Aphra Behn was a woman ahead of her time. Or perhaps a better way to put it is to simply grant to her that term that is often used far too quickly and carelessly these days: trailblazer.
Behn was born in 1640, and came of age during the English Civil War. She was married briefly and, after her husband’s death, began working as a spy (code name, Astrea) for the restored English Court, during which she cultivated an intimate friendship with William Scot, hoping to recruit him to spy for the king as well.
When her career as a spy came to an end, Behn needed to earn a living, and it’s here that she, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “turn[ed] a very important corner on the road,” not just for herself, but for all women writers.* Aphra Behn became the first English, professional, female writer. She wrote poetry, drama, and amatory fiction (considered a precursor to the romance novel). By “professional,” I mean that she could take care of herself; she earned her own living with her writing, and she did it as an independent, single woman in the late-1600s.
I first learned the name Aphra Behn when I was an undergraduate taking an independent study course titled British Women Writers. I didn’t read Behn; I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and learned of the “shady and amorous” Behn through her. I’ve still not read works by Behn, but because of Woolf’s claim that “[a]ll women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn” — including subsequent authors such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot — I’ve never forgotten the name. For it is Aphra Behn, said Woolf, who “earned them the right to speak their minds.”
The above is all that I know about Aphra Behn’s life and career, and Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, does not illuminate much more. The play takes place during the Restoration Period, in the early days following the end of the English Civil War, the Great Plague, and the Great Fire. The monarchies are back on the throne, theatres have been reopened, and women are being allowed to perform on stage for the first time.
In the tradition of the risqué, lewd Restoration comedies of the time, Adams imagines one night in the life of Aphra Behn: the night before she publishes her first play. All that we know of Behn’s brief, full, complicated life — her loyalty to Charles II, her relationship with William Scot, and her friendship with Nell Gwynne (pictured left, with lovely nipple slip) — comes together, and collides, during this crucial night.
Or, opens tonight at the Station Theatre. It stars Lindsey Gates-Markel, Mathew Green, and Stephanie Swearingen. I attended their dress rehearsal this past Monday, and based on that alone, I can confidently recommend this play.
Gates-Markel is radiant as Aphra Behn. Her role isn’t an easy one; it requires that the actress rapidly move from one emotion — dejection, pride, frustration, anger, fear, lust, hope — to another. Gates-Markel is fearless as Aphra and completely believable. No glance, no movement, no expression is wasted. All are true. Gates-Markel handles this role so well, so capably, that I left the theatre thinking she’s the only actor in Champaign-Urbana that could have handled such a role. Now, I know this isn’t true; I’ve seen enough plays in C-U to know this isn’t true. But she was so good, that I temporarily believed it. And I feel the same about Mathew Green’s Charles II/William Scot.
Most of you probably know that Mathew writes for Smile Politely, but he is also one of our Arts Section editors, so to avoid any hint of conflict of interest, I’ll be very brief regarding his performance, and simply say that his ability to disappear into his two roles is remarkable, and his chemistry with Gates-Markel remains as strong and sensual as it was in Becky Shaw. Green is one of the most talented and intelligent actors we have in C-U, and he’s one of the best things about this play.
Stephanie Swearingen, who plays three different roles in Or, manages to create three distinct characters, and she does it so well, that I double-checked my program to make sure that it was, in fact, her portraying the servant, Maria. It’s damned impressive. The character of Nell Gwynne is where Swearingen especially shines. She is bawdy and flirtatious and full of youthful sexuality.
That being said, it took Swearingen a while to relax into her role as Nell. At first, she seemed to focus a little too much on her lines and her place on stage. But as the play progressed, especially when William Scot showed up, Swearingen became Nell. Gates-Markel deserves some credit here as well. She led Swearingen in those early moments, interacted with her, and coaxed her into easing into the role more fully. Gates-Markel brought out the best in her co-star, and by the end of the play, Swearingen was standing on her own.
Again, keeping in mind that this was a dress rehearsal only, I’m hesitant to say much about lighting and set, but Jadon Peck’s set design is quite lovely. The seamless, almost invisible, change in scenery from debtors’ prison to lavish apartment is very clever. Inspired, even.
J. Malia Andrus’ rich, colorful costumes deserve their own applause. Keep in mind that two of these actors must make numerous, quick costume changes throughout the play, and Andrus designed the costumes for this purpose, but also assured that they look expensive and “period.” Well done, Ms. Andrus!
And I can’t imagine the stress that Stage Manager, Bradley Ashby, will be going through each night that this play is performed during the next few weeks. But the entire cast and production team owes him a drink.
Finally, I must confess that to prepare for my interview with Director Kay Bohannon Holley, I read Or, and I wasn’t that impressed. I enjoyed the story; I had no harsh criticisms. I just didn’t find anything important or compelling about it, particularly. I also didn’t see how this play “fit in” with other productions I’d seen at the Station. I couldn’t understand why it was chosen, except that it would be a delightfully creative challenge for the actors.
And then I saw it performed.
Within Or, — buried among all the silliness, the jokes, the slamming doors, and the sex — there is important social commentary on class, justice, religion, prejudice, equality, and what morality and ethics actually mean. I didn’t pick up on this until I saw Adams’ text come to life. Perhaps I read too quickly or I was distracted. Whatever the reason, when I sat down with Ms. Holley to discuss Adams’ play, I felt very differently about it then than I do now, after I’ve seen what it can become under her artistic direction. She was very patient with me during our interview. I hope she forgives my temporarily narrow view.
Smile Politely: How long have you been with the Station?
Kay Bohannon Holley: My first show was in 1984.
SP: When did you begin directing plays?
Holley: At the time, I didn’t think of myself necessarily as ever directing at the Station. I was much more interested in performing. I started acting in ‘84. I directed my first show in ‘94 or ‘96, somewhere in there.
The first one I directed was Three Tall Women, by Edward Albee, and it was a great experience. And since then, I’ve been doing a lot more directing. I do much more directing now.
SP: Which do you prefer? Acting or directing?
Holley: I think that I prefer directing at this point. There’s been a transition into that change, but I think I prefer the directing.
SP: How did you come across Or,? Until the Station’s announcement of it, I’d never heard of it.
Holley: I had not either. But the year before last season, I was on the selection committee, and [Artistic Director] Rick Orr handed me this play and said that it had been highly recommended to him by his contact at Dramatists Play Service, who had apparently called it something like a ‘little gem’ or a ‘little jewel,’ something like that. So Rick suggested that I read it, and I did, and I liked it a lot, and was interested in doing it. But I also had Becky Shaw on my mind at that point in time, so I ended up doing Becky Shaw that season instead. And then this season we decided to do it.
SP: Some people prefer to read drama. I don’t, though. Drama is written to be seen; it’s not written to be read. Then again, there’s value in reading plays because you can picture the characters by using your own imagination, instead of someone else’s vision.
That being said, this play … it seems to me that this play is more of an actors’ play than an audience’s play, simply because not a lot happens. But when you realize that there’s one woman playing one character and another woman playing three, and a man playing maybe three … the play seems to be most interesting because of the idea — and excitement — of watching the actors and seeing how they can pull off playing so many different roles so quickly.
But it just doesn’t seem like a lot goes on in the play, unlike with Becky Shaw, where there’s so much psychological drama…
Holley: Usually, the plays I direct do involve more psychological drama and realistic kinds of … a lot of them are comedy/dramas. This one, though, is primarily in the tradition of a farce. And as such, it doesn’t ultimately, it seems to me, have a heavy, huge message or an incredible philosophical statement to make.
SP: Or a chance for us to fall in love with the characters.
Holley: Possibly not. It’s really short too. And that can make that a little bit difficult too. But the characters, no, we don’t have the kind of deep character development that you might in another show.
When we rehearsed Becky Shaw, we spent much, much time in rehearsals talking about life, talking about characteristics of people, talking about what happens when you fall in love. We shared embarrassing stories of times when we maybe have gotten a little obsessed about somebody or whatever. That is real and human, and here you have a little bit more difficult job to do. It doesn’t go all the way to the level of these characters being complete caricatures or clowns, necessarily, but they do have to have an anchor in believability that comes from somewhere.
SP: And I think that’s going to be the fun part for the audience: watching how these actors pull this off.
Holley: I hope so.
SP: It’s got to be fantastic for the actors to be able to play these roles.
Holley: The word that the actors keep using about the process thus far in rehearsals is, ‘fun,’ much more so than with other kinds of plays. They’re having fun with it.
SP: And not every play has to talk about the deep meaning of life. I do understand that. But what attracted you to this play?
Holley: I agreed with Rick that it’s a gem, a little jewel. And it almost had that imagery for me when I thought about it. It seemed very sparkling and colorful, and I could almost imagine a jewelry box opening and seeing the wonderful things inside. I thought it was fun and funny and sexy, very sexy. And in addition to that, it had the Aphra Behn draw.
SP: The palace intrigue between Behn and Charles II, and her being a spy for him, is interesting to me too. I’m not sure if they were ever lovers…
Holley: I haven’t seen any evidence that they were. He and Nell Gwynne, on the other hand, were for years. She bore him children. She actually, according to some of the research I’ve seen, ended up being the most loyal of his mistresses.
SP: And Aphra and Nell were friends. So … it’s possible they had a threesome. Let’s hope they did!
Holley: [Laughing] Well, whatever happened in real life, in the world of this play, they do. And that’s kind of how we have to approach it. These characters are not written in a strict, historically accurate way. It’s poetic license. It’s the magic of the theatre combined with a little bit of historical reality.
And [Liz Duffy] Adams, apparently, was very taken with the idea that there was … she saw a correlation between the mood, the feel of this time period and the 1960s and today. I have never been convinced that she accomplished that in a completely, fully realized way, but it certainly is something that can be argued. Both periods were coming out of the previous period of repression and puritanism; both periods were times of newfound sexual freedom, newfound artistic freedom, newfound impulse for women to be involved in the arts, for example, or business. So there certainly are … little things, like both periods were periods where people were meeting in coffeehouses; that was a very popular place to meet, and here we are. So, there are certainly some correlations.
SP: Or, was published in 2009–2010, and there’s a line in the play where Aphra is talking about the Roundheads, and she refers to them as a ‘[r]epressive regime, the rule of the mob, disguised as democracy,’ and my mind immediately went to the Tea Party. I have no idea when Adams was writing this, who or what she was thinking about, but that’s where my mind went.
Holley: Very possibly. One of the places where it really strikes me as correlation to now is when William is trying to convince Aphra that there’s this Catholic plot to kill the king and she says, ‘It’s too easy, it’s too pat,’ and that whole passage seems to me to be a direct correlation to the demonization of Islam and of Muslims. How easy it is to place blame. If you want to convince someone that there’s a plot to commit a terrorist act, just say it’s a Muslim. And Aphra is saying that it’s just too easy to say it’s a Catholic. There’s that resonance as well.
I think it’s interesting the way that time resonates in the play; I think she wanted maybe something a little more overtly anachronistic to happen. I’m not sure that got accomplished in the script well enough for people [to notice]. I’ve seen some things in pictures with set designs and costumes where it seemed like they were trying to incorporate some sixties themes. Paisley for example. One of the sets had walls that looked like something you might have seen on The Dating Game or Laugh-In.
SP: [Laughing] That would be distracting.
Holley: I think so too. So, consequently, here we are. We open in two weeks, and I’m still in process with this whole question. It doesn’t feel to me like we’re going to end up pushing anything because I just don’t think it’s strong enough textually.
[Editor’s note: I must interrupt here and say that Holley works this out brilliantly (and beautifully) in her choices of music.]
Holley [continuing]: And that’s a lot to ask from a play — to expect it to resonate with multiple generations. To me, the play is fun in and of itself, the way it self-consciously plays on itself. There are lines in the play about plays that then reflect on the play. And there’s a wonderful little moment … you mentioned Virginia Woolf [before we began the interview], and at one point, Aphra says, ‘This is the first time in my life I’ve had a room of my own.’
SP: I noticed that too. Good for Adams.
Holley: Aphra Behn is widely known now in intellectual and artistic circles as having been possibly the first famous writer of plays in the Western tradition. She also wrote Oroonoko, which is a novel which, I think, some people call the first novel.
So I don’t have to look outside to those other resonances, although I don’t think I can just ignore them. But I wouldn’t have to look for them to find the play interesting because, as a theatre artist myself, to be present in this play at a moment in time when women are for the first time on stage — and they haven’t even started writing yet; Aphra’s going to be the first — I understand how huge that is.
SP: I was also struck with how driven Aphra is. There are moments in the play where everything is falling apart and she still can’t help herself; she has to stop and write. When she learns about William … when she’s about to join her friends in bed … it doesn’t matter. An idea hits her and she must pause to write it down. She has to write first. She can’t help herself. She can’t not do it.
Holley: She can’t not do it. That’s exactly right.
SP: How familiar are you with her other writings, besides Oroonoko?
Holley: Not very.
SP: Virginia Woolf specifically says in A Room of One’s Own that Behn’s career, the fact that she earned a living with her writing, “outweighs anything that she actually wrote.” And Harold Bloom, whom I admit is a polarizing critic, calls Behn a “fourth-rate playwright” and argues that teaching Behn at the expense of Shakespeare ‘dumbs down’ the curriculum.†
As hard as Bloom is on Behn, and he is, and whatever we think about him as a literary critic, I think that Virginia Woolf would have agreed with him. And we all know that she never said anything wrong.
Holley: [Laughing] It’s funny because so many times when I mention this play and people ask what it’s about, and I tell them that one of the main characters is Aphra Behn, I get a range of responses from, “Who?” to, ‘Oh yeah!’ to, ‘Oh! One of my favorite writers.’ And whenever I hear that last one, I have to ask, ‘Really?’ [Laughing] Because I have tried to read Oroonoko; I haven’t read any of her plays, I’ll be honest. But I had Oroonoko in a class when I was in college and found it nigh on unreadable.
SP [Laughing]: What you said earlier about who Aphra Behn was and how she was writing reminded me of how Adams puts her in these situations in which she’s trying so hard to not whore herself to Charles. And she resists for reasons outside of morality: She wants to make her own way and she doesn’t want children. Very feminist ideals for the time, by the way.
Did this affect the quality of her writing, her insistence on independence? How could it not? I don’t want to be an apologist for her…
Holley: To me it isn’t so much about whether or not she was a great writer, as it is that she was the first. She wasn’t the first woman who wrote, but she was the first woman who had the fire in her belly enough that she broke the social conventions. She devoted herself to writing above love, above all the things that woman were supposed to care about in that day. And I don’t think she was talentless. Her reach may have exceeded her grasp [Laughing]. But the monumental passion that it had to take for this woman to insist that she had to do this. It wasn’t that she wanted to; she felt she had to.
SP: And Adams gets that point across so clearly. And this is why Woolf said that everybody needs to know who she is.
Holley: Her career may be more important than her writing.
SP: In a historical context, yes.
Holley: It’s interesting because in the play, at the very end, the three of them are talking and Nell says, ‘You’ll be one of the fucking immortals. The name of Aphra Behn will never be forgotten.’ And Aphra responds, ‘And nor will that of Nell Gwynne,’ and Nell [referring to Charles II] says, ‘Kings are always in the books.’ And everyone, of course, does remember Charles II. And though a lot of people know who Nell Gwynne was, many, many more don’t who know who Aphra Behn was.
For many years, I think she was one of those women writers who disappeared underground, was not talked about, maybe because of that Bloomian criticism that it’s not great quality writing. And so whenever she says that, when we’re in rehearsal, I think to myself, ‘That wasn’t true for a long time,’ until Women’s Studies and courses in women’s writing, and when feminists started digging into these things. But every time I hear that line, I get a little bit of a thrill of the idea that, in this play, in this act of doing this, we are pulling her up into the light. And that appealed to me along with the humor, along with the amazing, bawdy, sexual stuff that goes on … that notion of celebrating, especially, these two women, who stepped into the spotlight in that time.
SP: And they weren’t aristocrats. Neither of them.
Holley: No. Nell wasn’t even literate, I don’t think.
SP: Okay! Please say a little about your cast.
Holley: Stephanie Swearingen plays Nell. She’s a younger actor, and Nell is the youngest character in the play by probably a decade. They’re all about ten years apart: 38, 28, 18. That’s the age range they would have been in real life. Stephanie has a lot of experience, not a ton of it at the Station, but she’s done a lot of movie work, actually, around here. She’s my Nell.
Lindsey [Gates-Markel] is just a marvelous actor. Mathew [Green] and Lindsey are not only really wonderful actors, but they have worked together enough now that they just are a dream together. They know each other as actors and as people.
SP: And you’ve been their director before [in Becky Shaw].
Holley: And I’ve directed them before. I’ve not directed Stephanie before, but I think she’s going to be charming as Nell.
Or, is unlike anything I’ve ever directed. It’s kind of new territory for me. I’ve never directed a farce. I’ve never directed anything that had quick costume changes, and doors slamming, and so forth. So it’s a real learning process for me as well, which is good. It’s good.
Tonight’s production of Or, is already sold out, but it will play through April 13. Tickets are $10 (MWF) and $15 (Sat. & Sun.). For more information, and lots of sexy images, check out their Facebook event page. And then go here to make your reservations.
All photos by Sean O’Connor.
Video by Sam Ambler.