The Barretts of Wimpole Street

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The Barretts of Wimpole Street
First US edition 1930s
Written byRudolf Besier
Date premiered20 August 1930 (1930-08-20)
Place premieredMalvern Festival,
Malvern, Worcestershire
SettingElizabeth Barrett's bed-sitting-room at 50 Wimpole Street, London, in 1845

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a 1930 play by the Dutch/English dramatist Rudolf Besier, based on the romance between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, and her domineering father's unwillingness to allow them to marry. Presented first at the Malvern Festival in August 1930, the play transferred to the West End, where it ran for 528 performances. An American production, produced by and starring Katharine Cornell, opened in 1931 and ran on Broadway for 370 performances. The play has subsequently been revived onstage and adapted for television and the cinema.

The play caused some protests from the descendants of one of the central characters, Edward Moulton-Barrett, objecting to what they saw as his depiction as a depraved monster, although the author and original director denied that the play did so.


Brian Aherne and Katharine Cornell in the original Broadway production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1931)

The Barretts of Wimpole Street was Rudolf Besier's only real success as a playwright.[1] It was first staged on 20 August 1930, at the Malvern Festival in Malvern, Worcestershire. Elizabeth Barrett lived near Malvern as a child, which suggested to the director, Sir Barry Jackson, the appropriateness of opening the play there before presenting it in the West End.[2] The production starred Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Elizabeth Moulton-Barrett and Scott Sunderland as Robert Browning.[3] The production was later seen in Birmingham[4] before opening, with the original cast unchanged, at the Queen's Theatre in London on 23 September 1930, where it ran until 2 January 1932,[5] a total of 528 performances.[6]

The production provoked protests from some of Edward Moulton-Barrett's grandchildren about the portrayal of their grandfather as a monster with "unspeakable vices".[7] Besier and Jackson issued a statement that neither when writing the play nor in its production was there any intention to portray Barrett as a man with incestuous impulses, and that such interpretation of the play was erroneous and unfounded.[8] The text of the play was published by Victor Gollancz in 1931. It is dedicated to Hugh Walpole.[3][9]

In search of an American production, Besier was rebuffed by 27 producers before the actress Katharine Cornell took an interest in the play and had it staged at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio on 29 January 1931.[1] The play then went to Broadway, where it opened on 9 February, at the Empire Theatre, starring Cornell and Brian Aherne, running for 370 performances.[10] The Stage commented in 1974 that Elizabeth was Cornell's most famous part.[11]

Stage casts[edit]

Role Original production (1930) US production (1931)
Doctor Chambers Aubrey Mallalieu George Riddell
Elizabeth Moulton-Barrett Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies Katharine Cornell
Wilson Eileen Beldon Brenda Forbes
Henrietta Moulton-Barrett Marjorie Mars Margaret Barker
Arabel Moulton-Barrett Susan Richmond Joyce Carey
Octavius Moulton-Barrett Barry K. Barnes John Halloran
Septimus Moulton-Barrett B. B. Coleman William Whitehead
Alfred Moulton-Barrett Hugh Moxey Vernon Downing
Charles Moulton-Barrett Leonard Bennett Frederick Voight
Henry Moulton-Barrett Douglas Quayle Basil Harvey
George Moulton-Barrett Anthony Marshall Leslie Denison
Edward Moulton-Barrett Cedric Hardwicke Charles Waldron
Bella Hedley Joan Barry Dorothy Mathews
Henry Bevan Oliver Johnston John D. Seymour
Robert Browning Scott Sunderland Brian Aherne
Doctor Ford-Waterlow Wilfred Caithness Oswald Marshall
Captain Surtees Cook Barry Wilcoxon John Buckler
Flush (Elizabeth's dog) Tuppenny of Ware Flush
Source: Playscript.[3]


The action of the play takes place in Elizabeth Barrett's bed-sitting room in her father's house. She is an invalid, taking comfort from her pet spaniel, Flush. Her sister Henrietta tells her that their father is in a fury because of the impending visit of their cousin Bella, who is about to marry – something Barrett will not allow his daughters to do: "So long as Papa's alive none of us will ever be able to marry with his consent – and to marry without it is unthinkable". To Moulton-Barrett, love entails "cruelty and loathing and degradation and remorse ... With the help of God, and through years of tormenting abstinence, I strangled it in myself. And so long as I have breath in my body, I'll keep it away from those I was given to protect and care for".[12]

When Bella arrives, Elizabeth confesses that she too has an admirer – the handsome young poet Robert Browning. Invigorated by his renewed declaration of love, she gets up and walks for the first time in years.[13]

Some months later, Elizabeth is so much better that she is planning a trip to Italy, on her doctor's advice. Her father cannot bear to let her go. When Browning begs her to marry him and leave for Italy together, Elizabeth pleads for time. When Barrett discovers that Henrietta has an admirer, he is so angry that he assaults her and makes her swear never to see him again.[14] Elizabeth, realising that she must act, secretly marries Browning and elopes with him, leaving a note for her father. Barrett, devastated, wants revenge. "A smile of indescribable ugliness flickers across his face" and he orders Elizabeth's beloved dog to be destroyed – but she has taken Flush with her. Learning from Henrietta that his cruel vengeance has been thwarted, Barrett stands perfectly still, "staring straight before him and mechanically tearing Elizabeth's letter into little pieces, which drop to his feet".[15]

Revivals and adaptations[edit]

Cornell reprising her role in the Producers' Showcase television production of the play in 1956


Cornell revived the play twice on Broadway: at the Martin Beck Theatre (1935) and the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (1945).[16] There was a West End revival of the play in 1948 at the Garrick Theatre, starring Margaret Johnston, Alec Clunes and Tom Walls.[17]


It was filmed in 1934, starring Fredric March, Norma Shearer and Charles Laughton. That film was remade scene-for-scene and almost shot-for-shot, in colour, in 1957, starring Bill Travers, Jennifer Jones and John Gielgud. Both films were directed by Sidney Franklin.[18]


BBC television broadcast an adaptation of the play on 14 October 1951, starring Pauline Jameson as Elizabeth, Griffith Jones as Browning and D. A. Clarke-Smith as Edward Moulton-Barrett.[19] On 2 April 1956 NBC's Producers' Showcase aired a production featuring Cornell as Elizabeth. A 1982 TV film of the play was made by the BBC starring Jane Lapotaire as Elizabeth, Joss Ackland as her father and Jeremy Brett as Browning.[20]


The play also spawned a musical, Robert and Elizabeth, with book and lyrics by Ronald Millar and music by Ron Grainer. It opened in London on 20 October 1964, starring June Bronhill, Keith Michell and John Clements and ran for 948 performances.[21]


  1. ^ a b Hochman, pp. 344–345
  2. ^ "Malvern Festival", The Stage, 20 March 1930, p. 14
  3. ^ a b c Besier, unnumbered introductory page
  4. ^ "Repertory Theatre", Birmingham Daily Gazette, 26 August 1930, p. 6
  5. ^ "The Queen's", The Stage, 25 September 1930, p. 16; and "The Theatres", The Times, 10 December 1931, p. 12
  6. ^ Herbert, p. 1602
  7. ^ "The Barretts of Wimpole Street", The Times, 29 August 1930, p. 10
  8. ^ "The Barretts of Wimpole Street", The Times, 3 November 1930, p. 10
  9. ^ "The Barretts of Wimpole Street", OCLC 469255516
  10. ^ "The Barretts of Wimpole Street". Internet Broadway Database.
  11. ^ "Obituary", The Stage, 20 June 1974, p. 21
  12. ^ Besier, p. 155
  13. ^ Besier, p. 115
  14. ^ Besier, pp. 134–140
  15. ^ Besier, p. 165
  16. ^ "The Barretts of Wimpole Street", Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 23 March 2024
  17. ^ "The Garrick", The Stage, 13 May 1948, p. 1
  18. ^ Milberg, p. 28
  19. ^ "The Barretts of Wimpole Street", BBC Genome. Retrieved 23 April 2024
  20. ^ "The Barretts of Wimpole Street", BBC Genome. Retrieved 23 March 2024
  21. ^ Gaye, p. 201 and Herbert, p. 1633


External links[edit]