Browning’s first four plays seemed to mark a growing neglect of the requirements and traditions of the stage. He might even appear to have renounced the stage altogether when in 1841 he arranged with Moxon to publish his writings in a cheap pamphlet form. The first number of Bells and Pomegranates contained the least theatrical of his dramas, Pippa Passes. “Two or three years ago” he declared in the preface (not reprinted), “I wrote a play, about which the chief matter I much care to recollect at present is that a Pit-full of good-natured people applauded it. Ever since I have been desirous of doing something in the same way that should better reward their attention. What follows I mean for the first of a series of Dramatical Pieces, to come out at intervals; and I amuse myself by fancying that the cheap mode in which they appear will for once help me to a sort of Pit-audience again.”
But Browning’s ambition for fame as a maker of plays was still keen, and nothing but a renewed invitation to write for the stage was needed to lure him back into tentative compliance with its ways. In the course of 1841 Macready intervened with a request for another play from the author of Strafford. Thereupon Browning produced with great rapidity A Blot in the ’Scutcheon. After prolonged and somewhat sordid green-room vicissitudes, it was performed on Feb. 11, 1843. Macready, its first begetter, did his best to wreck it; the majority of the players refused to understand their parts; but through the fine acting of Helen Faucit (Mildred) and Phelps (Lord Tresham), it achieved a moderate but brief success.
[Footnote 19: The date is fixed by Browning’s statement (Orr, p. 119).]
The choice of subject indicates, as has been said, a desire to make terms with stage tradition. But the ordinary theatre-goer, who went expecting to witness what the title appeared to promise, found himself, as the play proceeded, perplexed and out of his bearings. An English nobleman, with the deep-engrained family pride of his order, had suffered, or was to suffer, dishonour. But this seemingly commonplace motif was developed in a strange and unfamiliar ethical atmosphere—an atmosphere of moral ideas which seemed to embrace both those who upheld the feudal honour and those who “blotted” it; to hint at a purity deeper than sin. In a more sinister sense than Colombe’s Birthday, this play might have been prefaced by the beautiful motto of its successor:—
“Ivy and violet,
what do ye here
With blossom and shoot in the warm spring weather
Hiding the arms of Montecchi and Vere?”