Battered: A Play about Domestic Violence Inspired by Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book by Katie Winkler

battered poster

When I was in graduate school long years ago, I took a course in 19th Century British literature. I was already a huge fan of the period, fueled by an undergraduate class in the Victorian Era, so the course further entrenched my love of the time and its literature.

During the class, we were required to read The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning, the master of the dramatic monologue with its “silent listener.” Although many are not familiar with The Ring and the Book, others are likely to have encountered what is probably Browning’s most recognizable poem, “My Last Duchess,” a dramatic monologue, of course. Here it is:

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Lucrezia de` Medici by Bronzino

 

My Last Duchess

by Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
The Studio

The Studio by John Liston Byam Shaw (c1900)

The dropping of the daylight in the West,

The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
close up photography of person holding opened book

Photo by Nubia Navarro (nubikini) on Pexels.com

The Ring and the Book involves similar settings and themes. Set in Italy during the Renaissance, The Ring and the Book, at 21,000 lines one of the longest poems in English literature, tells the story of how Pompilia Comparini, a 17-year-old who has just given birth, is cruelly stabbed to death, along with her parents, by her husband, Count Guido Franceschini, and four assassins.

Browning based his novel-length poem, told through 12 dramatic monologues, on a true Renaissance murder trial chronicled in The Old Yellow Book, a collection of trial papers and hand-written notes. Browning had secretly married Elizabeth Barrett, the author of the renowned Sonnets of the Portuguese, in 1846; they had fled from England to Italy soon after for the sake of Elizabeth’s health and to escape her tyrannical father. After her health improved, at 43, Elizabeth gave birth to their son, Pen. Then, one June day in 1860 while wandering the streets of Florence, Browning came across the trial papers covered in vellum. Although fascinated with the story from the beginning, Browning did not write his masterwork until Elizabeth’s death and his subsequent return to England.

brown and white painted cathedral roof overlooking city and mountain under blue sky

Photo by Maegan White on Pexels.com

Back when I was a graduate student in that 19th Century British literature class, I first thought how I would like to dramatize The Ring and the Book, about how relatively few people still read and study this great work with its beautiful language and far-reaching themes of searching the heart for reasons why we do the horrible things we do (Hodell) or how we are able to endure when we seem so weak and frail.  I wanted, someday, to find a way to help people, especially those who may have never heard of Browning before, discover, or re-discover, his greatest work.

25 years later, I have been blessed with the opportunity to write a play that, I hope and pray, does just that.  And more.

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Stay tuned for more information about Battered, which is being produced by the Theatre Department at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, North Carolina, April 10-14, 2019.

Also, if you are interested in learning more about Robert Browning, dramatic monologues, and other Victorian Era works and authors, I highly recommend taking a look at The Victorian Web, a wonderful resource for you anglophiles out there.

 

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An Exciting Summer

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Submissions are closed for the premiere edition of Teach. Write. Thanks to all who submitted. I will be getting in touch with contributors as the month progresses. Tomorrow I will begin putting together the journal of poetry, prose and essays that will launch on September 1, 2017.

It has been a busy summer, and although I did not complete my two major writing goals, I have made progress on both and am looking forward to continuing that work while I begin teaching. The teaching will always come first, of course, but I am determined that I will use my time wisely and work on my writing projects each day. I want my students to be disciplined writers, so I need to make every attempt to be disciplined in my craft as well.

d8ce6a5e9ae0d888f860fbcc01dc04d2By the end of November, I will have completed the rough draft of my novel, Flood, a mystery/thriller set in Alabama during the early days of Obama’s first presidential run. The idea for the novel started as a short story for my unpublished novel Mordecai Tales, but on the advice of some of my writer friends, I decided to turn the idea into a novel. Portions of the book were workshopped at two different conferences this summer, and the feedback I received from fellow writers as well as two excellent instructors, Jane Smiley and Sheryl Monks, has encouraged me to complete the work.

223_4324I also will have completed several drafts of my new play, an adaptation of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book. I have spent many hours this summer re-reading and studying the The Ring and the Book, which has re-kindled my interest in this novel-length poem that is considered Browning’s crowning achievement but is little read today.

To prepare for writing the play, I also read Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, which includes fascinating biographical sketches of both writers as well as excerpts from their vast correspondence that is extremely helpful as I write the play. A third helpful source I completed reading early in the summer is Derek Parker’s non-fiction book Roman Murder Mystery: The True Story of Pompilia, an informative re-telling of the factual details surrounding the 17th Century Italian murder case on which Browning’s magnum opus is based. 

I am excited to complete both of these very different works and am truly enjoying the process of writing, something I hope to pass on to my students this semester.

My other big writing event was the publication of a short story “I Have Not Yet Returned” in the anthology Unbroken Circle: Stories of Cultural Diversity in the South published by Bottom Dog Press as part of their Appalachian series. You can purchase a copy of the book with its 26 stories and essays about the modern South through the publisher’s website or at amazon.com.

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