Preview: How Do I Love Thee?

Drugs and poetry are the driving forces in the lives of a famous Victorian couple

HOW DO I LOVE THEE? by Florence Gibson MacDonald, directed by Ken Gass, with Irene Poole, Matthew Edison, Nora McLellan and David Schurmann. Presented by Canadian Rep at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Opens Thursday (February 5) and runs to February 22, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $35-$40, some Sunday $15 rush, gala February 14 $114. 416-368-3110,

Even if you don’t know much about poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, you likely have heard her most famous piece of verse, which begins “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

In fact, she and her husband, Robert Browning, are remembered not only for their poetry but also their lives together. Elizabeth was an invalid, shielded from the world by an overprotective father, yet she and Robert developed a romance first through correspondence and then in person before they ran off to Italy together.

Elizabeth was 39 and Robert was 33 when they married they spent the next 14 years together.

Their story grabbed the imagination of playwright Florence Gibson MacDonald (Belle, Missing), but not through the usual channels.

“I remember reading letters in a British medical journal that said Elizabeth’s problem wasn’t tuberculosis or a twisted spine but rather drug addiction,” recalls MacDonald. “Robert kept a ledger that accounted for how much money went to her drugs and another recorded how much opium derivatives she took on a regular basis.”

The play How Do I Love Thee? uses that drug habit as the central conflict between the couple but also as a key source of poetic inspiration for Elizabeth.

“Robert didn’t find out about it until a month into their stay in Italy, when their money suddenly ran out. I thought that would be a good focus for the arc of their relationship: what you really know about a person, how the facets of love include passion, contradictions and paradoxes, why we stay and why we go.”

MacDonald mines their letters as well as some of the poetry for her dramatic purpose. She admits to being “an old-school poet I love meter and rhyme and have always been a bit of a closet poet.”

She’s not deviated from historical truth by giving each of the Brownings a kind of confidante. For Robert, it’s his older friend and Elizabeth’s distant cousin, John Kenyon Elizabeth is cared for by her maid, Wilson.

“The two other characters shouldered their way in early on,” smiles MacDonald. “The figure of Wilson allows me to explore the idea of the poet inspired and working under the influence of something. Though I think it has some basis in reality, it’s my invention that Wilson helped Elizabeth hit her creative peak. Unlike other writers who took drugs, like Coleridge and De Quincey, she didn’t fall too far in Wilson titrated what Elizabeth took, a sign of the maid’s love, instinct and caring.

“There’s an arc of love for Kenyon, too, who worshipped Robert all his life.”

Though the play is a historic one, MacDonald is clear that the main relationship could easily be contemporary.

“Robert and Elizabeth are two highly creative people who need things they’re not getting from their marriage he, in fact, didn’t hit his poetic stride until after her death, since living with her consumed him.

“That kind of situation leads to a love-hate relationship, where the couple finds meanings in words that they didn’t initially know were there and maybe didn’t want to know were there.”

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