Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Florence Gibson MacDonald

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Florence Gibson MacDonald

Captivated by their passionate courtship and tumultuous marriage, playwright Florence Gibson MacDonald wrote her new play, How Do I Love Thee?, about 19th-century poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Today we talk to Florence about her interest in Elizabeth's drug addiction, the link between opiate use and creativity and her all-time favourite love stories.

Open Book:

Tell us about your play How Do I Love Thee?.

Florence Gibson MacDonald:

How Do I Love Thee? is a play about love — the love of poetry and the poetry of love — from the perspective of two of the world’s most celebrated poets, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The play traces the 16-year arc of their courtship, elopement and marriage, ending in Elizabeth’s death due to opiate addiction.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning's love story has inspired readers for over 100 years. What drew you to their relationship, and what prompted you to write about it?


My take on their story differs from those inspired by popular belief or The Barretts of Wimpole Street. I came across an article in a medical journal that documented, in detail, Elizabeth’s life-long addiction to morphine, ether and her “amreeta” draft of opiates dissolved in brandy. So I plunged myself into research, wanting to know the effect of addiction on her life, her marriage and her writing. And voila: the play. Elizabeth was not an invalid, she was an addict, and she and Robert struggled with it on a daily basis: no money, ill health and, of course, her in/ability to write. Robert was a typical Englishman of his time. Unable to control or influence her, they fought, and throughout the marriage, he could not write. He kept fastidious accounts of their finances so we know the amount of drugs got higher and higher, with Elizabeth eventually dying at fifty-five of an overdose.


The play deals with addiction and creation. Do you think there is a link between the two? Was writing about addiction a difficult undertaking?


The journey from correspondence to courtship to marriage through to death was a fascinating one. They did so love one another; they did try so hard. But neither Elizabeth nor Robert could conquer her addiction. "Managing" an addiction is fascinating. As with all addicts, Elizabeth’s drugs allowed her to write and prevented her from writing. I have tried to capture this aspect of her work in the play by showcasing her relationship with her devoted maid, Wilson, who titrated Elizabeth’s doses to give her the best possible opportunity to write. Too much and she was incoherent, too little and she lacked creativity. At least, that was Elizabeth’s fear. The play lets us decide for ourselves just how much influence her drugs had. Robert didn’t want her to take drugs at all. Wilson knew they were not only a source of creative inspiration for her, they were her refuge.


Did this project involve research into the 19th century? Do you think the Brownings were products of their time, or is their story timeless?


Of course the Brownings were products of their time; of course their story is also both timeless and unique. Two poetic geniuses in love with one another, Robert compared their voices to two nightingales singing in a tree at the bottom of a garden.


For readers and theatre lovers in the mood for love, are there other plays and books you would recommend? What are some of your all-time favourite love stories?


For lovers of romance, in all its facets, I would recommend the classics: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, all of Jane Austen and the Brontës. Moving through time, I have loved E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. Love is where you find it.


What are you working on now?


I have three stage projects I’m hoping to see produced: Love Handles, a one-woman show, Augury; Trial, Tribulation and Triumph in the Life of Emily Stowe (Canada’s first woman doctor) and Bully for You, a play for teens. Also, I am nearing completion of my novel, Stout, the story of a girl who was too big for small-town Ontario.

Florence Gibson MacDonald has written extensively for the stage and for radio. Born in Montreal and raised in Cobourg, Florence completed an M.D. that took her to the Northwest Territories, Hong Kong and East Africa before returning to Canada to practice and eventually write full-time. Gibson MacDonald’s most notable works include Belle, winner of the Chalmers Canadian Play Award, and Home is My Road, winner of the CAA Carol Bolt Award in 2004.

For more information about How Do I Love Thee?, please visit the Playwrights Canada Press website.

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