University of Denver
Aphra Behn Today, on the Stage and in the Academy: An Interview with Jessica Munns
Jessica Munns is Professor of Literature and Director of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Denver, where she also edits the academic journal Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research. Dr. Munns has published extensively on Restoration and eighteenth-century literature, and has gained particular renown as a scholar of Aphra Behn. Her writing and research has regularly appeared in foremost critical anthologies on Behn, including The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn, Aphra Behn Studies, Rereading Aphra Behn, and Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater, 1660-1820.
The following interview with Dr. Munns took place in April 2009.
Anne Greenfield: 1> How did you first become interested in Aphra Behn, and what made you decide to devote scholarly attention to a figure who had been so frequently excluded from the literary canon?
Jessica Munns: 2> Part of the attraction when I became interested in Behn was precisely because her work was barely represented in any collections and because what discussion there was of her work was mostly rather scathing. There were exceptions, of course: Montague Summers edited her plays in 1915, and was a staunch defender, but being admired by Montague Summers was not a total plus. Behn was better known for her short stories than for her plays or poetry but I enjoyed her plays and could not understand the neglect—except for the fact that the dominant critical mode, New Criticism, found much more to comment on and admire in writers such as Sir George Etherege and William Wycherley. The construction of “Comedy of Manners” to characterize Restoration comedies, marked by ironies, word-play, and indirection, was not easily applicable to Behn’s comedies, or indeed, the majority of Restoration dramatists’ comedies. It was necessary to get beyond the “Heroic Tragedies” and “Comedy of Manners” taxonomies before one could appreciate the variety of Restoration drama. R.D. Hume’s The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century, published in 1976, was very important in undoing these categories which inhibited critical and scholarly responses not just to Behn but to the majority of Restoration dramatists. I was also, of course, influenced by the growing interest in “reviving” texts by women and as my greatest love was for Restoration drama, Behn was an obvious choice for investigation—and the reward was that her writing was wonderful!
AG: 3> Janet Todd has said that in the mid to late 1990s, Aphra Behn was “constructed, reconstructed, read, and reread more thoroughly than almost any other early English writer.” Having published seminal articles and chapters on Behn as early as the late 1980s, you have witnessed and contributed to this sharp rise in Behn’s popularity. While many of us feel that Behn is finally getting the recognition that she has long deserved, I wonder whether you see any dangers in this fast and singular focus on Behn’s life and writing.
JM: 4> Danger is putting it a bit strongly—but yes, it is disappointing when just as one canon is opened up, or perhaps abandoned, another, equally excluding, is put in place. I remember a moment when all one seemed to see at MLA were sessions of Kate Chopin and there seemed to be a stream of editions, books, and articles in the 80s and 90s, and then it all rather dried up. Behn studies shows staying power, but I would hate either for everyone to get tired of her work or for study of Behn to deter people from studying anything or anyone else from the period. Oroonoko is an extraordinary story told in an astonishing way, but its ubiquity on university reading lists has, I think, as much to do with its length (short) as its colonial setting and critiques. Somehow other works from the period which investigate colonial rule, provide descriptions of the “exotic,” and/or have “native” heroes and heroines—be they Dryden’s Amboyna, Dryden’s and Howard’s Indian Queen, Behn’s own Widdow Ranter, or entries from the proceedings of the Royal Society—are ignored. There is, perhaps, a kiss of death element to the neatly packaged Norton edition (not that this is not a very fine and useful work), filled with helpful extracts and interesting pictures.
5> Moreover, Behn is by no means the only writer who deserves more attention: there is very little work on John Crowne, a wonderfully varied and prolific writer, or on Nathaniel Lee, an extravagant and fascinating playwright. Turning to women writers, Susannah Centlivre has had some attention, as in Nancy Copeland’s fairly recent book Staging Gender in Behn and Centlivre: Women's Comedy and the Theatre (2004), but would repay more work I think, as would Delariviere Manley. Equally, despite the concentration on Behn, with studies not only of her plays but also her poetry, her translations, and above all Oroonoko, the study of her works has not actually been exhausted. Her many short stories have not been much studied, her very long novel, Love Letters, is dipped into by Michael McKeon, for instance, in relation to the novel as it develops but not so much in terms of her own development as a writer. Studies tend to be artificially generic, perhaps because nowadays writers seem to define themselves (in Creative Writing programs anyway) as “poets” or “novelists” rather than as “writers,” or in seventeenth-century parlance “poets” meaning, have quill can write. Scholars tend to look at Behn’s drama, or at her lyrics, or at her prose fiction, or at her translations separately rather than holistically. I would like to see more work on the interconnectedness of styles and modes during the Restoration as well as the interconnectedness of literary groups. Nevertheless, along with the usual dollops of silly trendy stuff, the study of Behn’s works has produced some very good essays, collections, and monographs, and in the process have forever put a rest to the “poor Mrs Behn”—not witty like Etherege approach that dominated until the 1970s.
AG: 6> You discuss one particularly negative example of popular appropriations of Behn in your article, “Barton and Behn’s The Rover: Or, the Text Transpos’d” in RECTR 3.2. Here, you criticize John Barton’s 1986 adaptation of The Rover for oversimplifying some of the most intriguing and disturbing issues raised by Behn’s version of the play, and you point out that Behn’s complex engagement with seventeenth-century gender relations, economics, and sexual desire all but vanish in Barton’s adaptation, which focuses instead on gaining heavy-handed sympathy for exploited women and slaves. As you also point out in your article, however, the media consensus was overwhelmingly positive toward Barton’s production. How do you account for the public appeal of Barton’s version, which, as you say, encourages complacency rather than complexity, and to what extent do mainstream audiences share the “blame” for such reductive adaptations of Behn’s work?
JM: 7> No one was to blame except John Barton, a very talented theatre director and also a dramatist in his own right. However, he is much given to adapting the texts he is directing, adding and subtracting materials, and really creating something of which he is virtually co-author. This worked wonderfully well with the Wars of the Roses, a compilation of Shakespeare’s history plays that he directed and adapted with Peter Hall in the 1960s, but has often been less successful. The Rover was one of the less successful occasions and mixing in Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso the Wanderer with passages of his own invention in quaint “olden speke” was simply a mistake. The Rover, I, is a tight, well-constructed, and effective intrigue play that may look incoherent and baggy on the page (intrigue and farce tend to do so) but works well on the stage and certainly did not need improvement and additions. However, I should also add that it had a truly wonderful cast; Jeremy Irons was the perfect Rover, and it seemed totally natural that Hellena and Angelica Bianca should fall in love with him just like that (imagine snapping fingers) and equally he managed to look handsome, silly, sorry, rueful, and a mite aggrieved all at the same time whenever, as frequently happens in the play, Willmore gets told off for trying to rape Florinda. His wife, Siniad Cusack, played Angelica Bianca and looked lush and lovely, and Imogen Stubbs played Hellena, very cute in breeches, so the popularity of the performance is not inexplicable. Great actors can carry the most amazing tosh, and even spayed and spavined by Barton, there was a good play lurking there.
AG: 8> Since writing about Barton’s version of The Rover in 1988, have you encountered other productions of this play that have successfully acknowledged and embraced those more disturbing, complex, and interesting features of Behn’s text—such as, as you specify in your above article, Behn’s acceptance of “female subordination, the loss of virginity as entailing the loss of honor, and the double standard by which the wild Willmore can wed chaste Hellena”?
JM: 9> John Barton’s version has travelled to the States and has been performed in New York and in Chicago, possibly other places too. There is a very dubious taped performance made for the Open University (in the U.K.) of a production by the Women’s Playhouse Trust, set in nineteenth-century colonial India. Barton’s production was set in the West Indies: I am not quite sure what goes on—perhaps a sort of slippage between knowing that Oroonoko and Widdow Ranter really do have colonial settings and topics and so why not The Rover too? Also perhaps there is a distrust of the audience’s intelligence: Naples, where the play is set, was a Spanish colony, but, of course, a colony in which white Europeans colonized other white Europeans—like the English in Ireland—rather than the “other” colonial model just coming into place in which racial difference compounds with conquest to produce in time the formations with which, unfortunately, we are still familiar. How familiar this later/current colonial model was in the late seventeenth century is, of course, an issue.
10> On the whole, I think directors and “dramaturges” nowadays—well actually for the last twenty or so years—believe a production should have a “concept,” one that is easy to grasp for the audience, provides a key to understanding, or erases all the problems created by the play not being contemporary, and also provides a unifying mode for all the production values from scenery to costumes to lighting, and music. Hence one gets, as in the Women’s Playhouse Trust production, a Willmore in pith helmet on a bicycle, on a sand-strewn stage. I do not want a “heritage” theatre with plays from the past performed as it is hoped they were originally. That is impossible and if it were possible would not be desirable, since we are not the “original” audience; we would receive them differently from that audience. However, I dislike some modern theme being imposed on a play to make it relevant. There are lots of good modern plays around, if you want a performance that speaks to our immediate concerns. There is something very exciting about watching a play, be it from the seventeenth century, ancient Greece, or from Africa or from India which is fully “different” from the dramas we normally watch at theatres, cinemas, or television, and yet makes sense. In the mental and emotional interplay between amazement and recognition, we get much more than if we are presented with the “other” as basically the same as everything else.
11> I wish theatres had a little more courage, and a little more trust in their audiences and would abandon the one idea “concept” for less dictatorial readings. Indeed, literal readings, staged readings, can be rather good because the over-riding and patronizing urge to simplify does not come into play. For instance, when the Royal Shakespeare Company was staging Biyi Bandele’s dramatization of Oroonoko, Simon Reede, the dramaturge for the production, also put on a staged reading of the Widdow Ranter, which was terrific. When we held the Aphra Behn Society meeting here in Denver in 2000, the then professor in Performance Arts, Paula Speary, put on some scenes from The Rover for us and although performed by students, and although using the barest minimum of scenery and costume (a plumed hat—a wooden sword) it was acknowledged by all who saw it as first rate. Sometimes less really is more! I saw a good production of The Luckey Chance about five years ago, but basically The Rover is the only play that has to some degree made it into the repertory. I would love to see more and other plays by Behn performed, and with less dictatorial (and perhaps nervous) direction, and not just Behn. The stage has lagged behind criticism and still by and large stages the “Comedy of Manners” plays of Etherege and Wycherley with Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, often treated as if a “Restoration” comedy, regularly to be found in performance somewhere in the British isles. There are some exceptions, and see RECTR, 21:1, Summer 2006, for reviews of an actually very fine National Theatre performance of The Man of Mode, and a Young Vic performance of Otway’s The Soldier’s Fortune—much less frequently performed than Etherege’s play. Overall, I wish the repertoire of Restoration dramas in performance were much wider than it is—but at least Behn has somewhat made it into the repertory, and this, however much I disliked aspects of his production, is, I think, due to the success of John Barton’s The Rover.
AG: 12> One of the controversies surrounding Behn’s writing has been always been the immodesty and license with which she wrote. As you point out your 1991 chapter in the critical anthology Curtain Calls, these features have led many critics to say that Behn’s work is “imitatively masculine and even antifeminist,” and at that time you pointed out that “despite the sharp rise in Behn studies, Behn’s battles are not yet over and her claims to heroism have not yet been accepted.” In the years since you made that statement, would you say that Behn’s immodesty has actually worked in her favor? That is, do you see Behn’s immodesty as now gaining her more readers than ever?
JM: 13> I think “immodesty” always worked in Behn’s favour—until late eighteenth-century gentility shut down an appreciation of her works until the twentieth century. In her own age being a “shady lady,” the outrageous, the notorious, the outspoken Astrea surely had a direct market value and in our own age these same features have once again ensured a market, this time an academic market, delighted to find a woman writing about desire, sexual pleasure, and orgasms, and creating implausible but likeable outspoken heroines. One can almost have a feeling that if Behn had not existed, feminist scholars would have had to invent her.
AG: 14> Finally, how do you expect and/or hope to see the field of Behn studies develop in the next decade?
JM: 15> As indicated a moment ago, I think I would like to see more studies that look at her works in an integrated way: poems and plays, novels and short stories and scientific translation, etc. I have become increasingly interested not only in the links between genres and the concerns of any particular period, but also the links between writers, musicians, dancers, painters, all the artists and craftsmen and women who tended to live in much the same parts of London, working for the theatres and the court and the great families, and who knew each other. Finally and beyond that, I am interested in the cosmopolitanism of many of these artists and craftspeople, the constant interaction between Italian musicians from Modena, French dancing masters and composers, Spanish plays, French novels, news from Virginia, plants from the West Indies. . . . In a way, I want more and more to see work, be it on Behn or anyone else, that moves away from a rather narrow “Eng. Lit.” model which (even bolstered by sophisticated theories) looks at literature produced in England as if it were largely in isolation from the (elite) culture to which it catered. It is interesting to try to capture and characterize some of the complexity of sources and influences at work in the creative process at any given moment. In this, I am not being original at all I fear: on the one hand cosmopolitanism is the word of the moment, and on the other there have been very successful books that just look at a particular year, 1599, 1819, trying to show how events political, social, intellectual, and artistic combine in one artist or group of artists. Maybe I would like to see someone write a book looking at Behn as part of a group at some particular political and intellectual moment—Behn, Rochester, Charles Blount, with maybe Bishop Burnet as a counterpoise from say 1676-1680.
Anne Greenfield is a doctoral candidate in the English department at the University of Denver, where she is Assistant Editor of Appositions: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture and Associate Editor of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research. She has published articles on Restoration / eighteenth-century drama and Aphra Behn, and is presently writing her dissertation on depictions of sexual violence in drama from 1660 to 1760.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Two (2009): Dialogues & Exchanges