Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Breaking the Confining Silence: Unstable Valences and Language in Aphra Behn's the Rover

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Breaking the Confining Silence: Unstable Valences and Language in Aphra Behn's the Rover

Article excerpt

And this one thing I will venture to say, though against my Nature, because it has a Vanity in it; That had the Plays I have writ come forth under any Mans Name, and never known to have been mine; I appeal to all unbyast Judges of Sense, if they had not said that Person had made as many good Comedies, as any one Man that has writ in our Age; but a Devil on't the Woman damns the Poet.

Behn, Preface to The Lucky Chance1 (216; 87-92)

Aphra Behn was very cognizant that she lived, literally, by that which should not have been hers: language. This awareness is played out explicitly in the prefaces, afterwords, prologues, and epilogues to her plays. There she defends herself against those critics who would seek to confine her from language through their charges that she was incompetent, indecent, illiterate and a plagiarist. For example, in a postscript to The Rover Part I,2 Behn explains that its publication was delayed by a "Report about the Town (made by some either very Malitious or very Ignorant) that 'twas Thomas alter'd; which made the Book-sellers fear some trouble from the Proprietor [Thomas Killigrew] ofthat Admirable Play..." (5; 521).3 The persistent accusations of plagiarism raise the question: is the issue really plagiarism, or is it her violation of literary primogeniture by claiming her right to borrow from her literary forefathers? She was profoundly sensitive to the magnitude of her transgression, that is, her venture through writing comedies into the two domains that put natural feminine virtue at risk, the worlds of sexuality and intellectuality (Parturier 63). In a prefatory note to Sir Patient Fancy, 4 she argues that bawdiness in male dramatists is "the least and most Excusable fault," but in herself, condemned as "unnatural" (5; 4-6). She is swift to defend her right to be afoot in that world and fierce in her contempt for those, both male and female, who sought to contain her by barring her entry or banishing her presence. In what is a typical statement about her art, she scoffs that Sir Patient "had no other Misfortune but that of coming out for a Womans: had it been owned by a Man, though the most Dull Unthinking Rascally Scribler in Town, it had been a most admirable Play" (5; 19-21).

Modern critics of Behn's plays have, not surprisingly, been intrigued by Behn's disruptive presence in the boys' room of Restoration drama. Edward Burns argues that Behn's awareness of her unauthorized incursion into the world of dramatic discourse led her to evolve a new theatrical language. Female dramatists like Behn must find a place for themselves: "a playwright determined to discuss female experience must radically overhaul conventional theater language ..." (126). The "language" Behn evolves is the exploitation and subversion of the mixed genres-romance, pastoral, farce, comedy of intrigue-upon which she drew. Elin Diamond argues that, more than any other Restoration playwright, Behn exploits the commodity status of the female performer.5 Moreover, Diamond contends that Behn stages her awareness of her bisexuality of authorship, that is, masculine inspiration in a woman's body. Behn insists repeatedly in her dramas "on the equation between female body and fetish, fetish and commodity-the body in the scenes" (535), inscribing them with certain telltale moments that function as her "signature," her encoding of the conditions of her literary and theatrical production.

Yet, as insightful as these comments are, they seem to confine Behn's dramatic discourse to where Behn protested it should not be: in the ghetto of women's writing. The explicit protests against this kind of containment made in the apparatuses surrounding her dramas are complemented by the play of language within them. In her plays, language is heteroglot, multivalenced and androgynous.6 In the Restoration tradition of which Behn's plays are a part, we expect male characters to be rewarded for their linguistic virtuosity or disenfranchised through lack of it. …

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