The Use of the Concept of a Performative Space in Behn's Play as a Means for the Expression of Illicit Desires

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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.

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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...

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