One Long, Horrid Writer’s Retreat: An Interview with Sam Henderson
The love affair and marriage of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning is one of literary history’s favorite romances. It’s not hard to see why. The narrative of two brilliant artists who could articulate their love for each other, wring beautiful verse from it better than just about anyone is certainly an enchanting one. Of course, when are relationships ever that perfect?
From Nov 29–Dec 9, FringeArts will present The Brownings, the latest play from and in conjunction with the acclaimed Philadelphia producing playwrights collective Orbiter 3. Written by Philadelphia playwright and performer Sam Henderson, The Brownings is an immoderate retelling of the titular couple’s famous relationship, with all the fighting and weird sex and drug abuse they didn’t teach you about in school. Though, perhaps there’s a reason for that. We should be sure to reemphasize the terms immoderate and retelling. We spoke to Henderson back in August about the play’s origins and taking some artistic liberties with these famous, oft-idealized figures.
FringeArts: Was there any incident in particular that spurred the creation if The Brownings?
Sam Henderson: I was homeless, but staying with friends. I’d spent some time in a psych unit about three weeks earlier, where I’d received really good health care for the first time in about a year and a half. My life was beginning to improve after a long decline. My friends had provided me with a huge, stand-mounted map of Australia for privacy, and I used to just stare at Australia and write plays.
I was struggling to understand myself in the light of my diagnosis of type II bipolar disorder, and my coming to God: two recent, wholly unexpected events that brought meaning to all this personal chaos, if not comfort.
I was deeply under the influence of Mary Tuomanen’s Marcus/Emma, which was still unproduced. I wrote the first seven scenes of The Brownings very quickly as a joke to crack Mary up, and I was surprised when she encouraged me to keep going, since The Brownings is such a rip off of Marcus/Emma.
FringeArts: How did you encounter The Brownings?
Sam Henderson: I knew nothing about them except their work, and I assumed I would need to research them and their time. As I wrote, I noticed I didn’t really care about the historical Brownings at all. I much preferred these other characters: two great artists, inextricable from each other and in permanent conflict, yearning for a reconciliation that’ll never come.
FringeArts: Tell us a little about the world of the play.
Sam Henderson: The play ostensibly takes place in Florence in 1840something, in their house. For me, the setting of this play is the inside of a head, and we’re watching a divided mind, viciously at war with itself.
FringeArts: Are you using any of their writings?
Sam Henderson: Hearing their poems read aloud establishes, to my mind, who was the better poet, which is most of what they fight about all day. I imagined their years in Italy as one long writer’s retreat, with all the horror that notion implies. The use of their poems let me get themes across without having to write that stuff myself, because I really love some of their work.
FringeArts: What did you find yourself refining the most about this play?
Sam Henderson: Subtracting digressions. I love listening to them talk, but it’s 80 minutes or get the fuck out.
Sam Henderson/Orbiter 3
Nov 29 (Preview) at 8pm
Nov 30 (Preview) at 8pm
Dec 1 (Opening) at 8pm
Dec 2 at 2pm + 8pm
Dec 3 at 2pm
Dec 5 at 8pm
Dec 6 at 8pm
Dec 7 at 8pm
Dec 8 at 8pm
Dec 9 at 2pm + 8pm
140 N. Columbus Boulevard