Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rachel Weil's "A Plague of Informers"

Rachel Weil is professor of history at Cornell University. She lives in Seneca Falls, NY.

Here she dreamcasts an adaptation of her latest book, A Plague of Informers: Conspiracy and Political Trust in William III's England:
I will resurrect Robert Altman to direct my movie because his films gave viewers exactly the sensation that historians get working with documents. You hear snatches of conversation that you don't quite understand, and only with time in patience can you fit (some of) the parts together. That is especially true if your subjects, like mine, are spies, informers, and political spin-meisters.

A Plague of Informers is a set of linked stories rather than a grand narrative, and like many Altman films it could have a cast of hundreds. The episode I'll cast here concerns Matthew Smith, who joined a Jacobite conspiracy in 1696 to overthrow the English government (Jacobites were rebels who wanted to put King James II, who had been deposed in 1688, back on the throne of England). Then Smith changed sides and tried to reveal the conspiracy to the Duke of Shrewsbury, the "secretary of state" responsible for national security. Of course Smith asked Shrewsbury for money so that he could keep pretending to be a conspirator -- he needed to buy a horse, armor, and drinks for his Jacobite companions, he said, so that the conspirators would trust him and spill their secrets. Shrewsbury, deciding that Smith was a fraud, refused to pay him. Unfortunately for Shrewsbury, it turned out that there really was a plot against the government. Now Smith could accuse Shrewsbury of willfully ignoring him to cover up the plot and indeed of being a Jacobite plotter himself. The job of defending Shrewsbury fell to James Vernon, Shrewsbury's immediate subordinate. Deploying bribery, subterfuge, and the services of the unsavory spy and propaganda-writer named Richard Kingston, Vernon struggled valiantly to discredit and silence Matthew Smith. To know if he succeeded you will have to see the movie (or read my book!).

Jim Carrey would get the manic side of Matthew Smith, a swash-buckling enthusiast who probably believes his own fantasies. Richard Kingston is also a spinner of fantasies, but is harder to love or laugh at; his lifetime experience dealing with lies and liars has left an almost palpable oily sheen. You would not have bought a used car from this man. I would not have bought a used car from William Macy in Fargo, so I'll cast him as Kingston.

James Vernon has layers of complexity. He is openly disgusted not just with Smith but with his (temporary) ally Kingston, whom he employs to write propaganda against Smith even though he thinks Kingston is a creep. But perhaps he also resents working so hard to protect his boss Shrewsbury, who has has thrown up his hands in dismay and retired to the country. I want someone a little older, a little run down, who conveys intelligence and repressed anger. Tom Wilkinson? As for Shrewsbury, he reminds me of Jude Law's character in The Talented Mr. Ripley -- great-looking nice guy, unaware of how much resentment his privilege could provoke.

Where are the women? There is one bit part for a female actor that really encapsulates the criss-crossing resentments infusing this story. Shrewsbury's colleague in office, William Trumbull, disliked Shrewsbury and Vernon so much that he was ready to believe Matthew Smith. The wives got into it too. In 1695 James Vernon's wife Mary, learning that Trumbull's wife Catherine had felt slighted by her, wrote to Catherine to apologize. Catherine replied that Mary need not have taken the trouble to write, as “you have so much better acquaintance that you can never miss that of myself.” Judi Dench could say that line really well.
Learn more about A Plague of Informers at the Yale University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: A Plague of Informers.

--Marshal Zeringue