Aprah Behn has been a heroine of the feminist movement ever since Virginia Woolf paid homage to her in 1929, as the first woman writer to earn her living by the pen. But she was a product of her time — the late 17th century — and her political sympathies were mixed, to fay the least.
She had about 18 plays produced on the London stage, but The Rover has been the most successful. It had cottntless revivals for 100 years after its original 1677 performance but then disappeared for 200 years, censored by theatre managements and patrons grown squeamish about her bawdy treatment of the sexual chase.
If the forthcoming Melbourne Theatre Company production of The Rover arouses expectations of a witty, ritualised comedy of manners, the kind of thing we associate with Behn’s contemporaries, such as Congreve or Wycherley, then it’s time to adjust them. Behn’s is a romantic coniedy of sex, mostly set on the streets of Madrid at the height of its Carnival, when costumes and masks liberated normal constraints, and everyone went looking for amorous adventures.
This is rather like a metaphor for the Restoration period in which the play was written. Cromwell’s Puritans had been sent packing and jolly King Charles II was back on the English throne, with a taste for good living, and sexual dalliance, which had been indulged in while he was in exile!
The sexual revolution of the 1960s was only a shadow of the one that began in 1660. Overnight, the world changed from the dull black, white and grey of the Puritan years to the technicolor excesses of the age of the cavaliers. Aristocratic men were veritable peacocks, in high heels, fine tights, satin waistcoats and long curly wigs — bejewelled, perfumed and plumed. They gambled, wrote verses, gossiped and many enthusiastically indulged their decadent sexual tastes with members of both sexes.
These were the men Aphra Behn admired — which sets up a bit of a problem for modern feminists for a start. What saves her is the women in her plays. who prove equal to the challenge not of taming these men but of winning the sexual games on their own terms. There’s not a victim among them, not even Angellica Bianca in The Rover, the courtesan whose heart is broken by Wilimore the Rover when he chooses the virtuous Helena (conveniently also an heiress) rather that the woman who is so beautiful she can charge a king’s ransom for her sexual favors.
I very much doubt whether the fastidious Virginia Woolf would have been charmed by Behn’s cavaliers, described by one critic as “poxy, whore-mongering rakes’, but their 17th-century machismo was matched by her women, who the same critic said were “energetic, intelligent, highly sexed and passionate”. The combination was a volatile one, and the sparks ate as likely to fly from the witty and often sexual banter as from the swords clashing in defence of love and honor.
But there was a dark side to the sexual intrigue, and The Rover con-tains more than one attempted rape, and an almost successful gang-rape of repulsive brutality. Recent productions, including one by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996 and Gale Edwards’ Sydney Theatre Company production of a few years ago, have tended to turn this scene into a comedy. Today’s sense of political correctness makes this unacceptable, a fact that the MTC’s Roger Hodgman has taken on board.
Behn set The Rover in the recent past, the period when Charles II, his court and supporters were in exile in Europe, so when the play was first performed its audiences knew there had been a happy ending for these roving cavaliers. Yet. during their exile, they were dangerous men.
What makes Aphra Belm’s play unusual, even for its time, and perhaps marks it as a woman’s work, is that her women are as eager for sex as her men. No wonder her work was censored in a later age which equated female virtue with lack of sexual enjoyment as well as experience. The three sisters of The Rover are to be patriarchally disposed of in a variety of unpalatable ways. The pattern heroine Florinda, already in love with Belvile, is to be forced into marriage with an old, repulsive friend of her father’s. The witty, lively Hellena is destined for a nunnery. In Carnival disguise, they rebelliously set off in search of lovers.
If the men in the play are determined to find sex without paying for it, the women are equally determined that their sexual favors will only be bought with the coin of love and marriage. They succeed in the end, but not before Behn has thrown in her wild card in the form of the courtesan Angellica Bianca, whose initials are significantly those of her author. Was Behn flinging back in the faces of her critics the slander that a women who wrote for the public stage was no better that a whore? Angellica’s is a magnificent part and Melbourne audiences can look forward to seeing Pamela Rabe, who also played this character in Gale Edwards’ production, reveal the radical potential of Behn’s sexual politics in this woman who gambles for love and loses.
Behn herself was only briefly and rather mysteriously married, her husband probably perishing in the plague. Hers was almost certainly not a chaste life. She was a friend of the dissolute poet Rochester, possibly lover of a bi-sexual lawyer called Hoyle, prosecuted for sodomy at one stage of his life, and struggled to support herself with her plays. She may have died of syphilis. But then her life had never been in any sense ordinary.
She journeyed to the colony of Suranim as a young woman, an experience that provided the material for her best -known novel, Oronooko, about the horrors of slavery. She worked as a spy for King Charles in Holland, returned just after the Great Fire of London, was imprisoned for debt, then began a career as a professional writer. In her childhood she had witnessed a revolution, civil war and the beheading of Charles I.
If Behn failed to condemn the male violence barely masked by manners, which signalled the imbalance of power between the sexes, she at least provided her women characters with the freedom of speech and action she herself enjoyed. Most important of all, if we are to claim her, as Virginia Woolf did, as one of the first feminists, we should remember that she showed how women could win in a world stacked against them.
The Rover is rather like a window into a brightly lit world of larger than life characters who speak with a frankness and act with a lustiness -that was simply too shocking for the sensibilities of the sober 18th and 19th centuries. We may not be shocke,. but we’ll be mightily entertained by this product of a 3o0-year old sexual revolution.
Helen Thomson is senior theatre critic for the Age.
The Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of The Rover is at the Playhouse, The Victorian Arts Centre, from Tuesday 3 September.
The Age / 31 August 1996
Curious Play in Bland Package
The pleasure in the MTC’s production of The Rover is chiefly In the play: quite a curiosity for modern minds.
Aphra Behn wrote it for the London stage in 1677, when women were becoming more active as actors, playwrights, producers and theatregoers, and when the postpuritanical Restoration audience revelled in nudge-nudge humor.
Behn, who churned out pieces to pay her way, knew: sex sells. The Rover was such a success she wrote a sequel. But its bawdiness earnt her the rebuke of female peers and the sniffy condemnation of the theatre thereafter.
She vanished more or less until Virginia Woolf sang the praises of an early feminist, recognising that while Behn may have been writing for the mostly male gallery, she did so a little subversively.
So, in The Rover, the English Cavaliers abroad in a warm climate are as ridiculous as a gang of package tourists in Torremelinos. Basically they want to get drunk and laid. In contrast to these rogues and fools, the women seek romance and escape from male-imposed roles — forced betrothals to old men, a nunnery, etc.
But the real interest is in how Behn presents sexual violence in key scenes that send up the false morality. It’s OK to rape a women you think is a whore – until you realise she’s your sister or the sweetheart of your mate.
The setting is a Latin city at carnival time, perfect for masks and mistaken identities, that favorite device for amorous adventures, as everyone heads off on the hunt.
Alas, allowing even for some witty moments and quite a lot of amusing verbal sparring, the curiosity of The Rover is trussed up in a pretty ordinary production.
The set is a bland upstairs-downstairs with a neo-Spanio set of staircases for the cast to skitter up and down and around as exits and entrances are ordered. The cast’s impact is further diminished by voices that evaporate to the flies in an odd collection of Spanish-Antipodean accents. Pamela Rabe, albeit an amusing and imposing courtesan Angelica, sounded like the satirist Flaco.
Overall the rhythm of the elocution is as ragged as the pace of the drama is off. There is a lifelessness to the production, saved by odd sparks in the performances, but especially by Andrew McFarlane as Willmore, the louche, roving pirate of the title.
At The Playhouse, Arts Centre, until 5 October
Review by Mike van Niekerk
Source: The Age | 09 September 1996
|Venue||The Playhouse, Adelaide, SA|
|First Date||20 June 1989|
|Last Date||15 July 1989|
|Description||Aphra Behn’s play uses “”virtuous virgins and virile villians…for a witty expose of the sexual politics behind the hypocrisy of the mating game””.|
|Venue||York Theatre, Chippendale, NSW|
|Umbrella Event||Festival of Sydney 1990|
|First Date||6 January 1990|
|Last Date||3 February 1990|
|Description||“Bawdy, brash and breezy, this production from the State Theatre Company of South Australia swaggers through seventeenth century sexual politics with an unapologetic twinkle in its eye”.|