A Second Act for a 17th c. Woman Playwright

October 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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Twenty years ago, when I began thinking about writing Wicked Company focusing on a group of eighteenth century “Petticoat Playwrights” whose works were performed to great success at London’s Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres, even most English majors had never heard of the playwright Aphra Behn, whose dates are thought to be 1640-1689.

Now recognized as “one of the first women to earn her living by her pen,” the woman on your right has finally come into her own with several biographies and monographs describing her life as a spy, and later as a remarkably successful and prolific  playwright in the Restoration era –a time after the monarchy was restored in the person of Charles II who allowed, at long last,  women to play women’s parts on stages throughout Britain.

The daughter of a barber and a nurse, Aphra somehow managed to travel to Venezuela which was the setting for one of her later plays.  Later, through friends and connections, she was recruited by King Charles II himself to pose as a widow in Antwerp and spy for the Crown, prior to the outbreak of a war between Britain and the Netherlands in 1665.

Sadly, the King neglected to pay her for her services to her country, and upon her return, she landed in Debtor’s Prison.  Once released, she had plenty of fodder for her plays, which she proceeded to write starting in 1670 with astonishing speed in order to keep body-and-soul together (the plight of most writers through the ages, I’m sad to report).

Aphra Behn’s best-known works–some still produced today–are The RoverLove-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, and Oroonoko.

Her body of work includes some seventeen plays, four novels, two short stories, and seven collections of poems.  Her writing was often vilified by the male-dominated literary world. Alexander Pope (1688-1744), born the year before she died, continually penned slights in the years following her death.  Conveniently for him, the poor woman was unable to defend herself.  Even in our own  time, American critic and Yale Professor of the Humanities Harold Bloom called her a “fourth-rate playwright” in comparison to Shakespeare, adding rather spitefully that the interest of her in the era of Women’s Studies was an example of the “dumbing down” of the culture.

Tell that to Liz Duffy Adams, winner of the 5th Annual Lillian Hellman Award!  On November 4th, at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre –an organization that specializes in presenting new works–Adams’ play “Or,” opens.  It features Aphra Behn as the central character, and I, for one, cannot wait to see it.

Described as follows on the Magic Theatre’s website, it sounds hilarious, and appears to be a wonderful vehicle for getting back at all those nasty male critics:

Aphra Behn is getting out of the spy game and into showbiz. If she can finish her play by morning, she’ll become the first professional female playwright. All that’s standing in her way are King Charles II, actress Nell Gwynne, and double agent William Scot, who may or may not be trying to murder the king. Double-crossing, cross-dressing, sex, art, and politics all come together in playwright Liz Duffy Adams’ hilarious bodice-ripper that peers into the life and times of the literal first lady of the stage.

I have a friend deeply involved in support of Magic Theatre and if I can twist her arm, I hope I’ll have a chance to meet Ms. Adams, pictured here on the right, and share with her the fact  that I’ve been a booster of “our” heroine  Aphra Behn for a long time. In fact, I dedicate the newly-released Sourcebooks Landmark edition of Wicked Company about the eighteenth century Petticoat Playwrights that followed in Aphra’s footsteps to the noteworthy playwright as a way of expressing my thanks to this incredible woman who did, indeed, earn her living by her pen.

Just as I do with my computer. Not much changes over the centuries, does it…?

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