Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Pippa Passes

Closet dramas, plays meant to be read rather than performed, tend to be a bit dodgy. Occasionally you get a gem, like Ibsen's Brand or Peer Gynt, where even though the author didn't seek production, the play gets produced successfully anyway.

Robert Browning's plays were a different matter. His A Blot in the 'Scutcheon should have been a hit, but William Charles Macready gave it an early death. After that unfortunate incident, Browning turned to writing dramatic monologues, and sometimes full-length closet dramas.

The most famous of these is probably his 1841 play Pippa Passes, actually composed before the affair with A Blot in the 'Scutcheon. It follows a young Italian woman named Pippa who works winding silk in a mill, but who wanders through the town of Asolo on New Year's Day, her one day off from work.

Pippa admires other residents of the town whom she considers to be her betters. "Asolo's Four Happiest Ones" include "Great haughty Ottima" who is admired by a German man named Sebald, the newly married couple Jules and Phene, the young Luigi and his elderly mother, and a visiting Monsignor who is staying at his brother's home.

Throughout the day, Pippa passes by each of these four "happy" residences that are anything but happy. In each case, a disaster is about to happen, but Pippa's simple song turns people's hearts, and she ends up doing good unconsciously. Ottima and Sebald, it turns out, have murdered Ottima's husband, and just as they are about to glory in their bloodshed, Pippa's song moves them to repentance.

Pippa then passes some art students making fun of Jules for his new bride. Realizing that he has been tricked into marrying Phene, Jules is at the point of sending her away so they can both be free from the scorn of those around them. Instead, after overhearing an old ballad sung by Pippa, Jules resolves to abandon his sophisticated but shallow circle and run off with Phene to "Some unsuspecting isle in the far seas!"

Next, Pippa passes some policemen and the English informer Bluphocks who is about to betray Luigi for his revolutionary activities. Browning shocked his contemporaries by making Luigi a would-be regicide, but when Pippa sings of an ancient king, he begins to think better of his plan. Luigi's final line is actually ambiguous: "'Tis God's voice calls: how could I stay? Farewell!" What is clear, however, is that whatever action he takes, he will undertake it with a purer heart due to the influence of Pippa's song.

Pippa passes some "Poor Girls" who appear to be prostitutes and then by the house of the Bishop's brother. The Monsignor confronts a blackmailer who goes by many names, including Maffeo. Apparently, the brother had a child, and to cover up the illegitimacy, paid Maffeo to kill the infant. Browning turns the tables on us, though. Maffeo reveals that the child lived, and is none other than "a little black-eyed pretty singing Filippa, gay silk-winding girl." Pippa is apparently the heir to the brother's estate, and to secure it for the Monsignor, Maffeo offers to have the young woman entangled into the world of the prostitutes, where she will never again be a threat. Upon hearing the voice of his niece, though, the Monsignor has Maffeo gagged, bound, and carried away.

The final scene shows Pippa alone, unaware of the way she has influenced everyone she passed. Her final lines are moving:

                              All service ranks the same with God--
                              With God, whose puppets, best and worst,
                              Are we: there is no last nor first.

It's hard to imagine Pippa Passes actually being staged, but people have tried. The Browning Society did an adapted version in Boston in 1899, and Henry Miller wrote an adaptation that ran on Broadway in 1906. Three years later, D.W. Griffith made a film version that included Mary Pickford. You can watch it on YouTube here:

D.W. Griffith's Pippa Passes 

The film makes great use of directional lighting, but of course lacks Browning's poetry. It also leaves out the politically fraught Luigi storyline and adds a conventional story of a drunkard. Most frustratingly, it also drops the scene with Maffeo where we learn Pippa's true heritage.

Griffith also made a film version of A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, but it appears to be lost. Perhaps it's just as well.