Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Rover and other plays

Aphra Behn The Rover and other plays (1688)

I should probably admit to never having heard of Aphra Behn prior to her featuring in Daniel O'Mahony's superb Newtons Sleep, and even then I didn't initially realise she was an actual historical character, and significant for being amongst the first women in English history to make a living from writing; and duly informed, given my interest in early science-fiction, this collection proved too enticing to pass upon once I saw that it contained a play entitled The Emperor of the Moon.

However, I'm possibly at something of a disadvantage here. My American wife's knowledge of English history generally dwarfs my own, and whilst I saw plenty of Shakespeare performed around the time that I took drama O level, that was a while ago, and what pleasure I derived from the experience was not sufficient to instil me with a lifelong passion for theatre; so this is all a bit out of context for me, but let's give it a go anyway.

Aphra Behn is noted for Restoration comedies, comic and occasionally provocative plays written in the wake of and in response to Puritanism and its eighteen year ban on stage performance. Whilst those collected here - The Rover, The Feigned Courtesans, The Lucky Chance and The Emperor of the Moon - aren't exactly so wild or broad humoured as to be termed Rabelaisian, they certainly represent more measured steps in that direction. Behn's farce seems mainly concerned with seventeenth century sexual politics, and governmental politics to a lesser degree, or at least to a degree that escapes my detection through general ignorance of the territory beyond appreciating that her sympathies lay with the Catholic Stuarts. The plays here therefore tend to focus on the subversion of traditional female roles - high born ladies becoming wanton or masquerading as courtesans, low born prostitutes revealed as being of greater moral constitution than the moneyed rakes enlisting their services, and young women deftly eluding the unpromising marriages that have been arranged for them. Almost everyone in these four plays seems to be afflicted with the raging horn - in comparison with the more reserved romantic themes I'm fairly sure I recall as present in Shakespeare - and so the sexual thrust of the narrative - if you'll pardon the expression - is surprisingly strong. The relatively light, comic tone further provides horrific contrast in The Rover with its numerous scenes of attempted rape, and specifically rape as punishment prefaced by lurid and yet jovial promises of what is to be done to the unfortunate Florinda. These scenes seem deliberately repulsive, and Behn was quite probably making her point by means of shock given the societal conventions against which she was pitted, as described here by Anita Pacheco in Rape and the Female Subject in Aphra Behn's The Rover:

The history of Early Modern rape law reveals a similarly uncertain transition from patriarchal to liberal attitudes towards women. While medieval rape law perceived rape as a crime against male-owned property, the legal focus shifted in the late sixteenth century from property to person. It was the female victim rather than her male relations who was the injured party in a case of rape, and the crime itself came to be seen not as a property violation but as the ravishment of a woman against her will.

However, when it came to the law's practical application, it appears that patriarchal definitions of rape continued to hold sway. The evidence, admittedly, is immensely difficult to interpret; but Nazife Bashar, in her study of the records of the home counties Assizes from 1558 to 1700, detects a pattern of few prosecutions and a tendency to convict only when the victim was a young girl.

The farce is heavy in these plays as characters disguise themselves as others, cross dress, identities are mistaken, and absurdity is piled upon absurdity, reaching what seemed to me its most pronounced expression in The Emperor of the Moon which comes closest to the Rabelaisian, not least with its anecdotal account of the blacksmith who, through drinking the urine of the God Vulcan, is able to produce his own iron which he extracts by holding a powerful magnet to his bumhole. Contrary to what I expected - a stage equivalent to the early lunar fantasies of Cyrano de Bergerac and others - The Emperor of the Moon further dismantles the gender conventions of Behn's day whilst taking the piss out of the fantastic voyage genre. On this occasion the unfortunate marriage is derailed by the promise of a visit from Lunar royalty, which is then faked for the benefit of the astrology-addled patriarch. I suppose it's almost A Midsummer Night's Dream for the age of Kepler and Galileo, if you squint a bit.

I must admit I found some of this collection tough going in terms of keeping track of the farce as it built up, layer on layer, but I suspect this may be partially due to my being out of the habit of reading seventeenth century plays, and that these almost certainly work better on a stage than a page, as was intended. That said, the strength of writing nevertheless survives my efforts to read it, and even aside from her growing status as feminist icon, it is abundantly clear why Aphra Behn deserves to be remembered and performed.

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