Robert Browning, playwright : an analysis of "Strafford" and suggestions for its revaluation : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English at Massey University
Browning wrote Strafford at an early stage in his career. He was twenty-four. He had not long completed Paracelsus, and was working on the composition of his most difficult poem, Sordello. The play did not outlive its premiere season on the stage, playing only four nights to moderate but by no means completely discouraging acclaim and critical review. Like the remaining plays in the canon – there were seven in all – it has fallen into disregard as a closet drama. The play is thus, definitionally, a failure. A revaluation of the play appears timely. Such a revaluation would not necessarily demand its reinstatement on the boards, or as mandatory reading within the closet, but would certainly seek to establish its place within the Browning canon. The exercise would also be worthwhile because it would go some way towards explaining why Browning continued to write for the stage, and towards illuminating the dramatic elements that are characteristic of his "best" poetry : character – specifically 'Character in Action' devices of characterisation diction imagery the substitution of process for action. In some respects, Strafford was ahead of its time. William Charles Macready at his prime, for instance, might have been better equipped to direct it, and might thus have secured for it more immediate acceptance. Browning's approach might have been more in accord with stage requirements. In the realm of fact, however, the play was mounted in a time at which the theatre was in decline. Too little work has been done in considering Strafford in the context of the contemporary theatre, and some space is devoted here to a brief survey of English theatre in the 1830's and '40's. Again, elements can he isolated that point to problems and attempts at solving them in the development of theatre to our own time. Included here might be those of poetic diction in dialogue, motivation of characters, the isolate character, and departures from the Aristotelian norms. In this area, Browning has had little or no influence, and suffers some measure of undeserved neglect. The present intention is to show, in examining Strafford, how Browning approached the theatre: not only the sort of play he wrote, but, by implication, the sort of writing he considered appropriate for stage presentation. This will lead to some estimate of the strengths and weaknesses of the play in performance. It ought also to open up an area of speculation about modern trends in thought and practice in the theatre. Early Victorian theatre presents a paradox. It is at once in a state of grievous decline and sprawling vigour. Some understanding of its conditions and status is necessary to a balanced view of Browning's plays, and will be attempted under the difficulties imposed by access to a plethora of data and a dearth of authoritative judgment. Finally, the major criticism of Browning's theatrical ventures will be reviewed, and this, with the questions raised above, will point towards a revaluation of Strafford in particular, and the remaining plays that Browning wrote, generally.