Saturday, July 25, 2009

Aphra Behn

And then there's Aphra Behn, one of the greatest female playwrights of all time, and it's an unfortunate commentary on today's crop of scribblers that one has to go all the way back to the 1600s to find greatness such as hers.

In 1664, Aphra Johnson married a dutch fellow named Behn and settled down in England. According to Wikipedia, "Some scholars believe that the marriage never existed and Behn made it up purely to gain the status of a widow, which would have been much more beneficial for what she was trying to achieve. She was reportedly bisexual, and held a larger attraction to women than to men, a trait that, coupled with her writings and references of this nature, would eventually make her popular in the writing and artistic communities of the 20th century and present day".

In 1666 Aphra was recruited by the Royal Court as a secret agent to spy on Antwerp by Charles II. Her code name for her espionage was Astrea, a name she also used as a thinly-veiled pseudonym for her later writings. Aphra became the lover to a prominent and powerful member of royalty in the Netherlands, and from him she obtained important political secrets for use to the English monarchy's advantage during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. A spy in the house of love, indeed.

Somehow, despite her service for her country, she found herself penniless and sent to "debtor's prison". Wikipedia again: "By 1669 an undisclosed source had paid Behn's debts, and she was released from prison, starting from this point to become one of the first women who wrote for a living. She cultivated the friendship of various playwrights, and starting in 1670 she produced many plays and novels, as well as poems and pamphlets. Her most popular works included The Rover, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, and Oroonoko. Amongst her notable critics was Alexander Pope, against whom she has been defended."

What makes Behn so special is partially the startling openness of sexual topics for her time: incest, homoerotica, prostitution, crossdressing, lesbianism, and libertinism. The prostitute character Angellica Bianca in The Rover is widely regarded as being based on herself.

Of Behn's achievements, Virginia Woolf had this to say:

"All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds".

Other plays by Behn include: The Forced Marriage (1670), The Amorous Prince (1671), The Town Fop (1676), The Feigned Courtesans (1679), The City Heiress (1682), and The Emperor of the Moon (1687).

Quoting Wikipedia one more time: "Aphra Behn’s writing is unique for its time because of her use of the narrator’s voice and her innovative use of visual deceptions in her plays... Behn’s plays were also novel because she used visual cues in a way that they had never before been used. Dawn Lewcock comments on this ingenuity, saying "What is unique to Behn is not only her appreciation of the visual effects of a performance but also the way that she uses this to affect the perceptions of the audience and change their conception and comprehension of her plots and/or her underlying theme as she wishes by integrating the theatrical possibilities into her dramatic structure". Lewcock goes on to explain this with the mistaken identities present in The Amorous Prince where disguises play a crucial role in the plot of the play.

Behn's minor poetry, as collected in her Poems Upon Several Occasions (1684), is a veritable treasure-trove of her unabashed ideas about sexuality. These poems were written in the pastoral tradition, which she characterizes as specifically sexual. The world of the pastoral, which she fills with amorous shepherds and shepherdesses, creates for her a space in which to explore the nature and virtues of free love."

1 comment: