Poetic language offers a dizzying examination of ties that bond

Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her famous 1850 collection Sonnet from the Portuguese wrote: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach when feeling out of sight for the ends of Being and ideal Grace.” This poem is also the inspiration for the title of Canadian playwright Florence Gibson MacDonald’s work How Do I Love Thee? currently playing as part of Alberta Theatre Projects’ Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays.

The play explores the identity and nature of love by following the arc of the relationship between 19th century poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Jan Alexandra Smith) and Robert Browning (Geoffrey Pounsett). From their first clandestine correspondence to their 1846 marriage and subsequent move to Italy to Barrett Browning’s dying moments from an overdose of laudanum. For those who imagine it was a fairy tale union made in literary heaven this play will serve as an eye-opener about the unhappy and volatile nature of their married life.

The play opens with Browning learning that Barrett has referred to him in one of her poems. He in turn decides he must write to her. He soon spirals into giddy euphoria which he believes is love based solely on their extensive correspondence. The play examines the contrast between the love they share on paper and how it changes once they know each other in the flesh.

It’s fitting that in a play about poets the language is the real star of this show — it’s heavy on words and comparatively scant on plot and dramatic action. How Do I Love Thee? will not be everyone’s cup of tea. To follow the dialogue and the many theories it offers as to the true nature of love — that it’s a lie that it’s forgiveness of oneself that it’s in words that it’s surrender that it’s in death etc. — can be fairly arduous. There came a point in the production when I stopped trying to make sense of every line and just succumbed to the poetic rhythms.

Despite all this talk of love however Pounsett and Smith have very little if any chemistry. This lack of connection seems unfortunately to give the play an academic superficial almost tongue-in-cheek quality particularly near the beginning which I doubt was the playwright’s intention.

Another of the play’s main themes and one I dare say is more interesting is an exploration of Barrett Browning’s addiction to morphine laudanum and ether a dependency that began when her father insisted she take medication to calm her nervous and excitable outbursts as a child. Barrett Browning remained an addict for the rest of her life. The play implies that she felt incapable of writing without her “tinctures” and “potions.”

ATP artistic director Vanessa Porteous refers to How Do I Love Thee? as having a sort of “contemporary energy.” With its exploration of drug addiction the underlying sexuality of some of the lines (Barrett Browning pants out a description of Browning’s poetry in terms of “the muscularity of his lines the throbbing of his metre”) and the impassioned fights that sometimes turn physical How Do I Love Thee? is not a tame parlour drama.

The Brownings remained together for 16 years from their early courtship in 1845 to Barrett Browning’s death in 1861. Their union also produced a son. Unfortunately How Do I Love Thee? gives no sense of the longevity of their relationship a point which is significant in a play exploring the definition of love.

I found it surprising the actors did not perform in English dialects. Doing so would have affected the poetic rhythms of the play but in the interest of historical accuracy and considering these poets’ place in the body of English literature it would have been better.

How Do I Love Thee? is a linguistically beautiful production. It’s a poetic experience — through the words and through some of the beautiful images director Kate Newby creates onstage (not least of which involve designer Scott Reid’s large steel and foam tree that overlooks the stage). Don’t come to this production expecting to find answers to love’s many mysteries. You will leave with more questions than you came with. One thing is certain: You will never look at a poem by either Browning the same way again.