, indeed, into the phenomenon of manuscript circulation in the Restoration period, absolutely must contend with the Lowestoft copy of Sodom.”

[Nicholas D. Nace, Visiting Professor of English, Hampden-Sydney College (US)]

The other 9 manuscripts of Sodom are located as follows:

  • 2 are at Princeton University in the United States
  • The British Library
  • The Victoria & Albert Museum
  • Nottingham
  • Hamburg
  • Vienna
  • Paris
  • The last is in private ownership, unknown location

Further information on the significance of the Lowestoft copy of Sodom can be found in Nicholas Nace’s article: “New Light on Sodom,” for The Book Collector (Autumn 2014), 557–567.

The fragment at the Record Office contains 22 pages of a volume originally comprising of c.240 pages.  By the index they would all appear to be essays, poems, ballads, songs etc. all from the same period.  In addition to ‘The Farce of Sodom’, the fragment includes 3 poems entitled ‘Dialogue between the Marble Horse and the Brass Horse’ (c.1675), ‘The Chronicle’ (c.1673-1685) and ‘On the Death of the Duke of Cambridge’ (c.1661-1677).

The last page of 'The Farce of Sodom' (Ref: LRO/194/6/1)

The last page of ‘The Farce of Sodom’ (Ref: LRO/194/6/1)

Dialogue between the Marble Horse and the Brass Horse‘ is a satire in verse regarding the state of the nation, with references to Charles I, Cromwell and Charles II.  It is written in the form of an exchange between ‘Woolchurch’ and ‘Charing’ (2 statues whose riders were Charles II and Charles I respectively) and is attributed to Andrew Marvell, who published it in 1675 as ‘The Dialogue Between Two Horses’.  ‘Woolchurch’ can still be seen in the grounds of Newby Hall in Lincolnshire; ‘Charing’ is is believed to be the 1st statue of an English king on horseback and is still located at Charing Cross and marks the point from which distances from London are measured.

Equestrian Statue of Charles I, Charing Cross. Image credit: Stephen Walli, 2010 (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Equestrian Statue of Charles I, Charing Cross. Image credit: Stephen Walli, 2010 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Chronicle‘ comprises 28 verses regarding Charles II, the state of the nation and his rule with references to the First Dutch Wars (1660-1665), an attempt to seize the Dutch East Indies fleet whilst moored in the neutral port of Bergen, Norway (1665), and the French seizure of Maastricht (1673).

Charles II is described in the 2nd line as ‘the miracle of the restoration’ (restoration 29 May 1660, Charles’ birthday), but by verse 22 the sentiment has changed and it reads:

“Have render’d Charles, the restauration (sic),
A curse and plague upon the nation”

On the Death of the Duke of Cambridge‘ is a sonnet, possibly written on the death of one of the sons of James Duke of York (the younger brother of Charles II and in 1685, crowned King James II).  Charles, 1st Duke of Cambridge (1660-1661) was the 1st child born to James Duke of York and his 1st wife Anne Hyde and the poem may well be addressed to him, as the closing 2 lines of the sonnet read:

“As her first fruit heaven claim’d the heavenly boy
The next shall live, and be the nation’s joy.”

The previous monarch Charles II had no legitimate heirs and did not bestow the title Duke of Cambridge on any of his illegitimate children and the subsequent joint reign of William and Mary, which followed that of King James II, produced no heirs.