England’s first professional female playwright was a member of the royal court, a spy for England, a personal friend of some of the greatest actors and courtiers of the Restoration, and an inspiration to future generations of literary women. She was also a commoner, from humble origins, who wrote not as a hobby but for an income. Her historical record begins for certain in 1666, when she served King Charles II as a spy in Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch Warm recruited as Agent 160, code-named Astrea. Behn incurred great debt while working abroad – a financial difficulty made more dire by the King’s neglect in paying her for her services. Charles was notoriously slow in such matters, and Behn may have served time in debtor’s prison while waiting for him to come through for her.
In 1670, with Charles’s still neglecting his accounts payable, Aphra turned to writing to keep herself fed and out of prison. Working with the Duke’s Company, managed by William Davenant, her plays were immediately popular and financial successes. Behn produced roughly one play a year until 1682, when the merging of the Duke’s Company with the King’s Company reduced the profit available to her from playwrighting. Thereafter, Behn took to writing poetry and narrative fiction, including one of the English language’s first epistolary novels.
Behn’s most famous and most enduring play was The Rover, or, The Banish’d Cavaliers. The “Mrs. Gwin” who played Angellica Bianca at the first performance is likely a special appearance by the famous Nell Gwyn, by then retired from the stage and living full-time as a royal mistress. Elizabeth Barry, who played Hellena, was the lover of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester — one of the king’s closest friends and the likely inspiration for the character of Willmore, the “rover” of the title. Set in Naples, the play features a group of gallants wooing and carousing their way through the subversive festivities of Carnival. Captain Willmore becomes entangled in a love triangle between the famous courtesan Angellica Bianca and Hellena, a young woman determined to find love before her brother ships her off to a convent. Willmore’s friend Belvile falls in love with Hellena’s sister, Florinda, who is promised in marriage to a friend of her brother’s, while the foolish Blunt becomes convinced that the thieving prostitute Lucetta is madly in love with him. As Carnival was a masking holiday in Italy (Behn seems to have conflated the more popularly known traditions of Venice into her setting of Naples), many confusions of identity and intentional deceptions drive the action of the play. Such misadventures of love and money were common in the Restoration, as they popular then as they had been in the earlier theatres of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.
While in many ways, the play is a light-hearted, frothy romp, it also hints at the darker side of the Restoration’s libertine atmosphere. Though the women in the play are witty and active characters, Behn presents them as still dominated by their economic circumstances. Their primary value is in their bodies, whether for prostitution or for marriage, and The Rover blurs the distinction between the two types of exchange. While the high-born Florinda and Hellena are eager to experience sexual freedom, typically denied to ladies of their class, the courtesan Angellica Biance aspires to exclusivity. When Willmore chastises Angellica Bianca for the high price she charges for her favors, she retorts that men are just as bad in assigning monetary value to sex and love:
Pray, tell me, Sir, are not you guilty of the same mercenary Crime? When a Lady is proposed to you for a Wife, you never ask, how fair, discreet, or virtuous she is; but what’s her Fortune — which if but small, you cry — She will not do my business — and basely leave her, tho she languish for you. — Say, is not this as poor? (The Rover, 2.2)
The Rover’s juxtaposition of different female archetypes may be a commentary on some of the Restoration-era courtesans and courtiers who attempted to break out of the virgin/wife/whore mold in some way or another, with mixed success. Common-born women like Moll Davis and Nell Gwynne, famous mistresses of aristocrats and King Charles, may have appeared to enjoy sexual freedom, but in fact spent a lot of energy converting that sexual power into something more tangible and protective – money, houses, or titles, for themselves or for their children. Sexual expression for its own sake was more likely to lead to a downfall. The nobly-born Barbara Villiers, created Countess of Castlemaine and later Duchess of Cleveland, was a mistress of Charles II who enjoyed great favor from the king, but who also had to marry a lesser man for the sake of appearances. Frances Stuart, on the other hand, famously refused to become the king’s mistress, and subsequently had to elope in order to be able to marry at all. Anita Pacheco remarks on The Rover‘s reflection of the women’s social circumstances and sexual worth during the Restoration:
Critics have often remarked that in Aphra Behn’s The Rover, ladies act like whores and whores like ladies. On this level, the play presents a dramatic world dominated by the two principal patriarchal definitions of women, but in which the boundary separating one category from the other has become blurred. In the case of both Florinda, the play’s quintessential “maid of quality,” and the prostitute Angellica Bianca, the role reversals arise out of contrasting bids to move from subjection into subjectivity. … Before the obligatory happy ending, Florinda faces three attempted rapes that are not called rape, but seduction, retaliation, or ‘ruffling a harlot’: in presuming to make her own sexual choices, she enters a world where the word ‘rape’ has no meaning. Angellica Bianca’s subject position is shown to involve a complex complicity in the same cultural legitimation of male sexual aggression.
As Behn herself knew well, being a woman in Restoration England was often a no-win situation, for all the supposed liberty brought by the King’s return, and The Rover may well have been intended to call attention to that dichotomy.
Though there had certainly been other female writers in England, Aphra Behn was the first to earn a living by the public production and publishing of her works. As she stated in the preface to her 1678 play Sir Patient Fancy, she was “forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.” Though mocked by contemporaries and later critics for the bawdiness of her works and her supposedly masculine style, Behn had the support of writers like John Dryden and Nahum Tate, and her influence encouraged other female dramatists, including Susanna Centlivre, an early favorite at Drury Lane (and author of upcoming Staged Reading A Bold Stroke for a Wife). When Behn died in 1689, she was buried in Westminster Abbey, with a marking stone in Poets’ Corner, near the graves of Chaucer, Spenser, and Davenant – an unusual honor for a woman at the time. Her memorial reads “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.” Perhaps not – but as her enduring legacy ensures, mortality itself is not enough to kill a wit as sparkling as Aphra Behn’s.
–Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager
This blog post was adapted out of an article for the upcoming Winter/Spring 2015 issue of the Playhouse Insider. Get your copy in the Box Office or online starting in February, and see The Rover starting today at the Blackfriars Playhouse!