Aphra Behn is one of the most extraordinary playwrights in history. A mystery, wrapped in an enigma, drenched in poetry and social commentary. A spy during the Dutch-Anglo war, a former prisoner and the first woman to make a living solely as a playwright in an exceptionally patriarchal society, Aphra Behn is a genuine trailblazer. Add into that, that she is genuinely an exceptional writer and you have a pretty unique prospect and backlog of work. No one knows exactly where she was born or precisely when, we do know she was baptised in Canterbury, England in 1640. The mystery of the first half of her life is one that still perplexes scholars to this day, she spent some time in South America, dropped off the map, randomly appears as a spy in service of King Charles II, goes to debtors prison and needs a gig.
She gets that gig as a scribe for the Dukes players and the Kings players in London sometime around the 1660s. Up until the Reformation, women were not allowed to work in theatres, but Charlie II changed all of that. Aphra Behn set about giving a firmly female perspective on the exceptionally patriarchal society of the time. She was prolific, being the second most published playwright of the period. She wrote about arranged marriage, society and politics in both tragedy, comedy and a little of both. She even penned a few 17th-century Rom-Coms so you should definitely check those out.
She was also a highly regarded author, even in the 1800s and early 1900s where her work fell ill of a conservative worldview (allegedly it was too racy and bawdy for those audiences) her novels were always regarded as exceptional and important pieces of literature. Particularly Oroonoko a 1688 novel that is widely seen as the first anti-slavery novel. She died at the age of 48 and is buried in Westminster Abbey in London.
Aphra Behn’s Best Plays
- The Rover (1677)
- The Rover pt 2 (1681)
- The Dutch Lover (1673)
- The Emperor of the Moon (1687)
- Sir Patient Fancy (1678)
- The Town Fop (1676)
- Abdelazer (1676)
- The Young King (1679)
- Like Father, Like Son (1682)
- The City Heiress (1682)
A powerhouse of a writer, working in extremely difficult circumstances, who was hated and maligned by a large section of her society just because she was a woman. If you get the chance to check out her works, do! It’s worth it.
“That perfect tranquillity of life, which is nowhere to be found but in retreat, a faithful friend and a good library.” – Aphra Behn