Robert Browning Drama Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 2,705 words.)