Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800

Aphra Behn wrote and staged five plays before producing The Rover on March 24, 1677. Her reputation as a woman of letters was established enough for her to be included in a published list of playwrights called Theatrum Poetarum , compiled by her contemporary Edward Phillips. Despite her reputation, Behn...

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Aphra Behn wrote and staged five plays before producing The Rover on March 24, 1677. Her reputation as a woman of letters was established enough for her to be included in a published list of playwrights called Theatrum Poetarum, compiled by her contemporary Edward Phillips. Despite her reputation, Behn published The Rover anonymously, perhaps because her play was an adaptation of another contemporary playwright, Thomas Killigrew. Behn had condensed his ten-act drama and turned it into a comedy, but as a woman writer, she was especially vulnerable to charges of plagiarism. It was not until the third issue of the printed play that she dared to include her name as its author. She did, however, append to her next anonymously published comedy the phrase "the Author of the Rover.’’

The Rover was an immediate success and a constant favorite in major theaters for the next sixty years. Charles II loved the play and arranged for a private viewing of it. The Rover became so popular that in 1730 it was simultaneously being produced in three different London theaters, and leading actors played encore performances year after year. At times, audiences considered Captain Willmore to be the title character, whereas other audiences thought Hellena was the rover. The sensibilities of the age also dictated the way the roles were played and understood. Early Willmore characters were handsome and dashing, and he was seen as the hero of the play. At times, the performances emphasized the tragic victimhood (eighteenth century) of the women, whereas at other times the women were seen as plucky heroines (nineteenth century). A famous eighteenth-century actress, Elizabeth Barry, played the role of Angellica more than forty times and occasionally received equal or higher billing than her male counterparts, a rare honor for an actress. However, as the morals of the eighteenth century became more conservative, the play was produced less often, and when it was produced, the bawdier elements were edited out. John Kemble adapted The Rover to create a less racy version called Love in Many Masks (1790) that was produced in place of Behn's play. The nineteenth century continued to disparage Behn; a nineteenth-century woman writer, Julia Kavanagh (as quoted in Todd's The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn) stated in her 1863 book, English Women of Letters: Biographical Sketches, that Behn's plays are ‘‘so coarse as to offend even a coarse age.’’ A reviewer for the January 1872 Saturday Review (as quoted in Janet Todd's The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn) marveled that anyone would bother to publish her work, exclaiming that ‘‘if Mrs. Behn is read at all, it can only be from a love of impurity for its own sake, for rank indecency of the dullest, stupidest, grossest kind, unrelieved by the faintest gleam of wit and sensibility.’’

Behn was rescued by nascent feminists in the early twentieth century. In 1927, Vita Sackville-West published the famous Behn biography called Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astrea. Sackville-West's good friend Virginia Woolf mentions Behn in her book A Room of One's Own, noting with pleasure that after Aphra Behn ‘‘shady and amorous as she was,’’ a woman could ‘‘earn five hundred a year by [her] wits.''

More recently, beginning in the 1970s, critics consider Behn an early feminist, and by 1985 Behn merited inclusion in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, edited by feminists Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. A 1986 revival of the play, with Jeremy Irons as a lovable rake, inspired a reviewer in London's Daily Mail (as quoted in Janet Todd's The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn) to pronounce the playwright ‘‘no longer a has-Behn.’’ Feminists generally have not admired Willmore, seeing him as a sinister villain who flourishes in what Jane Spencer describes in Aphra Behn's Afterlife as a "'rape culture' in which men are defined by their power over women and other men, and women are unable to escape being defined by men's views of their sexuality.'' At the same time, they view Hellena as a heroine; Heidi Hutner praises Behn for "rescu[ing]" Hellena—a washed-out, aging whore in Killigrew's play—and making her a strong and bold female protagonist who rebels against the patriarchal system. Feminist critics continue to debate whether Behn can be termed an early feminist or not. In fact, some contemporary critics find that Behn is overused by feminists; in her 1998 article, ‘‘Appropriating Aphra,’’ Elizabeth Schafer accuses feminists of appropriating Behn for their own purposes, ‘‘because there is money to be made through feminism in our culture at the moment.’’ Some of these feminist critics, according to Schafer, distort Behn' s original purpose as they bend her text to their own critical purposes. Aphra Behn's profound and saucy play continues to strike a responsive chord in contemporary audiences and to inspire critics to ponder her motivation and intention in writing this provocative comedy.

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