Masking the Drama

A Space for Revolution in Aphra Behn’s «The Rover» and «The Feign’d Courtezans»

by Tiziana Febronia Arena (Author)
Thesis 184 Pages


«Masking the Drama: A Space for Revolution in Aphra Behn’s The Rover and The Feign’d Courtezans» pursues an in-depth investigation of the process whereby female identity was performatively negotiated on the Restoration stage by women playwrights such as Aphra Behn and of how a new articulation of social space contributed to the formation of a potentially emancipatory sense of gendered selfhood understood as a flexible and porous instantiation of performative roles.
The author interrogates the prominent role played among Restoration women playwrights by the tropes of theatrical performativity as providing an alternative path to feminist revision and thus offering new perspectives on and challenges to existing scholarship on early modern women’s studies and the status of Aphra Behn studies in this scholarly context and stressing how women challenged, transgressed and subverted heteropatriarchal normativity by stepping outside their allotted social roles to appropriate a female space within the public domain of the theatre.
From within a widely-argued critical discourse concerning masking and masquerade, the book takes a novel look at Behn’s internal and external mental conditionings, arguing that they still lived on even though the political divisions which had sustained their ideological rationale were no longer in place. One of the thesis’s critical edges lies here: rather than fixing Behn’s representational discourse within a rigid revolutionary/conservative dialectics, even when such a narrative of difference partly informs the plays analysed, the author convincingly argues against any monolithic view, thus eschewing the risk of ideological reductionism. The book brilliantly fashions a novel narrative of cultural phenomena especially relevant to the discussion of such a self-contradictory artist as Aphra Behn arguably is.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • The Power of Representation: The Political Use of the Theatre in the Seventeenth Century
  • The Woman in the Shadow: Woman’s Position in the Patriarchal Society
  • Performing the Masculine: Masculine Domination in Behn’s Works
  • Talking Revolution
  • Portrait of a Lady Cavalier
  • Masking the Drama: A Space for Revolution
  • Conclusion
  • References

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The late seventeenth century was a pivotal period in women’s social history and feminist awareness,2 in which women’s participation in social life contributed to break gender barriers, especially in the theatre.

The reopening of theatres in 1660 and woman’s limited emancipation in it were encouraged by Charles II, as this authorization to Thomas Betterton demonstrates:

Actresses are permitted. Because in the past “the women’s parts have been Acted by men in the habits of women att which some have taken Offence,” the King gives permission that “all womens partes to be Acted in either of the said two Companies for the time to come may be performed by women”.3 ← 9 | 10 →

When the theatres reopened all female parts were performed by women. This was to alter the world of English theatre and society because it created the opportunity to introduce new topics and new dramatic effects.4 Nevertheless, Laurence Stone argued that

She was a woman who moved uncertainly between two worlds: the one, in which she had been brought up and in which she was to live out her last decades, was based on female subordination to men, and marriage for interest not attraction; the other, which boiled of excitement, glamour, intrigues, love and feminine independence, literacy and responsibility. Her conflict between love and honour is characteristic of the plots of contemporary classic drama.5

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the most extravagant and autonomous ladies stopped being treated as commodities, or at least, they tried doing it. They would no longer tolerate this authoritarian disposition of their hearts and bodies by their parents or “friends.”6 As active figures, they rejected passive stereotypes of woman, claiming their equality, but they were inevitably depicted as vicious and degenerate. They did not want to be “the lady of the hearth,” secluded in their homes, without any proper education and any cultural or professional aspirations. Quinsey adds

Restoration drama focuses on the sexual basis of social structures – marriage, family, patrilineal succession – in a representation characterized by the unsettling and reexamination of assumptions. These cracks in the patrilineal structure coexist with attempts to reaffirm that structure, sometimes through violent reassertion of male prerogatives, sometimes through subtle reformulations of economies of power.7

A changing awareness of female subjectivity characterized the social scenario. It promoted and encouraged the physical presence of women ← 10 | 11 → onstage as actresses, the increased and varied representation of women in the audience, and the entry of women into the public sphere as writers.8

The presence of women onstage provoked a profound effect on theatrical genderdisation, in which female subjectivity was restrained, contained, and constructed in various ways.9 Not only did actresses cross the threshold of theatres, “embodying female roles in ways that male actors never could,”10 but this also empowered women to write in a professional way and out of their closets, as they used to do, invading all-male arenas.

Radical innovation and sexual revolution were to come and women playwrights and actresses vigorously contributed to shape new theatrical agendas.11 For the first time in English theatrical history, women were allowed to appear on the public stage; nevertheless the limited freedom given to women in late Stuart rule was difficult to conquer.12 The public sphere and sexual behaviours were free enough, but that freedom was essentially a male privilege.

The extravagant ladies, or female Wits, who decided to escape the fixed path and to embark on a different and alternative one, were stigmatised with the epithet of “whore.”13 In this regard, Elin Diamond underlines how the theatre objectified women and how Restoration can be regarded as the best example of a season of strong contradictions. The actress was both admired (for her craft), and calumniated (for her sexual ← 11 | 12 → activity).14 In the same way, the female playwright was objectified and “the author, like her texts, became a commodity.”15 The general opinion was that “the woman who shared the contents of her mind instead of reserving them for one man was literally, not metaphorically, trading in her sexual property.”16

Women of the theatre faced shame in invading and violating an exclusive male field: the theatre, to obtain their fame. Popularity on stage as dramatists, or actresses, went together with public consensus but critical disdain, too. Their being active women was commonly regarded as synonym of depravity. Paula Backscheider has asserted that

Women writers were forced into one of two classes: the new position of shameless, crass, fallen woman jostling with men and willing to live by her illicitly gained sexual knowledge, a place in stark contrast to the other, which was long-accepted practice of the aristocrat writing for herself and her circle and tastefully circulating manuscripts.

[…] the image of the prostitute and the prostituted pen are hardly less restricting than the constraints of elevated gentility that imposed deliberate silences and a constricted range of subjects.17

Aphra Behn was indeed accused of prostitution and of having exalted an indiscriminate sexual appetite. In 1691, Robert Gould, a misogynist critic, accused women writers of having broken “a silence prescribed by custom.”18 Stereotypes and prejudices at the expense of women writers were the rule. Women had constantly to fight against male virulent attacks. ← 12 | 13 →

In Doran’s view, Aphra Behn was corrupted and corrupting, so that he argued:

Behn was the product of a turbulent age but she was able to take advantage from it. In her life, she faced many obstacles and she managed them. She was continuously attacked for being a writer and because of her libertinism and success. Needless to say, her reputation suffered because of her sex. Nevertheless, her writings achieved fame because she was a good writer and playwright. Aphra Behn can be compared to the woman warrior described by Simon Shepherd:

She is a woman who, like the warrior, can insist on the sexual duel; she can insist on equal conditions of battle, whether physical or intellectual. To do this revalues the woman. But such equal battles are too often denied by the male world. Males assume a dominance that is physical, intellectual and sexual; they assume that they are the norm, that their value judgments are correct. It is rare that the male assumptions are put to the trial of strength.20

Because of her position of writer and playwright she was regarded as a “monster”, as a whore. As Jane Spencer argued, “the most extreme male reaction was to deny women’s ability to write”21 and to accuse them to be unclean, untidy or simply whores.

Not only did Behn’s male contemporaries condemn her because her “bawdy expressions could be taken as evidence of an unchaste and therefore unacceptable woman; […] and her life was used to condemn ← 13 | 14 → her writing as immoral,”22 but especially because she professed to write because she needed money, she was “forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.”23

Twentieth-century feminist movements probably contributed to influence the growing interest towards gender and women’s issues and to revive women writers who had been neglected for centuries. As Virginia Woolf remarked, Aphra Behn signals an important watershed. She was an eclectic woman who dared to break gender boundaries centuries before the feminist uprising.

A first approach towards Aphra Behn was focused on biographical aspects. The revival of Aphra Behn was due to the interest shown by Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Their emphasis essentially rested on the importance of Aphra Behn as a symbol for feminism, she was depicted as a feminist ante-litteram. Vita Sackville-West wrote a short biography of Behn, entitled Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astrea.24 As Karyn Sproles has remarked, Vita Sackville West’s biography reinvents Behn, disrupting facts. Sackville-West rejects “the traditional polarization of women into saints or whores, rewriting Behn’s story in a different voice, a voice characterized by self-conscious multiplicity of subject, biographer, and history instead of unified authority.”25 In A Room of One’s Own,26 Virginia Woolf exalted Behn’s greatness but like Sackville-West, her focus was on the fact that she was a professional woman writer, not for what she wrote.27 Both Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West shared the interest in rehabilitating a woman writer who ← 14 | 15 → was for long neglected and they wanted to tell her story in a way that showed her to be both compelling and powerful.28

In the twentieth century, however, Behn’s fame underwent a revival. Montague Summers, a scholar working on the English drama of the seventeenth century, published a six-volume collection of her work,29 in order to rehabilitate her reputation. In 1948, George Woodcock wrote Behn’s first full-length biography entitled The Incomparable Aphra.30 Woodcock constructed Behn as an committed modern revolutionary, an advocate for a social and moral freedom that he finds radical in her day and ours. In Angeline Goreau’s Recostructing Aphra, subtitled A Social Biography of Aphra Behn,31 Behn symbolizes the lives of feminists in the 1980s. Janet Todd’s The Secret Life of Aphra Behn32 follows. Todd gave great emphasis to Behn’s early spying activities, and to the networks of Tory intrigue to which Behn was connected. Todd is committed to ‘historicising’ Behn, therefore she is concerned with the author’s works’ political aspects.

All these biographies had something in common: they told the story of a character named Aphra Behn that forgot the woman author. This approach affected especially Behn’s drama. In all cases these biographers tried to find parallels between the life and the contents and themes of the plays and this approach does not recognize Behn’s dramatic wit and skills.33 Nevertheless, this contributed to focus the attention on Astrea who is now regarded as a key English playwright and a major figure in Restoration theatre. ← 15 | 16 →


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (April)
Aphra Behn Female voices Carnival Sexual politics Female identity Restoration theatre
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2017. 184 pp.

Biographical notes

Tiziana Febronia Arena (Author)

Dr Arena is Adjunct Professor of English for Specific Purposes at the University of Catania. She completed her PhD in English Literature and Gender Studies at the University of Catania. She presented and published some papers on Aphra Behn, the Restoration theatre and Libertinism. She has been involved in the preparation of secondary school English teachers in Italy. Her research focuses on gender studies, English Restoration theatre and female subjectivity in literature. Her other research interests include cross-dressing, masquerade and Carnival and the intersections between literature, feminism and media.


Title: Masking the Drama
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186 pages