Napoleon’s Highs and Lowes

By Philip Pearce

I WISH HOWARD BURNHAM had been my history teacher in high school. I wouldn’t just have learned the people and the dates and the events. I’d have enjoyed the onsite sets, the Technicolor costumes and the historic jokes.

Like the fact that George IV hated his wife Queen Caroline of Brunswick so vehemently that when a messenger bearing news of  Napoleon Bonaparte’s death announced, “Your Majesty’s greatest enemy is dead!” the King responded happily, “Is she, by God!”

Napoleon’s Highs and Lowes, sponsored by Monterey Peninsula Theater Alliance, is all about the defeated emperor’s final years in exile on St Helena. The extra “e” on the last word of the title points to his stormy battles with his St Helena prison guard, the island’s  governor Sir Hudson Lowe.  

Set in Longwood House, the rambling but rickety residence Bonaparte occupied during his final enforced exile, the story takes the form of Sir Hudson’s reminiscences of their encounters five years after the cocky Corsican’s death and burial. Napoleon having escaped his imprisonment on Elba, Sir Hudson was determined it wasn’t going to happen again on his watch.  

They bickered about purported slights to Napoleon himself and to members of his resident staff of more than 40 individuals. He complained about an infestation of rats. He bristled that the starchy Lowe  would never address him as “Emperor” but only as “General,”—a refusal that persisted even to the carving of Napoleon’s St Helena tombstone.   

Dallying with some local girls himself, Napoleon nevertheless loftily accused both Lowe and his wife of  marital infidelities. The bickering continued through six sessions after which Sir Hudson withdrew from face to face meetings. The acrimony continued however by note and message and letter throughout the prisoner’s remaining years. He described his captor as “Lowe by name, low by nature.”

Napoleon’s death on May 5, 1821 was probably from cancer, but then as now, there were plenty of fake news items and some spurious murky speculations that he died from dipsomania  or from arsenic in the Longwood House wallpaper—a supposed explanation of why his corpse was still so intact when it was exhumed and moved from St Helena to a massive new tomb that became a major tourist attraction in Paris.

The play poignantly contrasts the pomp and ceremony of Napoleon’s worldwide fame with Lowe’s obscure burial in an unmarked grave in a minor London church which was later deconsecrated and turned into a restaurant.  

As Lowe, Howard Burnham wears the proud scarlet of a dedicated but harassed British army officer. He makes a clear distinction between the two combatants by dialect and by repeated side-by-side portraits of the two as they argue. The visuals are vivid and informative as always, but the sound system seemed a bit crackly, so that Napoleon’s Corsican dialogue was occasionally a bit hard to follow.

Another vivid and vigorous lesson from Howard in things you may have forgotten or never learned about a major figure in European history.