Aphra Behn’s The Amorous Prince, Or, The Curious Husband. A Comedy.
The Amorous Prince, Or, The Curious Husband. A Comedy. By Aphra Behn.
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Aphra in Duffy’s Or
More than 300 years after her death, Aphra Behn continues to influence the work of playwrights today, and she has now taken center stage as the central figure in Liz Duffy’s new farce Or, which has just premiered off-Broadway at Women’s Project. Playwright Adam Szymkowicz recently interviewed Duffy on his fantastic blog.
Click here for a review of Or by Joe Dziemianowicz (NY Daily News) and here for a review by Jennifer Farrar (Canadian Press) and here for a review by Charles Isherwood (NYT) and here for a review by Sandy MacDonald (theatremania.com)and here for a review by Rob Weinert-Kendt (TimeOutNY) or here for a review by Aaron Riccio (Kul blog).
The Amorous Prince, Behn’s second play, was likely first performed by the Duke’s Company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on February 24, 1671, just five months after the premiere of The Forc’d Marriage. The London theatre scene then consisted of only two companies: the Duke’s Company, run by William Davenant; and the King’s Company, run by Thomas Killigrew. The two companies would later merge and form the United Company.
Both The Forc’d Marriage and The Amorous Prince were targets of ridicule in The Rehearsal, a metadramatic play by the Duke of Buckingham that was performed later in 1671. I mention this because it was fairly commonplace during this period for plays to be self-obsessed, as much about dramatic- and stage- craft as anything else. The theatre itself proved both an ideal metaphor for depicting the dramatic nature of real life and an ideal forum for debating and deriding the state of the art form. This point is noteworthy not only for its historical significance but also because we still see metadrama on the stage today. In fact, two current plays (The Lily’s Revenge by Taylor Mac and The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck) recently reviewed on Critic-O-Meter fall into this category. The problem with metadrama on the contemporary stage is that it risks alienating theatre goers who are not in the industry or part of the literati. Playwright Mike Bartlett, whose play Cock is premiering at the Royal Court in London, had this to say about self-conscious plays: “Theatre about theatre is the most awful, terminal nonsense.” I don’t know if I’d go that far. For the full interview of Bartlett go to The Observer blog.
Plot and Themes:
It is difficult to discern who truly loves whom in the world of this play and which characters, if any, we can trust as an audience. And that is, perhaps, Behn’s whole point, her 2 pence, if you will, on 17th century London society. At this point in English history, both socially and politically, plots and counterplots were commonplace (Behn herself worked as a political spy). Urbanites, courtiers, and hangers on praised virtue and decorum in manner, dress, and more, but deep down many were as guilty of “dissembling” in their own lives as any actor on the stage.
As in The Forc’d Marriage, sexual jealousy continues to be a central theme in The Amorous Prince. Another might be ‘women’s Wit’ because female characters go toe to toe with the men and exercise considerable agency in this play, more so than in its predecessor. Clarina, for example, learns of her husband’s plan to test her virtue and devises a counterplot of her own with the help of her sister-in-law Ismena. And Ismena and Laura, a more minor character, both push gender boundaries when they draw daggers on men in the play. Men’s inconstancy might be a third theme, with this one centering around Frederick, the prince of the title, and Cloris, whom he loves and makes vows to, but does not take seriously because he believes her socially beneath him. (This, of course, is because her brother has raised her in the country to keep her modest, not because she is low-born.)The play also depicts the (dys)function of core relationships, not just between spouses, but also between siblings (3 sets: Ismena/Antonio; Laura/Lorenzo; Cloris/Curtius) and fathers and children of marrying age.
- Overcomplicated Plot. Like many Restoration comedies, this play contains an overcomplicated plot that makes it difficult to keep characters straight. While this can be frustrating as a reader/viewer, the characters’ importance lies in their collective composite of what dramatic lengths men and women in love/lust will go to in order to conceal/reveal the ‘truth.’
- Fidelity Test. Behn employs the device of a husband (Antonio) using his friend (Alberto) to test his wife’s virtue.
- Overabundance of Asides. The number of asides delivered by countless characters in the play underscores the metadramatic nature of this and other comedies of the period. Here characters don’t simply share their private inner thoughts via asides; they highlight their own acting (“dissembling”), plotting, and directing.
- Eavesdropping. Similar to Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, Behn employs eavesdropping so that lovers can test and then torment one another. For example, Clarina and Ismena listen in on Antonio as he advises Alberto on how to ensnare Clarina, and Antonio then listens to see if Alberto tests his wife according to his directions.
- Hidden/Mistaken Identity. High-born Cloris first appears disguised as a country maid and later, in 3.3 appears dressed as a country boy (her brother, Curtius, raised her in the country to shelter her from court life). Alberto, the friend who Antonio enlists to test his wife, Clarina’s fidelity, believes Ismena (Antonio’s sister) is Clarina because, in anticipation of Antonio’s ploy, Clarina sent Ismena in her place to meet Alberto. Therefore, Alberto thinks he is falling in lust/love with Clarina, but it is in fact Ismena. Ha ha ha.
- Breeches Parts. Though it may seem hard to believe today, it was quite subversive in the late 17th century for a woman not only to perform female parts on stage, but also to wear pants, expose her ankles, and play, well, a dude. Cloris in The Amorous Prince is Behn’s first cross-dressing stage heroine. Shakespeare’s plays, of course, contained female characters who cross-dressed (As You Like It, Twelfth Night), but the roles were performed by men then, or rather boys; a boy playing a girl who disguises herself as a boy doesn’t carry the same kind of historical significance as what was happening during Behn’s era.