An air of mystery pervades the opening scene of The Browning Version, as the audience is introduced to a schoolboy, John Taplow, as he stealthily enters the quarters of his classics master, Andrew Crocker-Harris, and steals two pieces of chocolate from a box of candy. He eats one and guiltily replaces the other, making sure that the pieces do not look disarranged. Shortly thereafter, Frank Hunter, a young and popular master, enters and queries the student about his presence. Taplow informs Hunter that he is there for a final tutorial. When Millie comes in, she dispatches Taplow on an errand to the drugstore to pick up her husband’s medicine, thereby ensuring some moments of privacy with Hunter, with whom she has been carrying on a desultory affair. This is her husband’s penultimate day of teaching at this public school, where he has lectured on the classics for eighteen years; ill health has now forced him to retire.
From the initial conversations between Taplow and Hunter and then between Hunter and Millie, the action of the play moves swiftly in a deftly timed series of exits and entrances to reveal the inner turmoil that Crocker-Harris has kept well in control during his years as classics master. Dubbed “the Crock” and “the Himmler of the Lower Fifth,” he tells jokes at which the students have long since ceased laughing. Hunter and the audience learn that for years Crocker-Harris’ teaching of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (458 b.c.e.) has been a mere exercise in translation. Taplow mimics the master’s often-repeated comment to his pupils regarding grades: “I have given you exactly what you deserve. No less; and certainly no more.” Millie arrives at this point, just in time to witness this mimicking of her husband.
Confirming the impressions created by Taplow, Crocker-Harris—in the tutorial session that follows—reminds his pupil that Agamemnon is the greatest play ever written. Taplow instinctively reacts with a reply: “I wonder how many people in the form...
(The entire section is 842 words.)