Jeffreys' portrait of Rochester seems designed to titillate Rochester scholars for the play is packed full of references to Rochester's poetry (both the popular lampoons & satires and the more arcane meditations on "nothing" etc...). Though Jeffreys admits that he takes some liberties with the material he deals with the most infamous incidents in the life of Rochester (hatred of poet laureate Dryden, disgust at excesses of Charles II, breaking of the Kings sundial, abandoning his friend Downs to die at the hands of a night watchman during one of the merry gangs many riotous jests, the impersonation of Italian mountebank Dr. Alexander Bendo, the alleged training of and affair with the actress Elizabeth Barry, portrait with monkey). Any Restoration or Rochester scholar will be impressed and delighted with the amount of historical and literary research and detail Jeffreys packs in to this play. But the play is not just a reiteration of already known facts and incidents that are already part and parcel of Rochester scholarship/lore; this play also attempts to offer an original take on the world's most famous libertine.
Its interesting to note that Jeffreys' THE LIBERTINE was originally written to be performed as a companion piece with the most famous libertine play of the Restoration, Etherege's MAN OF MODE. Most scholars agree that the lead character of Etherege's play, Dorimant, was based on a kind of idealised version of his friend Rochester. Some critics would say that Etherege crafted a portrait of his notorious friend but a portrait that Restoration audiences could admire for Dorimant like Rochester is a cool patrician libertine but unlike Rochester Etherege's Dorimant never makes a move designed to upset or lampoon the social world that he inhabits but is always an affable charmer/companion with friends and ladies (his treatment of Mrs. Loveit excepted), and his winning ways make him the toast of the town and the most sought after lover and socialite in all of London. You could say that Jeffreys' portrait of Rochester in THE LIBERTINE is designed to counter Etherege's too flattering portrait with a more gritty and more realistic portrait of his own. This is especially interesting as Rochester himself was always interested in offering a more realistic or more natural version of life than any of his literary companions and competitors were offering. Etherege's portrait is complex though and it does show Dorimant/Rochester as a consummate social performer who is capable of always knowing just what to say to each social player (and this can be viewed as a criticism not a compliment). Jeffreys wants us to see the other side of Rochester, the side that is only implied in Etherege's portrait. Taking his cues from Rochester's own poetrry Jeffreys fashions a much more complex and paradoxical creature. Jeffreys' "Rochester" talks as if he did not really want to be liked or admired. He talks as if he preferred "reality" to "art" and yet his actions seem to contradict what he says as he always seems to want to escape "reality" and seek refuge in "art". For instance Jeffreys' "Rochester" is disgusted at the artificiality of Restoration social norms and forms and yet he seems only to be interested in life as it is enhanced by or refracted through the theatre and through poetry. Rochester, according to Jeffreys, is a self-professed cynic who claims that he has ceased to believe in life and who wants from the theatre a convincing illusion that can provide him with the emotions that life alone can no longer provide. And yet his Rochester also seems to genuinely fall in love with the actress that he is training to provide him with those artificially contrived emotions (arguably what he falls in love with is the genuine being who like himself feels the need to express herself through artificial forms). Jeffreys seems to be offering us a portrait of a man who either does not know himself as well as he thinks; or a man who knows himself very well and knows that he needs a very complex cocktail of life/art to satisfy his very sophisticated urges/desires/appetites for a very sophisticated kind of life/art.
The one theme that seems to be consistent throughout the plays about Rochester and the various versions of the life is that Rochester sought release through excess. (Jeffrey's at one point has Rochester say "I only know that I am alive when I have gone too far"). As Graham Greene noted in his famous biography of Rochester, LORD ROCHESTER'S MONKEY, "excess" for Rochester (whether excessive love or hate) was a way of escaping the forms and norms of society. And yet, paradoxically, in the London of the 1670's "excess" as well as "cynicism" was in fashion (and for that matter so too the lampoon and the satire were fashionable as was the "malice" required to practice such literary modes) . Thus Rochester even in despising the age in which he lived still seems to be its most representative member.
Many Rochester scholars like James William Johnson (whose A PROFANE WIT is perhaps the most comprehensive Rochester bio available) claim that what Rochester was trying to escape from was himself (many scholars offer some version of the claim that Rochester did not believe man had anything like a transcendent identity and that, like the monkey, he was really nothing but an actor capable only of offering a series of social performances to please one audience or another). Jeffreys, as many scholars before him have done, interprets Rochester's religious conversion as just one more social performance that is no more "real" than any of the ones that preceded it. This is what some of Rochester's own friends thought when they heard of the deathbed conversion. Some scholars claim that Rochester's poetry was always full of religious imagery and that the apparent unbelief of the satirist is just a negative route toward belief and affirmation. One of the most interesting scholars claims that Rochester's conversion was indeed an act but an act that quieted his will and allowed him to actually occupy the present moment or the "now" that he had previous to the conversion only theorized about. In any event the Rochester that continues to capture the public imagination is the iconoclastic doubter and the contrarian who seems to be both attracted to and repulsed by his own libertine ways and the world that he not only belongs to but exemplifies.
Rochester's paradoxes and dichotomies are fascinating and will, I think, be of interest not only to scholars but to amateur literary men and women as well. Jeffreys' play does an excellent job at sorting through and arranging some of the paradoxes that scholars have struggled with for centuries and making them accessible to a popular audience. I would not say Jeffreys' version of the life is the definitive one but only because with a life like Rochester's there is no defintive account. The paradoxes and unresolvedness are what make the life and the work so interesting.
By the way the film version of THE LIBERTINE is only a loose adaptation of Jeffreys' play. The play is a kind of scholarly entertainment geared toward audiences with an advanced interest in & knowledge of Rochester and Restoration literature (though the play can be enjoyed on some level by those who are not yet Rochester/Restoration experts I would not suggest starting here if you are new to Rochester; I would start with a biography and then come back to this play). The film, on the other hand, is designed for those who might not yet be acquainted with either Rochester or the Restoration and thus it drops far fewer insider references resulting in a far less intricately nuanced portrait. The film is nonetheless an excellent and entertaining introduction and will lead the literary minded toward the biographies and other Rochester literature.
I really recommend both play and film (and biographies). I also recommend a PBS miniseries called THE LAST KING which is an excellent way of learning about the Restoration. Rochester only makes a couple of brief appearances in the miniseries but THE LAST KING is an excellent way of familiarizing yourself with restoration era politics and society. One of Rochester's complaints in Jeffreys' LIBERTINE is that the aristocrats had no real function in Restoration England and that their lives were useless and that what they all suffered was the realization of their own irrelevance and absurdity. The miniseries offers another take on just how Charles II's politics (the crisis of authority) effected the social reality and artistic production of the time.