Aphra in Antwerp

Very shortly I will be picking up where I left off before the holidays with reading the complete plays of Aphra Behn, the wonderfully witty Restoration dramatist whose contemporary recuperation began with Virginia Woolf’s praise of her financial success as a playwright in chapter four of A Room of One’s Own (1929).

Please do join me…first up will be Behn’s fourth play, Abdelazar (1677).  For my overviews and analyses of Behn’s first three plays, just search ‘Aphra Behn’ in the search box in the righthand sidebar.

More recently, Behn has begun to achieve some fame and following outside of academia thanks in part to playwright Liz Duffy Adams, who has written two plays about Behn: a short, entitled Aphra in Antwerp, and a full-length, entitled Or,.  I have already written a review-ish of Or, titled Before Gaga There Was Aphra.”

Today I finally read Duffy’s short verse play, which is published in Great Short Plays, volume 5.  It’s interesting to see the progression (perhaps development is a better word) of Adams’ interest in Behn.  Aphra in Antwerp is set in 1666 in Antwerp, Belgium, where Behn served as a spy for King Charles II.  The real Behn had not yet begun writing plays at this time–her first play was written and staged in 1671–though Adams has her character proclaim playwriting her next financial venture in her last monologue.   Or, on the other hand, is set in 1669 and, initially at least, in a London debtor’s prison, where Behn allegedly ended up (though there is no actual evidence of this) after a year of unsuccessfully petitioning the King for payment for her spy mission.

Both plays have three central characters (though actors double parts in Or, so there are several additional parts in that play).  Aphra in Antwerp centers on Aphra’s efforts to obtain the (financial)resources necessary to return home to England.  By historical accounts, Behn borrowed 150 pounds from a Mr. Botteler or Butler, but in Adams’ short, Behn strikes up a suggestive alliance with a character named Rosa, an innkeeper’s daughter, who swoons over the poetess and promises to purloin travel money from her father, provided she can join Behn.  In Aphra in Antwerp, much as in Or, Behn comes across as crafty yet compassionate and passionate yet practical, and equally attracted to both sexes.  Her (short-lived) male mate in this work is William, a fellow spy who accompanied her on her Belgian mission; in Or, her mainstay bedfellows are the King himself and actress Nell Gwynn. Together Adams’ two ‘Behn plays’ weave metadrama with historical fiction to celebrate Behn as a bold and autonomous woman in a period when women were still quieted and oppressed.

Behn is clearly a muse of sorts for Adams, and I do understand why.  Behn’s life–or what we know of it–is as fascinating as anything we could make up, to say nothing of the merits and appeal of Behn’s writing.


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