Aphra Behn: “The Poetess”

I’ve lost count of the number of times Aphra Behn has been rediscovered. From polite footnotes in academic papers, one or two works included in an anthology, to Maureen Duffy’s tantalising “The Passionate Shepherdess”. Then in the mid 80s, there was Jeremy Irons having far too much fun in “The Rover”, an assortment of university productions, often of “The Lucky Chance”, and Janet Todd’s new editions and biography. Sometimes there have been enthusiastic reviews, occasionally a clutch of productions one after the other, with the odd radio programme and one-woman show. But each time the fuss dies down and, yet again, Aphra Behn is scarcely on the radar even to many actors and to those who feel they could walk the streets of Restoration London blindfold.

And I can’t help being selfishly glad it’s taking so long. Far more people like the idea of liking Behn’s writing than get round to reading any, let alone staging anything other than “The Rover”. So her last play, written in her final months has been virtually forgotten since its one disastrous outing shortly after Behn’s death. “The Widow Ranter”, set in 1670s Virginia, features a storyline loosely based on a real-life colonial uprising, three different love stories, a hard drinking, smoking, cross-dressing heroine, satire, exotic spectacle, music and risqué humour. And by the time it was staged, in the aftermath of the arrival of William and Mary, the world Aphra Behn knew had begun to reshape itself.

Restoration London can’t have been an easy place for anyone to live. Fire, plague and the divisions left by two decades of civil upheaval affected everyone – and the reality of Charles II’s reign was more complicated and less benign than the maypole dancing, golden era whose imagined ghost still clings. But this was also the time when theatre returned to London and, with it, the first professional actresses. There were two licensed theatre companies, vouched for by the King and the Duke of York, both of whom were avid playgoers. And as few productions ran for more than three performances at a time, there was a great demand for new plays. No one knows how Aphra Behn, a possibly widowed, certainly penniless Canterbury barber’s daughter, looking for gainful employment after a disastrous short lived career as a spy, broke into a largely aristocratic and exclusively male circle of playwrights. And once in the circle, there she stayed: her plays pulled in the audiences. And no amount of jealous sniping detracted from that fact.

After the success of her first play, “The Forc’d Marriage”, Behn went on to write eighteen more, and through the 1670s and 80s her name became well known to theatre audiences – she evidently managed to earn her living by her writing, taking on translation work to make ends meet. And, remarkably in a world where most women expected to have a protector if not a husband, Behn remained independent. A passionate Royalist all her life, Aphra Behn was evidently heartbroken at James II’s ignominious departure in 1688 after only three years as king – but by this time her health was breaking down.

All her writing life, Aphra Behn had been pushing, usually gently, at the boundaries of what was acceptable in a storyline. Polemic, the latest London jokes, exoticism and elegant eroticism all made an appearance. And Behn’s women are not all of the witty, bright but virginal kind found in so many other plays of the time. Usually, though, it is only the second lead who is allowed a past. In “The Widow Ranter” it is the eponymous heroine, who has arrived in Virginia as an indentured servant and married her rich elderly employer; her present lifestyle includes drinking, smoking, cross dressing and sword fighting – and it is most certainly she who decides on, and pursues, the man of her ultimate choice. All a step too far in the new climate of 1689? When the play was published, it was with a preface that blamed poor casting and too few rehearsals for the failure of a play that, on examination, seems unfinished. It is impossible to know for sure. But although some of Behn’s work stayed in the repertoire for years, and although she had been allowed the honour of a tomb in the cloister of Westminster Abbey, as times changed she became first embarrassing and then unmentionable. Even Virginia Woolf in her famous tribute to Behn, was suggesting that “all women together” should cast flowers on to her grave, it was as a trail blazer rather than as a creator in her own right that Behn was to be honoured. The time is long overdue to change that.

Clio’s Company are working on several projects related to Aphra Behn. One of them is to restage “The Widow Ranter” for the first time since 1689. A semi staged reading at Fulham Palace was just the start. More news, I hope, soon.

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