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. Already a huge fan of the period, fueled by an undergraduate class in the Victorian Era, 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:

330px-Agnolo_Bronzino2C_ritratto_di_Lucrezia_de27_Medici

 

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 what he called 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.

~~~~~~

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.

 

vntop

Advertisements

Teach. Write. Not Yet.

frankenclassicI know I said that my next post would be about my new endeavor into the literary e-zine world, but I am super busy with getting my stage adaptation of Frankenstein ready for auditions in August, so I haven’t had time to work on it.

Just a little advertisement: if you live in the Asheville area, please consider making Blue Ridge Community College’s production of Frankenstein: A Faithful Adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Classic Novel a part of your Halloween weekend. The play runs October 26-31. We had our second read through (my 6th draft) of the play this past Monday with about 20 student and community actors coming out for the reading, and many of them will be auditioning. I could not have been more pleased.

I will keep you apprised of developments!!

But until I have time to work more on the e-zine, here is another great article from one of my favorite educational bloggers, Bernard Bull. The topic is humanizing educational policy. A great read.

Policies Don’t Care about People

The Art of Collaboration

Cast Meets with Susan Burk

Cast meets via Skype with Susan Burk from the Matthew Shepard Foundation during rehearsals for The Laramie Project – photo by Vince LaMonica

Not soon after I started working at the community college where I teach, I was thrilled that a new degree was added–an Associates of Fine Arts in Drama. The young woman who led the program brought back to life my love of all aspects of theater production. I had dabbled in community theater as a publicist, properties manager, stage director and actor in several places where I lived, but raising a small child and teaching a heavy adjunct load meant little time for this passion.

 

The drama department at the college brought it all back to me. Furthermore, it offered me opportunities to get back onto the stage through small roles that didn’t require a great deal of rehearsal time. Jennifer, the director, always made it doable, and the more I became involved the more I wanted to do. Because her department is small, and she is the only full-time instructor, Jennifer and I, an English teacher, started finding more and more opportunities to work together, forming a cross-curriculum relationship that has, I think, greatly enhanced both departments for the advancement of our students and has sustained us both by allowing us the creative outlets that we crave.

It all started one day, long ago, over lunch at a Chinese buffet restaurant, when we were discussing the upcoming production. Jennifer had decided she wanted to do two one-act plays with her directing one and me the other as I had expressed the desire of getting my feet wet as a director. She had already decided on one of the plays–Blue Window by Craig Lucas, but she hadn’t been able to find a suitable play for me to direct.

Almost as a joke, I said, “Hey, guess what?”

“What?” she said.

“I wrote a play long years ago. It’s called Green Room. How about that, Blue Window, Green Room.” I was almost laughing. I really wasn’t serious at all or suggesting anything, I swear.

Then, she said, “Let’s do that one.”

“What?” I said.

“Let’s do your play.”

“But you haven’t even read it. You don’t know anything about it. It might suck. I mean, as far as I remember it does suck.”

“Here’s the beauty of it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever we don’t like, we change.”

Thus began a truly productive collaboration between two instructors. I can’t tell you what it means as a writer and an educator to have this kind of partnership, which protects Jennifer and her department from isolation and offers me opportunities to stretch the creative side in me–the writer, the actor.

We did produce Blue Window and Green Room. I ended up handing the directing baton over to Jennifer when, two weeks before opening night, one of the leads quit, and I had to step in to act. In addition, Curtis, a student who played a lead role in the play, also composed original music for Green Room and has gone on to collaborate with me, and Jennifer,  on many projects even after he left school.

The next semester I directed my first full length play, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Was I crazy? Of course, I was, but of course, Jennifer was there to help me through the process, and without her expertise the show would have been a disaster. On the other hand, because of my knowledge of German (I double majored in English and German in undergraduate school), I was able to contribute direct translations from the original text when the British translations we were using didn’t work. Also, I have a particular interest in musicals, which Jennifer doesn’t share, so working again with Curtis, we composed original music for the play.

Over and over again, Jennifer and I, along with students like Curtis, as well as colleagues, have collaborated on productions. So many times our ideas came from just seeing plays together in the community or at conferences. Other times they simply sprang from casual conversation or out of a desire to find a special project for a special actor. Here are just a few examples of our working together (in no particular order):

  • A production of Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project’s Laramie Project with student-led talk back facilitated by the public speaking instructor at the college. In addition, Jennifer had frequent discussions with Susan Burk from the Matthew Shepard Foundation and cast members had a teleconference with Burk to prepare for their roles. I acted in the show and wrote two features about the production for the local newspaper. Follow these links to read the features: 1)  Pre-Production 2)  Production
  • BRCC’s participation in the 48 Hour Film Project, winning Asheville’s contest in 2008. See the film at this link: Serial Love
  • Tennessee Williams’ One-Act Play Festival–we had two separate stages, a southern-style picnic and a lecture on Williams by one of our English faculty
  • Pre-show lecture about Lord Byron and the Shelleys before the production of Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry
  • Pre-show lecture, scenes and short film (produced by drama department) before production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
  • Pre-show lecture by me and an adjunct English instructor before Shakespeare’s Macbeth (we both acted in the production as well)
  • World premiere of A Carolina Story, a musical based on the Book
    Carolina Story 029

    A Carolina Story, April 2012

    of Job, by me with music by Curtis (We produced it a second time as a fund-raiser for the student emergency grant and loan fund)

There have been so many other examples of how our collaboration has enhanced our teaching. Currently, we are collaborating on perhaps our most ambitious project yet, an original stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We are attempting to preserve the plot and style of the original while adding exciting multi-media effects to enhance the production.

Most theaters cannot sustain this kind of freedom and collaboration between writer and producer/director. It is educational theater, especially in higher education, that allows for this kind of risk-taking to take place. It is also this kind of educational theater that should be supported with proper funding and promotion because in the end, collaboration between faculty, staff, students, administration and community is what it takes for the arts in education to flourish, teaching us to work together for the betterment of all.

And hey, if you’re near Asheville the weekend before Halloween, come see Frankenstein!!

 

 

 

Again, No Time But Must Post Something

Prop poster

Mock Propaganda Poster Inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (Pinterest)

I’m in the midst of grading my brains out here at the end of the semester, but I don’t want to let any more time go by without posting something because the current state of liberal arts education, especially at the community college level in my state, demands it. Thank goodness there are others who feel the way I do. So until I’m able to do some more research, I’m posting this great article by Gary Saul Morson, professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University.

As a literature instructor I was a bit taken aback at first, and a little insulted, but then I read on, and he has some great things about the importance of college level literature studies as well as sensible ways to engage students in literature classes.

Article by Gary Saul Morson from Commentary Magazine

London Trip — Day One–Departure

Picture 39

Dear Students,

My blog these next few days is primarily for you. Whether you are one of my British literature students or not, I want you to know that I’m thinking of you. I also am only just an e-mail or a Moodle message away. I will try to answer your questions in a timely manner. I’m hoping that you will find my posts interesting even if you are in my ACA115 online class or you are in one of my seated classes, even though the material doesn’t seem directly related to your class.

For those in my literature classes, I hope this information will be useful as you put together your capstone project–the literary travel project. You will see that it takes a lot to put together a trip, especially one that is dedicated to finding and enjoying particular things related to your particular author or work–of course, Shakespeare is pretty easy, I’ll admit.

So here’s a little run-down of my day:

I woke early because I couldn’t sleep. I was wondering if the luggage I bought would really fit in the overhead compartments or if I would have to check it in–I stewed and stewed over this. When my husband woke up, I told him about my worries, and he simply took out a tape measure to reassure me that it did meet the requirements for a carry on. I’m still going to ask at the check-in counter, though–just to be sure. I already have my boarding pass as I took care of that online from home yesterday.

I double checked some things and then headed to work. On the way there I listened to NPR’s Morning Edition as I usually do, and heard two stories back to back that mentioned London. It always seems that when you start thinking about or studying a certain thing, you are more attuned to hearing about it.

Before my class, I answered student e-mail and graded some of your papers and will grade more at home and on the flight as most airlines allow personal electronic devices to be used gate to gate now (the regulation changed in 2014 for most international flights, but I will ask just in case).

In my class we talked about fallacies in logic as my students prepare to research and write their argumentative research papers. Even in that class my mind turned to England as I used two great scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to illustrate my point–the “She’s a Witch” scene and the “Annoying Peasant” scene. Funny stuff and it always makes the point. We discussed all the egregious false logic in the clips, including non sequitur, hasty generalization, stereotyping, post hoc ergo proctor hoc, ad hominem and others. I always enjoy the “ferreting out fallacies” part of English 111.

After class I ran over to the Patton Auditorium to catch the last few minutes of a terrific talk by Lisa K. Bryant, artistic director at the Flat Rock Playhouse, the State Theater of North Carolina, along with some of the staff at the Playhouse, for the Arida Arts Symposium. It was so wonderful to see a bond beginning to develop between the Playhouse and the College. It has always been there, but I’m glad to see it strengthening. Quite a few drama students were in attendance and had an opportunity to hear what it’s like to make a living in the theater as she has. It was gratifying, also, for the director of our drama department to hear confirmed by professionals in the theater the things that she has been saying to her students all along.

Whew, I’m tired already, and I haven’t even gotten to the airport yet, so I’ll say TTFN (tata for now) and put the final touches on my baggage.

Cherrio,

Katie

More from the CAMPUS

Another frustrating day, so another installment from my musical in progress CAMPUS–a Satire of Higher Education in Appalachia. This song is sung by the arch villain of the piece–Mr. Mediocrity. An actor friend  living in Raleigh who did a reading there for me suggested I rename him Governor Mediocrity. I might just do that. Anyway, here it is, folks, me venting my spleen, yet again.

Bread and Circuses

By Katie Winkler

(from the musical CAMPUS)

I consider myself

A student of history

The Romans had power

That’s no mystery

But how did the elite

Keep their society replete

With ignorant masses and slave labor

Don’t forget the gladiators?

How did they keep them from starving

Or stop them from harping

About their miserable condition?

Do you know what the secret is?

I’ll tell you

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

They certainly do have their purposes

Everything will be just fine

If you keep them wined and dined

With a little food and relaxation

They’ll be ripe for some taxation

So give them

Bread and Circuses

Just not too much

I consider myself

A student of psychology

I sure know my way

Around society

Just a few things that they need

Enough to go out once a week

We keep open all McDonald’s

And Cracker Barrel too

These schmucks will pay good money

For that kind of food.

The finer restaurants need not fear

The rabble go to Red Lobster just once a year

Just give them

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

I’m sure that’s what the answer is

As long as we don’t discriminate

Denying advancement to every race

Enough bad food and home entertainment

Will keep the proper containment

So give them

Bread and Circuses

Only just enough

The secret to giving them satisfaction

Is lowering their expectations

This is the secret to our democracy

Let the rabble live long, long lives of mediocrity

Living on

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

If you want to know where the power is

Then open up your eyes

It’s the people who fill them with lies

That there’s no hope for anything more

When you’re born southern and poor

Just give them

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

Then look away,

Look away

Look away

Dixieland.

Today Is What It’s All About

Yesterday, I was discouraged, but today is a new day. Why? I went to rehearsal of my college’s new play. We’re performing a stage version of the movie Clue that is based on the old sleuthing board game so many of us know and love. The movie has an all-star cast, including the late great Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry (of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame), the fabulous Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren.

At auditions, there were so many fine actors that our director, head of the drama department, decided to have understudies for some of the roles, include a “household staff” that will serve as entertainment between scenes and then get their shot at the big roles during two additional shows. Great idea, and it’s what directors who are primarily good educators at community colleges do–make their lives much more complicated for the sake of their students as well as the community members who are also significant stake holders in their college.

Today’s rehearsal reflects what community colleges are all about–play production students coming early and staying late to work on the set, more seasoned actors helping the newer ones, agreeing with the director without argument, offering suggestions, happy to have them accepted or not, the director’s quick and non-embarrassing corrections when new actors make mistakes, each actor creating a story for his or her character, an occasional harmless joke, the joys of physical humor leading to laughter and a true knowledge of an art form that only comes with actually getting up and doing it.

This is educational theater and the essence of what liberal arts is all about–following directions, creative problem-solving, collaborating and creating. I’m so glad to once again be a part of it.

Also, today–my positive day–I want to give a shout out to the colleagues, support staff, administrators and students who helped me so much during this past discouraging week. I complain sometimes, but I truly just want to make things better for my fellow instructors and my students, especially my students. Nevertheless, I want to find more time to praise the people I work with who also have the welfare of all of our students foremost in their minds. I also appreciate those students and friends who have reached out to me this week, offering me respect and encouragement. Thanks, guys–you know who you are.