Stage (im)Properties: Aphra Behn's Radical Stagecraft

Kate Aughterson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapterpeer-review


Behn’s final play performed before her death (The Emperor of the Moon) in 1687, ends on the socratic and enigmatic [they] ‘Knew only this – that he knew nothing yet’. Aphra Behn’s dramatic experiments ranged from generic and characterisation experimentation to stage business(es) in which she (to use Cixous’s phrase) ‘disconcerted’ the language of theatre and performance. This chapter will focus in particular on her experimentation with the stage property of the bed in a number of her plays, to show how she extended the language and the performability of space around the representation and acting of women on the restoration stage. While her near contemporary Pope observed: “the stage how loosely doth Astrea tread/ Who fairly puts all characters to bed”, positing and locating the author’s sexual identity in stage action, this chapter will by contrast argue that Behn’s use of the bed as locus during key narratological and revelatory moments in her plays (from earlier plays through The Rover, The City Heiress and The Luckey Chance) as a means of both focussing on female bodies as objects and constructing and enabling them as subjects. Many critics have noted (often as an aside) how many of her scenes (including ‘discovery scenes) are set in bedchambers - yet no critics have examined how in doing so the boundaries of conventional dramaturgy and stage business are tested and challenged. Behn’s beds problematise and foreground the enactment of the restoration male gaze, and provide a Medusa-like torqued distorted mirror which is simultaneously mimetic and non-mimetic, critical and utopian. In the bed’s double-function as space of revelation (in the uncovering of woman’s body and the resolution of plot) and privacy (the bed as private space) Behn finds the perfect stage property to dramatically unveil her radical dramaturgical ambitions. This chapter will show how her theatre-making was at cutting edge of her contemporaries, and that the successful performance of and sharing new practices simultaneously met and challenged the needs of her demanding audience.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWomen experimenting in drama
EditorsKate Aughterson, Deborah Philips
Number of pages25
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

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  • aphra Behn, restoration, dramaturgy, beds


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