With Mrs. Behn we turn a very important corner on the road. We leave behind, shut up in their parks among their folios, those solitary great ladies who wrote without audience or criticism, for their own delight alone. We come to town and rub shoulders with ordinary people of the streets. Mrs. Behn was a middle-class woman with all the plebeian virtues of humor, vitality, and courage; a woman forced by the death of her husband and some unfortunate adventures of her own to make her living by her wits. She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. . . . here begins the freedom of the mind, or rather the possibility that in the course of time the mind will be free to write what it likes. For now that Aphra Behn had done it, girls could go to their parents and say, You need not give me an allowance; I can make money by my pen. . . . Thus, toward the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write.
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Aphra Behn is not the first woman dramatist, but she is almost certainly the earliest to gain sufficient popular success to allow her to succeed as a professional playwright and writer. The author of some 20 plays, Behn was surpassed by only John Dryden as the most prolific Restoration dramatist. She mastered virtually every literary genre of her age—poetry, fiction, and translations— demonstrating for the first time in literary history that a woman could compete on the same footing with men as a literary professional. Neither was Behn the only Restoration woman playwright, but she was the notable exception: a woman writer who openly flaunted her gender and expected the same treatment—in remuneration and critical reception—accorded to male writers. As she wrote in the preface of one of her plays, “All I ask, is for the privilege for my masculine part, the poet in me . . . to tread in those successful paths my predecessors have long thrived in. . . . If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves; I [will] lay down my Quill and you shall hear no more of me.” By asserting gender equality and, as a woman, openly associating with the theater, Behn faced scurrilous accusations that she violated sacrosanct social and moral proprieties. By writing as frankly about sexual subjects as male playwrights, Behn was condemned as little more than a prostitute for her moral laxity and expecting payment for her work. Despite these attacks Behn gained an eminence unknown by other women of her day in which she was praised as the “English Sappho” for her considerable artistic gifts. Yet she never quite lost her association with the unseemly. Dryden, for example, advised another prospective woman writer to avoid “the license which Mrs. Behn allowed herself, of writing loosely, and giving . . . some scandal to the modesty of her sex.” Alexander Pope would later famously critique Behn under her pen name, Astraea: “The stage how loosely does Astraea tread, / Who fairly puts all characters to bed.” The charges of unladylike sexual explicitness in her work and the presumed corresponding looseness of her character continued into the Victorian age, when Behn was condemned along with other Restoration writers for licentiousness and castigated as “a mere harlot, who danced through uncleanness,” as “one of the original corrupters and polluters of the stage.” Interest in Behn and her work, as well as a renewed respect for her achievement as a woman, was stimulated by women writers in the early 20th century, most notably, by Vita Sackville-West, who published a 1927 appreciative biography called Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astrea. For Sackville-West’s close friend Virginia Woolf, Behn was the founding figure of women’s literary consciousness and expression, the first to demonstrate that a woman could support herself by her writing. “All women together,” Woolf declared, “ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn . . . for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
Renewed interest in Behn’s career and accomplishments has been further accelerated (and frustrated) by both what we know and do not know of her life. Her birth date and maiden name remain a mystery, and her parentage is a subject of much speculation. Tradition has it that she was born in 1640, and it has been claimed that she was the daughter of a Kent barber, John Amis. An alternative view is that she may have been the natural or foster child of a Canterbury gentleman named Johnson in the service of Lord Willoughby, who appointed him lieutenant general of Suriname. Nothing is known for certain how she gained the considerable learning that is evident from her works. It is believed that in 1663 Aphra accompanied Johnson, his wife, and a young boy, mentioned as Behn’s brother, on a voyage to take up residence in the West Indies. Johnson, however, died on the way, and, it is believed, Aphra lived for several months in Suriname. Her most famous novel, Oroonoko (1688), is believed to be based on her experiences there. On her return to England in 1664, she either married or took the name of a Dutch merchant named Behn, who died, possibly in the plague of 1665. Left without funds, Mrs. Behn, as she would subsequently be known, accepted an assignment as a secret agent for Charles II in Antwerp during the war against the Dutch (1665–67). Neither the king nor his government, however, responded to Behn’s repeated requests for payment for her services. She returned to London penniless and was in 1668 incarcerated in debtor’s prison. The circumstances of her release are unknown, but in 1670 her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was produced in London, and Behn subsequently earned her living as a playwright, poet, and novelist until her death in 1689. She is buried in the cloister of Westminster Abbey, not in Poet’s Corner to Virginia Woolf’s chagrin, with the gravestone epitaph: “Here lies a proof that wit can never be / Defence enough against mortality.”
As a woman, Behn’s career as a professional writer is exceptional; as a theater professional, it is remarkable. Behn grew up in the England of the Puritan Commonwealth that closed the theaters in 1642, effectively putting an end to the greatest period of theatrical achievement in English history. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he brought the theater back with him, having developed a love for the stage during his years of exile on the Continent. The restored theater, sponsored by the king, would feature London’s first public performance by an actress (in the role of Desdemona in a production of Othello in December 1660). The previous Elizabethan and Jacobean prohibitions on women performing on the commercial stage gave way, though the moral opprobrium attached to actresses remained strong. However, the novelty of women onstage may have contributed to the subsequent acceptance of women playwrights, which Behn exploited in establishing her dramatic career. Behn forcefully defended her works in the prefaces and epilogues to her plays, countering the charge that her dramas could not be any good because they were by a woman and consequently were lacking in erudition and training in classically derived dramatic principles. Behn argued not only that women could equal men in learning if they had equal educational opportunities, but even more radically that schooling and scholarship were not essential for creating entertaining dramas. In staking out a place for women dramatists Behn contended: “Plays have no great room for that which is men’s great advantage over women, that is Learning.” Drama, according to Behn, deals in experience, not scholarship, and the theater is, therefore, within the range of women writers, as it was for the self-taught William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
Behn’s provocative challenges to gender assumptions as well as the originality and vitality of her unconventional perspective are evident in her most successful and accomplished play, The Rover; or, The Banished Cavaliers, first performed in 1677. Set during the Puritan interregnum, it concerns a roistering group of displaced Royalists—Willmore (the Rover), Belvile, Frederick, and Ned Blunt—awaiting the restoration of Charles II in Naples during Carnival. An adaptation of Sir Thomas Killigrew’s 10-part closet drama, Thomasa, or the Wanderer, The Rover displays Behn’s considerable dexterity in stagecraft, condensing a sprawling story and joining a large cast to a swiftly paced intrigue plot. The comedy at the same time offers a knowing look at the battle of the sexes from a woman’s perspective that exposes the double standard and the constricted and precarious prospects for women in a patriarchy. The play opens with two sisters—Hellena and Florinda—discussing their dismal fate. The younger, Hellena, is to be sent to a nunnery, while her sister, who has fallen in love with the English colonel Belvile, is being offered in marriage by her father to a wealthy old man and by her brother to one of his friends for his own advantage. The sisters decide to seize the opportunity afforded by the Carnival’s masquerading to enjoy a final spree of independence and flirtation before surrendering to their onerous fates. The theme of the arranged or forced marriage, a favorite in Behn’s plays, is immediately established, and the play will wittily dramatize the perilous course of love in an environment in which women are the commodities and playthings of men. Aiding this theme, the Carnival’s masquerade scrambles the distinctions of class and produces the satirical equation between well-born lady and whore in a tangled plot based on concealed identities and gender reversals.
The lively, outspoken Hellena, who is contrasted with her more virtuous and dutiful sister Florinda, meets her match in the charmingly irresponsible Willmore, the archetypal cynical Restoration rake hero who regards virtue as “an Infirmity in Women” and who asks “What the Devil should I do with a virtuous Woman?” Hellena’s bringing of Willmore to heel (and the altar) supplies the play’s main courtship plot that collides and crosses purposes with the frustrated wooing of Florinda and Belvile, with Willmore’s affair with the famous courtesan Angellica Bianca, and with the other pairings involving Frederick with the sisters’ cousin Valeria and Ned Blunt’s transactions with the harlot Lucetta. The respectable Hellena takes on the disguise of a Gypsy whore to attract Willmore, while the actual whore Angellica falls in love with him as well. Despite her professional calculation in matters of the heart, Angellica sides with constancy and the ideal claim of love over the practical, and in a witty reversal Behn turns the good girl bad and the bad girl good, giving Hellena an unmistakable robust sexual appetite and Angellica a vulnerable “virgin heart.” Both women reverse the expected role of females as the pursued to become pursuers of Willmore, who is naively convinced that men are the buyers and women are the sellers. Angellica points out that men are just as likely to act the prostitute, holding out for the highest bidder and exchanging sex for a handsome dowry. The confusion and complexity of gender assumptions escalate dangerously as Angellica grows violently jealous of Willmore’s attentions to Hellena, and Florinda tests Belville’s faithfulness by courting him in disguise. While awaiting her lover Florinda is almost raped by the drunken Willmore, who takes her for a common whore, and the confusion continues as Blunt and Frederick at the last minute hesitate to violate Florinda on suspicion that she may be well born. “Two’d anger us vilely to be truss’d up for a Rape upon a Maid of Quality,” Frederick reasons, “when we only believe we ruffle a Harlot.” He exposes the double standard in operation in which forced sex with a woman of quality is rape and has consequence, while the same act with a whore is mere harmless play.
Unable to bring herself to shoot Willmore after failing to secure his constancy, Angellica consoles herself with another paying customer, and the play concludes with a witty love negotiation between Willmore and Hellena. She holds out for marriage, while he argues that love requires no vows:
Willmore: Hold, hold, no bug words, child. Priest and Hymen? Prithee add a hangman to ’em to make up the consort. No, no, we’ll have no vows but love, child, nor witness but the lover: The kind deity enjoins naught but love and enjoy. Hymen and priest wait still upon portion and jointure; love and beauty have their own ceremonies. Marriage is as certain a bane to love as lending money is to friendship. I’ll neither ask nor give a vow, though I could be content to turn gypsy and become a left-handed bridegroom to have the pleasure of working that great miracle of making a maid a mother, if you durst venture. ’Tis upse gypsy that, and if I miss I’ll lose my labor.
Hellena: And if you do not lose, what shall I get? A cradle full of noise and mischief, with a pack of repentance at my back? Can you teach me to weave incle to pass my time with? ’Tis upse gypsy that, too.
Willmore: I can teach thee to weave a true love’s knot better.
Hellena: So can my dog.
Willmore: Well, I see we are both upon our guards, and I see there’s no way to conquer good nature but by yielding. Here, give me thy hand: One kiss, and I am thine.
Hellena: One kiss! How like my page he speaks! I am resolved you should have none, for asking such a sneaking sum. He that will be satisfied with one kiss will never die of that longing. Good friend single-kiss, is all your talking come to this? A kiss, a caudle! Farewell, captain single-kiss.
Willmore: Nay, if we part so, let me die like a bird upon a bough, at the sheriff’s charge. By heaven, both the Indies shall not buy thee from me. I adore thy humor and will marry thee, and we are so of one humor it must be a bargain. Give me thy hand.
Hellena finally wins Willmore by matching his wit and sidestepping his gender expectations. She brings him to the altar ultimately by proving herself more interesting as a person than as a sex object or pawn or plaything for a male. Indeed all the women in the play succeed in evading male authority and control. Hellena and Florinda overturn parental and filial authority to gain the men of their choice; Lucetta tricks Blunt out of his trousers; even Angellica, though bested in the contest to gain Willmore, awards her heart as she chooses. The Rover wittily rewrites the masculine-dominated Restoration comedy into a drama of female empowerment that, as critic Jane Spencer argues, “manages to subject masculine figures to a female gaze.” It is this same female gaze, by one of the first major woman playwrights, that extends the range and possibilities of drama.
Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time