The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

III. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

§ 5. Strafford

But the material was stubborn as well as rich, and it resisted easy and early mastery. Possibly, also, the “confessional” mood was passing. In any case, Browning, who was always and almost solely interested in human character, was thinking of depicting character in action. He was eager, as he said in his preface to Strafford, “to freshen a jaded mind by diverting it to the healthy natures of a grand epoch.” Browning’s mind, no doubt, was turned to Strafford by Forster, who, with some help from Browning, had written the great statesman’s life. But it was at a supper given by Talfourd to celebrate the first performance of Ion that Macready, to whom Browning had already spoken of his intention of writing a tragedy, said, “Write a play, Browning, and keep me from going to America.” Strafford, which was the result of the request, was acted at Covent garden theatre on 1 May, 1837—Macready appearing as Strafford and Helen Faucit as lady Carlisle. Its stage history was brief. It was not “damned” on the first night, but just escaped; it was applauded on the second; and it died an unnatural death after the fifth. It was betrayed: the player who acted Pym refusing “to save England even once more,” and Browning vowing that “never again would he write a play!”

The tragical element in the play is the collision of the two loyalties—that of Strafford to the king and that of Pym to England: and the tragedy borrows its intensity from the fact that the king whom Strafford loves will not save him, and that Pym, who loves Strafford, sends him to his death. Pym “was used to stroll with him, arm locked in arm,” and, in early days, had even read the same needs in England’s face, while

  • Eliot’s brow grew broad with noble thoughts.
  • The atmosphere of the play is that of “a thorough self-devotement, self-forgetting.” The characters are all simple, and apt to be always in one condition of mind. They have a generous magnitude and strength and vigour; but they are too consistently in a state of exaltation, inclined to be declamatory and self-conscious and to be always expounding the movements of their own minds. Indeed, not one of Browning’s characters in any of his plays fairly comes out into the open air and on the high road, except, perhaps, Pippa.