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:
My Last Duchess
by Robert Browning
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
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.
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.
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.