Aphra Behn

Posted: March 18, 2010 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , ,

Hello, everyone!  I am beginning a new project, now.  I am going to write a play over the next…err…two months or so, about this person, Aphra Behn:

The first woman in history to make her living as a playwright!

Biography is exciting.  Let me tell you some things we know for sure about Aphra Behn:  she die in 1689.  She wrote some plays, short stories, and poetry (including The Rover and Orinooko).  She was a spy in Flanders.

That’s it.  Now, let me tell you some things that we kind of know about her:  She was born in Kent (or she wasn’t) in 1640 (-ish, maybe?).  She went to Surinam (or she didn’t) where she was a spy (or not), she married Mr. Behn (who maybe didn’t exist) on the way back.  Her name was Aphra (maybe Ann, Eaffrey, Astra, who knows?).  Since her husband was possibly fictional, her entire name “Aphra Behn” appears to have been her own creation.

I think this is fascinating; I mean, I’m not a biographer, so I don’t need to find out the literal “truth” of the events of Aphra’s life if I want to write a play about her.  What interests me is the fact that she appears to be a wholly-invented personality.  As a writer, even, she appears to have been a bit of a hack — writing whatever for whoever was paying her.  The one thing that she did do, which was unprecedented for women at the time, was to support herself with her writing.

There are some neat ideas in her plays, as well, that support a notion of the mutability of identity.  Her first play, The Young King, is about a brother and sister who, to avoid a nasty prophecy, are raised as a girl and a boy, respectively (kind of; I mean, the boy didn’t wear dresses, but he was taught all female pursuits and discouraged from displays of manliness, so).  In her short story, “Orinooko,” (written…or not…about her time in Surinam) she writes about an African prince who is made a slave, and how mutable is rank.  Her plays have cross-dressing and are sometimes homoerotic.  She embraces the notion that women are fully as sexually vital as men (uncommon, to say the least, in the 17th century).

I think it’s more than synchronicity that a historical personage with such a slippery identity spends so much time writing about the mutability of identity; that she was also a playwright, engaged in a field of artistry that is ABOUT the mutability of identity…I mean, come on.  I HAVE to write a play about her.

This part you may not agree with, but I haven’t actually started the play, yet, so give me your comments.  I’m also thinking that this whole thing can be tied into the resurgence of Burlesque.  Jeanine does not like burlesque — she equates it with strip clubs — but I’m not sure if that’s true.  I’ve been talking to a lot of burlesque performers (well, two, but I’m PLANNING on talking to more) and there’s a quality to it that I find fascinating:  especially the idea that “femininity” is, itself, something that is performed.  Well, all of it, any reading that you do into sociology tells you that all gender roles are socially-inculcated and performative.  Drag shows reveal the same thing, but I’m less interested in drag shows.

Well, that’s not true, I was actually planning to write this entire play as a kind of drag show, in which all the male parts were played by women.  I’m just not as interested in men-dressed-as-women drag.  Because of the way we understand and construct gender identity, the power dynamic is wholly different.

I still have no idea what’s going to happen in this play.  I am COMPLETELY CONVINCED that all of these ideas are going to come together, and the fully-formed play will just jump out of my brain and onto the keyboard.  I’m just waiting for it to happen.  Which had better be soon, because I’ve already reserved the performance space for the first production in August.

So.  Get going brain.  Any time now, would be good.

  1. Heather says:

    I did a reading of “The Rover”. It was fun.

  2. Lord Wackadoo says:

    Since your not bogging yourself down by using only conclusively verifiable life data, I think you should presuppose that Aphra Behn was actually a time traveler. Or better yet a Slider.

  3. V.I.P. Referee says:

    …and you are certain that “she” wasn’t actually a “he”? Either way, Aphra Behn seems to have lived his/her life as a very fascinating statement about gender expectation. Maybe open it with the props on display–the cymbols of femininity or masculinity–and something spoken offstage? The player vs. the tools of illusion?

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “Symbols” of femininity, not “cymb[a]ls” of femininity. Although, truth be told, whipping out those clangy “cymbals of femininity” always guarantees a sure thing. That and the “Pierrot” costume. Roar.

  5. Moff says:

    This is a FANTASTIC idea. I don’t have much to say beyond that. My sense of burlesque performers is that they generally don’t consider themselves strippers, although there’s some overlap in the fields, and that a lot more thought and creativity goes into any burlesque show than into a lap dance.

    Anyway, from a marketing perspective, the play would be a hot item. Gender-role stuff blended with a dose of obscure history would have to attract plenty of attention, I think.

  6. dagocutey says:

    Burlesque was weird — my uncle performed with a vaudville troup in NYC in the 40’s and 50’s, and he had very positive things to say about the early burlesque performers. The ones he praised the most were Jacky Gleason, Bob Hope and Abbot & Costello (“Who’s on First” is pure comic genius). He said that it didn’t start out with so much female nudity, just mostly extreme silliness and raunchy humor (my favorite kind!). But he was also clueless about sexism, and it just reeked of that. Female sexuality was viewed as “naughty” during Burlesque’s prime — the women performers were viewed as lovable “bad girls” and sort of social outcasts who’s value was measured by how pleasing they were to their male audience. They were not taken seriously on any level but below the waist. As the venue declined in the late 50’s and 60’s, it morphed into the stripper shows that we think of today, with social attitudes towards today’s performers not being very different than they were 50 years ago.

    Moff is correct re: the potential for popularity. Your subject matter is fascinating and timeless. You’ve got the gender question going on, but more interesting to me is the whole underlying thing re: is this type of entertainment really exploitation of women, or are women simply using their “money-makers”, as it were, to make money. Now, go to it!

  7. braak says:

    Yes, it’s an interesting question. The women that I’ve talked to tell me many things, among them: 1) the audiences they perform for have as many women as men, 2) they play to a general excitement, but not necessarily arousal, per se, 3) many of them do it without making particularly much money, which, as I understand it, is the primary draw for strippers. One performer suggested that the primary difference between a strip show and burlesque is that in a strip show you perform your audience’s fantasy; in burlesque, you can perform your own.

    This is pertinent to the play, SOMEHOW I DON’T KNOW I HAVEN’T WRITTEN IT YET, because, as a spy, it seems likely that she was flirting at the very least to get what she wanted. But she was also a strong advocate for the belief that women desired sex as strongly as men did. So, if she seduces a man to get useful information from him, is that because she needs it for her job, or because she likes it? Or both? Neither?


  8. Lethargi says:

    I hate to disrupt this intellectual conversation on the roles of gender in society, but that portrait of Aphra Behn looks like a man. You can almost see the five o’clock shadow (at least at this resolution)/

  9. braak says:

    Yeah, but basically every portrait of a woman from the 17th century looked like a man.

    Everyone also had really high foreheads, and really tiny lips. I think the 17th century was just a shit era for portraiture.

  10. dagocutey says:

    17th century painting style aside, without modern cosmetics and techniques, women have the potential to look more like men than most men realize. OK, most men are hairier and bigger, but not all . . .

    And Aphra sure does have some mean shoulders in that portait. I just checked it again and this could TOTALLY be a man dressed as a woman.

    I REALLY like your idea re: feminity being a performed thing, because it turns the spotlight on the whole “sexual continuum” concept. I’ve met drag queens and “flamboyant” gay men, and the things about them that are considered “feminine” are not beliefs, behaviors and wardrobe choices that I, an actual woman, possess. It’s more like an “artificial” femininity, and it bares a shallow resemblance to the real thing, at best.

    Anyway, I have a ton of ideas for your play, but I don’t think you asked, so I shant spill and distract your creative process.

  11. braak says:

    Yeah, no, don’t say too much, yet. I have to write the thing first, and I get jealous if other people have good ideas before I have all of MY good ideas.

  12. […] those of you following this from my first piece of the subject: I’m still fascinated by burlesque, but the idea of burlesque doesn’t […]

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