Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"As for Mine": Aphra Behn and Adaptations of Jacobean City Comedies

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"As for Mine": Aphra Behn and Adaptations of Jacobean City Comedies

Article excerpt

In The Revenge, a Restoration adaptation of John Marston's The Dutch Courtesan (first performed in 1680 at Dorset Gardens Theatre, published anonymously, but attributed to Aphra Behn by Gerard Langbaine and Narcissus Luttrell),1 there is a moment when one of the minor heroines apparently acquiesces to a suitor, simultaneously alerting us to her real feelings through a stage aside. Diana says to Sir John Empty: "Well, get my father s consent, and as for mine-the Devil take me if ever thou gets it. Aside" (4.1.123-24).2 In Marstons original (1605), Crispinelia speaks almost the same words: "My fathers consent and as for mine-" (4.1.85). The em signifies a silent pause which her suitor Tysefew presumes as permission for a kiss, an assumption confirmed by the play's narrative closure in their marriage. By contrast, the 1680 adaptation reads that original silence of broken-off speech in absolute opposition to the "original": in a reiteration of the same words, with an additional commentary aside to the audience, she expresses rejection and resistance, not acceptance.

The over- and re-writing of this small exchange illustrates how one seventeenth-century playwright read a Jacobean female silence. By bringing silence into speech, and explicitly addressing those words to the audience, the dramatist reconfigures character, plot, gender, and stage space, completely transforming the original meanings of a courting encounter in which a silent woman is assumed to be a consenting woman. This article will argue that a close reading of its adaptation can contribute to the debate about authorship and Behns canon,3 and show that an understanding of Behns adapting strategies not ordy illustrates the specificities of her engagement with earlier seventeenth-century writers, texts, and dramas but also identifies unique dramaturgical skills.4

Behns theatrical productions, like those of her contemporaries, were often worked-up adaptations from a variety of sources.5 Behns "translations" of Ovid were described by John Dryden as "in Mr Cowleys way of imitation" (Cowley described his own translations as "libertine," by which he means non-literal, not word-for-word) (Todd 256-57). Behns dramatic adaptations follow Cowleys model (libertine not literal), sharing an adapting, modernizing, and appropriating approach which she applies alike to translations and dramatic productions. Behns debt to Thomas Middleton, for example, is significant. Recent work on Middletons readership and the sale of his books in the later seventeenth century has extended appreciation of his continuing influence after the Restoration.6 The City Heiress (first performed 1682 at Dorset Gardens) is a highly effective fusion of two Middleton plays, but involving considerable additional original material, and using the sources for distinctively autonomous dramatic ends. Plot and character parallels have been debated by critics:7 here I will concentrate instead on three aspects of Behns use of The City Heiress to help illuminate the dramatic and performing strategies of Behns adaptation, and then use that discussion to debate The Revenge. Those aspects are: firstly, staging and theatrical setting; secondly, a key scenic idea, in this case, the bedroom scene; and finally, the plays stage properties, in particular, the business with "writings." I shall argue that by isolating these three areas, we can identify a distinctive dramaturgical signature, which can help illuminate The Revenge.

In the prologue to The Young Kingf Behn proffers an uneasy relationship between sexuality, political loyalty, theatricality, and imitation:

Beauty like wit can only charm when new;

Is there no merit then in being true?

Wit rather should an estimation hold

With wine, which is still best for being old. (7: 85)

Here she frames her life works contradictions: hypothesizing a coincidence between political loyalty and theatrical and literary reverence ("being true") in opposition to the market, all figured through a sexualized metaphor. …

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