In 1660, with the return of Charles II to the English throne, theater, the visual arts, science and sexual promiscuity flourish. Thirteen years later, in the midst of political and economical problems, Charles II orders the return of his friend John Wilmot, aka the second Earl of Rochester, from exile back to London. John is a morally-corrupt drunkard and a debauched, cynical poet. When the King asks John to prepare a play for the French ambassador so as to please him, John meets the aspiring actress Elizabeth Barry in the playhouse and decides to make her into a great star. He falls in love with her and she becomes his mistress. During the presentation to the King and the French ambassador, John falls into disgrace with the court. When he is thirty-three years old and dying of syphilis and alcoholism, he converts to being a religious man.
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