Robert Browning

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Robert Browning Drama Analysis

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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...

(This entire section contains 2705 words.)

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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 thematic focus of this play is on the inhumanity of what is perversely done for the sake of personal, social, and dynastic honor. In scene after scene, Tresham, Mildred, and Mertoun are either driven or betrayed by such considerations, their relationships becoming increasingly complicated, frustrated, and dangerous. At the same time, Guendolen’s frank and genial perspective reminds us (and ought to have convinced the other characters) that with a little more candor and a lot less preoccupation with “name” and “blots,” the whole problem could have been resolved comedically rather than tragically. She notices almost prophetically, for example, how overready the others are to announce principles for which they are prepared to die. It is also Guendolen who gaily sees through Mertoun’s pretense, Tresham’s gullible complacency, and Mildred’s guilty secret. Her insights are ignored or come too late, but her bright and ironic personality commands the stage at the end. It is significant that Tresham, Mildred, and Mertoun apparently die uncontrite: They regret the ghastly effects, but not the causes, of their actions. Tresham’s dying utterances, which he imagines to embody heroic penance and self-sacrifice, are as banal, code-bound, and monomaniacal as anything he has sad before. Mildred likewise persists in considering her own death as a just retribution and relief from anguish. Mertoun, like the others, is none the wiser for bringing on his own end. Each demise is a wholly destructive martyrdom to some abstract, overscrupulous notion of “duty” or “wrong.” Moreover, these unexpected deaths are shocking. As in some of Browning’s other plays (and in such dramatic monologues as “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”), the customary tragic effects of fear and pity are mingled with surprise and even revulsion. The conventions of drama do not easily embrace Browning’s emphasis on extravagance and perversity in characters’ motives and reactions. If pathology and tragedy do not mix, Browning is no tragedian. His work may nevertheless be a finer, more modern, and more disturbing criticism of life for having deviated from literary tradition.

Pippa Passes

Pippa Passes is Browning’s most famous (though possibly least stageable) play and ranks among his best works. An early and experimental composition, the drama comprises four symbolic vignettes from Renaissance life in an Italian town. These independent scenes are structurally and thematically connected by the momentary overhearing, in each, of young Pippa’s voice. The girl’s innocent singing crucially affects the outcome of interviews that she unknowingly bypasses in her holiday journey. In every case, her song induces a hearer to make, at a point of personal crisis, a guilty choice in favor of just or noble action. Pippa Passes reveals Browning at his dramatically strongest and weakest. The situations, subtle effects, psychological focus, and tenuous framing story are quite unsuitable for theatrical performance. In reading, however, the play is successful and undoubtedly dramatic. The issues raised by the various personalities, conflicts, and resolutions of the four scenes are likewise typical of Browning at his best.

Perhaps the most memorable and evocative vignette in Pippa Passes is the scene that presents two adulterous lovers, Ottima and Sebald, who have just murdered Ottima’s wealthy old husband. Even as the couple begin to talk, it becomes evident that their former “wild wicked” passion has become wearied and cloying. The crime designed to set them free has already started to gnaw the heart out of their love. Sebald in particular seems irritable, distracted, and resentful from the outset. He is also grimly obsessed with the man whose killing he now half regrets. Like Macbeth, he is weaker and more morbidly sensitive than his accomplice. Sebald surprises, and then alarms, Ottima by dwelling on his troubled conscience, self-disgust, and frank doubts about her value as his reward. The pace and drama intensify as Ottima grasps the seriousness of this threat to their relationship and fearfully sets out to argue and finally to seduce him back into her control. In lines of lush and powerfully sensual poetry, accompanied by indications of alluring gesture, she soon succeeds in diverting and arousing the febrile Sebald. As he excitedly begs forgiveness and names her his “queen . . . magnificent in sin,” they embrace and ardently undress. At this instant, the passing song of Pippa is heard from outside the window—the famous little lyric ending, “God’s in his heaven—/ All’s right with the world.” Grateful for being rescued by the intervention of this “miracle,” a remorseful Sebald recoils at once from Ottima, bitterly repudiates her fascinations, and abruptly kills himself. It is typical of Browning that the impulsiveness and startling effect of the suicide, rather than its moral implications, are highlighted: The act’s dramatic interest is in its psychology, its convincing exhibition of how that haunted mind might react, edifyingly or not, under such stress. Ottima’s immediate responses—shock, envy, tender generosity, and self-recovery—are likewise rendered by Browning with skillful realism and irony. She is another of his brilliant portraits of women, and for all of her sins (a murder among them), the sanity of her final outlook underlines the strange extremism of Sebald’s.

Each of the other sections of Pippa Passes similarly portrays two characters whose dilemma is interrupted and in some sense resolved by the passing voice of unworldly little Pippa, and, like the Ottima-Sebald scene, the others are Browningesque in their psychological verisimilitude, dramatic patterning, unusual feeling, and apparent moral opaqueness. Two parts employ a robust and naturalistic prose that confirms Browning’s versatility and also indicates how emphatically his preference for “outmoded” verse drama was based on positive and theoretical considerations, not on any inability as a prose stylist. He never composed another play with the ingenuity and variety of Pippa Passes, but in the separate vignettes can be seen the germ of the great dramatic monologues to come, as well as the peculiarly psychological (or psychosocial) bearings of speeches and soliloquies in the later plays.

Lesser Plays

Briefer analyses of Browning’s other dramas will suffice. Of these, Strafford, King Victor and King Charles, The Return of the Druses, and Luria are undistinguished. The first two are historical studies. Luria is a tragedy strongly reminiscent of (but much inferior to) Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604). A convoluted romance, The Return of the Druses fails to integrate the politics with the love story. Features of two other plays do deserve attention. These are Colombe’s Birthday (important as the happiest and most stageworthy Browning drama) and A Soul’s Tragedy (very significantly the last).

Colombe’s Birthday

Colombe’s Birthday is a fairly conventional romantic comedy about the personal feelings and minor diplomatic stir associated with a young duchess’s marriage. Graceful and gently satiric, the story interestingly follows good Duchess Colombe’s birthday tribulations (both a threatened insurrection and the advent of a rival claimant to the throne, followed by two attractive marriage proposals) and the sound judgment (and luck) by which she satisfies both love and public duty. There are pleasing and eloquent characters, much fine verse, a genially searching critique of “courtierways,” and a satisfying conclusion in which all receive as much or as little as their behavior warrants. Moreover, as a stage play Colombe’s Birthday is workmanlike, accessible, and sedately agreeable. There is, however, a notable scarcity of Browning’s customary dramatic concerns, tensions, and techniques. Indeed, to some extent this play indicates the literary limitations of work in which he most compromises with practicality and with popular taste. It may not be coincidental, then, that Colombe’s Birthday was the last drama Browning designed expressly for theatrical presentation and that he soon abandoned playwriting altogether.

A Soul’s Tragedy

A Soul’s Tragedy, Browning’s most politically and philosophically serious play, has often been praised even though it is his last and his least stageable. Written in evident indifference to theatrical expectations, it dexterously traces the development and decline of a sixteenth century revolutionary’s mind. The title itself seems to express the lifelong orientation of Browning’s writing and the inevitability of his forsaking the theater. An entirely interior, possibly allegorical, process is being enacted in A Soul’s Tragedy, called by its author a “wise metaphysical play.” Only the inward action—defeat in the soul—is tragic, moreover; to all outward appearances the pattern and outcome are comedic.

Well-articulated theories of statecraft, and much rhetoric about public responsibility, are simply vehicles for the playwright’s exploration of moral psychology. The “tragedy” lies in the latter—in the conscious and unconscious mental life underlying an individual’s outward behavior and rationalized principles. As critic Trevor Lloyd has shrewdly pointed out in connection with the political dramas, Browning handles well “the frame of mind of a man undertaking an imposture for the sake of something that he can convincingly regard as a good purpose.”

The mind that undergoes change in A Soul’s Tragedy is that of Chiappino. During the first half of the play, he utters, in excellent verse, all the idealism (sincere and otherwise) of unselfish aspiration. Then, in the second part, he speaks—this time in lively prose—all the disillusionment (justifiable and otherwise) of realpolitik. That switch from “poetical” to “prosaic” thought and expression is not simply a political metaphor or an elegant gimmick on Browning’s part. Both “voices” are rhetorical projections of what the self-preoccupied “soul” imagines or requires itself to believe at the moment. The touchstones against which Chiappino’s development can be charted are two alter-ego characters: Luitolfo is the simple and genuine radical, while Onigben is the cynical legate whose droll Machiavellianism here is unsurpassed in English drama. As we might expect in Browning, Onigben gets the last word.

Browning published A Soul’s Tragedy with Luria in 1846 as the eighth and last issue of the Bells and Pomegranates series. In more ways than one, this pamphlet marked the end of an era in his artistic life. The dedication to Walter Savage Landor announced the work as Browning’s “last attempt for the present at dramatic poetry.” He never wrote another play.


Robert Browning Poetry: British Analysis