Anti-colonist discourse, tragicomedy, and the "American" Behn.
In his prologue, Dryden reveals that he considers Virginia to be just another "Foreign Shore" (2), and perhaps the most disagreeable one, among the many to be imaginatively re-created on the Restoration stage. (3) Thus, neither the production problems reported by "G.J." in the dedicatory letter to the 1690 printed edition, nor the fact that it was staged during the distractions of William's campaign in Ireland, tell the complete story of The Widdow Ranter's quick exit from both the theater and, until recently, English theatrical history. Along with the prologue, Dryden's scattered remarks about the American colonies illuminate the resistance that any production of Behn's play, however well done, would have faced in 1689. One glimpse of Dryden's views can be found in Mac Flecknoe (1682), in which he geographically locates Shadwell's empire of dullness in the following manner: "[F]rom Ireland let him reign/To farr Barbadoes on the Western main." (4) Situating the Atlantic colonial world as a social and cultural backwater, Dryden here expresses a somewhat jocular wish that Shadwell would remove, or perhaps be forcibly removed, to either of these locations as recompense for his literary offenses. (5) This equation of the empire of dullness and the English Atlantic casually reveals a set of prejudices that finds a decidedly more vehement articulation in a brief passage in The Hind and the Panther (1685):
Here let my sorrow give my satyr place, To raise new blushes on my British race; Our sayling ships like common shoars we use, And through our distant colonies diffuse The draughts of Dungeons, and the stench of stews; Whom, when their home-bred honesty is lost, We disembogue on some far Indian coast: Thieves, Pandars, Palliards, sins of ev'ry sort, Those are the manufactures we export; And these the Missionaires our zeal has made: For, with my countrey's pardon be it said, Religion is the least of all our trade. (6)
This wholesale critique of colonial society is enhanced by the use of the term "common shore," which originally meant a particular area in a waterway employed as a public sewer and, by the time of this poem, was also a common slang term for prostitutes. (7) The passage draws upon both senses of the term: the colonies are dumping grounds for undesirables, who are figured as the feces of the English national body, many among them from malodorous "stews" or brothels. The mere imagining of the various effluvia literally and figuratively discharged by English colonial society sparks a visceral disgust in the poet, which suggests that his colonial slur of Shadwell was probably not as jocular as it seemed.
Significantly, Dryden's disparagement emerges in a short, shameful aside in his long religious poem, and the poet "blushes" while contemplating what his nation has wrought in America. The digressive gesture of condemnation flashes up in Dryden's work and powerfully illuminates a wider rhetorical landscape of castigation that should inform our reading of both The Widdow Ranter and much of the colonial literature of the Restoration and early eighteenth century. The contours of this landscape become clearer when we recognize that Dryden's scatological figuring of America as England's chamber pot is lifted from a powerful strand of seventeenth-century pro-colonial propaganda that J. Martin Evans has labeled the "purgative" model of empire. Evans draws our attention to the writings of important colonial projectors, including Richard Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas, who presented overseas territories as penal colonies into which England could metaphorically void or vomit detested castoffs from mainstream society. Ultimately, Evans argues that "the image of America as a transatlantic 'Bridewell' was a powerful element in English perceptions of the New World for most of the seventeenth century," and his work, in tandem with that of many historians, allows us to posit a commonsense belief in the vile nature of colonial society, a position that I distinguish as "anti-colonist," that was shared by large groups of English people, regardless of their views about colonization in general. (8) Thus, it is important to recognize that Dryden's lines in The Hind and Panther are anti-colonist in reference to the particular denizens of the English colonies, but they do not express an anti-colonial sentiment per se.
From his sporadic comments, it is easy to see why Dryden refrained from setting any of his heroic dramas in North America. Those who participated in the Restoration theater apparently shared Dryden's prejudices, a point that finds further clarification in Bridget Orr's valuable survey of the whores and rogues who are associated with the colonies in drama of the period and in her conclusion: "Almost without exception, Restoration plays imply the Western colonies are the last refuge of the scoundrel." (9) Since Orr cites only five marginal works, however, it appears that the corpus of Restoration plays is mostly silent on English America and that, when playwrights do speak about the subject, they, like Dryden, rehearse traditional anti-colonist sentiments. The historian Richard Koebner offers a compelling framework in which we can interpret this combination of contempt and disinterest at the heart of Restoration theatrical culture. Some four decades ago, Koebner argued that, even through the 1730s, only a "small minority" of English citizens had reason to be actively interested in their brethren across the Atlantic and that "the number who belonged to refined society was certainly very small. The imaginative effort needed for a sympathetic approach to the colonies was obstructed for many by unpleasant impressions of colonial morals." (10) Even though Koebner's work needs updating in several respects, his general thesis helps to explain why Restoration playwrights and their audiences had virtually no interest in drama about the English colonial world and preferred, as Orr has demonstrated, spectacular productions about the Spanish, Ottoman, Persian, and other world empires.
For a specific example of this dynamic, we might consider the immense diary of that avid playgoer Samuel Pepys, in which Virginia is referenced a mere two times: he makes a brief mention of a Virginia Lottery and notes a ship that was captured by the Dutch while on its way to the colony in 1667. (11) Working at the center of Stuart government, the inquisitive Pepys seems to have cared little about Virginia proper, and, if he did know more, he obviously did not feel it worth considering in his own personal diary. Such evidence also supports Koebner's thesis and, in the process, poses a challenge to Heidi Hutner's recent construction of a Restoration audience filled with those who were as interested in Virginian politics and history as Behn: "Bacon's speech about the necessity to honor one's government is undermined throughout the play by the conspicuous alteration of historical events in the absence of the royalist Governor Berkeley. Surely contemporary audiences would react strongly to the missing Berkeley, with his steadfastly loyal connections to the Stuarts." (12) It is more likely that only a small percentage of Londoners would have known much about an obscure rebellion that took place in Virginia some thirteen years before. Never a stickler for historical accuracy in his own heroic plays, Dryden's prologue to The Widdow Ranter lamely informs the audience: "The Story's true; the Fact not long-ago; / The Hero of our stage was English too" (38-39), and nothing in the prologue indicates that Dryden had previous knowledge of Bacon's Rebellion before picking up Behn's text. If, for example, John Evelyn, a former member of the Council of Trade and Plantations, makes no mention of the rebellion in his Diary, why should we expect the Poet Laureate to have been interested in Bacon, Berkeley, or anything else regarding the political history of Virginia? (13) In contrast, Behn was intrigued by Virginia and possibly had access to unpublished accounts of Bacon's Rebellion, but we should note how unusual she was in this respect among her playwriting peers and the general theatergoing spectator. (14)
Judging from G. J.'s dedicatory letter, the one or two audiences that actually saw the play performed certainly did react in a negative fashion to The Widdow Ranter, but not because of the exclusion of Governor Berkeley from the text. In his rather ambivalent attempt to counter the "Malice of its Enemies" (293), G. J. asserts to Madam Welldon, the play's dedicatee: "I can't but believe you will find an hours diversion in the reading, and will meet with not only Wit, but true Comedy, (tho'low,) by reason many of the Characters are such as only Newgate afforded, being Criminals transported" (292-93). G.J:s caveat about the coarse nature of the comedy is revealing in that it bursts through the parentheses that are meant to contain it, rendering somewhat suspect his prediction about the play's entertainment value to Welldon. Dryden is even more ambivalent in his attempts to sell the play to the audience, and his prologue calls forth a familiar anti-colonist image of Virginia as a sty of sexual impropriety: "Expect no polish'd Scenes of Love shou'd rise / From the rude Growth of Indian Colonies. / Instead of Courtship, and a tedious pother, / They only tip the Wink at one another; / Nay often the whole Nation, pig together. / You Civil Beaus, when you pursue the Game, / With manners mince the meaning of--that same: / But ev'ry part has there its proper Name" (14-21). Assuming that the playgoers share his anticolonist outlook, Dryden anticipates that they will be surprised and, perhaps, incredulous when presented with the "polish'd Scenes of Love" between Bacon and Semerina. Dryden associates Virginia with a swinish culture in which crude sexuality and vulgarity are so ubiquitous that they render the very notion of a "Virginian high-plot" an oxymoron.
It is only with considerable irony that Dryden assures his audience that they will not be subject to the disgusting reality of Virginian social and sexual life as he imagines it. Dryden's left-handed compliment in the following passage is only the most obvious mark of ambivalence in his self-consciously unpersuasive sales pitch: "However, to secure you, let me swear, / That no such base Mundungus stuff is here. / We bring you the best the Soyl affords: / Buy it for once, and take it on our Words. / You wou'd not think a Countrey-Girl the worse, / If clean and wholsome, tho her Linnen's course. / Such are our Scenes: and I dare boldy say, / You may laugh less at a far better Play" (30-37). The passage hinges on the "Countrey-Girl," who is analogously linked with mundungus, which is a poor-quality tobacco, and the play itself as items to be bought and sold, thereby reintroducing the trope of prostitution that is prevalent in his prologue but virtually absent in The Widdow Ranter. Dryden's clever conceit whereby the country girl is a metaphor for the play suggests that Behn's Virginia is a whore even if Behn asserts otherwise by presenting the colony in a comparatively "clean and wholsome" manner. Thus, Dryden's prologue represents what may be the only critique of a Behn play on the grounds that it is not bawdy enough.
Dryden's astute reading alerts us to Behn's larger strategies in The Widdow Ranter and helps us take stock of her renunciation of the anticolonist condemnation of both colonial society and colonial women. In the play's opening moments, for example, Hazard seems to be looking for a brothel when he queries his porter about Mrs. Flirt's "House for Commendation" in the following manner: "[H]as she any handsome Lady's Sirran. (1.1.7-8). If this is a question about Virginia's sexual markets, however, the boy responds quite innocently: "Oh! She's woundly handsome her self Master, and the Kindest Gentlewoman--look here she comes Master--God bless you Mistriss ..." (1.1.9-11). A possible prurient opening is redirected into one of the play's continual assertions about the kindness of colonial life to indentured servants. In Behn's Virginia, the only prostitutes mentioned are men, as Friendly informs Hazard: "For if thou canst not Marry her, thou mayst lye with her, (and Gad) a Younger Brother may pick out a Pritty Livelyhood here that way, as well as in England" (1.1.76-78). (15) This reference to male gigolos, along with Grubb's brief testimony to the loose behavior of Whiff and Whimsey's wives (3.1.69-89) and the extramarital, but offstage, relations of Flirt and Parson Dunce, constitutes the entirety of Behn's peripheral, and quite tame, exploration of colonial bawdry. Even the licentious Flirt has cleaned up her tavern since courting the faux Parson, and the absence of nasty talk is commented on by Dullman: "[W]hat no smutty Catch now, no Gibe or Joke to make the Punch go down Merrily, and advance Trading? Nay, they say, Gad forgive ye, you never miss going to Church when Mr. Dunce Preaches--but here's to you" (1.1.169-72).
In this respect, Behn's play refutes the common sense about the lasciviousness of colonial life that was asserted by Dryden and his later friend William Wycherley, whose cheeky dedication of The Plain Dealer (1676) to a notorious Restoration bawd asserts that "the stage and your houses, like our plantations, are propagated by the least nice women." (16) Not only does The Widdow Ranter obscure the presence of the "least nice women" in Virginia, but the play also creates a stratum of beautiful, rich, and irreproachable colonial ladies like Chrisante and Surelove who are central to its various love plots. Friendly excitedly, and somewhat defensively, reports this to Hazard upon his arrival: "And faith I find Diversions not altogether to be despis'd; the God of Love Reigns here, with as much Power, as in Courts or Popular Cities" (1.1.35-37). Finding Friendly's description to be true, Hazard is surprised to discover attractive ladies in Virginia, and, after beholding Surelove for the first time, he tells the audience, in an otherwise pointless aside, "She's extreamly handsome--" (1.3.72). Even the characterization of the Widdow challenges the assumptions espoused by Dryden and Wycherley: she loves honestly and aggressively pursues marriage despite the fact that her fifty-thousand pounds will, as Chrisante puts it, "be all laid out in Bacons Mad Lieutenant Generall Dareing" (1.3.47-48). Behn is also discreetly silent about the Widdow's life in England and the reason that she came to Virginia as an indentured servant, reporting only that she was "a Woman bought from the Ship by Old Colonel Ranter" (1.1.79-80). Similarly, the worst that can be said about Flirt's ancestry is that her father was a bankrupt tailor undone by the unpaid bills from Cromwell's ostentatious funeral (1.1.190-93). Behn has considerably more sympathy for English colonial women than either Dryden or Wycherley, and her imagined Virginian society is inhabited by a complex mix of people, some of whom have legitimate and understandable reasons for emigrating.
Given Behn's challenge to metropolitan assumptions about the homogenous degeneracy of colonial life, it is no wonder that she chose to represent Virginian history within the confines of English tragicomedy, perhaps the most flexible of traditional English dramatic forms. While there is no space here for a wider discussion of the various forms of tragicomedy, I would like to highlight one of the functions assigned to the split-plot form by Duane Coltharp. Building on an earlier observation of William Empson, Coltharp argues that, through its juxtaposition of "high" and "low" social registers, split-plot tragicomedies produce the "appearance of dialectical wholeness" in the effort "to make you feel that they represent the whole of English life." (17) Behn uses this topographical potential of the tragicomedy to great effect, and her play, to paraphrase Coltharp, wants to make us feel that it represents the entirety of Virginian life. At a fundamental level, one of Behn's most radical interventions in contemporary anti-colonist discourse is delineating a Virginia capable of producing both a high and low plot, itself a significant assertion about the complexity and range of colonial society.
In addition, Behn uses the topographical function of tragicomedy to mark out an upper range of Virginian society that was virtually unthinkable by other playwrights in the Restoration since it depicts English colonial history within the conventions of the prestigious genre of heroic drama. No doubt, this ideological stretch is the cause of the instability in the upper plot that has been perceptively explored by Derek Hughes, who notes Bacon's strained attempts to emulate classical examples and concludes: "Exploration and conquest had been one of the great topics of the Renaissance epic, but Behn was suspicious of conquering heroes and, as Janet Todd has shown, Bacon can only play theatrically and ineffectively with roles that the downward march of history has denied him." (18) In this case, Behn uses the high plot to raise, if only provisionally, the idea of English heroism in America, but signals through her stale imitation of Dryden's well known The Indian Emperor (1665) that the strict behavioral codes of the heroic drama are residual and limiting, included only to be dismissed and surpassed. In the tradition of The Rehearsal, Bacon is repeatedly given the mocking title of "Fright-all" (1.2.5) by the lower plot dunces, and he lives up to the name when he kills the three principal figures of the high plot, including himself, which clears the way for new, more socially inclusive colonial ideologies to be born.
Part of the surprise of The Widdow Ranter is that its ideological innovation partially results from the lower-plot critique and parody of Bacon's heroics. Derek Hughes perceptively reveals the following dynamic: "In an endless circle, Bacon and the rogues each parody the other, without any reference to a fixed moral norm. The centre is hollow; for the true governor is absent" (184). While I will later quarrel with Hughes's sense that the play has no center, the doubling effect that he identifies is vitally important. In parodying the upper plot, the colonial rogues, in some respects, are wrenched upward, and a provisional suggestion is raised about their possible military effectiveness. In the beginning of the last act, which opens with Friendly and Hazard's discovery of the cowardly retreat of the colonial dunces, Hazard commands that they be made to fight: "'Sdeath, but you shall go--put them in the front, and prick them on--if they offer to turn back run them through" (5.1.68-69). Later in the scene, Hazard and Friendly attack Bacon's camp in order to liberate their captured women, during which the following stage directions are provided: "Dullman, Timerous, Whimsey, and Whiff, prickt on by their Party to fight, so that they lay about them like Madmen" (5.1.96-97). The point here is that the dunces can attack when provided the right motivation: with a bayonet in their backsides, they can emulate the frenzied, heroic masculinity of Bacon/Fright-all. This semiotic vision of the potential heroism of the common man in Virginia is qualified because of its parodic nature, and it quickly recedes as the dunces revert to their cowardice and their plantation life; however, this depiction is also ideologically prescient, with the dunces, in this brief moment, serving as forerunners of Crusoe, another self-fashioning and bumbling plantation owner whose economic productivity and ambivalence about violence does not preclude raging, militaristic action when the situation demands it.
This ideological recuperation of colonial men is advanced more seriously in the depiction of the characters who inhabit what I call the play's center plot. Behn's illusion that The Widdow Ranter captures the social totality of Virginia is heightened by the inclusion of an additional stratum of men--Fearless, Dareing, Friendly, and Hazard--who follow neither the strict heroic codes of the upper-plot Bacon nor the strictly base concerns of the lower-plot dunces. Behn's mixed-plot tragicomedy encapsulates the dynamic process by which new ideological positions are produced. The Restoration heroic outlook, which, as Orr has shown, was simply incompatible with the mercantile realities of English colonialism, and the prevalence of anti-colonist ideology had jointly prevented the English in America from being positively represented on the stage. (19) Behn's tragicomedy destabilizes both positions by playing them against each other: the heroic high plot and anti-colonist low plot wither and give way to the productive center plot and its pro-colonial, pro-colonist ideology.
Like Hughes, Elliott Visconsi discounts the importance of this ideological center of The Widdow Ranter, asserting that "Throughout most of the play, Behn suggests that there is not much of a choice: either the privately motivated warrior aristocrat or the congress of rabble must rule in Virginia." (20) Later in his essay, Visconsi repeats a similar either/or reading, overlooking his own more convincing observation in the same paragraph: "With the Virginians' council posts filled by authentic gentlemen of sense and honour like Daring, Hazard, and Fearless, the play closes with the impending just government of a truly 'well-born race' and a statement that, in effect, class-inflected virtue will out" (696). We might add that the anachronistic Bacon would not have even survived the second act if not for the center-plot men, Fearless and Dareing, who immediately see through Parson Dunce's ruse. When Bacon's adherence to his residual heroic codes leads him directly into Dunce's ambush, it quickly becomes clear that Bacon is no heroic superman: he is captured, insulted, and taken away to be hanged until the rightly suspicious Dareing engineers his rescue (2.3). Bacon's heroic imbecilities work primarily to set off the sensible, manly efforts of an effective, emerging class of colonial leaders.
In a similar fashion, Dareing stands incredulous when Bacon offers the defeated Cavarino a chance at redemption in a one-on-one duel (4.2.36-43), and he manages his own artful ambush to secure victory while Bacon commits suicide (5.1.302-3). Dareing represents the best of Virginian society: he has a generous and heroic character without being shackled to Bacon's constricting codes of conduct. In the tradition of the heroic drama, he is considerate to an honorable enemy, as his treatment of the wounded Friendly indicates (5.1.75-96), and he graciously brings the cross-dressing Ranter to Chrisante, declaring: "Madam, the Complaisance I show in bringing you my Rival, will let you see how glad I am to oblige you every way" (4.2.210-11). Behn shows that this middle stratum of Virginian society is familiar enough with the conventional heroic codes to emulate sensibly or mock them as the situation demands. The entire episode where Ranter dresses as a man and challenges Dareing for Chrisante's hand is a slick parody of the "whining love" (1.3.107) that characterizes the play's upper-plot love triangle. In the process, the scene allows Dareing to demonstrate both his noble qualities and his sense of humor: once he catches on that his "rival" is Ranter, he playfully taunts the Widdow and then declares: "Give me thy hand Widow, I am thine--and so intirely, I will never--be drunk out of thy Company" (4.2.277-78). As it turns out, Dareing likes his punch as much as the dunces of the lower plot and is nearly as funny. At the same time, he takes what is best from Bacon's heroic demeanor, but, like the Widdow, rejects his whining impotence and grandiose, romantic gestures.
It is ultimately the title character herself who most inhabits the ideological center of the play and stands in a critical relationship to figures from the upper and lower plots. (21) While Janet Todd notes that the Widdow "burlesques" Bacon through her "exploits in martial cross-dressing," (22) it is also important to recognize her negative evaluation of the lower-plot dunces as well. During the feast scene at her hall, the Widdow critiques Dullman as he pursues the younger and lovelier Chrisante: "Thou art any thing, but what thou shouldst be" (2.2.48), a statement that could easily stand in for a wider assessment of the upstart and pretentious dunces as a whole. Unlike them, the Widdow self-consciously retains her "Primitive Quallity" (1.1.84), which means, in effect, that she does not attempt to hide her origins as an indentured servant. In this guise, the Widdow feels free to speak her mind, and her analysis of the rebellion accurately describes both the dunces and, eventually, Bacon/Fright-all himself, who commits suicide under false apprehensions at the end of the play: "The times, why what a Devill ailes the times, I see nothing in the times but a company of Coxcombs that fear without a Cause" (2.2.69-70). Later on, we see the Widdow gleefully playing soldier and, in the process, adding to Behn's rollicking mockery of the lower-plot dunces by robbing Dullman and Timerous while they play dead on the battlefield (5.1.262-67).
As the Widdow maneuvers between and effectively critiques both the upper and lower social stratum, her enormous fortune of fifty thousand pounds reinforces a main idea of Behn's play, that it is decidedly easy for English people of all stripes to make their fortune in Virginia and to partake of the vast material abundance of the New World. Edward Said has admonished scholars to pay attention to pleasure as a constitutive feature of colonial-imperial life and bemoans the fact that its "steady presence in many forms of imperial-colonial writing ... is often left undiscussed." (23) The Widdow herself is invested in a continual regime of luxurious consumption, and her luscious feast solidifies her reputation as an extravagant host. The opulence nearly overwhelms the more delicate sensibilities of Surelove: "This Madam Ranter is so prodigious a Treater--oh! I hate a room that smells of a great Dinner, and what's worse a desert of Punch and Tobacco" (2.2.1-3). The stage directions declare that Surelove enters the scene "fan'd by two Negro's" but they are apparently not fanning fast enough to keep off the plumes of secondhand smoke. Whatever the case, Surelove's discomfort is an anomaly in a colonial society where, as Ranter reports, "we all smoke" (1.3.75).
Filling the enclosed theater space with pleasant tobacco smoke--presumably she planned to use a better grade than the stinking mundungus mentioned by Dryden in the prologue--Behn advances a hazy fantasy in which colonial commodities take center stage. Behn brings to the theater the earlier, and quite defensive, celebration of tobacco so perceptively outlined by Jeffrey Knapp, but eliminates much of its irony. Knapp argues that, in the face of the Virginia Company's early failures and its inability to locate any precious metals, pro-colonial supporters concocted strained ideological positions, proclaiming, among other things, that the ephemeral and immaterial smoke of Virginia's tobacco was, in fact, a greater blessing than Spain's immense imperial wealth and corrupting silver and gold. (24) With none of the defensiveness of this Elizabethan discourse, the feast scene renders tobacco smoke as part of the show and creates a spectacle of easy plantation living, while also suggesting that vast amounts of gold can be earned in the slave economy of Virginia even if it cannot be mined from the ground. In the space of the theater, the smoke envelops both the metropolitan audience and the theatrical Virginians in an imagined transatlantic alliance, allowing the colonial tobacco producers, whatever their shortcomings, to become likeable members of a broad English community.
The display of slaves in the feast scene is yet another reminder of the pleasures offered by life on Virginia's plantations: "Enter the Bag-Piper, Playing before a great Boule of Punch, carryed between two Negro's, a Highlander Dancing after it, the Widdow Ranter led by Timerous, Chrisante by Dullman; Mrs. Flirt and Friendly all dancing after it; they place it on the Table" (2.2.34-35). Amidst the smoky fog of Behn's festive spectacle, the laboring, tortured bodies of colonial history become almost completely obscured by this picture of a generous Widdow who uses human chattel to perform menial tasks or entertaining sideshows for her comfort and amusement. Behn herself had staged exotic dancing Africans at the end of her farce The Emperor of the Moon (1687), and both plays possibly draw upon the aristocratic figuring of the slave-as-pet in the period, particularly by members of the Stuart court. Srinivas Aravamudan has drawn our attention to this patrician culture of English slaveholding and has made a compelling argument that Behn fantastically depicts herself as the aristocratic handler of the slave-pet Oroonoko in her colonial novella. (25) In the case of The Widdow Ranter, Behn includes Highlanders among those who are subject to pethood, even as she reproduces more traditional aristocratic semiotics by assigning Surelove her own fawning and fanning African slaves.
What other Restoration playwright besides the "American" Behn could have even conceived of such a spectacular fantasy surrounding her unlikely title character? It was not until the 1680s, many years after she had successfully established herself in Restoration theatrical circles, that Behn began tentatively to reflect on her American past in print. In the dedication to The Young King, which was not published until 1683 but was probably written in the 1660s, Behn claims that she "feared the reproach of being an American, whose Country rarely produces Beauties of this kind: The Muses seldom inhabit there; or if they do, they visit and away. " (26) While Behn focuses on the literary disadvantages of "being an American," Janet Todd argues that she rightly feared "reproach" on a number of additional scores and that she "was well aware of the opprobrium" to which English colonial women were subject (40). Although Todd settles on espionage as the best explanation for her presence in Surinam, she also raises the possibility that Behn traveled to America as a husband hunter, a maid, or a mistress and speculates that her claim in Oroonoko to be the daughter of the appointed lieutenant general was most likely one of Behn's creative self-presentations: "[I]f one had the misfortune to go to the New World, one had to surround the event with as much respectability as possible" (40). In such a climate, is it any wonder that Behn waited until her desperate last years of sickness and poverty before attempting to transform this reservoir of murky colonial experiences into saleable literary property?
My focus on the biographical is not meant to challenge the numerous readings of both Oroonoko and The Widdow Ranter as responses to the political situation of the late 1680s or to preclude other questions from being posed about why they were written in the reign of James II. Although there is no space in this essay for such considerations, we could further explore the implications of James's vigorous involvement in the slave trade and the Royal Africa Company or the boom in trade that underwrote the Crown's fiscal solidity in the late 1680S. (27) Conversely, we might ask if Behn's meditations on the colonies at this time were prompted by fears that many of her fellow Royalists, and perhaps even she, might be forced to leave for destinations like Virginia if James were to be overthrown. However, I am more intrigued by a general sense among Behn critics that, to quote Todd again, "It is hard ... not to see in the widow an image of Aphra Behn herself," a partial, self-deprecating transformation of "her snobbish literary self into an illiterate and rich former servant" (416-17). If Todd is correct, what could have prompted such a self-depiction in The Widdow Ranter, alongside her outright identification as a woman with a colonial past in Oroonoko, especially since she had barely alluded to it in print before 1688?
Behn's fantasies about the possibilities for power, wealth, and adventure in America seem more understandable in the context of her increasingly marginal position in English society. In this light, Ranter looks less like a self-portrait and more like an imaginative fantasy of what her life might have been had she remained in America. If Behn did write The Widdow Ranter in the late 1680s, she was quite ill, desperately poor, and, as the preface to The Lucky Chance (1686) demonstrates, was furious that critics had continued to load her character with aspersions of sexual indecency. In a sense, Behn was slowly descending toward a state of sexual and fiscal discredit that had compelled women in similar circumstances to consider immigration. After ranting at the churlish and hypocritical audience in the prologue to The Emperor of the Moon (1687), Behn sounds even angrier in its epilogue, which depicts a bleak poetic landscape of a "wretched Age" (18) filled with starving poets or the corpses of those who had already "dropt" (15), no doubt a partial reference to her friend Otway's pathetic death in 1685. Even though James had commanded two court performances of The Rover, most recently in January of 1687, Behn's scathing, ironic comments about "Caesar" (34) at the end of the epilogue indicate that the king must have been stingy indeed. Behn was infuriated by James's lack of patronage, especially for those "Pens" who had loyally supported "his just cause" (40) through the Exclusion Crisis and who were now suffering professionally because the tense political atmosphere was drying up the theatrical market. Lashing out at both the king in the epilogue and the tasteless "City Wife" in the prologue (48), Behn signals exhaustion with the entire spectrum of English political and social life.
Behn articulates similar complaints in the Widdow's feast scene when Timerous declares of England that "'tis nothing to't," (2.2.73) and that "I look upon't as a lost Nation gads zoors" (2.2.89-90). This comprehensive critique encompasses both the presumably Whiggish "Court of Alderman" and "young Merchants" as well as the presumably Tory "young Gentlemen" who, as Friendly declares, travel to France only to "tell you how much bigger the Louvre is than White-Hall; buy a sure A-la-mode, get a swinging Clap of some French Marquis, spend all their money and return just as they went" (2.2.71-90). In suggesting, however ironically, that the periphery could stage a legitimate critique of the center, Behn channels into The Widdow Ranter a whole realm of discourse that periodically emanates from the colonies, declares independence from and superiority to England, and haunts English colonialism from its origins to the American Revolution and beyond. One wonders how members of the metropolitan audience would have received Behn's shocking suggestion, however playful, that Englishmen should travel to Virginia "for breeding" (2.2.96). (29)
Despite its quick exit from the stage, the posthumous production of The Widdow Ranter, in conjunction with the publication of Oroonoko, thrust her American history forcefully into public view and allowed her critics to heighten the attack on Behn-as-whore by adding an anticolonist element. (30) The most cutting of these attacks is found in Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko, which, as Mary Vermillion has argued, satirically transforms the Behn of the novella into Charlotte Welldon as an assault on female authorship and on Behn herself. (31) Laura Rosenthal expands this analysis, arguing that Behn is evoked not only by the character of Welldon, but also partially in the figure of the licentious Widow Lackitt and perhaps even Imoinda. In addition, Rosenthal also examines Southerne's contribution to salacious "contemporary gossip about a love affair between Aphra Behn and the 'real' Oroonoko" that began to circulate in the 1690s; she argues that the gossip itself, Southerne's work, and a later anti-Behn satire by Thomas Brown heighten traditional accusations about Behn's supposed sexual immorality by positing her desire for an African man, a sign of irrational lasciviousness in the emerging racist discourse of the day. (32)
There is much to admire in Vermillion and Rosenthal's accounts, but both miss what is perhaps a more elemental aspect of Southerne's disparagement of Behn, the way in which he rewrites her colonial fictions to conform to Dryden's anti-colonist assertions of degraded sexuality and nasty talk. Even as Southerne depicts Surinam as the place of last resort for lewd London women one step away from outright prostitution, his colonists, unlike Behn's, do not denigrate England. Rather, Lucy's opening lines in the play stand as a direct rebuke to the declarations of colonial supremacy that conclude The Widdow Ranter: "What will this come to? What can it end in? You have persuaded me to leave dear England, and dearer London, the place of the World most worth living in, to follow you a Husband-hunting into America." (33) In a similar fashion, the Widow Lackitt both declares to Welldon the subordinate place of colonial society in the English world and further demonstrates it by using several of the tawdry double entendres that ubiquitously punctuate the low plot of the play: "Indeed we can't pretend to have so good company for you, as you had in England; but we shall make very much of you. For my own part, I assure you, I shall think my self very happy to be more particularly known to you" (1.1.138-41).
If Southerne's position on slavery is somewhat muddied in Oroonoko, his belief in the crudeness of colonial life is unambiguous and is stridently asserted in nearly every low-plot scene in the play: the extremely lascivious Widow is so frantic to be made sexually "well-done" by Welldon (1.1.148-60) that she consents to murder and bigamy (3.3). Later, we find Welldon "pimping" (5.1.77) for her future brother-in-law, who, in turn, incessantly boasts of his sexual prowess, in part by a boorish reference to the physical aftermath of intercourse with the Widow: "As old as she is, she has a wrincle behind more than she had, I believe--For I have taught her, what she never knew in her life before" (4.1.17-19). Southerne includes even more coarse material with his depiction of the ambiguous desires of the sniveling and vaguely incestuous Daniel, a self-described "Hermophrodite" who declares, "I hardly know whether I'm a Boy or a Girl" (4.1.160-61). Pushed to the brink by his lusty wife Lucy, Daniel seeks to escape his heterosexual thralldom and, in the process, vulgarly refers to semen stains in his mother's undergarments: "I had rather be a Cuckold, than what you wou'd make of me in a week, I'm sure: I have no more Manhood left in me already, than there is, saving the mark, in one of my Mothers old under Petticoats here" (4.1.168-71). Southerne powerfully reasserts Dryden's sense that the colonies are full of prostitutes, panders, and rogues who "pig together" and speak "bug words" forever associating the obscenity and carnality of the Surinamese colonists, along with their general lack of wit, with Behn herself in the process.
Much more could be said about Southerne's transformation of Behn's work and the ways his portrayal of Surinam is rendered in a more traditional double-plot tragicomedy, which entails the elimination of Behn's expansive center plot and a concomitant narrowing of the range of colonial society. We could also explore Southerne's replacement of Behn's specifically English hero with a more conventional, and thus non-English, heroic Restoration protagonist, as well as the substitution of the ineffective Blanford for the competent masculinity of Dareing and Fearless. For our purposes, however, what impresses is the specificity of Southerne's rewriting, the way he diminishes Behn's sense of fantastic colonial wealth by transforming the Widdow Ranter's outrageous fifty-thousand pound fortune into the Widow Lackitt's more reasonable ten thousand (1.1.211). Even more intriguing is the fact that he chose the surname of the dedicatee of The Widdow Ranter--"the much Honoured Madam Welldon" (292) as G. J. calls her--for his tawdry lower-plot heroines. (34) Whatever we make of this detail, it demonstrates Southerne's shrewd attention to particulars and the all-encompassing nature of his ideological revision of Behn's colonial fantasy as well as his challenge to her biographical statements. Welldon asserts of Surinam that "this is not a place for a single Woman, you know" (4.1.230), one of the more pointed jabs at Behn's portrayal of the sensible, unmarried women of Virginia and of herself as an important, unsullied colonial immigrant in her own Oroonoko.
Behn did not live to see Southerne's complex strategy of both appropriation and attack, but it is hard to imagine that she would have been much surprised at it. Given the prevalence of anti-colonist thinking, Behn must have known how much she would be exposed by so forcefully declaring her "American" identity, which could also partially account for the belatedness of her colonial fiction and drama. Perhaps the overwhelming "secrecy and obscurity" (8) that Todd finds when investigating her biography could have derived, in some part, from Behn's earlier need to keep her American experiences in the closet. Thus, Behn as the first professional female writer becomes an even more intriguing historical figure when we recognize the challenges posed by her American background and the anti-colonist biases of her Royalist literary contemporaries. With this understanding, it becomes possible to scrutinize Behn's imperialist fantasies under the light of our own post-colonial critique, even as we recreate the always tenuous and increasingly marginal position, as well as the bravado, of the dying "American" woman who authored them.
Ball State University
(1) In Derek Hughes's view, the dearth of scholarship that explores Behn's relationship to Dryden is symptomatic of a Behn studies that often loses sight of the specific literary and historical milieu of the Restoration. See his "Race, Gender, and Scholarly Practice: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," Essays in Criticism 52 (2002): 1-22. See also James Winn, John Dryden and His World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 437-38, for an insightful reading of Dryden's prologue and epilogue that primarily focuses on the post-Revolution politics of 1689.
(2) I follow Robert Hume's (in The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976]) characterization of the generic form of the play as a "mixed plot" tragicomedy. Hume observes that "As a mixture, the plot is a remarkably well-integrated three-level hierarchy" (211).
(3) All references to Dryden's prologue and epilogue to The Widdow Ranter, or, the History of Bacon in Virginia and to the play itself will be taken from The Works of Aphra Behn, ed. Janet Todd, vol. 7 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996). All references will be noted in the text and will be identified by act, scene, and line number.
(4) John Dryden, Mac Flecknoe in The Works of John Dryden, ed. H.T. Swedenberg, Jr., vol. 2 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972), ll. 139-40.
(5) In the opening lines of the "Prologue. To the King and Queen, at the Opening of Their Theatre," (in The Works of John Dryden, ed. Swedenberg, 2:196-98), Dryden gleefully imagines the defeated Whigs shipping out to the colonies and the creation of "two New Englands more" (l.9) to which all the Puritan "Saints" (l.7) can be removed. For similar sentiments see the prologue to Cleomenes (in The Works of John Dryden, ed. Vinton A. Dearing, vol. 16 [Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996]), in which the low-born "Mob" of "Foplings" who attend the theater are encouraged to immigrate: "Let 'em go People Ireland, where there's need / Of such new Planters to repair the Breed; / Or to Virginia or Jamaica Steer, / But have a care of some French Privateer" (ll. 13-16).
(6) John Dryden, Hind and the Panther, in The Works of John Dryden, ed. Earl Miner, vol. 3 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), bk. 2, ll. 556-67.
(7) For this association, see James Grantham Turner, Libertines and Radicals in Early Modern London: Sexuality, Politics, and Literary Culture, 1630-1685 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 238.
(8) J. Martin Evans, Milton's Imperial Epic: Paradise Lost and the Discourse of Colonialism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 33. I have found Evans's study a careful, invaluable survey of the range of English attitudes toward the colonies. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker (in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic [Boston: Beacon Press, 2000]) argue that the purgative model was the "most insistent, and most resonant, argument" made in favor of colonial expansion (15). See also the volume Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800, ed. Nicholas Canny and Anthony Pagden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), especially the essays by John Elliott and Michael Zuckerman, which foreground metropolitan aspersions of the colonists. Also helpful is Klaus E. Knorr, British Colonial Theories, 1570-1850 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1944), 41-50, which reprints significant quotations from the primary sources.
(9) Bridget Orr, Empire on the English Stage, 1660-1714 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 229. Orr's discussion of representations of the Atlantic colonies and colonists can be found on pp. 229-38.
(10) Richard Koebner, Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 93-94. For more recent discussions of metropolitan disinterest in the colonies, see David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 16. Armitage approvingly quotes the sentiments expressed by Linda Colley in "The Imperial Embrace," Yale Review 81, no. 4 (1993): 92-98, an insightful review of Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism. See also the preface and epilogue to David Cressy, Coming Over: Migration and Communication Between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Cressy states that "most Englishmen of the seventeenth century probably gave no thought at all to North America" (1).
(11) The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed., Robert Latham and William Matthews, 11 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971-1983). For Pepys's two Virginia references, see 5:323 (entry dated 18 November 1664) and 8:16 (entry dated 16 January 1667).
(12) Heidi Hutner, Colonial Women: Race and Culture in Stuart Drama (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 103.
(13) See the index to The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. de Beer, vol. 6. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955).
(14) See Wilber Henry Ward, "Mrs. Behn's 'The Widow Ranter': Historical Sources,' South Atlantic Bulletin 41 (1976): 94-98, and Charles Batten, "The Source of Aphra Behn's The Widow Ranter," Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 13 (1974): 12-18.
(15) See Janet Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 415, for her discussion of male prostitution in this passage.
(16) William Wycherley, "Dedicatory Epistle" to The Plain Dealer, in The Country Wife and Other Plays, ed. Peter Dixon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 286, For another digressive denigration of the colonies penned by Wycherley, see Hippolyta's joke about being kidnapped to Barbados in The Gentleman Dancing Master (2.2.414-23).
(17) Duane Coltharp, "Radical Royalism: Strategy and Ambivalence in Dryden's Tragicomedies," Philological Quarterly 78 (1999): 418-19.
(18) Derek Hughes, The Theatre of Aphra Behn (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 186. All subsequent citations will appear in the text.
(19) See Orr, Empire on the English Stage, and her helpful reading of Dryden's play Amboyna, which focuses on the jarring that occurs when "low" merchants and a "sordid and brutal story of colonial commercial competition" are represented in the "high" conventions of heroic drama (157).
(20) Elliott Visconsi, "A Degenerate Race: English Barbarism in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko and The Widdow Ranter," ELH 69 (2002): 693. All subsequent citations will be noted in the text.
(21) In this, the Widdow inhabits a structural space similar to that of Mardonius in Beaumont and Fletcher's A King and No King (1611), which, not incidentally) was performed at least five times during the reign of James II. In the play, Mardonius stands in a critical relationship to both the absolutist King Arbaces of the upper plot and the cowardly, pandering Bessus of the lower. I am much indebted to Philip Finkelpearl's argument (in Court and Country Politics in the Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990]) that the play's critique of Arbaces' absolutist tendencies is driven by the ways in which Arbaces is made to resemble the despicable Bessus. Ultimately, Finkelpearl argues that the play's ending supports Mardonius's moderate Royalism and enacts something akin to "a shift from absolute to constitutional monarchy" (179). For my purposes, it appears that the form of Behn's play takes its cues from this specific mode of tragicomedy, by which emergent ideological positions are produced through the characters in between the self-canceling high/low plots.
(22) Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, 416. All subsequent citations will be noted in the text.
(23) Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 137.
(24) See Jeffrey Knapp, "Divine Tobacco," chap. 4 in An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and Literature From Utopia to The Tempest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
(25) Srinivas Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 29-71.
(26) The Works of Aphra Behn, ed. Todd, 7:83.
(27) For an interesting discussion of James's involvement in the slave trade, see John Callow, The Making of King James II: The Formative Years of a Fallen King (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2000), 238-63. For James's revenue from trade and fiscal solidity as King, see Maurice Ashley, James II (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 163-66.
(28) The Works of Aphra Behn, ed. Todd, 7:206. All subsequent citations will appear in the text and will refer to line numbers.
(29) Perhaps the shoddy production of the play was itself a critical reaction to such content. On this note, see Montagu Summers's discussion of the production in the introduction to The Widdow Ranter, in The Works of Aphra Behn, ed. Montagu Summers, vol. 4 (1915; reprint, New York: Benjamin Biota, 1967). I am particularly intrigued by Summers's examination of the poor casting, especially for the character of Dareing, and his speculation that those who staged the play had sabotaged it: "Indeed, it would seem that the casting was done on purpose perversely and malignly to damn the play" (219).
(30) See Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, 286-88, for a discussion of several poems that figure Behn as a prostitute. In his recent corrective, Derek Hughes (in "The Masked Woman Revealed; or, the Prostitute and the Playwright in Aphra Behn Criticism," Women's Writing 7 (2000): 149-64) has convincingly challenged "the idea that Behn embraces the persona of the whore, or that there was any pressure upon her to do so" (151).
(31) Mary Vermillion, "Buried Heroism: Critiques of Female Authorship in Southerne's Adaptation of Behn's Oroonoko," Restoration 16 (1992): 28-37.
(32) Laura Rosenthal, Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England: Gender, Authorship, Literary Property (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 159.
(33) Thomas Southerne, Oroonoko: A Tragedy, in The Works of Thomas Southerne, ed. Robert Jordan and Harold Love, vol. 2 (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1988), 1.1.1-3. All subsequent citations will be noted in the text and will refer to act, scene, and line numbers.
(34) Several speculations present themselves: 1) Of course, the repetition of the name Welldon could be a coincidence, but Southerne's attention to detail suggests otherwise. 2) More interesting is the possibility that the real "Madam Welldon" was a respectable English lady who was known to Southerne, and, because of her association with Behn, he chose to sully her name by affiliating it with the colonial lasciviousness of the Welldon sisters. 3) Perhaps "Madam Welldon" was a known bawd or prostitute--if this is the case, G. J.'s ambiguous dedication letter takes its cues from Wycherley's dedication to The Plain Dealer and essentially constitutes an attack on Behn, which Southerne merely continues in his play.
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|Title Annotation:||John Dryden, english playwrights of late 17th century|
|Author:||Beach, Adam R.|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2004|
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