Seventeenth-century playwright Aphra Behn is not a household name, even among theatergoers.
But the backstory for Behn’s backstory is the stuff of theater: A world traveler who spied for the English crown, she spent time in debtor’s prison before becoming the world’s first successful female playwright.
Contemporary playwright Liz Duffy Adams captures Behn’s bon vivant lifestyle in Or, the final play of Forward Theater’s current season. Restoration comedy blends with modern sensibilities in a sex farce that demonstrates the ties between the 1760s and 1960s.
Amy J. Carle stars as Behn and American Players Theatre’s Colleen Madden appears in multiple roles, including that of actress Nell Gwynne, Behn’s lover.
Adams says there’s more to Or, than meets the eye.
Aphra Behn is unfamiliar to many modern theater fans. Why write a play about her?
Liz Duffy Adams: Many years ago I was asked to write an original verse prologue for Behn’s play The Rover. I wasn’t familiar with Behn’s work, so I read The Rover, then the rest of her collected works, then her biography, then another. I loved her work, I loved the courage, spirit, wit and beauty of her characters, her stories and her poetry.
I wrote a 10-minute play about her for a Women’s Project Theater festival, Aphra Does Antwerp, and felt she could sustain a full-length play. In reading about the Restoration period, I saw the parallels between that period and our own, which brought my play into focus.
As I understand it, Or, blends Restoration comedy with a modern sex farce. How did that come about?
I’ve always loved Restoration comedy and my aim with Or, was to take Behn’s own work as a jumping-off point, while not staying too rigorously true to it. I wanted to create a pastiche that would resonate with modern audiences.
Behn is known for her homoerotic themes. How important was this to you?
One of the things about Behn that got my attention from the start was how ardently she believed in free love, to use the old fashioned term. Having lived through Cromwell’s Puritan regime, she and her friends reveled in casting off gender norms and embracing a more expansive and fluid sexuality.
It was intensely romantic. She mythologized a long-lost, pre-Christian Golden Age when people were at peace with nature and free to love each other regardless of gender. Same-sex love was, in her time, still somewhat dangerous. But, in artistic and aristocratic circles, it was very much taken for granted.
In our own time, we’ve seen a movement from a socially acceptable rigidity and hateful ignorance to — increasingly — a possibility for openness miles beyond what Aphra could have hoped for. She was from a very different time and wouldn’t recognize concepts like feminism or gay rights. But she should be recognized as a valiant ancestor of those who fight for greater freedom to love and be loved by anyone they choose.
I understand the play includes love scenes between Behn and Nell Gwynne. Is that a historically accurate retelling?
Behn seemed to be attracted to both men and women, at least as expressed in her poetry. She certainly knew Gwynne, who acted in some of her plays, and to whom she dedicated the published version of one play. Those sorts of dedications were customarily flowery and flattering, but something in the language of this dedication seemed to suggest true and deep feeling, quite apart from it being unusual to dedicate a play to an actress instead of pandering to an aristocrat.
All that said, there is nothing in the historical record to suggest that Behn and Gwynne were lovers, just as there was nothing to say that they couldn’t have been. That’s where my poetic license comes in!
What does the playgoer need to know about the play or the characters?
Nothing in particular. I hope that the play can stand alone. It’s helpful to know that it’s based on real people and real events and the politics of the day. Not everything that happens in the play is known to have happened, but nothing that happens in the play is impossible. And if anyone is interested in reading more about her, I can recommend The Secret Life of Aphra Behn by Janet Todd.
Forward Theater’s production of Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, runs March 27–April 13 at The Playhouse in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. Call 608-258-4141 or go to www.forwardtheater.com.