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Masking the Drama

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

Tiziana Febronia Arena

«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.

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Aphra Behn’s body which is buried in the backyard of Westminster Abbey is the metaphor of her life and works, still neglected. Thanks to Virginia Woolf and the feminist movements today Aphra Behn is included among the laureate writers. She inspected female issues concerning freedom and equality starting the arduous way that today we call sexual revolution.

In the seventeenth century Aphra Behn opened a space for alternative forms of subjectivity, remaining loyal to her king and to the dramatic conventions. By using dramatic tools in vogue in the Restoration theatre she was able to critique within the patriarchal system which denied women any possibilities to “breathe” and act freely and equally. Her physical invasion of the male territory, the theatre, provoked among her contemporaries a strong disapproval which led them to label the female writer. “whore,” the one “who dared to write for bread.”

Impudent like her female characters, Behn showed wit, intelligence and theatrical bravura, standing out in the theatrical market of her time as one of the most prolific writers of the Restoration Theatre. This position allowed her to inspire the female world and to introduce subtle variations that emphasized the female voice and female determination.

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