Aphra Behn’s The Dutch Lover: A Comedy

Aphra Behn’s The Dutch Lover: A Comedy

3 down, 15 to go.

As Liz Duffy’s Or, now playing at Women’s Project in NYC, continues to endear itself to audiences, I continue to plug through the 18 plays written by Duffy’s central heroine–Restoration playwright Aphra Behn.

Premiere and Publication

The Dutch Lover, Behn’s third play, was probably first performed on February 6, 1673, and was published later the same year, in November.  The source material for the play has been identified as Don Fenise (1651), a Spanish romance by Francisco De Las-Coveras, though Behn makes changes, additions, and omissions to the original.

Unlike her first two plays, The Dutch Lover does not feature a prologue (Behn claims it was lost), only an epilogue.  However, Behn did include a prefatory epistle to her reading audience, with a salutation that I feel compelled to share here:

“Good, Sweet, Honey, Sugar-candied READER”

These days, it’s hard for me to imagine receiving a personal letter with such a greeting, let alone an epistle to a play, but it was common letter writing etiquette during Behn’s era to adopt a deferential and modest pose.  This cloying example by Behn highlights the posture and exposes the author’s real resentment and sarcasm.

There were several reasons for Behn’s tone here, which become apparent through reading the letter.  For one, she objects to the idea that playwrights with a formal education penned better plays, or rather that formal education was necessary for playwriting.  For another, she challenges the persisting idea, dating back to Horace, that plays were meant to ‘instruct and delight,’ arguing instead that they were meant for entertainment purposes only. ( However, from reading her work, I suspect that she also recognized their ability to critique and subvert systems of power.)  For a third, she complains about discrimination against female authors–much like Marsha Norman just did recently, oh some 300 odd years later; to evince this, Behn comically describes a “phlegmatick, white, ill-favour’d, wretched Fop”  whom she encountered one night at the theatre, who announced “They were to expect a woful Play…for it was a womans.”

Setting, Characters, and Plot

The play is not your typical London comedy, but instead is set in Madrid and features an international cast of characters, not only from Spain but also from Belgium and the Netherlands.  The title of the play refers to both the Dutch fop, Hance Van Ezel, who is contracted to marry Euphemia (one of the central female figures in the play) and to the Flemish colonel Alonzo, who falls in love with Euphemia and temporarily borrows Hance’s identity midway through the play.

The plot of this play, like its two predecessors (The Forc’d Marriage and The Amorous Prince), is overcomplicated, and to go through it in too much detail here would bore or confuse anyone who hadn’t read it, and possibly some who have.  So I’ll try to keep this short and simple.

The plot, like its source material, contains an incest plot: Marcel, Silvio, Hippolyta, and Cleonte are presumed siblings at that start of the play, although it is made clear that Silvio is a bastard (sort of reminiscent of the Edgar/Edmund opposition in Lear). Sister and brother, Cleonte and Silvio, first reveal their love for the other to Cleonte’s maid Francesca, later to one another, and then to Marcel, who is outraged. Their father Ambrosio steps in at the end and clarifies that Silvio is, in fact, a foster son, removing the incest prohibition and allowing for a conventional happy ending for Cleonte and Silvio.

In fact, like most comedies, things proceed from disorder to order and all ends well in the world of this play.  The arranged marriages that characters find themselves in at the beginning of the play are all replaced by companionate ones.  For example, Marcel’s sister Hippolyta is at first contracted to marry Alonzo, whom she has never met, but  she has fallen in love with and relinquished her virginity to Antonio, whom she ultimately weds.  Similarly, Euphemia marries her true love Alonzo, and the unknown Dutchman, Haunce, to whom she was contracted, ends up paired off with Olinda, one of Euphemia’s maids.

Gender Roles

The male and female characters in the play run the gamut, from fearless sword wielding women to fearful and tearful men.  Costumes figure centrally in the play, both as a plot device and as an instrument for exploring the construction and fluidity of gender roles.  Even those not crossdressing, either consciously or inadvertently end up wearing additional attire that moves the ridiculous plot along, leading to mistaken identities and final act revelations. Like Shakespeare’s Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night and  Cloris in  Behn’s The Amorous Prince, Hippolyta dons the ‘breeches’ in The Dutch Lover.  In act 4, scene 2, she appears ‘drest like a man,’ a disguise meant to supllant her “womanish passions” and aid her in revenging Antonio, whose love of her is in question.  Like most fops who (over)populated plays of this period, Haunce Van Ezel, loves fashion, hates physical fights, and can cry on command.

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