Aphra Behn

Biography

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640?-1689)

            With at least eighteen plays to her name, Aphra Behn was England’s first professional female playwright. Almost all of her works were produced during her lifetime, while two premiered posthumously. She enjoyed the company of other professional playwrights, theatre managers, and actresses, including Thomas Killigrew, Lady Mary Davenant, and Elizabeth Barry.

            Her most popular plays were her comedies, a genre in which she demanded recognition and she was considered a master of the intrigue comedy, which involved “one or more cynical gallants who sought to seduce (or marry) a like number of brisk young ladies, and who had to overcome or circumvent a heavy father, an old husband, or a set of rivals.” Behn’s success paved the way for other professional playwrights such as Mary Pix, Delarivier Manley, and Catharine Trotter.[1] The Rover (1677) is what she is most commonly known for, as well as for her comedies The Lucky Chance (1686) and The Emperor of the Moon (1687). Behn wrote poetry and novels as well, the most famous of which, Oroonoko (1688), is based on her experiences in Surinam, which she visited as a child.[2]

            Although it is unknown how Behn got into playwriting, her plays demonstrate a dexterous knowledge of stagecraft. She was a theatrical innovator “who used the whole stage area, with forestage scenes increasingly interspersed with acting in the scenic area behind the arch.”[3] Another innovation that Behn used frequently was the “discovery” scene where “one set of scenery, painted on shutters, is drawn back to reveal actors in place behind.” The revelations, a novelty to the Restoration stage, dazzled the aristocratic audiences who saw Behn’s plays.[4]

            Little is known for certain about Behn up until her career as a playwright. She was born around 1640 in Kent, England. Her maiden name is unknown. Sometime after returning to England from Surinam in 1664, she became known as “Mrs. Behn.” In her memoirs, she states that she married a Dutch “Mr. Behn” who died of the plague in 1665; however, scholars are unsure if Behn’s husband died, if they were separated, or if he even existed—certainly, widow status would have afforded Behn a greater amount of autonomy in Restoration England.[5]

            Around this time, Behn met Thomas Killigrew, the manager of the King’s Company, one of two licensed theatre companies in London. She had given Killigrew feathers from Surinam for his production of The Indian Queen by Sir Robert Howard, and Killigrew recommended her as a spy to Lord Arlington, who was in charge of foreign affairs for King Charles II.

She left London again in 1665 for the Netherlands as a spy for the King and returned in 1666. During her time in the Netherlands, Behn warned King Charles about the impending Dutch attack on London, but her warning was ignored. From 1666-1670, little was heard from Behn until The Forc’d Marriage was produced by the Duke’s Company at Lincoln’s Inn Field in 1670.[6]

Behn continued writing until her death in 1689. Despite her friendship with Thomas Killigrew, her plays were exclusively produced by the Duke’s Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre.[7] As her career progressed, her plays became increasingly political, commenting on and satirizing political events and parties. The Roundheads (1681) and The City Heiress (1682) are overtly anti-Puritan and anti-Whig, displaying her loyalty to the Stuart monarchy and to the Tory Party. However, Behn was arrested in 1682 for her attack on King Charles’ illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, for his support of a Protestant succession.[8]

Behn is buried at Westminster Abbey.

 

[1] Rogers, Katharine M., ed. The Meridian Anthology of Restoration and Eighteenth-century Plays by Women. New York: Meridian, 1994., vii-viii

[2] Behn, Aphra. The Rover ; The Feigned Courtesans ; The Lucky Chance ; The Emperor of the Moon. Edited by Jane Spencer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995., x

[3] Behn, Aphra. The Rover ; The Feigned Courtesans ; The Lucky Chance ; The Emperor of the Moon. Edited by Jane Spencer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995., xii

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., vii-viii

[6] Ibib., viii

[7] Behn, Aphra. The Rover ; The Feigned Courtesans ; The Lucky Chance ; The Emperor of the Moon. Edited by Jane Spencer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995., viii-ix

[8] Ibid., ix-x