Although Aphra Behn lived in an age of great intellectual ferment, her ideas on politics and society are usually commonplace and traditional. In reading her plays, one is tempted to look for connections with current feminist concerns, but except for her deep concern that marriage be entered into on the basis of mutual affection and not contracted for social or monetary reasons, there is little that Behn wished to change in the relationship between the sexes. She knew herself too well, furthermore, to attribute greater virtue to women than to men. If she did not appear to be interested in demonstrating the virtue of her sex, she at least used her plays to celebrate its power.
The Forced Marriage and The Amorous Prince
Behn began her literary career with two plays whose technique and style are based on the romantic tragicomedies written in collaboration by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Plays of this type permit a serious subject to be explored while avoiding a tragic resolution of the conflict. The first of her dramas in this vein was entitled The Forced Marriage, a work whose theme is the conflict between love and honor. This play was followed by The Amorous Prince. In this play, Behn uses a double plot in which the worldly protagonist first seduces an innocent country lass and then proceeds to fall in love with his best friend’s fiancée. The play thus contrasts rural innocence with urban corruption and probes the competing claims of love and friendship. The plot is resolved happily when the repentant prince agrees to marry the country lass and renounces his designs on the friend’s fiancée. Neither of these plays has much to interest present-day readers, but they were received enthusiastically by London audiences at the time, and Behn’s future in the theater appeared to be assured.
The Dutch Lover
The performance of her third play, however, ended in failure. Despite the fact that The Dutch Lover is much better than either of its predecessors, the public proved unreceptive. Much of the blame for its failure, however, may justly be attributed to a poor production. Based on a contemporary novel with a Spanish setting, the intricate plot of The Dutch Lover involves seven sets of lovers—four of them being of earnest intent and the other three being comic in nature. One of the males who is featured in a comic pair of lovers is a Dutchman, and the play derives its name from his prominence in many of the comedic scenes. The various strands of plot mesh nicely—with the aid of multiple disguises and mistaken identities reminiscent of plays constructed in the manner of Spanish intrigue. Such comedies emphasized action and intricate plotting at the expense of character development and usually incorporated the element of spectacle. Behn’s fondness for this kind of drama was an abiding one, and she persisted in writing works of this style long after its popularity with English audiences had waned.
Discouraged by the failure of The Dutch Lover, Behn offered the public no new plays from February, 1673, to the time when Abdelazer was produced in July, 1676. This work is a romantic tragedy in the grand manner, with much turgid rhetoric. The plot was derived from an anonymous sixteenth century play, and its action takes place in a Spanish-Moorish milieu. Although it met with public approbation, it is decidedly inferior to plays of this genre written by Dryden and Otway. Sensing that she lacked the temperament needed to create heroic drama, Behn did not again attempt to write tragedy.
The Town Fop
For her next play, Behn turned to more congenial subject matter and for the first time composed a play whose setting lay within the city of London. Entitled The Town Fop, it is a marked improvement over any of her previous works for the theater. Indebted in the main...
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