Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1947
The setting of carnival time in Naples in Aphra Behn's play The Rover allows two sets of characters to explore their sexual desires in a ‘‘performative space’’ that grants them an unusual amount of freedom from external constraint, from public view, and from suffering the consequences of their actions. The term ‘‘performative space’’ refers to the way that characters on and off the stage respond to differing expectations that are associated with place and dress. The Rover explores three performative spaces: the carnival world, the theater, and London society. Carnival time is the epitome of a special performative space. Carnival goers for various reasons take advantage of the anonymity of this masked affair to engage in relationships that would otherwise be denied to them because of their class or gender. Since the carnival represents the world turned upside-down, carnival time in Naples is a time for experimenting with role reversals. In Behn's play, some of the reversals "stick," generating actual changes in destiny. Just as these role reversals are enacted within the plot of Behn's The Rover, the theatrical space presents a performative space for audience members, too, as a place to experiment with role modification. Aphra Behn understands this function of theater, and she provides models on the stage for audience members eager to learn the seductive ways of, for example, the professional courtesan. Finally, Behn is attuned to the limited and limiting performative space occupied by women in London society. She defiantly uses her skill as a writer to create a new, public performative space for female playwrights.
During carnival time, a mood of licentiousness descends upon Naples, a city that in the seventeenth century was not known for its prudishness in the first place. Wearing costumes and masks to hide their identities, the participants are free to act on impulses they would otherwise suppress. The carnival offers a perfect opportunity for two unmarried sisters, according to critic Heidi Hutner in ‘‘Revisioning the Female Boyd,’’ to ‘‘ramble: to leave the house, to speak their minds, to approach men of their choice.’’ Going against her brother's command that she be locked up in the house until Lent, Hellena goes to the carnival to find a man and feel "the vanity and power'' of being desirable to him. Dressed as a gypsy, she acts like one, displaying her body provocatively and pretending to read Willmore's palm, while hiding behind her mask. The freedom of carnival time lets her act upon impulses that a young lady would not normally indulge. For the male characters, too, carnival time gives people license to act out sexual desires. As Willmore exclaims to his fellow cavaliers, '"tis a kind of legal authorized fornication, where the men are not chid for't, nor the women despised, as among our dull English.’’ They, too, wear masks to avoid being held accountable for the consequences of their dallying. Captain Willmore and his friends plan to take advantage of the sexual freedoms of young ladies in a carnival mood. The men drink, too, and drunkenness opens up a performative space that excuses swinish behavior. When Willmore blames his attempted rape of Florinda on the "influence" of the "cursed sack'' he had been drinking, the others readily accept this excuse. But it is not just drink that influences Willmore: he responds to the influence of the performative space he occupies. The setting of the carnival is a catalyst that compels the characters to act compulsively. The mask, too, plays a role. As renowned theater director Peter Hall describes in his book Exposed by the Mask, even actors playing a part discover the liberating effect of the mask: "He [the actor] can change his age, his bearing, his physique, even his sexuality. The change comes from using parts of himself that perhaps he did not know existed and from suppressing others irrelevant to this new person.'' Each of the masked characters in The Rover is freed by his or her mask to explore new ways of behaving. And the transformations are sudden: Valeria expresses amazement at how quickly they fell into the role of a gypsy, seeming to have ‘‘learnt this trade of gipsies as readily as if we had been bred upon the road to Loretto.'' Hellena has so quickly found the love she sought that she is still spinning from the experience, and she asks herself, "What the deuce should this be now that I feel?'' She has been smitten by love but also by a way of being, of taking control over her own life. She would like to occupy this performative space for longer than a day.
Hellena, like her namesake from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, awkwardly plays the role of the huntress, thus reversing the traditional roles in the amorous battle of the sexes. Behn's Hellena would prefer a permanent carnival-like performative space, a world turned upside-down in terms of courtship. She says, ‘‘I don't intend that every he that likes me shall have me, but he that I like.’’ Behn fashioned her Hellena after Shakespeare's Helena, not the Hellena from Thomas Killigrew's play Thomaso, or The Wanderer, the play she adapted. Behn replaced Killigrew's Hellena, "an old decayed blind, out of fashion whore...that has neither teeth nor eyes,'' with a young miss who knows herself to be "well shaped," "clean-limbed," and "sweet-breathed." The playwright also reversed the old Hellena's fortune, so that the young noblewoman could express what Behn (and the aging prostitute) knew to be true: that "a handsome woman has a great deal to do while her face is good.’’ Therefore, Behn's Hellena dons the costume and inhabits the performative space of a prostitute, pinning advertisements to her clothing to underscore her purpose, in case anyone missed it. To all eyes, Hellena is a whore. From the perspective of the viewer, the "play-acting...and reality...collapse into each other, and the boundaries of performative and essential self becomes indistinct,’’ as Derek Hughes explains in his work The Theatre of Aphra Behn. To Willmore, Hellena really is his "gipsie girl,’’ and he does not comprehend that she is a titled lady until he hears it twice.
For Hellena's part, performance and reality have merged, for she continues the relationship as a hybrid of her gypsy persona with her identity of a mischievous nun-to-be. She has merged the two identities by enacting the gypsy part in the performative space of the carnival, and the resultant woman is equal to the challenge of taming the Rover's wandering habits. Although, as Heidi Hutner points out, she is "brought back into the patriarchal fold,’’ when she requires and gets her brother's approval, she occupies her own performative space within the marriage. In The Rover, Behn raises significant questions about the extent to which the social/sexual self truly represents the essential self. In seventeenth-century London, the traditional performative space for marriageable women was confining; even a gypsy, common prostitute, or high-priced courtesan had more freedom. Behn also demonstrated that in the courtship marketplace it was often difficult to distinguish one mode of performance from the other, for the lady and the prostitute had to employ similar tactics to get by in life.
As in the carnival, within the performative space of the theater itself, it was also often difficult to distinguish between prostitute and lady-of-quality. The theater was the other public forum where masked prostitutes masqueraded as ladies-of-quality. In the theater, they could rub shoulders with women-of-quality, some of whom wore masks to playact as prostitutes. Thus, the audience was, in some ways, another world turned upside-down. Charles II had reinstated the theater after twenty years of grim Puritan suppression, and here he wanted to celebrate his triumph over them. Many of the plays he supported legitimized his own licentious behavior by staging it for the audience to celebrate with him. His interest in theater created a new performative space for women, too, one that was both liberating and problematic. He had proclaimed through an act of Parliament that women must play women's roles, thus inventing the career of the actress. However, by putting themselves on display in this fashion, they were instantly considered prostitutes, and the treatment they received at the hands of gentlemen at the back door of the theater usually succeeded in transforming them into such. Meanwhile, in the audience, prostitutes wearing masks were easily confused with ladies-of-quality, also wearing masks. The mask lent the woman an air of mystery and sophistication that was useful to prostitutes and ladies alike. However, as Anne Russell points out in her introduction to the Broadview edition of The Rover, "the distinctions between prostitutes and 'respectable women' became blurred. The mask became a sign of the prostitute but a sign which, with its offer of anonymity, could offer some freedom from conventional roles for any woman who wore it.’’ That inveterate playgoer of the seventeenth century, Samuel Pepys, frequently observed the confusion. In one diary entry, he records his reaction to a lovely woman in a mask, saying that "one of the ladies would, and did, sit with her mask on all the play; and being exceedingly witty as ever I heard a woman, did talk most pleasantly with him; but was, I believe, a virtuous woman and of quality... .A more pleasant rencontre I never heard. But by that means lost the pleasure of the play wholly.’’ He was more entertained by the masked audience member than he was by the play, and it would have been difficult for him to ignore her, since the Restoration theater was lit uniformly, such that the audience was as visible as the play. Sophisticated banter and sexually provocative behavior being in fashion at this time, the theater was itself a performative space for enacting, watching, and practicing the sophisticated actions of the royal court. Prostitutes could learn to be witty, like the lady Pepys observed, and ladies could learn how to display themselves, like—and not like—prostitutes.
During the Interregnum, when few theater productions were allowed, people read printed plays and imagined the scenery. The restoration of theater created cause to celebrate visual scenery again, and this time stages were more opulent than ever. Scenery went center-stage. Elaborate devices trundled across tracks inlaid in the floor so that intricately painted scenes, complete with perspective, could be rolled into place on cue. The result was an opulence never-before-deen, a riot and celebration of the theatrical performance space on stage, while the real-life intrigues offstage made for equally entertaining scenarios. This was just as Charles II wanted it; he actively promoted theater as a means of anti-Puritan propaganda.
To a large extent, Aphra Behn produced exactly what Charles II and his audience wanted: an erotic and sophisticated entertainment. Yet, because of the social bias against female playwrights, she could not at first take credit for her achievement. She, too, was "masked," for in her prologue she refers to the playwright as an anonymous "he,'' and she refuses to identify herself as the author of her work. Nevertheless, Behn opened up a new performative space for women writers, not just as ‘‘the professional woman writer as a new fangled kind of whore,’’ as Catherine Gallagher claims in her essay "Who Was That Masked Woman? The Prostitute and the Playwright in the Comedies of Aphra Behn,'' but as a woman writer with, like her heroine, Hellena, the wit and power to control the theatrical performative space through establishing her own ground rules. She created this space, and by doing so, she invited other female writers to populate it.
Source: Carole Hamilton, Critical Essay on The Rover, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4194
Killigrew's Thomaso, on which The Rover was based, is set in Madrid in late November. There are disguises, and the Feast of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music, is associated with Thomaso himself, but there is none of the pre-Lenten urgency to eat, drink, and be merry which characterises The Rover, and no mention of the pervading spirit of carnival which Aphra Behn introduced when she adapted and altered Killigrew's play. Behn also moved the action to Naples, where a carnival setting was associated with Roman Saturnalian revels as well as with opposition to the restrictions of the Christian tradition's Lent, which included a ban on sexual intercourse as well as the eating of meat.
If a festive spirit seems restrained in Thomaso, this is hardly surprising. Killigrew's text was reputedly written in exile in 1654. At home, Cromwell had dissolved the Rump Parliament and set himself up as Lord Protector. It was a time of disputes and foreign wars; Royalist plots were being revived to displace Cromwell, who seemed to be taking the country back to a monarchy with himself as king. Thomaso was a closet drama which could not be performed at the time of writing because the theatres were closed and, even if this had not been the case, a play of its nature would have been forbidden. It was printed in 1663, after the Restoration of Charles II, when the cavaliers it celebrated were comfortably returned home—but there is no evidence that it was ever acted.
When Behn produced The Rover, the monarchy had been reestablished for seventeen years. Mikhail Bakhtin has observed that "Moments of death and revival, of change and renewal always led to a festive perception of the world"—but neither renewal nor change could be said to be being celebrated in 1677. If it was not pure nostalgia, on what was Aphra Behn's use of carnival based?
The play's period setting in the 1650s is very significant. Cromwell's Protectorate had suppressed pastimes and sports and, to Royalists, the period must have seemed like an indefinite extension of Lent. Joining in the festivities of carnival which were denied them at home, exiled cavaliers whiled away the time until the new order of the once-revolutionary Parliamentarians could be overthrown. Instead of being a wealthy, extravagant elite, the exiles had lost lands and money: they were now displaced and marginalised in foreign parts, and Behn's play continually stresses their "outsider" status. Willmore is not just a rover—a pirate, one who wanders, an inconstant lover—he is a Tramontana rover', which, apart from signifying someone uncouth, indicates a foreigner or stranger. In fact, most of the characters are outsiders of one kind or another: Naples is under Spanish rule, Angellica Bianca is introduced as a native of Padua, even the English are divided into the impecunious cosmopolitan cavaliers and the wealthy traveller from the country, whom they befriend but constantly taunt because he never committed himself politically and kept his privileges and estate. Established incomers prey upon more recent arrivals: Lucetta exploits Blunt's ignorance of Naples and of her ways—though she does worry that her treatment of him may put paid to future dealings with foreigners if word gets around. The protagonists, then, are all away from their home ground and are vulnerable because of this. The usual social hierarchies are inverted. The Spanish, old enemies of the English, are either in power officially (Don Antonio is the viceroy's son) or unofficially (Philippo takes the spoils Lucetta tricks from Blunt and reminds us of the old quarrel about the Spanish Armada in his reference to "old Queen Bess's" gold and the "quarrel... since eighty-eight.") The English, who might have been gentlemen at home, are poor, riotous, and often despised abroad.
Although the victimisation of prostitutes was a common feature of traditional carnival, Behn does not condemn either Lucetta or Angellica Bianca, but rather, at significant moments, gives them the upper-hand over the English strangers, an even more disadvantaged and male social group. No matter how brave they may be, abroad they are distinguished principally by their lack of riches and often run-down appearance; even a courtesan's servant feels free to mock Willmore in his presence with, "I believe those breeches and he have been acquainted ever since he was beaten at Worcester." Blunt has managed to retain his wealth, being no cavalier, yet he does not have the wit to keep it and escape abuse. Lucetta soon picks him out as a gullible fool:
He's English too, and they say that's a sort of good-natured loving people, and have generally so kind an opinion of themselves that a woman with any wit may flatter 'em into any sort of fool she pleases.
This is gender-specific, unlike the jibe in Hamlet that the English are all mad: Behn's joke implies that, at home and abroad, an English male is no match for any woman's wit. Both Lucetta and Angellica are victims of a male-centred society and an economy which treats them as a commodity, but each has her own methods of survival, built on compromise, and they manipulate the men on whom they depend.
The "jilting wench," Lucetta, gains great wealth without giving any favors to a country gentleman, while the "famous courtesan," who demands a ridiculously high price, eventually chooses to bestow herself for nothing on a penniless pirate and, when she cannot command his constant love, holds him at pistol-point to revenge her honour. Angellica may not win Willmore, yet she retains his admiration and the adoration and respect of someone as rich and powerful as the viceroy's son.
Behn's women are more certain of their intrinsic worth than Killigrew's female characters. They reserve the right to adjust their monetary price as it suits them, being more financially secure than many of the men in the play. Even the upright Belvile is dependent on marrying into money (the box of jewels which Florinda, his Spanish love, hides in the garden may be a metaphor for the virtue she has so much difficulty preserving, but since Jessica's flight to Lorenzo in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, it is also a symbol of the defiant woman who breaks through family and cultural opposition to give herself and her wealth to the man of her choice). The woman-shy Frederick also has his future determined by Florinda, who tells him:
I'll be reconciled to you on one condition—that you'll follow the example of your friend in marrying a maid that does not hate you, and whose fortune (I believe) will not be unwelcome to you.
This world, where women can take the initiative, is the world of carnival. It is a time of misrule; everything is turned upside-down, prohibitions are temporarily removed, and privileges and rank suspended. Everyone, however different, can be integrated by joining in. As Bakhtin wrote:
Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom.
Carnival may have appealed to Restoration audiences because of its emphasis on sexual freedom, and to Aphra Behn because it extended this freedom to women as well as men. Male dramatists also created outspoken and daring women characters. Etherege's The Man of Mode, which was performed the year before The Rover, is part of a movement, discernible in Restoration comedy, away from a focus on the male lead and towards an awareness that "his lady," in this case Harriet Woodvil, was the real "centre of interest." The fact that women were now playing women's parts, coupled with Behn's influence in contemporary theatre, probably helped to bring about this transition. Certainly one topic which was close to Behn's heart was the issue of arranged marriages and a woman's right to choose her own husband: beginning with her first play, The Forced Marriage, she tackled the topic at least eleven times in her dramatic works.
Unlike Thomaso, The Rover does not begin by focusing on the men; it opens with Hellena and Florinda discussing their lack of independence. Both women display the confidence to have opinions and desires—and to express them. Only Lucetta, of all the females in the play, seems unable to do this—perhaps because she merely exploits the carnival spirit for financial gain at the command of Philippo and is always under his control. She never manages to break free and act as she would wish. As she tells him, speaking of Blunt: "And art thou not an unmerciful rogue, not to afford him one night for all this? I should not have been such a Jew." But she is not allowed to follow her own desires because, as Philippo reminds her, he wants "to keep as much of [her] as [he] can to [him]self." Lucetta, like Angellica, demonstrates how difficult it is for women— especially kept women and prostitutes—to retain their sexual freedom. Dependent on men financially for their survival, they cannot afford the luxury of dispensing favors at will. Angellica, with her greater independence and wealth, fares better than Lucetta. She also, like Hellena and Florinda, has the advantage of a female ally. Her woman, Moretta, is probably motivated more by economic considerations than emotional attachment, but we feel sure that when Angellica finally turns her back on Willmore, Moretta will be there to help her return to her old, confident state. Similarly, in Act I.i. Hellena fiercely takes her sister's part in criticising their father's wishes and her brother's intentions to carry them out; later, Valeria rushes to the rescue when Hellena and Florinda find themselves under threat. Supportive, energetic women are Behn's speciality.
Behn has been credited with creating more daring dialogue between the sexes than many of her male contemporaries. In The Rover this could be due in part to her use of Killigrew's text (which is freer than most in this respect) and particularly to her reassignment to Hellena of certain speeches which Killigrew allocated to a male character—but the freedom with which her men and women converse is also due to the way in which another aspect of carnival is allowed to flourish. Hellena has already entered fully into its spirit when the play opens,"'Nay, I'm resolved to provide myself this carnival, if there be e'er a handsome proper fellow of my humour above ground, though I ask first." She has resolved to find her own man and initiate a relationship: her father and brother may be planning to save the cost of a dowry by placing her in a convent, but she is quite aware of what she has to offer—and to gain by making other plans. Her sister, Florinda, has already determined to defy their father and refuses to marry "the rich old Don Vincentio," being equally sure of her worth: "I shall let him see I understand better what's due to my beauty, birth, and fortune, and more—to my soul, than to obey those unjust commands."
Both are set for battle when their brother, Don Pedro, enters. He apparently does not notice Hellena at first and addresses only Florinda, which suggests that he believes Hellena, the novice, to be elsewhere praying—an impression reinforced by his surprise when she cannot resist butting into the conversation to take Florinda's part. Hellena not only disobeys his command to "Go—up to your devotion" (he leaves before she does), but she fiercely challenges everything he says, mocks Vincentio' s lack of virility, and shocks Pedro with her tenacity ("Have you done yet?") and her outspoken language. Behn toned down Killigrew' s description of the old prospective husband who"'farts as loud as a Musket for a jest" to "sighs a belch or two, loud as a musket," but reserved the detail for greater impact later in Hellena's outraged, "What then? The viceroy's son is better than that old Sir Fisty." Pedro, shocked by his sister's disrespectful term ("old fart") for her father's choice of husband, orders her immediate incarceration for the duration of the carnival, followed at Lent by "her everlasting penance in a monastery."
For Hellena, the carnival has already begun: she is indulging in vigorous colloquial outspokenness—her free expression of oaths ("Now hang me if...") and her skills of witty mockery make her a natural sparring partner for the outspoken Willmore. Hellena looks to the carnival to provide her with experience of love and life and, as Elin Diamond aptly expresses it, "She exercises her will only by pursuing and winning Willmore for as it turns out he has the 'more' she 'would fain know'." Unlike Lent, carnival is characterised by abundance and easy gratification. Willmore steps ashore in search of "Love and mirth" in a "warm climate" after having been deprived of women and good living on board ship. He may stink "of tar and ropes' ends like a dock or pesthouse," but he has an abundance of persuasive rhetoric as well as desire: "I have a world of love in store. Would you would...take some on't off my hands." While he has been confined to male company at sea, Hellena has been pent-up in a nunnery and, like him, she is eager to start making up for lost time: "for when I begin, I fancy I shall love like anything; I never tried yet." She has no intention of dying "a maid, and in a captain's hands too." but the liberality of carnival does not mean that she has forgotten the realities of everyday life. Hellena's gypsy disguise is only a disguise: she does not really want a life of hardship and "A cradle full of noise and mischief, with a pack of repentance at my back." Her plain speaking and scorn of Willmore's attempts to win her persuade him into a marriage "bargain" which, although both enter defensively, she has engineered. Perhaps marriage is as unattractive to her as it is to Willmore but, without it, the freedom to explore her sexual desires could take her back to the convent as an abandoned, unmarriageable young woman, with or without a child. Marriage may have its faults, but a nunnery has few pleasures for a woman of her nature.
When Hellena first hears about Florinda's love for Belvile, she declares, "I hope he has some mad companion or other that will spoil my devotion," and from that point on she exerts all her energies to provoke an assault on her virginity, advertising it at every opportunity, confident that she has the wit to handle the situation to her ultimate advantage. Florinda, on the other hand, is constantly fending-off attempted rape from the time of her first meeting with Belvile, "when I was exposed to such dangers as the licensed lust of common soldiers threatened when rage and conquest flew through the city." The Englishmen like to think they are no common soldiers intent on rape and pillage, but in Willmore's drunken assault on Florinda in Act III.v and the mass rape planned in Act IV by Blunt with the compliance, at one point, of Frederick and the others, a modern audience may begin to doubt. While indecent behaviour towards women is part of the carnival tradition, and Restoration drama frequently incorporates a physical assault on a virtuous heroine (even Nahum Tate's rewriting of King Lear includes an attempted rape of Cordelia), Aphra Behn's treatment of the issue raises far-reaching questions concerning sexual violence against women (particularly of different social stations) and the problems involved in the way female chastity was prized, protected, and put under siege.
The Rover's carnival setting highlights the double standards normally practised by both men and women. A society in which rich old men take young wives they cannot satisfy encourages the latter to "ramble to supply the defects of some grave impotent husband," and allows women like Lucetta to use this as a cover for deception and robbery. When, as Belvile insists, there are wealthy "whores" who do not fit the traditional stereotype, and wealthy wives doing much the same but without the fee, how is a man like Blunt to discern whether he is predator or prey?
Why yes, sir, they are whores, though they'll neither entertain you with drinking, swearing, or bawdry; are whores in all those gay clothes and right jewels...with those great houses richly furnished...are whores, and arrant ones.
The men perpetuate a situation where the honour of their own women is valued and fiercely defended, but a woman without an effective protector is seen as fair game or, as Willmore puts it, "another prize." When circumstances temporarily remove a woman from family or marital protection, the men become victims of each other's prejudices and lusts. For all his boasting, Frederick has little experience of women; he acts according to the primitive distinctions that governed much male behaviour at the time, "I begin to suspect something; and 'twould anger us vilely to be trussed up for a rape upon a maid of quality, when we only believe we ruffle a harlot." The "harlot" is, of course, Florinda: Frederick's description of her earlier as "that damned virtuous woman" is almost realised.
The farce, which provokes both laughter and unease as the masked Florinda is physically threatened by one male after another, reaches its climax when her own brother, who has been the fiercest defender of her honour, draws the longest sword in the contest to take possession of her body. Belvile is helpless, and only the timely intervention of Valeria saves the day. The ridiculous situation was brought about by Don Pedro's insistence that Florinda should marry the man of his choosing rather than her own, and that Hellena should be denied marriage altogether. Finally, Florinda's match is a fait accompli, and the strain of making a stand against that of Willmore and Hellena is too great. Don Pedro consents in the face of mass resistance, relieved to "be free from fears of her honour." "Guard it you now, if you can," he tells Willmore, "I have been a slave to't long enough." Willmore's advice that "a woman's honour is not worth guarding when she has a mind to part with it" could be said to be the message of the play.
One freedom of carnival is the opportunity to act foolishly without regard to social position. In not opposing his sisters' marriages, Don Pedro bows to the prevailing pressures of festivity. It is a huge relief for him to relinquish the burden of patriarchal responsibility. Wickedly, Behn allows him to relish his liberation. When we first meet Pedro he is about to put on his masked costume and participate in revels he has forbidden to his sisters. By the end, in forgiving everyone, he has entered into the spirit of equality which characterises carnival life. One-by-one, male and female alike, the characters venture out: Florinda and Belvile to find each other, Hellena and Valeria to woo husbands, Pedro and Antonio to win Angellica, Blunt to seek an inexpensive woman, and Willmore to take any woman. Those who achieve their desires do so by complicated routes, often involving potential humiliation and risk; others are exposed to ridicule, danger, and defeat. Antonio is wounded, and Belvile, a victim of mistaken identity, is driven to participate in the equivalent of a carnivalesque mock duel. All are free to play the fool for a time, but if any person could be considered to have been elected King of Fools by his companions, that person must be Blunt.
He is victimised by Lucetta, Philippo, and Sancho in additional ways to those found in Killigrew's text, where his counterpart, Edwardo, is merely turned out of doors in his drawers in the night and is lost in the city streets by the equivalent of Sancho. Bakhtin notes that carnival hell included, amongst other things, a trap to catch fools, and Behn adds a Rabelaisian touch to Blunt's debasement by dropping him literally into excrement. On one level the foolish country fop becomes a hero of folk humor when he falls down the trapdoor into the sewer and undergoes a mock journey to the underworld, returning in the tradition of such folk heroes, to tell of the horrors he found there. At another level Blunt's fate can be seen as a veiled political comment. It is wished on him in Act I.ii by Frederick when, having noticed Blunt's disappearance in pursuit of Lucetta, he declares,
I hope 'tis some common crafty sinner, one that will fit him. It may be she'll sell him for Peru: the rogue's sturdy, and would work well in a mine. At least I hope she'll dress him for our mirth, cheat him of all, then have him well-favouredly banged, and turned out naked at midnight.
The reason for Frederick's uncharacteristic vindictiveness becomes clear when Belvile catalogues details of Blunt's privileged upbringing. Never having known hardship or the sordid side of life, never having committed himself to a cause as they have done, and, therefore, never having risked life, limb, or fortune, the wealthy "Essex calf" is a cause of deep-seated resentment—though this is usually overridden by good humour. It is as if the spirit of carnival allows Frederick's idle wish to be granted. Blunt is not sold to labor in a Peruvian mine, but he is forced underground and exposed to other nightmare experiences. He is also subjected to the carnivalesque removal of his fine clothes and their replacement with a clown-like costume—his underwear and "an old rusty sword and buff belt." His horrified response, "Now, how like a morris dancer I am equipped!", and his equally disgusted view of himself in the Spanish habit he is forced to wear later, signify his humiliation. Belvile's pronouncement on the new costume is telling: "Methinks 'tis well, and makes thee look e'en cavalier." Finally, even the Englishmen are equal—Blunt, with his possible parliamentarian leanings and fastidious fussing about his clothes, has at last to make do like one of the cavaliers.
In carnival time costume is crucial, and from the first scene of The Rover characters are changing their clothes and exchanging identities for a variety of purposes. When characters lose control of their state of dress, as in the case of Blunt and, later, of Florinda, who escapes to the garden "in an undress," their vulnerability is apparent. Hellena, however, always appears to have the situation in hand and makes successful transitions from novice's garb to gypsy costume, and finally to the boy's clothes she is wearing when Willmore agrees to marry her. Female cross-dressing was popular on the Restoration stage as a means of allowing the audience to view more of the woman playing the part, so Behn may have merely been catering to audience expectations here, but Willmore's possible associations with the Earl of Rochester and John Hoyle, both of whom pursued men as well as women, probably gave her choice an additional frisson. Historically, there is also a link between women who adopted male attire and certain prostitutes who used such dress to signal their profession. There is no indication that Hellena's appearance would have been viewed in this way, but the ambiguous natures of costume and masquerade in the play reveal the dangers of judging by appearances.
In Act I.ii, Belvile explains to Blunt that the "fine pretty creatures" he is admiring "are, or would have you think they're courtesans, who...are to be hired by the month." By drawing attention in the drama to a confusion that extended from carnival into life beyond the play, Behn makes her audience question notions of respectability and notoriety in relation to women's sexuality. Nancy Copeland sees Behn's juxtapositioning of Hellena and Angellica resulting "in a narrowing of the distance between virgin and whore that complicates the final rejection of the courtesan and her ultimate exclusion from the play's comic conclusion." In many ways these characters are two sides of the same coin: both advertise their attractions to Willmore and pursue him in different fashions; both are willing to subsidise his poverty with money from the same source (Hellena's fortune comes from her uncle who was Angellica's "Spanish general"); and both offer themselves to him for love. They differ mainly in the way they view that concept in relationships between men and women. Ironically, the worldly courtesan is less astute than the convent girl in assessing the nature of a rover like Willmore. In depriving Angellica of her man, Behn is not taking a moral stand; Angellica, the romantic, must give way to Hellena, the realist, who will provide her revenge. Angellica's future is left undetermined. The opportunity Behn gives her to express herself so eloquently and the sympathy this provokes on her behalf are apt reminders that love, like carnival madness, has its darker side— and that, in carnival, everyone has a voice.
Source: Marion Lomax, "Introduction: The Rover and Carnival,’’ in The Rover, edited by Marion Lomax, W. W. Norton, 1995, pp. xvii—xxvi.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7222
Where the dream is at its most exalted, the commodity is closest to hand.
—Theodor Adorno, In Search of Wagner
Near the end of Act II of The Rover, after the wealthy virgins and hungry gallants have been introduced, and the reader-spectator is made aware that comic symmetry is pressing toward chase and final reward, mention is made of a beautiful courtesan whom the gallants, including the affianced ones, are trying to impress. Angellica Bianca would seem to be a supplement to the intrigue plot—a supplement since one need not intrigue to visit a whore. Yet before the virgins are rewarded with the husbands they desire, they will traverse this whore's marketplace. In "scenes" and "discoveries," they will market themselves as she does, compete for the same male affection, suffer similar abuse. The courtesan herself enters the play not in the way the audience might expect, behind an exotic vizard, or "discovered'' in her bedchamber after the parting of the scenes, but as a portrait, as three portraits, a large one hung from the balcony and two smaller ones posted on either side of the proscenium door designating her lodging. Willmore, the play's titular rover, arrives at her door, and in the absence of the courtesan he cannot afford, he appropriates her in representation—he reaches up and steals a portrait.
Willmore's gesture, I will suggest, contains information beyond the local revelation of one character's behavior. We might read Willmore's gesture as a Brechtian Gestus or "gest," a moment in performance that makes visible the contradictory interactions of text, theater apparatus, and contemporary social struggle. In the unraveling of its intrigue plot, Aphra Behn's The Rover not only thematizes the marketing of women in marriage and prostitution, it "demonstrates," in its gestic moments, the ideological contradictions of the apparatus Behn inherited and the society for which she wrote. Brecht's account of the Gestus is useful for alerting us to the vectors of historical change written into dramatic texts, but he makes no provision for gender—an unavoidable issue in Aphra Behn's own history. Educated but constantly in need of money, with court connections but no supporting family, Aphra Behn wrote plays when female authorship was a monstrous violation of the ‘‘woman's sphere.’’ Since the reopening of the theaters in 1660, Frances Boothby and the Duchess of Newcastle each had had a play produced, but no woman had challenged the Restoration theater with Behn's success and consistency. Indeed, that she could earn a living writing for the theater was precisely what condemned her. The muckraking satirist Robert Gould wrote typical slander in a short piece addressed to Behn that concluded with this couplet: ‘‘For Punk and Poetess agree so Pat, / You cannot be This and not be That.’’
In her suggestive ‘‘Arachnologies: The Woman, The Text, and the Critic,’’ Nancy Miller implicitly proposes a feminist version of the Gestus; texts by women writers, says Miller, encode the signs or ‘‘emblems of a female signature’’ by which the ‘‘culture of gender [and] the inscriptions of its political structures’’ might be read. In a woman-authored text, then, the gestic moment would mark both a convergence of social actions and attitudes, and the gendered history of that convergence. Robert Gould's verse, with its violent, unequivocal equation of "poetess" and "punk," provides some evidence of the culture of gender in Restoration London. Like her male colleagues, Behn hawked her intrigue comedies and political satires in the literary and theatrical marketplace, and like them, she suffered the attacks of "fop-corner" and the sometimes paltry remuneration of third-day receipts. In her case, however, the status of professional writer indicated immodesty: the author, like her texts, became a commodity.
Deciphering Behn's authorial "signature" obliges us to read the theatrical, social, and sexual discourses that complicate and obscure its inscription. I am aiming here to open the text to what Brecht calls its ‘‘fields of force’’—those contradictory relations and ideas that signify in Behn's culture and are, as this reading will indicate, symptomatic of our own. Like Brecht, in his discussion of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, I am interested less in interpretative truth than in exploring a complex textual system in which author, apparatus, history, and reader-spectator each plays a signifying role. The following section will consider Behn's authorial contexts, the Restoration theater apparatus, with its proto-fetishist positioning of "scenes" and actresses; the next two sections focus on multivalent signs of gender in The Rover; and the final section, returning to the theater apparatus by way of Behn's unique obsessions, poses the question of the woman dramatist's signature: How does Aphra Behn encode the conditions of her literary and theatrical production? How does she stage the relationship between female creativity and public calumny—between what Robert Gould, in darkly humorous euphemisms, refers to as "this" and ‘‘that’’?
I. The Apparatus
The term "apparatus" draws together several related aspects in theater production: the hierarchy of economic control, the material features of machinery and properties, and, more elusively, the social and psychological interplay between stage and audience. When Aphra Behn wrote her seventeen plays (1670-1689), the theatrical hierarchy, like all cultural institutions, was patriarchal in control and participation. Charles II invested power in the first patentees, Thomas Killigrew and William D'Avenant; aristocratic or upper-class males generally wrote the plays, purchased the tickets, and formed the coteries of critics and "witlings'' whose disruptive presence is remarked on in countless play prologues and epilogues. In its machinery and properties, the Restoration stage was not unlike Wagner's theater in Adorno's critique: dreamlike, seductive, and commodity-intensive. Though the technology was well established in Italian and French courts, and in English court masques before the Interregnum, the two new Restoration theaters gave Londoners their first view of movable painted "scenes" and mechanical devices or "machines," installed behind the forestage and the proscenium arch. Actors posed before elaborately painted "wings" (stationary pieces set in receding rows) and "shutters" (flat painted scenes that moved in grooves and joined in the center). When the scenes parted, their characters were "discovered'' against other painted scenes that, parting, produced further discoveries. Built in 1671, The Duke's Theater, Dorset Garden, the site of most of Behn's plays, was particularly known for its ‘‘gawdy Scenes.’’
The movement of painted flats, the discoveries of previously unseen interiors, introduced a new scopic epistemology. Seated and unruly in semicircular areas of pit, boxes, first, middle, and upper galleries, Restoration spectators, unlike their Elizabethan counterparts, were no longer compelled to imagine the features of bed-chambers, parks, or battlefields. Like Richard Flecknoe, they could rely on scenes and machines as ‘‘excellent helps of imagination, most grateful deceptions of the sight...Graceful and becoming Ornaments of the Stage [transport] you easily without lassitude from one place to another, or rather by a kinde of delightful Magick, whilst you sit still, does bring the place to you.’’ Assuming that Flecknoe's reaction is typical, and there is evidence that it is, Restoration stagecraft seems to have created a spectator-fetishist, one who takes pleasure in ornaments that deceive the sight, whose disavowal of material reality produces a desire for the "delightful Magick'' of exotic and enticing representations.
I am deliberately conflating two uses of ‘‘fetishism" in this account of Restoration reception: one, Freud's description of the male impulse to eroticize objects or female body parts, which derives from a disavowal of a material lack (of the penis on the mother's body); and two, Marx's account of the fetishization of the commodity: at the moment of exchange, the commodity appears to be separate from the workers who produce it; the ‘‘specific social character of private labors’’ is disavowed. Nowhere are these meanings of fetishism more relevant than in discourse generated by that other ornament of the stage, the Restoration actress. In his preface to The Tempest, Thomas Shadwell links the new phenomenon of female performers with painted theatrical scenes, both innovative commodities for audience consumption:
Had we not for yr pleasure found new wayes. You still had rusty Arras had, and thredbare playes; Nor Scenes nor Woomen had they had their will, But some with grizl'd Beards had acted Woomen still.
That female fictions were to be embodied by beardless women would, Thomas Killigrew promised, be "useful and instructive.'' What the signifying body of the actress actually meant in the culture's sexual economy is perhaps more accurately suggested by metatheatrical references in play prologues and epilogues. The actress playing Flirt in Wycherley's The Gentleman Dancing Master satirically invites the "good men o' th' Exchange'' from the pit into the backstage tiring-room: "You we would rather see between our Scenes’’; and Dryden, in the Prologue to Marriage A-la-Mode, has the actor Hart refer to passionate tyring-room assignations.
The private writings of Samuel Pepys are even more suggestive of the sinful pleasures afforded by actresses. On October 5, 1667, he visited the Theatre Royal in Bridges Street:
and there, going in, met with Knipp [Mrs. Knep], and she took us up into the Tireing-rooms and to the women's Shift, where Nell [Gwyn] was dressing herself and was all unready; and is very pretty, prettier than I thought; and so walked all up and down the House above, and then below into the Scene-room...But Lord, to see how they were both painted would make a man mad—and did make me loath them—and what base company of men comes among them, and how lewdly they talk—and how poor the men are in clothes, and yet what a show they make on the stage by candlelight, is very observable.
Candlelight has the ideological function of suturing contradictions between "lewd'' actors and an alluring "show," and even a habitual playgoer like Pepys is disturbed when the seams show. That actresses were pretty women was not surprising, but the transformation of women into painted representations beautifully exhibited by candlelight was both fascinating and disturbing. Pepys went behind the painted scenes, but the paint was still there. He hoped to separate the pretty woman from the painted actress, but it was the actress he admired—and fetishized—from his spectator's seat.
For Pepys and other Restoration commentators, the actress's sexuality tended to disavow her labor. Rather than produce a performance, she is a spectacle unto herself, a painted representation to lure the male spectator. In her professional duplicity, in her desirability, in her often public status of kept mistress, she is frequently equated with prostitutes or "vizard-masks" who worked the pit and galleries of Restoration theaters during and after performances. In Wycherley's The Plain Dealer, Mrs. Hoyden is disparaged for being "As familiar a duck...As an Actress in the tiring-room.’’
The epistemological link between the theater apparatus and illicit female signs is not of course new to the Restoration. Jonas Barish, documenting the antitheatrical prejudice, notes that Patristic condemnation of the theater, typified in tracts from the third-century Tertullian's to those of Renaissance Puritans Phillip Stubbes and William Prynne, builds on the Platonic condemnation of mimesis as the making of counterfeit copies of true originals. Actors in paint and costume contaminate their true God-given identities: ‘‘Whatever is born,’’ writes Tertullian, ‘‘is the work of God. Whatever...is plastered on is the devil's work.’’ To the Puritan mind the presence of women on stage was an affront to feminine modesty, but more damning was the fact that the means of illusionism—use of costume, paint, masking—involved specifically female vices. The nature of theatrical representation, like the "nature" of woman, was to ensnare, deceive, and seduce.
Given this cultural legacy, and the metonymic connection between painted female performer and painted scenes, it is not surprising that the first woman to earn money circulating her own representations had a combative relationship with the theater apparatus. As we will see, Aphra Behn, more than any other Restoration playwright, exploits the fetish/commodity status of the female performer, even as her plays seek to problematize that status. She utilizes the conventional objects of Restoration satire—the marriage market, sexual intrigue, masquerade, libertine flamboyance—even as she signals, in "gestic" moments, their contradictory meanings for female fictions and historical women.
II. Virgin Commodities
The Rover (1677) and The Second Part of The Rover (1681), both drawn from Killigrew's Thomaso, or The Wanderer (1663), are Behn's only plays to label a character a courtesan; in her wholly original The Feigned Curtezans (1679), witty virgins impersonate famous Roman courtesans and near-debauches occur, but, as befits the romantic intrigue, marriages settle the confusion of plots and the financial stink of prostitution is hastily cleared away. If courtesans figure by name in only three plays, however, the commodification of women in the marriage market is Aphra Behn's first and most persistent theme. Beginning appropriately enough with The Forced Marriage, or The Jealous Bridegroom (1670), all of Behn's seventeen known plays deal to some extent with women backed by dowries or portions who are forced by their fathers into marriage in exchange for jointure, an agreed-upon income to be settled on the wife should she be widowed.
There was a lived context for this perspective. The dowry system among propertied classes had been in place since the sixteenth century, but at the end of the seventeenth century there were thirteen women to every ten men, and cash portions had to grow to attract worthy suitors. As the value of women fell by almost fifty percent, marriage for love, marriage by choice, became almost unthinkable. Women through marriage had evident exchange value; that is, the virgin became a commodity not only for her use-value as breeder of the legal heir but for her portion, which, through exchange, generated capital. If, as Marx writes, exchange converts commodities into fetishes or "social hieroglyphics,’’ signs whose histories and qualitative differences can no longer be read, women in the seventeenth-century marriage market took on the phantasmagoric destiny of fetishized commodities; they seemed no more than objects or things. As Margaret Cavendish observed, sons bear the family name but ‘‘daughters are to be accounted but as Movable Goods or Furnitures that wear out.’’
Restoration comedy, from the earliest Etherege and Sedley through Wycherley, Dryden, Vanbrugh, D'Urfey, and Congreve, mocked the marketplace values of marriage, promoting the libertine's aesthetic of "natural" love, verbal seduction, and superiority over jealous husbands and fops. But Aphra Behn concentrated on exposing the exploitation of women in the exchange economy, adding vividly to contemporary discourse on the oppressions of marriage. ‘‘Wife and servant are the same / But differ only in the name,’’ wrote Lady Mary Chudleigh. ‘‘Who would marry,’’ asks Behn's Ariadne (The Second Part of the Rover), ‘‘who wou'd be chaffer'd thus, and sold to Slavery?'' The issue arises repeatedly in plays and verse of the period: not only are marriages loveless, but once married, women lose both independent identity and control of their fortunes. Ariadne again:
You have a Mistress, Sir, that has your Heart, and all your softer Hours: I know't, and if I were so wretched as to marry thee, must see my Fortune lavisht out on her; her Coaches, Dress, and Equipage exceed mine by far: Possess she all the day thy Hours of Mirth, good Humour and Expence, thy Smiles, thy Kisses, and thy Charms of Wit.
The feminist philosopher Mary Astell would have had no sympathy for the sensuous appetites of Behn's females, but Ariadne's sentiments receive astute articulation in Astell's Some Reflections Upon Marriage. The money motive for marriage produces in the man contempt and "Indifferency" which "proceeds to an aversion, and perhaps even the Kindness and Complaisance of the poor abused'd Wife, shall only serve to increase it.’’ Ultimately, the powerless wife ends up ‘‘mak[ing] court to [her husband] for a little sorry Alimony out of her own Estate.'' Two centuries later Engels merely restates these comments in his observation that forced marriages "turn into the crassest prostitution—sometimes of both partners, but far more commonly of the woman, who only differs from the ordinary courtesan in that she does not [hire] out her body on piecework as a wage worker, but sells it once and for all into slavery.’’
Yet in order to launch The Rover's marriage plot and to provoke sympathy for her high-spirited aristocrats, Behn dissimulates the connection between virgin and prostitute. When Florinda, Hellena, and Valeria don gypsy costumes—assume the guise of marginal and exotic females—to join the carnival masquerade, they do so explicitly to evade the patriarchal arrangement of law and jointure laid down by their father and legislated by their brother Pedro: Florinda shall marry a rich ancient count and Hellena shall go into a convent, thus saving their father a second dowry and simultaneously enriching Florinda. The opening dialogue of The Rover is also implicitly "gestic," raising questions about women's material destiny in life as well as in comic representation:
Florinda: What an impertinent thing is a young girl bred in a nunnery! How full of questions! Prithee no more, Hellena; I have told thee more than thou understand'st already.
Hellena: The more's my grief. I would fain know as much as you, which makes me so inquisitive.
Hellena dons masquerade because she desires not a particular lover but a wider knowledge. Given the conventions of Restoration comedy, this wish to know "more than'' she already understands is troped as a wish for sexual adventure. But if we hear this dialogue dialogically—in its social register—other meanings are accessible. Women's lack of access to institutions of knowledge spurred protest from writers as diverse as Margaret Cavendish, Bathsua Makin, Mary Astell, and Judith Drake. Aphra Behn mocks a university fool in The City Heiress and a learned lady in Sir Patient Fancy; she criticizes neoclassical aesthetics in ‘‘Epistle to the Reader,’’ appended to The Dutch Lover, for having nothing to do with why people write or attend plays. When she translates Bernard de Fontenelle's A Discovery of New Worlds, however, she reveals as passionate a hunger for esoteric knowledge as these early English feminists. Unfortunately, the controlling conceit of Fontenelle's work—a mere woman is informally taught the complexities of Copernican theory—produces an untenable and revealing contradiction for Behn: ‘‘He [Fontenelle] makes her [the Marchionness] say a great many silly things, tho' sometimes she makes observations so learned, that the greatest Philosophers in Europe could make no better.’’ Insightful yet silly, wise yet a tabula rasa, Fontenelle's Marchionness oscillates between intellectual independence and slavish imitation. She is perhaps less a contradictory character than a projection of a male intellectual's ambivalence about female education.
Aphra Behn's Hellena seeks knowledge "more than'' or beyond the gender script provided for her. She rejects not only her brother's decision to place her in a nunnery, but also the cultural narrative of portion, jointure, and legal dependency in which she is written not as subject but as object of exchange. Yet Hellena, too, oscillates—both departing from and reinforcing her social script. Her lines following those cited above seem, at first, to complicate and defer the romantic closure of the marriage plot. To have a lover, Hellena conjectures, means to ‘‘sigh, and sing, and blush, and wish, and dream and wish, and long and wish to see the man.’’ This thrice-reiterated wishing will result in three changes of costume, three suitors, and three marriages. As with the repetitions of "interest," "credit,’’ and "value"—commodity signifiers that circulate through the play and slip like the vizard from face to hand to face—this repetition invokes the processes underlying all wishing, to desire that will not, like a brother's spousal contract, find its "completion."
If we incorporate insights from feminist psychoanalytic theory, the virgins' masquerade takes on added significance, or rather this discourse helps us decode what is already implied—namely, that in an economy in which women are dependent on male keepers and traders, female desire is always already a masquerade, a play of false representations that covers over and simultaneously expresses the lack the woman exhibits—lack of the male organ and, concomitantly, lack of access to phallic privileges—to material and institutional power. Unlike the theatrical mask, which conceals a truth, the masquerade of female sexuality subverts the "Law-of-the-Father'' that stands "behind" any representation. Underneath the gypsy veils and drapes of Behn's virgins, there is nothing, in a phallic sense, to see, thus no coherent female identity that can be coopted into a repressive romantic narrative. Willmore, titillated by Hellena's witty chatter, asks to see her face. Hellena responds that underneath the vizard is a ‘‘desperate..lying look’’—that is, she, like her vizard, may prevaricate; represented may mingle with representer—for the spectator (Willmore) there will be no validating stake.
Yet, as Behn well knew, there is means of validation, one that guarantees patriarchy's stake in portion, jointure, and the woman's body: the hymen. In Restoration comedy no witty unmarried woman was really witty unless she had property and a maidenhead. Behn's virgins may re-"design" their cast of characters but they cannot change their plot. Ultimately their masquerade is dissimulation in the classic representational sense, a veil that hides a truth. Hellena's mask merely replicates the membrane behind which lies the "true nature'' of woman: the equipment to make the requisite patrilineal heir. Thus Willmore's masterful response to Hellena's ‘‘lying look’’ is a mock-blazon of her facial features, ending in a fetishistic flourish: ‘‘Those soft round melting cherry lips and small even white teeth! Not to be expressed, but silently adored!’’ The play in Hellena's discourse between knowing and desiring, which extends through the masquerade, completes itself in the marriage game. She exercises her will only by pursuing and winning Willmore, for as it turns out he has the "more'' she ''would fain know.''
Willmore acts not only as the rover but as signifier for the play's phallic logic. His name metaphorizes the trajectory of desire as he roves from bed to bed ‘‘willing more,’’ making all satisfactions temporary and unsatisfying. Desire's subject, Willmore never disguises himself (he comes on stage holding his mask); until enriched by the courtesan Angellica Bianca, he remains in "buff' or leather military coat. In another sense, though, Willmore is already in disguise, or rather the entity "Willmore" covers a range of linguistic and social signifiers. Behn's model for Willmore (like Etherege's for Dorimont) was reputedly the womanizing courtier, the Earl of Rochester, whose name, John Wilmot, contains, like the rover's, the word ("mot'')"will.'' Rochester was also the lover and mentor of Elizabeth Barry, the actress who first played Behn's Hellena. In Tory mythology Charles II, on the verge of fleeing England, disguised himself in buff—a leather doublet. Indeed, Willmore's first lines refer to the offstage Prince who, in exile during the Commonwealth, was also a rover. Doubled mimetically and semiotically with both Rochester and the Merry Monarch (who attended at least one performance of The Rover before the play was restaged at Whitehall), Willmore needs no mask to effect his ends: his libertine desire is guaranteed and upheld by patriarchal law. Hellena's playful rovings, on the other hand, and her numerous disguises, signal both ingenuity and vulnerability. Ironically, the virgins' first costume, the gypsy masquerade, represents their actual standing in the marriage market—exotic retailers of fortunes (or portions). Their masquerade defers but does not alter the structure of patriarchal exchange.
III. Painting(s), Person, Body
In contrast to the virgins' "ramble" are the stasis and thralldom that attend the courtesan Angellica Bianca. While the virgins are learning artful strategies of concealment, Angellica's entrance is a complicated process of theatrical unveiling. She arrives first through words, then through painted representation, then through the body of an actress who appears on a balcony behind a silk curtain. She is also the site of a different politics, one that explores desire and gender not only in the text, but in the apparatus itself.
The first references to Angellica situate her beyond the market in which we expect her to function. According to Behn's gallants, she is the ‘‘adord beauty of all the youth in Naples, who put on all their charms to appear lovely in her sight; their coaches, liveries and themselves all gay as on a monarch's birthday.'' Equated thus with sacred and secular authority, Angellica gazes on her suitors and "has the pleasure to behold all languish for her that see her.'' This text in which desire flows from and is reflected back to a female subject is immediately followed by the grouping of the English gallants beneath the courtesan's balcony. They wait with the impatience of theater spectators for Angellica to appear—not in person but in representation, as "the shadow of the fair substance.''
At this point the problematic connection between shadow and substance preoccupies them. Blunt, the stock country fool, is confused by the fact that signs of bourgeois and even noble status— velvet beds, fine plate, handsome attendance, and coaches—are flaunted by courtesans. Blunt is raising an epistemological issue that Behn and her colleagues often treat satirically—the neoclassical assumption regarding mimesis that imitated can be separated from imitator, nature from representation, truth from falsehood, virgin from gypsy. By suggesting that whores are indistinguishable from moral women, Behn revives the problematic of the masquerade, casting doubt on the connection/separation of sign and referent. Significantly, when Hobbes constructed his theory of sovereign authority, he employed theater metaphors to distinguish between ‘‘natural’’ and ‘‘feigned or artificial’’ persons. But he noted that "person'' was itself a slippery referent:
The word Person [persona] is Latin...[and] signifies the disguise, or outward appearance of a man, counterfeited on the stage; and sometimes more particularly that part of it, which disguiseth the face, as a mask or vizard: and from the stage, hath been translated to any representer of speech and action, as well in tribunals, as theatres. So that aperson is the same that an actor is, both on stage and in common conversation.
Since, as Christopher Pye notes, everyone is already a ‘‘self-impersonator, a mediated representation of himself,’’ the difference between ‘‘natural’’ and "feigned" rests on highly unstable assumptions about identity which, both ‘‘on stage’’ and ‘‘in common conversation’’ are capable of shifting. Blunt's confusion about the true status of apparently noble women may also be read as an extratextual reference to the Restoration actress and her female spectators. As kept mistresses, actresses often displayed the fine clothing and jewels of aristocrats like the notorious Duchess of Cleveland, who regularly watched the play in vizard-mask from the king's box. Yet the respectable Mrs. Pepys also owned a vizard-mask, and on her frequent visits to the theater occasionally sat in the pit near the "real" vizards.
Given the theatricality of everyday Restoration life, and the ambiguity of signs representing the status and character of women, Angellica's three portraits allow Aphra Behn to comment on the pleasures and politics of theatrical signification. Though I have ignored the specifics of Behn's adaptation of her source play, it is helpful here to compare her handling of the paintings with that of Killigrew in his ten-act semiautobiographical closet drama, Thomaso, or The Wanderer. In both plays, one portrait is prominent and raised, and two smaller versions are posted below, one of which is snatched by the rake—Thomaso in the source play, Willmore in Behn' s. But there is an important difference in the disposition of the paintings vis-à-vis the woman they represent. In Thomaso, Act II.ii, anonymous parties of men pass in front of the paintings, react scornfully to the courtesan's high price, and wander on. But in Act II.ii, with the arrival of Killigrew's main characters, Angellica Bianca is sitting on the balcony in full view of her prospective buyers. Her bawd challenges the men to ‘‘compare them [the paintings and the woman] together.’’ With neoclassical correctness, the men agree that the woman exceeds her representation: ‘‘That smile, there's a grace and sweetness in it Titian could never have catch'd.’’ By the time the English Thomaso and his friends arrive, the viewing of the paintings and the viewing of Angellica are almost simultaneous:
Harrigo: That wonder is it I told you of; tis the picture of the famous Italian, the Angellica; See, shee's now at her Window.
Thomaso: I see her, 'tis a lovely Woman.
Aphra Behn's Angellica Bianca never invites such explicit comparison. In fact, Behn prolongs the dialogue between titillated suitors and suggestive portraits: Angellica's simulacra, not Angellica, preoccupy her male audience. When the English cavaliers first view the paintings, Belvile, the play's fatuous moral figure, reads them as "the fair sign[s] to the inn where a man may lodge that's fool enough to give her price.’’ That is, the iconicity of the paintings, their likeness to Angellica, which so impresses Killigrew's cavaliers, is in Behn's text suppressed. Gazing on the portraits, the gallants rewrite the courtesan's monarchial description, now figuring her as a thing, a receptacle for depositing one's body. To underscore the point, Behn has Blunt ask the ontological question to which there is a ready answer in commodity discourse: "Gentlemen, what's this?’’ Belvile: ‘‘A famous courtesan, that's to be sold.’’ The infinitive phrase is curious. To be sold by whom? Released by her earlier keeper's death, Angellica and her bawd seem to be in business for themselves. At this point, however, Blunt reminds us again of the object status of the woman, as of her painted signs: ‘‘Let's be gone; I'm sure we're no chapmen for this commodity.’’
Willmore, however, monarchy's representative, succumbs to the lure of the signs, believing not only in their iconicity but in their value as pleasurable objects—for the original one must pay one thousand crowns, but on the portraits one can gaze for nothing. Penury, however, is not the real issue. Willmore seems to understand that the appeal of the paintings is precisely that they are not the original but an effective stand-in. After the two Italian aristocrats draw swords in competition for Angellica, Willmore reaches up and steals one of the small paintings, in effect cuts away a piece of the representation for his own titillation. His intentions, like his actions, are explicitly fetishistic:
This posture's loose and negligent;
The sight on't would beget a warm desire
In souls whom impotence and age had chilled.
This must along with me.
This speech and the act of appropriation occur before Willmore sees Angellica. Only in Behn's text do the paintings function as fetishes, as substitute objects for the female body. When challenged why he has the right to the small portrait, Willmore claims the right ‘‘of possession, which I will maintain.’’
At the outset of this paper I described Willmore's acquisitive gesture as a Brechtian "gest"—that moment in theatrical performance in which contradictory social attitudes in both text and society are made heuristically visible to spectators. What does this gest show? Willmore removes Angellica's portrait the way a theater manager might lift off a piece of the set—because without buying her, he already owns her. Her paintings are materially and metonymically linked to the painted scenes, which were of course owned, through the theatrical hierarchy, by patentee and king—who, in Behn's fiction, validates and empowers Willmore. This "homosocial'' circuit, to use Eve Sedgwick' s term, extends into the social realm. As innumerable accounts make clear, Restoration theater participated in the phallic economy that commodified women, not in the marriage market, but in the mistress market: the king and his circle came to the theater to look, covet, and buy. Nell Gwyn is the celebrated example, but Behn's biographer Angeline Goreau cites other cases. An actress in the King's Company, Elizabeth Farley, joined the royal entourage for several months, then became mistress to a Gray's Inn lawyer, then drifted into prostitution and poverty. The answer to the question, ‘‘Who is selling Angellica?'' is, then, the theater itself, which, like Willmore, operates with the king's patent and authorization. When Angellica sings behind her balcony curtain for her Italian admirers, and draws the curtain to reveal a bit of beautiful flesh, then closes it while monetary arrangements are discussed, she performs the titillating masquerade required by her purchasers and by her spectators. This is mastery's masquerade, not to demonstrate freedom, but to flaunt the charms that guarantee and uphold male power.
If Angellica's paintings stand for the theater apparatus and its ideological complicity with a phallic economy, what happens when Angellica appears? Is illusionism betrayed? Interestingly, Aphra Behn chooses this moment to emphasize presence, not only of character but of body; Angellica emerges in the flesh and offers herself, gratis, to Willmore, finding his scornful admiration ample reason for, for the first time, falling in love. In their wooing/ bargaining scene it becomes clear that Angellica wants to step out of the exchange economy symbolized by the paintings: ‘‘Canst thou believe [these yielding joys] will be entirely thine, / without considering they were mercenary?'' The key word here is ‘‘entirely’’; Angellica dreams of full reciprocal exchange without commerce: "The pay I mean is but thy love for mine. / Can you give that?'' And Willmore responds "entirely."
A commodity, Marx writes, appears as a commodity only when it ‘‘possess[es] a double form, i.e. natural form and value form.'' Angellica's name contains "angel," a word whose meaning is undecidable since it refers simultaneously to the celestial figure and to the old English coin stamped with the device of Michael the archangel, minted for the last time by Charles I but still in common circulation during the Restoration. By eliminating her value-form, Angellica attempts to return her body to a state of nature, to take herself out of circulation. While the virgins of the marriage plot are talking "business" and learning the powers of deferral and unveiling, Angellica is trying to demystify and authenticate herself. She wants to step out of the paintings, to be known not by her surface but by her depth. As she "yields'' to Willmore upstairs, the portraits on the balcony are removed—a sign that the courtesan is working. In this case, not only does the (offstage) "natural" body supplant its painted representation, but the courtesan, who has been in excess of, now makes up a deficiency in, the marriage plot: Angellica (with Willmore) labors for love.
Though the paintings disappear in Act III, however, the signs of commodification are still in place, or are metonymically displaced through properties and scenes to other characters in the marriage plot. We learn that Hellena's portion derives from her uncle, the old man who kept Angellica Bianca; thus the gold Willmore receives from the courtesan has the same source as that which he will earn by marrying the virgin. Like Angellica, too, the virgin Florinda uses a portrait as a calling card, and at night in the garden, ‘‘in undress,’’ carrying a little box of jewels—a double metonym for dowry and genitals—she plans to offer herself to Belvile. Unfortunately Willmore, not Belvile, enters the garden and nearly rapes her.
Florinda' s nocturnal effort at entrepreneurship takes place in the upstage scenes, where Aphra Behn, like her fellow Restoration dramatists, situated lovers' trysts and discoveries. The thematic link between commodified "Scenes" and females is particularly crucial, however, in The Rover. In Act IV.iv, a disguised Florinda flees from Willmore by running in and out of the scenes until she arrives in Blunt's chamber, where another near-rape occurs. Blunt has just been cozened by a prostitute and dumped naked into the city sewer; he emerges vowing to "beat" and "kiss" and "bang" the next woman he sees, who happens to be Florinda, but now all women appear to be whores. In fact Willmore, Frederick, and even Belvile arrive soon after to break open the door and "partake'' of Florinda. If Angellica Bianca makes a spectacle of herself through balcony curtains and paintings, Florinda's ‘‘undress’’ and her proximity to the painted scenes signify a similar reduction to commodity status.
IV. ‘‘I...Hang Out the Sign of Angellica’’
Angellica's paintings, I have argued, are the bright links in a metonymic chain joining the text of The Rover to the apparatus of representation. Angellica's portraits represent the courtesan in the most radical sense. They produce an image of her and at the same time reduce her to that image. Notwithstanding her passionate address, Angellica cannot exceed her simulacra. In effect she is doubly commodified—first because she puts her body into exchange, and second because this body is equated with, indeed interchangeable with, the art object. When Willmore performs the "gest'' of appropriating the painted image of Angellica, he makes visible, on the one hand, the patriarchal and homosocial economy that controls the apparatus and, on the other hand, the commodity status of paintings, of their model, and, by metonymic extension, of the painted actress and the painted scenes.
Flecknoe and Pepys, we noted earlier, testify to the intensity of visual pleasure in Restoration theater. It is a fascinating contradiction of all feminist expectation to discover that Aphra Behn, more than any of her Restoration colleagues, contributed to that visual pleasure by choosing, in play after play, to exploit the fetish/ commodity status of the female performer. The stage offered two playing spaces, the forestage used especially for comedy, where actor and audience were in intimate proximity, and the upstage or scenic stage, where wing-and-shutter settings, as much as fifty feet from the first row of spectators, produced the exotic illusionistic discoveries needed for heroic tragedy. Writing mostly comedies, Aphra Behn might be expected to follow comic convention and use the forestage area, but as Peter Holland notes, she was ‘‘positively obsessive’’ about discovery scenes. Holland counts thirty-one discoveries in ten comedies (consider that Sedley's The Mulberry Garden, 1668, uses one; Etherege' s The Man of Mode, 1676, uses two), most of which are bedroom scenes featuring a female character ‘‘in undress.’’ Holland reasons that such scenes are placed upstage so that familiar Restoration actresses would not be distractingly exposed to the audience. We might interpret Behn's ‘‘obsession’’ differently: the exposed woman's (castrated) body must be obscured in order to activate scopic pleasure. Displayed in "undress'' or loosely draped gowns, the actress becomes a fetish object, affording the male spectator the pleasure of being seduced by and, simultaneously, of being protected from the effects of sexual difference.
Is it also possible that this deliberate use of fetishistic display dramatizes and displaces the particular assault Behn herself endured as ‘‘Poetess/ Punk’’ in the theater apparatus? The contradictions in her authorial status are clear from the preface to The Lucky Chance (1686). Behn argues that the Woman damns the Poet, that accusations of bawdy and plagiarism are levied at her because she is a woman. On the other hand, the literary fame she desires derives from a creativity that in her mind, or rather in the social ideology she has absorbed, is also gendered: ‘‘my Masculine Part the Poet in me.’’ In literary history, the pen, as Gilbert and Gubar have argued, is a metaphorical penis, and the strong woman writer adopts strategies of revision and disguise in order to tell her own story. In Behn's texts, the painful bisexuality of authorship, the conflict between (as she puts it) her "defenceless" woman's body and her "masculine part,'' is staged in her insistence, in play after play, on the equation between female body and fetish, fetish and commodity—the body in the "scenes." Like the actress, the woman dramatist is sexualized, circulated, denied a subject position in the theater hierarchy.
This unstable, contradictory image of authority emerges as early as Behn's first play prologue (to The Forced Marriage, or The Jealous Bridegroom, 1670). A male actor cautions the wits that the vizard-masks sitting near them will naturally support a woman's play and attempt to divert them from criticism. He is then interrupted by an actress who, pointing ‘‘to the Ladies’’ praises both them and, it would seem, the woman author: ‘‘Can any see that glorious sight and say / A woman shall not prove Victor today?’’
The ‘‘glorious sight’’ is, once again, the fetishized, commodified representation of the female, standing on the forestage, sitting in the pit, and soon to be inscribed as author of a printed play. If this fascinating moment—in which a woman speaking a woman's lines summons the regard of other women—seems to put a female gaze into operation, it also reinforces the misogynist circuitry of the theater apparatus: that which chains actress to vizard-mask to author.
At the outset of this essay we asked how Aphra Behn encodes the literary and theatrical conditions of her production. Behn's "Postscript" to the published text of The Rover provides a possible answer. She complains that she has been accused of plagiarizing Killigrew simply because the play was successful and she a woman. Yet while claiming to be ‘‘vainly proud of [her] judgment’’ in adapting Thomaso, she ‘‘hang[s] out the sign of Angellica (the only stolen object) to give notice where a great part of the wit dwelt.’’ This compliment to Killigrew may also indicate what compelled Behn to embark on this adaptation. The ‘‘sign[s] of Angellica’’ both constitute and represent the theater apparatus, serving as metacritical commentary on its patriarchal economy, its habits of fetishistic consumption. They may also constitute Behn's authorial signature, what Miller calls the "material . . . brutal traces of the culture of gender.’’ As a woman writer in need of money, Behn was vulnerable to accusations of immodesty; to write meant to expose herself, to put herself into circulation, like Angellica, to sell her wares. Is it merely a coincidence that Angellica Bianca shares Aphra Behn's initials, that hers is the only name from Thomaso that Behn leaves unchanged?
The ‘‘signs of Angellica’’ not only help us specify the place of this important woman dramatist in Restoration cultural practice, they invite us to historicize the critique of fetishization that has informed so much feminist criticism in the last decade. Certainly the conditions of women writers have changed since the Restoration, but the fetishistic features of the commercial theater have remained remarkably similar. Now as then the theater apparatus is geared to profit and pleasure, and overwhelmingly controlled by males. Now, as then, the arrangement of audience to stage produces what Brecht calls a "culinary" or ideologically conservative spectator, intellectually passive but scopically hungry, eager for the next turn of the plot, the next scenic effect. Now, as then, the actor suffers the reduction of Angellica Bianca, having no existence except in the simulations produced by the exchange economy. The practice of illusionism, as Adorno points out above, converts historical performers into commodities which the spectator pays to consume.
If Restoration theater marks the historical beginning of commodity-intensive, dreamlike effects in English staging, Aphra Behn's contribution to contemporary theory may lie in her demonstration that, from the outset, dreamlike effects have depended on the fetish-commodification of the female body. When Willmore, standing in for king and court, steals Angellica's painting, Behn not only reifies the female, she genders the spectatorial economy as, specifically, a male consumption of the female image. Reading that confident gesture of appropriation as a Gestus, the contemporary spectator adds another viewpoint. Angellica Bianca's paintings appear to us now as both authorial "signature'' and ‘‘social hieroglyphic,’’ signs of a buried life whose careful decoding opens up new possibilities for critique and contestation.
Source: Elin Diamond, ‘‘Gestus and Signature in Aphra Behn's The Rover,’’ in ELH, Vol. 56, No. 3, 1989, pp. 519—41.