Other Literary Forms
Robert Browning is better known as a major Victorian poet and, in particular, as one who perfected the influential verse form called dramatic monologue. His achievement in poetry, for which he forsook the theater altogether in 1846, was unquestionably much greater than what he accomplished as a writer of stage plays, yet it is difficult and unwise to distinguish the subject matter and techniques of Browning’s “failed” dramas from those of his successful poems. Although he was by nature and inclination a dramatic writer, it became apparent that his peculiar interests and talent in that line were more suited to the finer medium of poetry than to the practical exigencies of stagecraft. The verse confirms his acknowledged preoccupation with interior drama (“Action in character, not character in action”). Browning’s verse masterpieces in this mode include “Porphyria’s Lover,” “My Last Duchess,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church,” “Andrea del Sarto,” “Love Among the Ruins,” “The Last Ride Together,” and The Ring and the Book (1868-1869). A dramatic monologue by Browning typically features an incandescent moment of crisis or of self-realization in the mental life of some unusual, often morally or psychologically flawed, character. Rather like a soliloquy except in being addressed to a present but silent listener, this type of poem enabled Browning to let his speakers’ personalities, motives, obsessions, and delusions be revealed—inadvertently or otherwise—in speech and implied gesture. This preoccupation with inward, psychological drama—with the springs of action rather than with action itself—is the origin of Browning’s greatness as a poet and of his limitations as a stageworthy playwright.
In nineteenth and early twentieth century criticism, Browning was widely considered to be the best English writer of dramatic literature (though not of stageable plays) since the Renaissance. That judgment was probably accurate enough, if only because of the remarkable dearth of fine drama during the two hundred years in question. Even today, especially if Browning’s splendid dramatic monologues are included in the estimate, there can be little doubt that his achievement was, under the circumstances, extraordinary. Nevertheless, any evaluation of his plays must begin by conceding that, despite his hopes, practical theatrical craft in the ordinary sense was never in Browning’s vein of genius. He was a first-rate dramatic poet, not a good technical playwright. Indeed, the very themes and methods that mark the plays’ literary value are the source of their unsuitability for successful performance.
One historical explanation of this “failure” is the Romantic concept of acted and unacted drama. Browning has been associated with a widespread and consciously antitheatrical attitude among authors that resulted in plays composed with indifference to performative—as opposed to literary or expressive—criteria. If Browning did believe on principle that actual staging is not necessary to serious drama, it is less surprising that his own plays are satisfactory chiefly as reading texts. On the other hand, Browning did press persistently to see some of his work on the boards.
In any case, Browning’s plays have never been popular and, with the exception of Pippa Passes, are not usually numbered among his most important contributions to the history of English dramatic writing. Their lasting excellence, then, is in their objective poetry and prose. As in the verse collections to which he gave titles such as Dramatic Lyrics (1842; in Bells and Pomegranates, 1841-1846), Dramatis Personae (1864), Dramatic Idyls (1879, 1880), and Men and Women (1855), Browning’s mastery of inward action is demonstrated in the plays’ delineation of moral and psychological crises and in their vivid intellectual and emotional energy. Understood as searching critiques of...
(The entire section is 2,190 words.)