Robert Browning’s best plays, whether for reading or performance, are the ones in which we are most aware of his genius for evoking “action in character”: the drama of human personality in conscious or unconscious conflict with itself. Outward action and scenic spectacle are perhaps more incidental in Browning than in any other significant English playwright, though the extended implications for social morality are usually apparent. Instead, Browning concentrates on the self-articulation of minds that are devious or deviant or otherwise exceptional. One effect is to cast doubt on the normative values and impulses contending in (or generated by) such mentalities, notably in politics or love. Indeed, love of one sort or another among socially prominent characters is usually the symbolic field in which Browning’s flawed or obsessive personalities perform most ineffectually or tragically. Rationalizers of selfishness, greed, hypocrisy, or cruelty are frequently presented, as are characters who let themselves and others be destroyed by the paradoxes inherent in artificial codes or standards of conduct. In particular, egomania and other faults of willful pride (including excessive shame or guilt) would appear to be Browning’s diagnosis of the moral neuroses and complacencies he detected in Victorian society at large. The characters are not so much evil as inveterately and anxiously deluded.
A Blot in the ’Scutcheon
It is easy to misconstrue the sometimes grotesque, sentimental, or overwrought behavior of Browning’s characters as a lapse or compromise with popular taste on the playwright’s part. In Browning, the trite or melodramatic overreaction is symptomatic—it is his subject, not his technique. The presence and perspective of intelligent, realistic, and sensible characters such as Guendolen in A Blot in the ’Scutcheon confirm Browning’s deliberate exhibition of abnormality in others, such as the histrionic Mildred and Thorold Tresham. That contemporary readers and audiences (including Charles Dickens) could apparently value Browning’s pathos for its own sake is a separate consideration. A more significant problem for Browning, and for modern readers, is the atheatricality of such refined psychological and metaphoric aims. The artistic intention may in fact be too subtle, the rendering too opaque, the intended medium too visual to elicit onstage anything like the appropriate effect. Nevertheless, as a reading text, the typical Browning play yields the same kind of dramatic significance that is to be found in his poetry.
The verse tragedy A Blot in the ’Scutcheon, considered Browning’s best play, indicates his special effort to create something both subtle and stageworthy. In fact, he described it to the celebrated actor-manager William Charles Macready as “a sort of compromise between my notion and yours. . . . There is action in it, drabbing, stabbing, et autres gentillesses.” Nevertheless, the observable action and strong dialogue in this drama of eighteenth century aristocratic honor remain subordinated to Browning’s real interest in portraying inward conflicts and destructive ideals. Moreover, the tragic situation derives entirely from the flawed psyches of proud, rash Lord Tresham and his guilt-tormented sister Mildred. The distraught girl and her illicit lover Lord Mertoun attempt through an elaborate charade of formal betrothal to bring their relationship within the bounds of social and class respectability. Here, then, is a combination of Browning’s favorite dramatic themes: unusually heightened emotion, symbolic moments of intense individual crisis, thwarted or misdirected love and sexuality, and the inhibiting force of pride or conventionality on free feeling and action. In all of these respects, A Blot in the ’Scutcheon shows divided loyalties and misguidedly good intentions causing tensions that explode in impulsive and fatal choices. Mildred Tresham is visibly going to pieces throughout much of the play, her virtual derangement the price she pays for being torn between her passionate love for Mertoun and her terror of offending her imperious brother. It is her panic that has necessitated the young lovers’ gamble for respectability, and she thus initiates the sequence of disastrous dissimulations, exposures, and misunderstandings. Both men are doomed when, cracking under the strain, she blurts out half the truth. Tresham and Mertoun feel bound by honor to suppress the simple word that could avert the needless catastrophe. It is the kind of situation in which Browning excelled: dilemmas in which men and women are too hampered by mixed motives to act with candor, charity, courage, or imagination.
The proud folly of Thorold Tresham is likewise responsible for the tragic denouement in A Blot in the ’Scutcheon. He whips himself into a rage about Mildred’s “dishonorableness” and the reputation of his ancestral house, despite having seen earlier the wisdom of embarrassed concealment. In his fury, he so aggravates her already excessive shame that she is unable to reveal that her secret paramour and her formal suitor are the same person. Again in the duel scene, Tresham’s selfish, intemperate anger and taunting compel the unwilling Mertoun to fight and die. Thereafter, sorrowful but still obsessed with observing the niceties of maintaining the family name, Tresham kills himself in a gesture that would seem ludicrously melodramatic were it not so poignantly in keeping with the pernicious notions of heroism and dynastic obligation he has displayed all along. Guendolen’s wry epitaph confirms that one is expected to pity Tresham but by no means to admire his “perfect spirit of honor” or to condone his pointless, self-righteous suicide. Here and elsewhere, Guendolen seems to reflect the author’s bemusement by what she calls “the world’s seemings and realities.” If the Treshams are unstable and haunted, young Mertoun seems overly casual until it is too late, at which point he overreacts in dignified fatalism. His contribution to the tragedy, apart from maintaining, all too incautiously, the liaison with Mildred and misjudging her brother, is to defy Tresham unnecessarily before the duel and to perish more or less suicidally on the latter’s sword. Murders, suicides, and (as in Mildred’s case) expirings under stress are almost always associated in Browning’s plays with willful or simplistic escapism, albeit in the name of some illusory notion of justice. The three deaths in A Blot in the ’Scutcheon are good examples of this tendency.
(The entire section is 2705 words.)