The Play

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Set in Naples during the annual carnival, Part I of The Rover begins with a conversation between two sisters. Hellena’s family plans for her to become a nun, but she is clearly more interested in men than in God. Her sister, Florinda, is in love with the English colonel Belvile, a cavalier, who saved her life during the Siege of Pamplona. Her brother, however, wants her to marry the wealthy Don Antonio, while her father wants her to marry the ancient Don Vincentio. Defying their brother, the two unhappy sisters, disguised, attend the carnival, where they encounter three Englishmen: Belvile, Willmore, and Blunt. Hellena is reunited with Belvile, and Willmore the Rover is immediately attracted to Hellena, who is disguised as a gypsy. Blunt, a foolish character who is paying for the other Englishmen’s trip, falls under the spell of Lucetta, who plans to steal his money.

Both Don Pedro and Don Antonio are attracted to the famous courtesan Angelica Bianca. While the two noblemen fight over her, Willmore seduces Angelica, who reluctantly falls in love with him. Willmore, however, quickly turns his attention back to Hellena, who insists on marriage before pleasure. At Lucetta’s house, Blunt is deceived and robbed before falling through a trapdoor into a sewer. After inadvertently disrupting Florinda and Belvile’s romantic plans, Willmore wounds Don Antonio outside Angelica’s house. Soldiers then seize Belvile, whom they mistake for Willmore. The wounded Don Antonio asks Belvile to fight Don Pedro in his place. The next morning, Belvile, disguised as Antonio, defeats Don Pedro and wins the hand of Florinda. Before the marriage can take place, however, Willmore reveals Belvile’s true identity, causing Don Pedro to flee with Florinda. Disguised as a man, Hellena pursues Willmore, while Angelica, angry at the Rover’s betrayal, seeks revenge.

Florinda escapes from her brother’s house but is almost raped by Blunt and then by her brother, neither of whom knows her real identity. Once Belvile and Florinda finally marry, Angelica threatens to shoot Willmore but is thwarted by Don Antonio. Realizing that Hellena is exceedingly wealthy, Willmore agrees to marry her.

Part II takes place in Madrid. Willmore and Beaumond are attracted to the courtesan La Nuche, who loves Willmore in spite of his poverty. Shift and Hunt, also exiled cavaliers, plan to marry two rich, but deformed, Mexican sisters. The sisters—one a giant, the other a dwarf—hope to be changed to normal proportions by a mountebank. Fetherfool and Blunt also hope to marry the women for their money. Ariadne, who is supposed to marry her cousin Beaumond, falls in love with Willmore, who disguises himself as the mountebank in hopes of swindling the two deformed sisters. Later that night, Willmore, La Nuche, Beaumond, and Ariadne meet in a garden, where the darkness causes great confusion. Not knowing each other’s identity, Willmore and Beaumond fight. Ariadne discovers Beaumond’s indifference toward her and continues her pursuit of Willmore despite his refusal to marry.

Meanwhile, in a darkened bedroom, Don Carlo and Fetherfool mistake each other for La Nuche. Hoping to escape Don Carlo’s anger, Fetherfool climbs out a window and is left naked in the street. Ariadne, fooled by Beaumond, is led to the mountebank’s home, where Fetherfool steals a pearl necklace from the Mexican giant while Blunt pursues the bawdy Petronella, who has stolen a casket of jewels from La Nuche. In the end, Shift and Hunt marry the Mexican giant and dwarf, Beaumond and Ariadne agree to marry, and Willmore seeks “Love and Gallantry” with La Nuche.

Dramatic Devices

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The Rover plays contain many characteristics of Restoration drama. Like other playwrights, Behn presented engaging protagonists, scintillating dialogue, intrigue, and farce. Lucetta’s trickery, which leaves Blunt naked and filthy in Part I, and Fetherfool’s attempt to disguise himself as a clock in Part II, illustrate the kind of slapstick comedy that is as funny for a modern audience as it was for Behn’s theatergoers. To quicken the pace of her plays and to create a visually stunning performance, Behn took full advantage of movable scenery, which was an innovation in the late seventeenth century. Scenery, painted on large shutters, was quickly moved offstage to reveal new characters and a new location. Thus, in Part I, the action can move, for example, instantly from the street to Blunt’s apartment.

Behn also utilized the intimacy of the proscenium stage, which allowed the actors to perform only a few feet from the audience. Much of the plays’ exposition and comedy are contained within the asides that the characters share with the audience but conceal from one another.

Historical Context

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The Restoration
The Restoration refers to the reinstatement of a monarch as the seat of government in England, following twenty years of civil war. Charles II, who had spent eleven years in exile after the overthrow and beheading of his father, Charles I, was restored to the throne, with his rule now officially constrained by a reinstated Parliament. This Parliament had gained power from the fact that wealthy landowners had successfully toppled a king. No longer would a king of England enjoy the independence of absolute rule.

Charles I had brought this crisis of royal authority on himself when he unilaterally dismissed Parliament and attempted to run the country alone in 1629. Although he succeeded in strengthening the financial and social unity of Britain through his personal leadership during the next eleven years, his decision had grave consequences. Unfortunately, Charles I, a cold and calculating man but not an insightful one, had failed to recognize the need for a "safety valve" for contrary opinions that the Parliament had provided. Despite his obvious skill in administration, public resentment grew, fanned by the king's attempt to increase the power of the Anglican Church over the realm.

The first crack in his authority occurred when he attempted to institute Anglican practices in Scotland. This and other unwanted authoritarian measures there sparked an uprising that he could not suppress, for without funding from the wealthy landowners of the Parliament, his armed forces were outnumbered by Scottish forces, and he had to back down. He needed Parliament to help him raise funds and support, but he was too proud to reconvene it. The angry Scots actually invaded England, further deteriorating his authority. Forced to call upon a new Parliament to buy them off, Charles had to bargain with an empowered group of landowners. His brittleness in doing so led to civil war between Royalists and Parliamentarians. This conflict ended with his public beheading in 1649 and the establishment of the "Commonwealth" under Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan. Cromwell wielded unprecedented power over the Parliament and ultimately declared himself ‘‘Lord Protector,’’ granting himself almost monarchic power. During this period, Puritan values held sway. Cromwell's tyranny ended with his death in 1658, and his son's brief and ineffective rule led the Parliament to request that the exiled son of Charles I return to rule them.

Charles II came to power knowing that his regime would be unlike that of any previous monarch in England. His father had been killed by Parliament through a "legal" process. Now an empowered Parliament, the one that had restored him to the throne, would act as a check on his rule. His power lay in his ability to negotiate with this institution. In this he succeeded, and although he secretly yearned for the absolutist rule of his forbears, he was, in many ways, too lazy to achieve it.

Restoration Theater
During his exile, Charles II had been a cavalier, roaming the continent with a band of royalist followers. When Charles II regained the throne after eighteen years of the Puritan government led by Oliver Cromwell and Cromwell's son, he restored the theater in London. During the time of Puritan rule, theaters had been burned down and stripped of their property, and those actors who dared to present informal dramas were publicly whipped for encouraging "immoral" behavior. Charles II also established two acting companies, led by Thomas Killigrew and Sir William D'Avenant. They built two royal theaters and set up a system of actors"contracts, thus creating a monopoly on acting that would last for almost two hundred years. A dozen other smaller theaters sprouted up very quickly, but the Duke's Theatre in Dorset Gardens was the largest of the new theaters and one of the best. Most of Aphra Behn's plays were produced there, including The Rover, her most popular play. The larger theaters probably seated about five hundred spectators.

One of the innovative attractions was a new system of scenery. Now that theaters were enclosed under a protective roof, semipermanent scenes were built and moved about on the stage by a series of tracks. A sense of depth was created by a layering of these painted scenic walls. Ropes and other devices hanging from the ceiling made it possible to lower actors and props from the "heavens," and devices mounted within the two side wings could propel items across the stage. A pit in the front of the stage contained an orchestra, for music was played before, after, and sometimes during the plays. Numerous candles were placed along the front and sides of the stage for footlights. Because of the candles, the audience was just as illuminated as the stage, and often the presence of royalty would distract from the performance. The audience enjoyed the portrayal of stock characters held up for their ridicule as much as they enjoyed watching the pretensions and antics of the audience members around them.

Either bowing to popular sentiment or due to his own fascination with the opposite sex (he had more than fifteen mistresses, some of whom were actresses), Charles II defied theatrical tradition by declaring that women not only could but should play the parts of female characters. However, to become an actress, in fact to have any association with the theater, amounted to social suicide for women. Acting was equated with prostitution, for both avocations involved portraying oneself in public. Many actresses were treated as prostitutes and in fact became them out of financial necessity or as a result of being rejected by society. On the stage, women's roles were often treated as an opportunity to put women on display as sexual objects. For example, a female character might be caught in a state of undress or might be pushed provocatively onto a bed. In The Rover, Willmore expresses great delight when he learns that his "gypsy" (Hellena) is a nun, for this makes his conquest of her even more titillating, for him and for the audience.

Naples, Italy
Compared to England, with its considerable Puritan influence, Naples in the seventeenth century was a den of iniquity. Having lost some of its affluence after a series of conflicts with other city-states that began a period of recession, Naples, a town of about three thousand people, was in decline. Spain took control of it, and wealthy Spanish rulers owned the finer homes and swaggered around town, bringing with them their culture of the vendetta. Bandits roamed the streets, and many women resorted to prostitution as a profitable way to earn a living. The port of Naples brought many clients to them. In general, the town-dwellers were slightly better off financially than the peasants from the surrounding area, who barely had enough to eat and who dressed in rags.

The cavaliers of The Rover represented the gentlemen and nobles who were exiled along with Charles II when his father was executed. Because their money went farther in towns like Naples, they were able to live out a fantasy life of adventure there with little expense.

Literary Style

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It is not surprising that, when in 1790 playwright John Kemble revised The Rover to remove its distasteful elements for the more prudish audiences of a later century, he renamed the piece Love in Many Masks. Many of the characters, but especially the roving females, wear masks in The Rover to hide their identity and allow them to move freely in a different environment. Characters in masks may cross social boundaries with ease and play-act different social roles from their usual ones. Thus, the character may live out a fantasy or intrude upon a scene to which he or she would otherwise be denied.

Behn's characters use their masks both for freedom of movement and to hide their identity. Hellena and Florinda, two noble ladies, want to explore the underworld of the carnival and experiment with sensuality, without being detected. Unmarried young ladies were not permitted to visit the carnival, and their brother kept them under strict control. By wearing masks, Hellena, Florinda, and their cousin Valeria attend the carnival without his knowledge. In addition, the masks allow them to behave like prostitutes and be accepted as such, even though they are not competent in the world of the courtesan. The mask frees them to experiment with the provocative language, dress, and gesture of the prostitute and to express their sexuality in a freer environment, where such behavior is not only acceptable but expected.

The mask also affects the audience's view of the character. Because the mask is rigid and therefore does not convey the nuances of facial expressions, the actor must compensate with dialogue and with clear, even exaggerated, pantomime actions. This behavior would have heightened the audience's experience of the female body on display, while the mask would free the viewers to gaze on the actresses' bodies without a sense of shame. The same dynamics were repeated in the audience, where a number of women in the disguise of the mask could be seen but not identified.

Discovery Scene
The discovery scene, often called the ‘‘screen scene,'' involves one or more characters eavesdropping on other characters. The construction of the Restoration theater offered several places where an eavesdropper could be visible to the audience yet seemingly undetected by the other actors on the front of the stage. The theater at Dorset Garden introduced several innovations, including archways on either side of the proscenium, with doors below and balconies above. From one of these spots, an eavesdropping actor could listen and watch, pantomiming reactions to the other characters. Before such changes were introduced to the theater, an actor might hide from the other characters behind a screen or piece of furniture, thus the alternate term ‘‘screen scene.’’

Discovery scenes abound in Aphra Behn's The Rover. From her balcony, Angellica observes Willmore's infatuation with his gypsy beauty (Hellena) as he flirts with her immediately after vowing his undying love for Angellica. This undetected observation confirms Angellica's suspicion that Willmore is an inconstant lover. It also communicates to the audience the depth of Angellica's feelings.

Audience Aside
Aphra Behn made liberal use of the "aside'' to convey the fears and thoughts of her characters. In fact, there are sixty-five of them in The Rover. An aside is a comment directed toward the audience in a stage whisper that the other characters do not hear. Thus, there is an assumption of candor from a character who breaks the action to address a comment to the audience. Often, Behn uses the aside to chronicle the emotional reactions of an eavesdropping character to the action he or she witnesses. This way, the audience hears the character's disposition to what has happened. When Hellena discovers Willmore's interest in Angellica, the audience does not yet know she has fallen in love with him, so her jealousy, communicated in brief asides, conveys her feelings and also helps to move the plot forward. In other places, Behn's use of the aside reinforces the physical actions, making sure that the audience understands them. For example, when the lovers parlay with each other from behind masks, the asides help the audience distinguish the characters from each other. At other times, the aside serves to communicate a character's intention, which may not turn out as he or she expects. For example, when Angellica remarks, "His words go to the very soul of me,'' the audience can tell that she is truly falling in love with him, that her seductive manner is not simply motivated by the usual goals of a courtesan with a prospective client. Behn uses the aside in the manner typical of Restoration dramatists. The technique would later evolve into one that underscored the comedic elements of the play, but throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the aside served to inform the audience of a character's true inner feelings and intentions.

Compare and Contrast

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Late Seventeenth Century: After Charles II comes to the throne in the Restoration of 1660, an act of Parliament invites women to be actresses in court-sponsored theaters. Puritans brand the early actresses as prostitutes because of their willingness to be displayed on stage. Fiction merges with reality when actresses are treated as prostitutes, and eventually many actresses resort to that way of life in order to make a living. King Charles II has several mistresses who are actresses. His support of women in the theater both helps and hurts their cause.

Today: Women hold positions as actresses, directors, playwrights, and stage managers.

Late Seventeenth Century: The turmoil caused by the English civil wars of the seventeenth century has little impact on most of England. This is because England consists of a conglomerate of small villages and towns, where news travels slowly and where the populace continue their rural existence with little interest in the affairs of the big town of London. Distinct regional dialects create a language barrier and roads are difficult to travel.

Today: National political debates in England, as elsewhere in the world, can be communicated instantly over the radio, television, and Internet so that England's populace can now be fairly well-informed about issues of government, if they choose. Opinion polls measure popular support, and political turmoil is mild by comparison to the tumultuous seventeenth century.

Late Seventeenth Century: Theaters reopen to an eager public in 1660 with the Restoration, after having been closed officially during the Interregnum (1642-1660), a time dominated by enforced Puritan values. The theaters now have ceilings and special tracks for elaborate scenery. Audiences are large, consisting of people from all social classes.

Today: Live theater does not enjoy the popularity it once did, now that television, video, and Internet video streaming bring entertainment into the home. Ticket prices for major productions are costly so that only the well-off can afford to visit the theater regularly.

Media Adaptations

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A 1986 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Rover, produced by John Barton and starring Jeremy Irons, takes many liberties with Behn's text, replacing hundreds of lines with those of Killigrew, but the result is enjoyable.

Another performance can be seen in a 1995 British Broadcasting Company Production for the Open University in Association with the Women's Playhouse Trust. In this production, Behn's original text is presented in full. The actors, performing on a stage filled with sand, present the characters with energy and vivacity. The video recording is available through Routledge.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Behn, Aphra, The Lucky Chance, Methuen, 1984, p. 2.

Diamond, Elin, ‘‘Gestus and the Signature in Aphra Behn's The Rover,'' in New Casebooks: Aphra Behn, edited by Janet Todd, St. Martin's Press, 1999, p. 33.

Gallagher, Catherine, ‘‘Who Was That Masked Woman? The Prostitute and the Playwright in the Comedies of Aphra Behn,’’ in New Casebooks: Aphra Behn, edited by Janet Todd, St. Martin's Press, 1999, p. 13.

Hall, Peter, Exposed by the Mask: Form and Language in Drama, Theatre Communications Group, 2000, p. 35.

Hughes, Derek, The Theatre of Aphra Behn, Palgrave, 2001, p. 87.

Hutner, Heidi, ‘‘Revisioning the Female Body: Aphra Behn's The Rover, Parts I and II,’’ in Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory and Criticism, edited by Heidi Hutner, University Press of Virginia, 1993, p. 103, 105, 107.

Killigrew, Thomas, Thomaso, or The Wanderer, Part I, Henry Herringman, 1663, p. 363.

Pepys, Samuel, The Diary of Samuel Peyps, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, 11 vols., University of Berkeley Press, 1970-1983, 7:71-72.

Russell, Anne, "Introduction to The Rover by Aphra Behn," in The Rover, edited by Anne Russell, Broadview Press Ltd., 1994, p. 25.

Schafer, Elizabeth, ‘‘Appropriating Aphra,’’ in The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn, edited by Janet Todd, Camden House, 1998, p. 91.

Spencer, Jane, Aphra Behn's Afterlife, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 25, 192, 197.

Todd, Janet, The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn, Camden House, 1998, p. 49, 57, 87.

Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One's Own, Harcourt Brace, 1957, p. 67, 69.

Altaba-Artal, Dolors, Aphra Behn's English Feminism: Wit and Satire, Susquehanna University Press, 1999.
This is a scholarly analysis of Behn's major works, with a chapter including The Rover. Altaba-Artal finds significant evidence of Spanish influence in Behn's works.

Duffy, Maureen, The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn 1640-89, Cape, 1977.
This is an early twentieth-century biography of Aphra Behn by a feminist critic and author.

Hughes, Derek, The Theatre of Aphra Behn, Palgrave, 2001.
Hughes presents a chronological study of Behn's plays, putting them into historical context as well as demonstrating her development as a playwright.

Hutner, Heidi, ‘‘Revisioning the Female Body: Aphra Behn's The Rover, Parts I and II,’’ in Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory and Criticism, edited by Heidi Hutner, University Press of Virginia, 1993.
This essay is a feminist reading of Behn's two Rover plays.

Kreis-Schinck, Annette, Women, Writing, and the Theater in the Early Modern Period: The Plays of Aphra Behn and Suzanne Centlivre, Associated University Presses, 2001.
With chapters on marriage, divorce, widowhood, affairs, and abstinence, Kreis-Schinck describes how the works of these two female playwrights portray women's issues of their time.

Owens, W. R., and Lizbeth Goodman, eds., Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon, Routledge, 1996.
This work is actually a student text, with chapters on three Shakespearean plays and one chapter on Behn's The Rover. This work describes various Open University (BBC) productions of these plays and their backgrounds and attempts to navigate between understanding the play in its original context and exploring its reflection of current critical interests. The book contains many black-and-white photographs of the 1995 Open University BBC production of The Rover.

Sackville-West, V., Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astrea, Russell & Russell Publishers, 1970.
This slim volume is an early biography of Behn, containing some historical inaccuracies, written by a contemporary and friend of Virginia Woolf.

Spencer, Jane, Aphra Behn's Afterlife, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Spencer presents a history of the critical reception of Aphra Behn and her work, with a chapter on the reception of The Rover in the eighteenth century.

Todd, Janet, The Critical Fortunes of Aphra Behn, Camden House, 1998.
In this scholarly work, Todd traces the critical reception and influence of Aphra Behn's plays, novels, and poems.

Todd, Janet, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, Rutgers University Press, 1997.
In this recent and very readable biography, Todd delves into the contradictions and complexities of Behn's life and work.

Todd, Janet, ed., Aphra Behn, New Casebook Series, St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Todd, a Behn specialist, edited this anthology of recent scholarly essays on the work of Aphra Behn, mostly comprised of feminist readings.

Todd, Janet, ed., Aphra Behn Studies, Cambridge University
Press, 1996.
Todd presents a range of recent scholarly articles on certain of Behn's plays and poems, including one essay on The Rover.


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Sources for Further Study

Duffy, Maureen. The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640-1689. London: Jonathan Cape, 1977.

Gallagher, Catherine. “Who Was That Masked Woman? The Prostitute and the Playwright in the Comedies of Aphra Behn.” In Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism, edited by Heidi Hutner. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993.

Hutner, Heidi. “Revisioning the Female Body: Aphra Behn’s The Rover, Parts I and II.” In Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism, edited by Heidi Hutner. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993.

Link, Frederick M. Aphra Behn. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968.

Markley, Robert. “‘Be Impudent, Be Saucy, Forward, Bold, Touzing, and Leud’: The Politics of Masculine Sexuality and Feminine Desire in Behn’s Tory Comedies.” In Cultural Readings of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English Theatre, edited by J. Douglas Canfield and Deborah C. Payne. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Todd, Janet. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

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