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Aphra Behn, "The Rover; or, The Banished Cavaliers"

Lecture on Behn, her biography and reception, including some contextual frameworks for "The Rover; or, The Banished Cavaliers" (1677).

Tonya Howe

on 14 March 2011

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Transcript of Aphra Behn, "The Rover; or, The Banished Cavaliers"

(approximately 1640-1689)
The Rover; or, The Banished
Cavaliers (1677)
Portraits by Mary Beale and Sir Peter Lely
Not a lot is known about the details of her life. She was a spy, she was a writer, she was a world-traveler, she was thrown in prison several times for her debts and her politics, she may or may not have been married, she had a live-in lover for nine years, and she may or may not have enjoyed the company of women.
We don't even really know her name.
Ann Behn
Mrs. Bean
Agent 160
She is “not so much a woman to be unmasked as as an unending combination of masks."
(Janet Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn 1)
Aristocratic or plebeian
Catholic, Protestant, Atheist
Wife or whore
European or American
She traveled to Surinam (Dutch Guiana), then an English possession and the setting for her most famous work, "Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave" (1688)
She was employed as a spy by Charles II in Belgium, but she was not paid. Unrewarded for her work as a spy, and imprisoned for debt, she began to write to support herself.
From 1670 until her death in 1689, Aphra Behn enjoyed commercial triumph by writing plays, poetry, and fiction.
Her versatility, like her output, was immense, and in her day was rivaled only by that of her friend and colleague, John Dryden.
She was associated with Court writers and libertines like Rochester, and she was a staunch Royalist, but her command of the marketplace of print also aligns her with Whig interests.
“Mrs. Behn wrote foully.” (WH Hudson, qtd. in Todd 2)
While most acknowledge that her politics are staunchly Tory—as a committed royalist, like the Cavaliers in her play "The Rover" (1677), she would have rejected the proposed exclusion of James II from the throne—she nonetheless also critiques some of the Cavaliers and their actions, especially as they relate to gender politics.
Aphra Behn
"Oroonoko" is often thought of as the first anti-colonialist novel.
"The combination in her work of...excess and femaleness ensured that she became a bye-word for lewdness and dissipation" (Todd, Aphra Behn Studies 1)
She was condemned both for writing and for writing in the same vein as her male contemporaries.
"Their Verses are as vitious as their Tails,
Both are expos'd, alike, to publick view."
Robert Gould, "To Madam G." (1689), comparng Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn
A loose woman and a lewd writer...
Now, after the revisionary practices of feminist critics and theorists working since the 1980s, her distinguished place in English literature is assured.
Her fifteen-play career on the Restoration stage made her the first woman to earn a living as a writer.
She is routinely taken up by gender and queer theorists for her often subversive approach to eroticism.
"All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn...for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she—shady and amorous as she was—who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.”

--Virginia Woolf, "A Room of One's Own" 63-66
Further Reading:
The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing, and Fiction, 1660-1800
By Janet Todd
Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism
By Heidi Hutner
Aphra Behn Studies
Edited by Janet M. Todd
The Secret Life of Aphra Behn
By Janet M. Todd
Seductive Forms: Women's Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740
By Ros Ballaster
"If she bared her 'soul,' it was in code."
The Cavaliers in "The Rover" are representatives of the court exiled during the Puritan Interregnum, and Willmore is associated with the banished Charles II himself (his scarlet and buff costume was what Charles II was wearing when he left England). He is the hero of the play, but his heroism is not uncomplicated. Blunt, the fool of the play, is a fair-weather friend to the rightful monarchy, in the eyes of the Cavaliers--he is mercillesly mocked for this (1.2.275).
Dryden on women writers: "[Those] who write only for [personal and private] Diversion, may pass...Hours with Pleasure in it, and without Prejudice." But those who write for public consumption are different--they indulge in "the Licenses which Mrs. Behn allowed herself, of writing loosely, and giving...some Scandal to the Modesty of her Sex."
But what did Behn herself have to say?
In the dedicatory epistle to another play, she criticizes "the most unjust and silly aspersion...which only my being a Woman has procured me; <That it was baudy>, the least and most Excusable fault in the Men writers, wo whose Plays they all crowd, as if they came to no other end than to hear what they condemn in this: <but from a Woman it was unnaturall>."
In the preface to yet another play, she acknowledges that writing is a more masculine activity, but then goes on:
The Lucky Chance (1686)
Sir Patient Fancy (1678)
"All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me...to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv'd in.... If I must not, because of my Sex, have this Freedom, but that you will usurp all to your selves; I lay down my Quill, and you shall hear no more of me...for I am not content to write for a Third day only. I value Fame as much as if I had been born a Hero..."
Restoration comedy
...some features of?
polished conversation, wit
actresses on stage, increasing female agency
actresses on stage, sexual objectification
symmetry of action, character, stage design
shrinking forestage, leading to less direct interaction
increasing professionalization
How can we see these features emerging in the play?
The play was first performed at the Dorset Garden Theatre (a.k.a. The Duke's Theatre) on 24 March 1677, and King Charles II was in the audience.
Unusually, Dorset Garden could darken the stage more fully than other indoor theaters. This would be helpful in several scenes in the play requiring darkness, like the attempted rape of Florinda by Willmore (III.v) or the abuse Blunt suffers at the hands of Lucetta and Phillippo in (III.iii).
painted shutter/groove perspective scenery, paired doors for entrances and exits
proscenium arch with curtain, dividing forestage from a raked upstage
seating around 800, in front of stage and in side boxes around the perimeter of the rectangular space
key character types: attractive libertine or rake, spirited heroine, domineering authorities who must be defeated so that a love match can occur, foolish fop trying to be a rake (Bolam xxvi)
Dorset Garden, like other Restoration stages, also had a large, mechanically (vs. hand) operated trapdoor used for raising and lowering important props.
This was the same theater where Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson's masque, "The Tempest," was extravagantly staged--Thomson discusses this.
Setting: Naples, 1650s, Carnival
Characters: Exiled English Cavaliers, Spaniards
Pairings: Love pairings; contrasts; familial, national, or economic, occupational connections?
Intertwined Stories or Plots: Notice how love or sexual pairings help organize plots?
the gay couple
the proviso scene
fifth-act conversion
Stage History
personal and political freedom coincide, often the in image of sexual freedom - free love (note the use of 'free'!)
but, examined from a feminine perspective
women are "rovers" as well
illuminates the inequalities and contradictions by which women and men are judged, particularly when it comes to sexuality - on a number of different registers
though by the end of the play, the libertines are corraled by marriage
and those who remain outside are marginalized
to what extent can women be agents of their own choosing, acting as and on behalf of themselves? what about the male characters? is there a distinction between the Spaniards and the English?
notice how difficulty a time the men have of distinguishing women of "quality" and virtue from "whores"...
marriage is an important image here - what are Hellena and Florinda facing as the play opens? how do they respond? how do other female characters assert agency? how do different characters react to these instances of female agency?
remember Behn's own experience - a rival poet, Robert Gould, described her as both "Punk" and "Poetess," because they "agree so pat."
Angellica Bianca has often been read as an analog for Aphra Behn. given what we know about "female publicity" in the Restoration, why do you think this might be the case? and what do we do with that idea?
what happens to Angellica at the end of the play? what about Hellena, the witty female rover, who is also a good analog for Behn?
the play takes place during Carnival, when people go masked and "ramble" - social order is upset, and with the aid of a mask, people can be who they want to be (or who they're not). what else do masks enable characters to do? how do they signify in the play? do they cause any trouble?
"The mask is a powerful image in Restoration drama. In the late 1660s, some women began to wear masks when they attended the theatre. But when prostitutes also began to wear masks, the distinctions between prostitutes and 'respectable women' became blurred. The mask became a sign of the prostitute, but a sign which, with its offer of anonymity, could offer some freedom from conventional roles for any women who wore it" (Russel 25).
for Behn, the mask seems both liberating and subversive; but, they also put women in dangerous, if momentarily powerful, positions. and, if masks are associated with the limited setting of carnival, then what happens to the agency they enable after carnival is over?
according to Elin Diamond, in "Gestus and Signature in <The Rover>," the overarching theme of the play is "the commodification of women in the marriage market" (524). what do you think about this?
notice how many times in the play characters reference money, exchange, and commerce, especially in relationship to women
does it only apply to the courteans, though?
notice how vulnerable many of the women in this play are - Hellena and Florinda's "ramble," while giving them freedom, also subjects them to rape and violence. Angellica takes up a pistol, but doesn't use it; Lucetta gets the best of Blunt, but then he takes it out on the next woman he sees...
we might speculate that female agency, according to Behn, is itself fleeting, dangerous, ambivalent, and always in need of negotiation. while the play suggests that women like Hellena and Florinda can be happier by asserting and then giving up their independence, there are other models out there - Angellica is always waiting, as is Lucetta.
"In this comedy, which, conventionally, ends in marriage, the figure of the prostitute cannot be integrated. Marriage is seen as a problem by the women of quality at the beginning of the play; by the end, marriage is a solution to a problem, though not an ideal one" (Russell 28).
The fool Ned Blunt was played by famous physical comedian Cave Underhill, who by this time middle-aged. He reprised his role as Blunt, which was wildly popular, in fairground drolls.
The romantic lovers Belvile and Florinda, were originally played by Betterton and his wife, Mary Saunderson. Betterton was an important theater manager as well as actor - he managed Dorset Garden during this time.
She wrote "The Rover" anonymously, and in the play's prologue, she implies that she is a man...
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