The love letters between Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her poet-husband Robert Browning are perhaps the most famous in literary history. In a heartfelt moment at the opening of Sam Henderson’s new play centered on the couple’s exile in Florence, Italy, Elizabeth Barrett Browning tells her husband, “I’m going to dip your cock in laudanum and fuck you til i’m high”.
And also: Yeah!
THE BROWNINGS, onstage at FringeArts in a production by Orbiter 3, presents a “highly” fictionalized version of the couple. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a cocky (“I’m just a fucking genius”), foul-mouthed (“turn off that stupid poem and come fuck me”), dope head, played with delightfully liberated aplomb by Charlotte Northeast. Robert Browning (David Ingram) resents her because her poetry is so good, loves her deeply, and feels unwarranted insecurity in her affection. The couple are joined onstage by composer Robert Schumann (brilliantly well-timed James Ijames) mostly as a personable and dickish lounge act introducing the fast-cut scenes (“Robert Browning is just on a roll with this poem”), sometimes as a smart-ass friend.
Henderson’s script displays a keen ear for dialog, which the actors (ably directed by Harriet Powers) deliver skillfully. They revel in the pauses, half-sentences, and natural rhythms which mark everyday speech but which TV, movies, and plays mostly fail to capture. They bicker (“Is this what we’re doing today?”), they’re cruel (“I’m sorry I laughed at your shitty poem”), they love, painfully and jealously (“I want you to have my headaches, I want you to remember my childhood”).
THE BROWNINGS isn’t interested in presenting realistic historical characters. Instead, Henderson’s naturalistic scenes mine the depths of a codependent relationship between two artistic types. They’re two self-motivated individuals, but also one thing — “the Brownings”.
“If we were one thing, we’d be so lonely,” says Elizabeth.
This is Henderson’s first produced play. It’s a remarkably auspicious start, but his inexperience shows as the play struggles to find its ending. “Is this the end,” Ijames’s character jokes, for the second time, some distance before the finale. Some of the late-act search for “the nature of love” would be better left to the poets.
In any case, the smart, funny play marks the sixth world premiere from playwright collective Orbiter 3. The company has pledged to disband after seven (originally six) new works. I’d hope the artistic success of this, and last season’s Peaceable Kingdom, would encourage them to reconsider, or at least spur the individual members onto similar collaborations and self-producing freedoms.