Though many playgoers were surprised by the general popularity of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, in retrospect, the groundwork for this achievement is evident. At the beginning of his career, Rudolf Besier had demonstrated his ability to draw a portrait of a peculiar poet, and in Secrets, his first genuine popular success, he demonstrated his sharp and sensitive knowledge of human feelings. Further, several of his earlier plays revealed a flair for melodrama. Though The Barretts of Wimpole Street exhibits characteristics of a comedy (it was labeled by Besier as such), a psychological drama, and a historical drama, the play contains many of the traits of the melodrama. Above all, the intrinsic appeal of the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning has given the play its enduring appeal, yet Besier must be given full credit for realizing the dramatic potential in this well-known romance—particularly the role of Elizabeth Barrett’s father, the quintessential Victorian tyrant.
At start of the twentieth century, dramatic language on the English-speaking stage had increasingly tended to become dry and uninteresting, and, as a result, dialogue seemed stilted. Besier’s first play, The Virgin Goddess , a classical tragedy written during a visit to the United States, clearly showed his eagerness to return colorful and lively dialogue to the stage. The play was greeted with mixed reviews. Three years later, Besier received considerable praise for his comedy Don, which centers on an eccentric and magnanimous poet. The play’s formal language and heavy sentimentality have dated badly. Lady Patricia, a satire on English affectations, and Kultur at Home, which delighted audiences for the manner in which it depicted German domestic life at its worst, kept Besier before the critics and the public.
In Secrets, which Besier wrote with May Edginton , he used the device of allowing the first act to take shape as a prologue, commencing the main action with the second act. In the opening episode, Lady Carlton, old and exhausted from constantly tending her dying husband, falls asleep in an armchair beside his bed. The drama itself consists of a series of flashbacks presented in the form of a dream. In these, the lives of the couple are presented as they marry, endure initial poverty, and gradually attain affluence. During this time, the husband has an affair with another woman. His wife forgives him, despite her bitter jealousy, because of her realization that he needs her. Like several of Besier’s earlier plays, Secrets is highly sentimental, but it is distinguished by its acute perceptions into the psychology of the two main characters.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Like any work that deals with actual personages, a play demands some understanding of the lives of its characters and the times in which they lived if it is to be thoroughly appreciated. Understanding the fullness of The Barretts of Wimpole Street necessarily entails historical knowledge not only of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning but also of the general nature of Victorian customs, manners, and class distinctions.
The oldest child in a wealthy, upper-middle-class family, Elizabeth Barrett was educated at home. As a result of a back injury at the age of fifteen, she became a chronic invalid. From her early teens until the end of her life, she read widely and concentrated on writing poetry. At the time of the play, Barrett for a number of years had been confined to her room in her father’s London house on Wimpole Street. From there, she pursued her education, including the study of Greek, took frequent medication, and, with the exception of visits by her family and a few friends, remained by herself to write articles and the poetry that brought her recognition. Robert Browning , a poet then ignored by the public, one day came to pay his respects, and the celebrated literary romance began. The pair seemed ill-matched; she was six years older than he and her health was frail. Her father, moreover, had decided that none of his children should marry.
Despite such unpromising conditions, the two lovers secretly married and moved to Italy, where they lived for most of the fifteen years that remained of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life. There, they wrote most of their now famous poems and had a son. Elizabeth Browning strongly devoted herself to the Italian struggle for independence against Austria. She wrote not only The Cry of the Children (1854), in which she passionately argued against child labor in England, but also Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), her famous sonnet sequence celebrating her love for her husband. In 1861, she died and was buried in her beloved Italy.
The hero of Besier’s play, Robert Browning, was strong, spirited, and optimistic; like Barrett, he began writing when he was young. The criticism that attended his poetry early in his career failed to discourage him, for he continued to write prolifically. His whirlwind courtship overwhelmed Barrett’s initial resistance, and their romance ended only with her death, after which he returned to England. His reputation today rests primarily on his dramatic monologues, in which the speakers’ own words provide psychological insights into their characters. He died in Venice in 1889, but his body was returned to England and buried in Westminster Abbey, where many of England’s great poets are buried.
Set against Browning in the play is the antagonist, Barrett’s father, Edward Moulton Barrett, who at the age of nineteen left Cambridge University to marry a woman more than five years older than he. The union produced twelve children; one child, a girl, died in childhood, and two boys died as adults. After his wife died, he ruled his nine remaining children like a despot, refusing to explain any of his commands and forbidding any of the children to marry. Three eventually disobeyed him, and as a result, he disinherited them and refused to see them again.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street takes place during the early years of Queen...
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