In a time when a woman's options were marriage, a nunnery, whoredom or the life of a spinster dependent on relatives, Aphra Behn was a most unusual character. She was not just the first woman to earn her living as a writer, but also, briefly, a spy for Charles II. Now, during this time of rediscovering women who may have been ignored in part because of their sex, Behn is going through a minor renaissance.
Behn's play "The Rover," which is playing at the Folger through Feb. 21, has so rarely been produced in recent history that only a few university or nonprofessional performances are recorded. The version being used by the Folger is a modern adaptation made by director Michael Diamond from Behn's script, which was written in 1677 and was performed for the following 50 years. Two biographies of her have been published in the last four years, and her collected works have been republished by the University of Nebraska Press.
One reason Behn was ignored for so many years is that she was thought to be a disgrace to her sex because she wrote, in the style of her day, bawdy plays, full of lust and ribaldry -- very unladylike. She wrote 17 plays and 14 novels at a time when "The very act of publishing her writing would have been sufficient to destroy a lady's reputation...," as Angeline Goreau wrote in "Reconstructing Aphra."
She was buried in Westminster Abbey; not in Poet's Corner, but outside, at the entrance to the cloisters. Most of the details of her personal history are vague, lost in a maze of inaccurate and antipathetic reconstructions or unreliable personal reminiscences. She was probably the daughter of a man named Johnson, who was appointed lieutenant general of Surinam, a British colony in the West Indies, when Behn was a teen-ager. Behn's husband may have been a merchant who left Aphra a widow when she was fairly young.
"The Rover" was based on an earlier work by Thomas Killigrew, who was a cavailer banished when Charles II was sent into exile after the Parliamentarians seized power. The lead character, Jack Willmore, is a rover not only among women but, as a cavalier, in Europe in exile.
Killigrew's play was "The Banished Cavalier," and was impossible to perform because it had 10 acts and 50 characters. Behn reduced the number of characters to 25, the number of acts to five and rewrote the dialogue. Diamond combined a number of servants into two characters, made the play 10 scenes in two acts and clarified some of the language, keeping most. "I kept the word 'cozened,' for example," Diamond said. "There's something about the word that seems better than 'chacted.'"
Like many plays of the Restoration era, the hypocrisy and heartbreak of forced marriage is a major theme in "The Rover." Behn echoed this theme in her other works as well, no doubt reflecting her own traumas in finding her place in society. A woman was considered the property of her father or husband and used as such; chastity was essential for survival. Education or intellectual pursuits were suspect and likely to damn a woman to acquire a reputation as a prostitute.
Prostitution was rampant, a fact reflected in "The Rover," particularly in the character of the courtesan Angelica, who forfeits the right to fall in love because of her occupation. "Inconstancy's the sin of all mankind, therefore I'm resolved that nothing but gold shall charm my heart," she says. Hellena, the woman who gets Willmore to marry her, does so not because she thinks marriage is so great but because she knows that without it her reputation will be ruined; she'll be left with "a cradle full of noise and mischief" and "a pack of repentance at my back."
Although written during the Restoration era, "The Rover" is considered a Spanish intrigue comedy, characterized by a "series of chases and freedom-seeking activities designed to allow a young man and a young woman to come together out of love," as Diamond described it. "It's a simpler, more accessible from, closer to burlesque." Restoration comedies are characterized by witty satires on the modes and manners of the era, and are set in the country the playwright is from; "The Rover" takes place in Naples. Both forms are full of double entendre, mistaken identities, disguise and physical humor.
A final note: The expression "'adsheartlikins," used repeatedly by one character in the show, means "God's heart liking," a profanity.