Critical Context

The Rover plays are among the most widely read of Behn’s large body of literary works. Part I was tremendously successful during the seventeenth century and was frequently revived throughout the eighteenth century. Behn’s artistry becomes particularly apparent when her plays are viewed in comparison with their source, Thomas Killigrew’s long closet drama Thomas: Or, The Wanderer (wr. 1654, pb. 1664). Not only did Behn shorten Killigrew’s drama, which would never have been successful onstage, but she also changed its tone. Killigrew’s humor depends upon a vulgarity that is entirely absent from Behn’s plays. Behn eliminated Killigrew’s misogyny and transformed his female caricatures into complex, fully developed characters.

Equally important, Behn used this drama to explore ideas related to gender and culture that are found throughout her works. Depicting the way in which society inhibits and ultimately perverts desire, The Rover shares much with Behn’s poem “The Golden Age” (1684), her novel Oronooko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave (1688), and many of her other plays. The Rover also presents the virtues, however ambiguous, of cavaliers like Willmore, Belvile, and Beaumond, who remained loyal to the Stuart family during the Interregnum period. In this way, the plays belong to what Robert Markley has labeled Behn’s “Tory Comedies.” These plays, which also include The Roundheads: Or, The Good Old Cause (pr. 1681, pb. 1682) and The City Heiress: Or, Sir Timothy Treat-All (pr., pb. 1682), celebrate natural aristocracy and uninhibited sexuality while ridiculing the “Puritan ideology of self-denial.”

Ultimately, The Rover plays are difficult to characterize. They are both derivative and highly original. More important, they are wonderfully enjoyable comedies that never lose their ability to raise important and disturbing questions. For readers of Restoration drama, they remain as eclectic and delightful as their protagonists.