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Women taking centre stage: A portrait of Aphra Behn and a few female playwrights in her footsteps

Often considered the first professional playwright in Britain, Aphra Behn is a trailblazer in more ways than one. With only a few weeks to go before the Dulwich Players’ production of The Rover, Behn’s most famous play, it is only right to honour her contribution both to the stage and to female empowerment, and present some of the women she inspired as playwrights during the Restoration. For, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “It was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” (A Room of One's Own).

Portrait of Aphra Behn by Peter Lely

Little is known about Behn’s early life. Accounts about her childhood, her travelling and her marriage are vague or even contradictory. Facts become a little clearer from the mid 1660s. A strong supporter of Charles II and the Stuart family, there is evidence that she took on the role of a spy during a mission in the Netherlands around 1666. Receiving few to no wages from the king, she soon found herself in debt, to the point where she had to borrow money to return to England. Now a widow, Aphra Behn resorted to writing out of mere necessity, to earn a living.

Working first as a scribe for the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company, Behn started to pen plays of her own from 1670, using her growing popularity to shed a light on women’s condition, from arranged marriages (The Forc’d Marriage, Sir Patient Fancy) and unhappy matches (The Town Fop, The False Count) to sexual freedom (The Rover) and violence against women (Abdelazer, The Young King). Deciding not to hide her own gender, Behn found herself the object of many attacks, and used her publications to defend herself and to criticize the double standards at play between men and women.

Following her death in 1689, Behn’s literary production was too often dismissed as minor and morally corrupt. Thankfully, the publication of her Histories, Novels, and Translations in 1700 insured the preservation of her works, which have been rediscovered and reevaluated since the 1970s. Equally significantly, her influence is visible in paving the way for other female playwrights.

During the Restoration, several women followed in Behn’s footsteps, writing popular plays while facing attacks and unfair criticism. Among the most famous female playwrights of the time were Delarivier Manley, Catherine Trotter and Mary Pix, who started to gain success at the end of the seventeeth century. An unfortunate price of their achievements, and a sign of the disregard towards women in the literary world, the three playwrights are forever associated with one another for having been lampooned in a 1696 anonymous play, The Female Wits.

This satire, inspired by Manley’s second play The Royal Mischief, marked the start of a ten-year writing hiatus for Manley. Mary Pix, an admirer of Behn, was caricatured as “a fat, female author” and as "foolish and openhearted". Like her predecessor, Pix was the object of many attacks, including a case of plagiarism against a competitor, George Powell. Yet, she still went on to write several tragedies and comedies that focused on women’s struggles and victimization. As for Catherine Trotter, her portrait as “a lady who pretends to the learned languages and assumes to herself the name of critic" belittled the intellect of this self-educated woman, a writer of essays on moral philosophy as well as plays..

Portrait of Susanna Centilivre

It would be impossible to finish this quick overview of female playwrights emerging from the Restoration age without mentioning Susanna Centlivre, who enjoyed a long career at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, from 1700 until her death in 1723. Her success as the author of nearly 20 plays, including many comedies to one tragedy, earned her the title of the second woman of the English stage, after Aphra Behn.

And so, both on and off the stage, in the topics she approached, the female roles she developed and the inspiration she provided for her successors, Aphra Behn was a powerful figure in breaking down barriers for women working for the theatre.

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

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