Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Kate Aughterson provides readers with an approachable and fascinating critical guide to the dramatic works of an important seventeenth-century woman writer. Aughterson analyses Aphra Behn's abilities as a playwright, showing particularly how she skillfully employs comic and dramatic conventions to radical ends, and how she forces her audience to engage with issues about gender and sexuality whilst retaining her witty and accessible style.

Chapters in the first part of the book provide close readings of the comedies, addressing such topics as openings, endings, character types, staging, and politics and society. In the second part, Aughterson not only examines Behn's literary career and the Restoration contexts of her plays, but also looks at some sample criticism and explores Behn's drama as performance.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
This book aims to enable students to approach and understand Behn’s plays without being hindered by a surplus of technical and theoretical terminology. Nevertheless, when we read an old play its literary and social conventions are necessarily alien. It is useful to outline some of the analytical terms used in the analyses in this book. These may be divided into three areas: linguistic form; imagery; and dramatic form and performance.
Kate Aughterson

Analysing Behn’s Comedies

Frontmatter

1. Openings

Abstract
Plays tend to open in the middle of a conversation, or piece of action (in classical dramatic theory referred to as in medias res, literally, in the middle of things). There are good reasons for this, all of them signalling how distinct drama is from other literary forms, such as the traditional novel. Drama is predicated on action: for the plot to move forward, for characters to clash, to conflict and to come together during the short space of the performance time, the narrative and dramatic structure must foreground action and conflict. The audience needs to be involved and engaged from the beginning. The best way of doing this is to plunge into the middle of a situation encapsulating the themes and conflicts of the whole play. We are then ready to recognise such themes as they develop, and often encouraged. from this very early stage. to take sides.
Kate Aughterson

2. Endings

Abstract
Endings of comedies tell us a lot about how the dramatist wants us to understand the play’s events, conflicts and debates. If all loose ends are tied up, all characters happy participants in a celebratory closure, and all discord resolved, the ending produces a feeling of completion and inclusion. We are presented with an image of a cohesive, festive society. If, on the other hand, loose ends are left unexplained, characters are left outside the social festivity, or discordant notes are sounded, the audience is left critical of the festive and inclusive images. Comedies employing the former method tend to be labelled ‘romantic’, and those the latter, ‘satiric’. We shall consider Behn’s endings in the light of these comments, starting with The Rover.
Kate Aughterson

3. Discovery Scenes

Abstract
Discovery scenes are ones in which the machinery and mechanisms of stage business (for example, the revealing of an interior room, or garden or closet behind the set) coincide with the revelation of key new information to characters or audience, and usually, the consequent turning of the play’s action towards resolution. The new theatres of Restoration London were constructed with a proscenium arch, and side shutters to enable the swift changing of scenes, and most dramatists were eager to incorporate the theatrical possibilities offered by these technical improvements. Most, but not all, discovery scenes occur in the latter part of the play’s action. Revelation through unveiling one set behind another thus acts as a spatial metaphor for plot and character revelations. In cases where such stage mechanisms are used earlier in the plot, we need to pay attention to why the dramatist chooses to stage an early scene in this way. Of the extracts that follow, two are from Act 5 (The Rover and The Lucky Chance), whilst one, from The Feigned Courtesans, occurs at the opening of the second scene. By relating the stage mechanisms to the meanings invoked by a scene and its positioning, we can discuss Behn’s stagecraft, plotting, and ability to use contemporary theatrical conventions to her own dramatic ends.
Kate Aughterson

4. Heroines and Whores

Abstract
Behn’s most compelling characters are women, from the heroines to the marginalised whores: she enlivens their characters with a greater sense of interiority, wit and eloquence than she does the men. She asks us to recognise them as women in a particular society. We shall examine one speech, or participation in dialogue, of each of the main female characters in each play, and consider Behn’s modes of characterisation. We have already seen how femininity, gender and sexual identity are flagged up as key issues in the plays’ openings, and how the endings leave us asking questions about social and gender inequalities. Let us consider now how Behn furthers these questions through characterisation.
Kate Aughterson

5. Rakes and Gallants

Abstract
One of the best-known characters in Restoration theatre is the rake hero, and Behn’s heroes share many typical rake characteristics. They are self-conscious libertines, self-interested, witty and sexy. Nevertheless, Behn uses this hero in a distinctive manner that sets her apart from many of her contemporaries: she objectifies these men through plotting, characterisation, the success of the heroine-tricksters, and the strategic employment of the courtesans’ characterisation.
Kate Aughterson

6. Multiplying Plots

Abstract
In any comedy, plotting is essential to theme and action. Characters devise plots to achieve their own ends and desires, and to defeat the blocking characters. Additionally, the playwright’s plotting enables and encourages the audience to perceive and understand the action and themes in very particular ways. Behn frequently uses structural repetitions and parallels, to which our attention is explicitly drawn.
Kate Aughterson

7. Staging

Abstract
Behn’s theatrical and visual sense of how her plays should work on stage is clear from both the way the text performs and the authorial stage directions. We have not the space here to consider all the examples in each play of her theatrical facility: one example from each demonstrates Behn’s use of the spatial and visual dimensions of the stage to build tension, aid characterisation and deepen the drama. Throughout our previous analyses this approach has been implicit: now we need to make it explicit.
Kate Aughterson

8. Carnival and Masquerade

Abstract
Carnival, the celebration before the fasting of Lent, was both a physical festival in Catholic countries, and a state of mind. During Carnival the inversion of normal identities and activities could be celebrated and played with, and normality was mocked. Disguise, noise, sexual and bodily excess, were all features of Carnival entertainments. The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin has argued that Carnival can also be considered a literary or linguistic mode, in which inversion of normal hierarchies, celebration of the body and of the popular, may be used as a way of criticising the status quo. In The Rover, in particular, Carnival is central to setting, plot and theme, whilst in the other plays disguise is formalised as an essential part of both plot and structure. We shall examine the way in which Behn uses Carnival’s modes (such as inversion, cross-dressing, disguise, grotesquerie, and darkness) in order both to celebrate aberrant behaviour and identity and to show how women are often punished more for such aberrance than men. Let us look at The Rover to explore this.
Kate Aughterson

9. Politics and Society

Abstract
Behn dramatises social and political issues and conflict indirectly through intrigue comedy which focuses on romantic love. Yet within the conventions of the genre she draws our attention quite explicitly to issues of class, gender and politics which resonate out into Restoration London. In this chapter we shall draw together some of the insights of previous chapters by focusing on extracts which raise, directly or indirectly, social and political questions central to each play. We shall consider whether Behn manipulates staging and comic convention to direct or question our views on key themes, and whether she simply mirrors or actively criticises the social and political structures she represents.
Kate Aughterson

Context and Critics

Frontmatter

10. Behn’s Literary Career

Abstract
Aphra Behn’s first play to be performed, The Forc’d Marriage, was at the Duke’s Theatre in early 1670. At this point, she was a woman of thirty, with no previous publication history, and from a relatively humble, and certainly obscure, background. How did such a woman emerge and go on to become one of the leading and most prolific playwrights of her generation? That question cannot be answered completely satisfactorily, partly because Behn herself fictionalised and disguised her own past life, and partly because sufficient records do not exist about women of her class to verify suppositions made about her education, background and personal views. This chapter examines what we know about her plays and other literary works, first in the context of the theatrical and literary world in which she moved and wrote, and then briefly in the context of what we do know, and may guess, about her biography. The range and nature of the plays she wrote, which spanned a writing and performance career of nearly twenty years, illuminates the comedies we have analysed and discussed in this book. Her thematic concerns remained remarkably constant, focusing frequently on questions of identity, marriage, female autonomy, and gender and sexuality, within a social, familial and political context.
Kate Aughterson

11. Restoration Contexts

Abstract
In the previous chapter we considered Behn’s plays in the context of her own theatrical and literary development and environment. In this chapter we shall broaden that approach by discussing in more detail the generic, social and political contexts for her work. We shall first examine contemporary debates about comedy, discussing Behn’s own view of such debates, which she expresses in various prefaces and prologues to her plays, and then move on to consider the wider social context in which she lived and worked.
Kate Aughterson

12. Sample Critical Views and Performances

Abstract
Literary criticism can be both daunting and impenetrable to students, appearing to dictate a particular approach and discourse to interpreting an author, which students feel obliged to follow. Your own analyses and interpretations, which you have arrived at through the detailed work in this book, will have provided you with a strong and individual understanding. So long as this is based on close readings of the plays, your approach and your own language are as valid as those of academic critics. However, your own interpretations will be stimulated and inspired by other readers and critics, and it is in the context of participating in a shared debate that you should read criticism. If you approach critical argument in this way you will be better equipped to be sceptical and thoughtful about critics’ arguments, and be better able to come to your own conclusions about the validity and importance of their views.
Kate Aughterson
Additional information