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Posts Tagged ‘The Widow Ranter’

A guest post by LH Member Lissa Chapman.

B2002.15It seems significant that so many modern studies of Aphra Behn and her work feature a mask on the cover.  Famous as the first-ever professional woman playwright, Behn was also a novelist, poet, translator – and spy.  And she was adept at suppressing information about herself.

By the time of her death in 1689, Behn had become something of a celebrity, and was allowed the honour of a grave in the cloisters at Westminster Abbey.  In a 20-year career in the theatre, she had written and had staged nearly 20 plays.  And for a time her work remained popular – for several decades her play The Emperor of the Moon was staged every time a Friday, 13th came round, as theatre managements knew the show would pull in a crowd whatever the date.  But the world changed, and Behn’s work began to be regarded as too coarse to read.  By the nineteenth century she was firmly forgotten:  the Victorians, disliking the Restoration as a period anyway, could not forgive Aphra Behn for having been a woman, and regarded her work as “too coarse to open”.  Even when, in the next century, Virginia Woolf wrote of placing flowers on Behn’s grave, it was as a trailblazer she was to be remembered:  there was no discussion of the quality of her work. In recent years at least some of Aphra Behn’s work has begun to emerge from the shadows.  A number of her plays, most notably The Rover have been staged, and it is generally agreed that her best writing is at least as good as that of her most famous contemporaries;  there have been new editions of her work, two biographies and innumerable articles.

As part of this, at least some of Aphra Behn’s life story has emerged from the shadows.  And it is now clear just what odds she overcame in order to survive at all, let alone to get her work staged and published and to maintain her independence.  Aphra Johnson, born near Canterbury in 1640, was the daughter of a barber and a wet nurse who worked for an aristocratically connected family.   It was probably as a result of this that Aphra was recruited, first as a courier for Royalist plotters during the Commonwealth years, and then as a fully fledged spy.  She was sent first to Surinam, then to the Low Countries, on each occasion to watch and connect with the dissident William Scot.  Aphra, only in her twenties, was a total failure as a spy:  she fell in love with her quarry, who double crossed her, and finally returned to London, badly in debt and with little to show for her mission.  Yet only a few years later, after a short lived marriage to a German merchant, Aphra Behn was established in London as a professional writer – this is the ferocious and misogynist world of the Restoration theatre.

But not all Aphra Behn’s work receives the attention it merits.  Her final play, The Widow Ranter, set in Virginia and featuring not only the reimagined story of a rebellion but satire, music, dance, spectacle, several different love stories and a cross-dressed, drunken, pipe smoking former servant for a heroine, was staged only once, just after its author’s death.  It was published with a defensive preface explaining it had been badly cast, and then laid aside and forgotten.  A couple of years ago Clio’s Company became interested in the play – a reading one afternoon told us it deserved another chance to live on stage.  After Aphra, written by Lissa Chapman and Jay Venn and incorporating scenes from The Widow Ranter as well as new work, is also part of a sequence of productions which will lead up to a full scale production of  in 2020, the 250th anniversary year of the staging of Behn’s first play, The Forc’d Marriage.


After Aphra: The Story of Aphra Behn and “The Widow Ranter” will be performed at the atmospheric. Watermen’s Hall on 23rd October for one night only. A time of writing there are a few places still available.


Editor’s Note
In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 devoted an episode to Aphra Behn in October 2017.

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