“The Barretts of Wimpole Street” visits Baylor

Katharine Cornell originated the role of Elizabeth Barrett for the Broadway play “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” written by Rudolf Besier (ca. 1930). During the play’s 1933-34 national tour, Dr. Armstrong arranged for Cornell and company to perform the play on the Baylor campus. Basil Rathbone played Robert Browning in the touring company. Katharine Cornell became friends with the Armstrongs and returned with Brian Aherne (the origiinal Broadway RB) in 1951 to perform scenes from the play and to participate in the dedication of the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum. At that time Cornell gave to the Armstrongs a wax-figurine diorama of a scene from the play. The diorama is still on display in the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Salon on the third floor of the building. Later Miss Cornell presented the Armstrongs with a pair of miniatures with likenesses of Robert and Elizabeth by James Childe. The miniatures also remain on display in the Salon. Other mementos of the play in the Salon are a reproduction of EBB’s afghan, which is shown in miniature in the diorama; a piano stool used on the Broadway stage; and Alexander Clayton’s portrait of Katharine Cornell as she was dressed for the play. The painting was donated to the Library & Museum by Miss Cornell in 1956.

“The Barretts of Wimpole Street” was first filmed in 1934 and became one of the top box office hits of that year.The film featured three stars who had already earned best actor/actress Academy Awards: Norma Shearer portrayed Elizabeth; Frederic March played Robert; and Charles Laughton played Edward Moulton-Barrett.

The Brownings’ love story remained popular between 1949 and 1982 in live television performances (six productions 1949-1956; movie form (1957); and made-for-TV movies (1961, 1982). The 1982 PBS production is described as “a masterpiece gone missing.”

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