- Staging “Fra Lippo Lippi”
It is “a pity that we cannot see Maud performed,” A. Dwight Culler once wrote of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s verse monodrama. In precisely the same vein, Culler encouraged readers of Tennyson’s dramatic monologue “Ulysses” to “[i]magine Ulysses seated disconsolate,” suggesting that if only “one had not been conditioned by a century and a half of silent reading, of deliberately playing down the metrical and rhetorical effects of poetry, one would understand . . . a dramatic monologue should be dramatic.”1 And of course others before Culler had urged similarly, S. S. Curry having maintained that the “author creates a poem and puts it into words, and the vocal interpreter then gives it life.”2 One reader who was given to such imaginings, who could see and hear the drama of dramatic monologues and who was capable of reading poetry through the lens of the stage, was Edward Gordon Craig (1872–1966). Craig is best known as a theater director, designer, and theorist, and he was also in his earliest days an actor, as is perhaps to have been expected of Ellen Terry’s son.3 What is important for readers of this journal, however, is that in the archives at the University of California survives Craig’s partially marked-up copy of Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi,” a sort of prompt book that preserves in embryonic form his theatrical vision for the poem and that is the subject of this essay.4
Naturally study of this specific exercise in dramatic reading is not also meant to shed light on the drama of Tennyson’s Maud or his “Ulysses,” those poems explicitly mentioned by Culler, or even on the drama of the dramatic monologue more generally. As David Bergman long ago observed, there is a danger inherent in casually reading across the genre—any genre, for that matter—especially when the qualities perceived in one exemplary specimen are turned into an aesthetic and critical straitjacket for the judgment of others.5 Though it is quite natural for scholarship to seek to codify literature, this should not preclude the possibility that different dramatic monologues may be differently dramatic, that their emphases may vary, or that individual readers might discover a particular poem’s drama in unexpected ways. The reading explored here, it is thus worth emphasizing, is singular: it is Craig’s reading of an individual poem. But even though it is representative only of itself, Craig’s imaginative engagement with Browning’s poem is more than just a literary curiosity; [End Page 413] there is no use in denying, for example, that in scholarship “Fra Lippo Lippi” has proved to be one of Browning’s more significant poems or that Craig himself is a notable figure in the history of British theater. The attention given to both is obviously considerable. That Craig’s annotations afford scholars an unusually concrete way to think beyond the “silent reading” of this important dramatic monologue is therefore of some consequence, his reading of the poem that of the practitioner. What interested Craig was how “Fra Lippo Lippi” might function in the theater, his notes an experiment in shifting the poem from the page to the stage and imagining it in performance.
As far as I know, Craig’s marked-up text has never been examined, so in the following few pages I summarize and comment on its contents and also begin to place Craig’s dramatic vision for “Fra Lippo Lippi” in the context of his broader dramaturgical development. First, however, it is necessary to say one or two specific things about the state of Craig’s notebook itself.
Craig’s notebook exists as a single volume consisting only of the one poem, which has been excised from a larger collection of Browning’s verse and bound separately. This is apparent because the pagination in the specially created book does not begin at page 1 but runs instead from pages 205 to 220, and on the verso of each page of verse is the running header “Men and Women,” from which collection “Fra Lippo Lippi” comes. These slight details may, in fact, allow us...