Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn

Playwright
(1640–1689)

The early years of Aphra Behn, the first English woman to support herself by writing, are shrouded in some mystery. She was probably born in the village of Wye in the south eastern English county of Kent in 1640, but the identity of her parents is still not definitely known. Either when she was a teenager or slightly later in her early twenties she traveled to Surinamon the coast of South America. At the time, Surinam was an English trading colony, although it was later transferred to the Dutch. The experiences that Behn hadwhile she was there formed the basis for her later novel, Oroonoko (1688). When she returned to London around 1664, she married Mr. Behn, a trader in the city whose family origins were Dutch and German. Her husband probably died about a year later, and in the years that followed she began to circulate in court circles where shewas prized for her wit.

Sometime around 1667, Aphra Behn went to Antwerp on a spy mission for Charles II; at this time, she amassed numerous debts in the king’s service, and when she returned to England, she was imprisoned for them. She secured her release, but the king did not come to her aid. To pull herself out of her financial troubles, she began to write for the London stage, producing her first play, The Forced Marriage, in 1670. The play was staged by the Duke’s Men and was a great success. In seventeenth century England, it was generally customary for playwrights to receive box office proceeds for every third night that a play was performed. Since the theater going public in Restoration times was smaller than in Tudor or early Stuart times, most plays were staged for only a few nights. Behn’s The Forced Marriage had six performances and its author consequently received the production’s proceeds for two nights, a large sum that might keep a playwright sustained over months and even years.

Success and Failure

In 1671, the company for which Behn wrote, the Duke’s Men, moved into a handsome new theater designed for them by Sir Christopher Wren, and the author began to write plays at the rate of about one each year. Some of these (The Rover [1677] and The Second Part of the Rover) were successful, while a few others floundered and the author did not even receive one night’s proceeds. Except for one tragedy and a tragicomedy, all her works were in the genre of “comedy of manners” that the Restoration theater favored. In particular, she often railed against the custom of arranged murders common in her day. Behn seems also to have been an astute judge of public tastes. In 1670, the wildly popular actress Nell Gwyn had retired from the stage after becoming the king’s mistress; in 1677, Behn wrote the female lead in the comedy of manners play The Rover in an attempt to lure Gwyn out of her retirement and back to the stage. The actress obliged, helping to make the play a great hit.

aphra_behnThe following year, Behn wrote another work, Sir Patient Fancy, to include a role for the famous actress, and to honor her the playwright dedicated to Gwyn the publication of her work, The Feigned Courtesans in 1679. In these years Aphra Behn acquired her own dubious notoriety since herworks were often filled with the bawdy humor and suggestions of sexual license that were favored at the timeon London’s stage. By the 1680s Behn’s reputation as a dramatist of light comedies was well recognized, and her output of works was steadily increasing. Of all the Restoration dramatists, she ranked second only to John Dryden for the sheer number of her works. She produced three works, and another two in 1682. The last of these, Like Father Like Son, failed so miserably that the text was never published. In the prologue, too, she had included remarks that the censors found offensive, and she was arrested. While the outcome of her interrogation is not known, she was probably merely given a warning. But the incident, in tandem with the changing theatrical scene in London, seems to have discouraged Behn from writing for the theater for several years. Between 1682 and 1685, she apparently produced noworks for the London stage. In the years leading up to her arrest, too, the company for which she wrote, the Duke’s Men, entered on hard times, and by 1682 was forced to merge with The King’s Men in order to survive.

Behn’s flagging productivity, then, may have been caused by these internal problems within London’s theatrical companies. Whatever the reason, the author eventually returned to write for the theater, but only produced two more works for it in 1686 and 1687. Little is known about the circumstances of her early death in 1689, but she was immediately buried in Westminster Abbey, a sign of the high esteem in which she was held. This prestige and reputation persisted in many quarters, and two new plays were published after her death. Behn’s plays were filled with sexual wit and bawdy humor, as were most of the works of Restoration playwrights. At the same time, reigning double standards meant that women were expected to exemplify higher moral standards than men. As a result, in the years following her death Aphra Behn had a dubious reputation for being a woman of loose morals and in the more restrained and conservative theatrical climate that developed in London after 1700, her works were rarely performed. Her career as a playwright, though, inspired a number of other women in the eighteenth century to imitate her example.

Comments are closed.