In a recent blog in my Art of the Gospels series, I made reference to Egyptian art symbols and culture, which became part of Greek and Roman art symbols and culture, and then absorbed into Christian art symbols and culture. In a communication with a friend about this concept, I joked that all art and literature are re-writing of stories from before. The question is not whether the story is new, but how well does the author relays the story in his or her own words. This suggests a continuity of the stories that fill our shelves, e-readers, art galleries, and stages. Thus, when I read the program notes for the Blackfriar Theatre’s production of The Rover, I wondered where did this playwright’s script fit between prior and later plays on similar themes.
What first caught my interest was the playwright’s name, Aphra Behn, which I did not recognize, and the comment that she was the first female professional British playwright. She wrote during the Restoration period, producing The Rover in 1677, when theatres re-opened with a flood of wild comic romps and tragic dramas. Audiences were more interested in a good laugh or cry, than serious thought or complicated contemplation.
But, Behn whomps us in the prologue by Florinda (Bridget Rue), who questions the options for women in love: marriage arranged by her brother, Don Pedro (Rene Thornton Jr); being sent to a nunnery, as Don Pedro intends for their sister, Hellena (Lauren Ballard); or prostitution, which Angellica Bianca (Sara Hymes) offers for 1000 crowns per month, and for whom Don Pedro and Don Antonio (Micheal Amendola) compete to purchase. Any surprise that Don Pedro has solicited Don Antonio to provided a good husband for his sister, Florinda? Thus, in only a few lines of dialogue, Behn has set out the conflict that drives the play: will these women follow the traditions that bind them to roles they detest, or will they find true loves that free them from these social traditions.
A convention of theatre in such dilemmas is to set the play in an exotic place during a time when the players can pretend to be someone whom they are not in order to explore alternatives. What better place to put these genteel Spanish women, and a group of traveling English men, than Naples during Carnival. Putting on masks and costumes allows the women and men to discover who they are, rather than whom they are supposed to be.
Themes, such as couples seeking love in courtship rather than social obligation and conventions, or revealing ones self while wearing a disguise, are common to Elizabethan drama a few generations prior to Behn’s writing. Furthermore, as did most playwrights, she used prior rendition of a play, The Wanderer from only a decade earlier. Yet, still today, how many of our plays and movies include themes about finding one’s soul-mate, rather than a blind-date?
As I mentioned, Don Pedro has planned to solve his sister-problem already by arranging a marriage for Florinda, and sending Hellena to a nunnery. For himself, he is ready to pay Angelica’s fee for her affections. Behn brings a group of English men to disrupt his plans. Florinda has met and fallen in love with Belvile (Nathan C. Crocker). Blunt (Patrick Midgley) will fall for any whore on the street, providing a parody of Don Pedro’s plans to pay for Angelica’s services. Willmore (John Harrell) will flit between fluttering his heart with Hellena and Angellica, winning both women’s hearts and confusing his own (oh? He has more than a penis to make his decisions about relationships?).
So, we are now set up with the intended couples verses the desired couples. Behn’s job is to run us about for two hours before revealing the outcome of all this courting. Her resolution is traditional for the comic form, and her dialogue, which guides us there, is stellar. All the cast has to do is match their acting with the quality of the script.
To achieve this end, the cast must understand each character in the context of the other characters. I will focus primarily on the three woman seeking love for this review. While Florinda appears to be the one who has the best prospects of arranging for her own happiness, Hellena takes center stage to drive the play.
In the opening scene, set in Florinda’s bedroom, the sisters talk about their brother’s demands. Florinda laments that she will marry Don Antonio tomorrow before she can introduce her chosen love to the family. Hellena talks about how she prefers to find a love (at this time only a concept) rather than devote her life to prayer and chastity. Hellena postures herself about the set in nearly every flirtatious position of a youth in love with the idea of love: skipping about the stage, jumping on the bed, wiggling her toes and rotating her ankles, and leaning over to accentuate her cleavage buttressed by her corset. All the while she is helping Florinda don her outer garments, which accentuate her femininity, but restrict her movement. Hellenna provides the movement to drive the play, as well as the idea to dress as gypsies to slip out for Carnival reveling.
Florinda uses her costume, with veil, to pursue Belvile. Hellena uses her eyes, to catches Willmore’s eye, from behind her veil. With gentlemen and gentlewomen cavorting about during Carnival, there is plenty of opportunity to make this play a bedroom farce, full of Tn’A and endless penis jokes. Behn evades this style, quite common in Restoration comedy. Rather, she leaves the bed-hopping off stage. Her women, while aware of their youthful beauty, use their wits to out-wit the men who anticipate a game of domination.
Hellena twists Willmore’s words to reveal his deception about his affection for Angellica. Florinda out maneuvers her brother, exposing Don Antonio’s plans to purchase Angelica’s fee, thus nullifying his status as her suitor. Fortunately, for her Don Pedro accepts this, as Florinda has already clandestinely married Belvile. Angellica kicks the social ladder out from under Willmore, as he requests her love at a discounted price, because he does not possess the 1000 crowns she advertises. When he feigns superiority to love her for affection rather than payment, suggesting that gentlemen cannot be purchased, she asks what the purpose of a high standing woman’s dowry serves, other than the purchase a man who will provide for her.
With the men put in their places, the women can position them for their expectations. Florinda can loosen her corset. Hellena can show her full expression, without disguise. Only Angellica returns to her prior status, as her desire to have a man who loves her rather than pays for their lust, remains unfulfilled. While sad, maybe this is commentary on what social boundaries cannot be crossed.
The title of the play, The Rover, suggests that the men are the ones doing the roving. Willmore, in the cast list, is technically designated as the rover, for he is a sea captain. But, in this production, I sensed that the women were the ones roving. Maybe this is a feminist interpretations cast on a 400 year-old play. However, as is the style at the Blackfriar Theatre, the cast members sing a variety of songs prior to the show and during intermission. These are usually pop-songs with themes related to the show. The final song before the play, was of course the Irish tune, The Wild Rover: “And it’s No, nay, never, No, nay, never no-more, will I play the wild rover, No, nay, never no more…” You might have expected Willmore to sing this tune. No, front and center stage stood Florinda, playing the guitar and singing. Yes, the women are the rovers here.