By Aphra Behn
Director Eamon Flack

  • Venue Upstairs Theatre
  • Dates 1 July – 6 August 2017
  • Duration Approx 3 hours (inc. interval)

    The classic 1677 battle of the sexes, by the first professional woman playwright, Aphra Behn.

    Lost in a maze of masquerade and revelry, a ratbaggy gang of exiled cavaliers plunge into the steamy depths of Naples at carnival time. They’re led by Willmore, a seventeenth-century playboy who’s been round the block a few times and survives by his wit and exuberance. But then he meets a young woman who has the guile to expose the Rover’s true self. He’s almost prepared to fall head over heels for her. But she’s a nun. And there’s the most beautiful woman in Europe on the same street…

    I want to do something wild and high-energy. And this is a sexy, dangerous play. Its honesty about the battle between men and women for power is striking given it is over three and a half centuries old. And also, what a treat to have Toby Schmitz back at Belvoir as the Rover himself. – Eamon

    Warning: This production contains partial nudity, smoking, strobe effects, coarse language, adult themes and sexual references. Please contact our Box Office on (02) 9699 3444 if you require further information.

    The Rover is supported by the Nelson Meers Foundation


    Writer Aphra Behn
    Director Eamon Flack
    Set & Costume Designer Mel Page
    Lighting Designer Matt Scott
    Composer & Sound Designer Steve Toulmin
    Dramaturg Charlotte Bradley
    Choreographer Cameron Mitchell
    Movement Director Scott Witt
    Associate Designer Chloe Greaves
    Personal Assistant & Access Support Worker Kerry Stamell
    Stage Manager Luke McGettigan
    Assistant Stage Manager Jennifer Parsonage


    Gareth Davies
    Andre de Vanny
    Taylor Ferguson

    Leon Ford
    Nathan Lovejoy
    Elizabeth Nabben
    Toby Schmitz
    Nikki Shiels
    Kiruna Stamell
    Megan Wilding


    • Director’s Note: Eamon Flack

      …A devil on’t, the woman damns the poet. All I ask is the privilege for my masculine part, the poet, to tread in those successful paths my [male] predecessors have so long thrived in… If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves, I lay down my quill and you shall hear no more of me. No, because I will be kinder to the brothers of the pen than they have been to a defenceless woman. I am not content to write for money alone. I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero, and if you rob me of that, I will retire from the ungrateful world, and scorn its fickle favours. Aphra Behn

      Not that money wasn’t a necessary consideration for Aphra Behn. She wrote for money because money was a better form of dependency than a husband. Her own had died or run off a few years into the marriage. This was in 1666, six years after the severe republic of Oliver Cromwell had given way to the restoration of Charles II. Without a husband Behn was free to live by her own means, which she proceeded to do to the utmost. First she went to Antwerp to spy for the king. When she returned to London the king managed not to pay her costs and she spent time in a debtor’s prison. A few years later she wrote her first play, The Forc’d Marriage. In the decade that followed she became a fixture in London’s rampant theatrical and literary world. She wrote plays and novels, she published scandalous letters, she was commissioned to write lyrics and poetry. She lived with a bisexual lover. She was foul-mouthed and sexually forthright. She was praised and very much pilloried: “that lewd Harlot that Poetick Quean/Fam’d through whitefryars you know what I mean”, wrote one who wasn’t a fan. The language is familiar to outspoken women today: “abominably vile”, “odious and obscene”. Her worst critic withheld final judgement and let the facts of her life speak for themselves: “Poverty, Poetry, Pox are plagues enough for one.” She died in 1689 at the age of about 49. The story of her life is the story of a ferocious determination to be judged by the same standards as men, to live as freely as men, to speak as freely as men, and to outlive herself. She was buried in Westminster Abbey. The inscription on her grave reads, “Here lies a proof that wit can never be/Defence enough against mortality.”


      The Rover premiered in 1677 but it’s set twenty years earlier, during the time of Cromwell’s republic, when the young deposed prince Charles was in exile and his cavaliers with him. These are the Englishmen we meet in Naples – swords for hire, Royalists adrift. The prince himself remains in the wings, anchored off the coast of Naples: it’s from his ship that Willmore (our Rover) has taken shore leave. He’s a figure of considerable interest, Willmore. Behn’s audiences enjoyed his pleasing resemblance to one of the great celebrities of the time, the filthy and splendid Earl of Rochester, whose circle Behn moved in. But Willmore could just as well be a sly and loving portrait of the young exiled prince, freeof England and Cromwell’s Taliban-like rule, discovering the liberty he would bring home to his Restoration a decade later. And it’s this, the play’s desperate, painful, profane desire for freedom, that makes it so alive.


      Behn and Rochester belonged to a circle of hard-living wild creatures who used sex, poetry and drink to overthrow the old pieties. The 1960s come to mind. But there was a greater uncertainty at play in Behn’s time: would this new libertine era survive? During Behn’s lifetime the world had been turned upside down twice. A generation earlier England had lived through an apocalyptic civil war. Charles I was beheaded and the religious authoritarian Oliver Cromwell ruled the country as a republic. Charles II’s Restoration unleashed a new freedom in England, but even if the regime held, nothing was certain any more. On top of that there was plague and fire, casual violence and disease. Life was quickly snuffed. Rochester died young. Behn died, it seems, in pain. But in the time they had, they and their circle developed their lives and art into a new way of living. They refused the afterlife, they cashed in on the value of profanity. And it was language which extended the reach of their short, threatened lives. Wit, poetry, the cut and thrust of conversation concentrated their experiences and enlarged the time they had. They doubled every fleeting thought and sensation by talking about it with a ferocious, almost mad eloquence. Like Wilde two centuries later they used language to invert the moral order of the day. They toyed with the sacred. They left nothing untested. They were impudent, debauched, poxridden Royalists and they helped make secular thought and life a living reality.


      This is the story of a group of women who take the opportunity of Carnival time in Naples to try on different versions of themselves. Their disguises license them to speak freely. The more they perform themselves, the more they become themselves. But let’s not overstate the liberties of carnival. The taxonomy of whores and virgins remains in place. Carnival doesn’t dissolve that old horror. It merely scrambles it. In carnival, virgins enjoy some of the liberties of whores; whores assume some of the premiums of virgins. Married women go on the ramble. Courtesans fall in love. Maids are mistresses, gypsies are women of quality. For a few days, women play the whole range of the moral and sexual lexicon. The only rule is that at the end of it all, everyone gets pinned back where they were. Virgins are virgins again. Whores are whores again. We know the tale: shut up and get back in your box. Behn’s trying to take carnival a step further. She’s trying to undo the taxonomy of women once and for all. Underneath so much of the play, and her work, and her life, is an instinct, both outraged and ambitious, to unlimit what it is to be a woman.

      I’ll leave the final word to Virginia Woolf:

      “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

    • Who is Aphra Behn?

      While Aphra Behn’s life is shrouded in mystery, some extraordinary facts are known: she was the first female playwright to earn a living through her creative work. And not merely earn a living, but Behn was one of the most successful playwrights of her time. She worked as a spy for the King, she was arrested for the politics in her plays, and she boldly defended herself and her work against sexist attacks throughout her life. Behn was a radical. Yet she was in danger, for a moment in history, of being lost to the ages.

      For centuries after her death, Behn was largely forgotten. She was little heard of and almost never read. In this sense, she shared the fate of many of the dramatists who wrote during the Restoration, a group who scandalised its own times and haunted the next two centuries with their works of excess. But there is no doubt that Behn’s reputation suffered additionally because she was a woman. She competed on equal terms with men and never concealed her authorship or gender. Her writing was bold, frank and witty, and frequently explored the entanglement of sex and power. As a result, Behn endured vicious attacks on her personal morals, which continued in the centuries after she died. The English writer John Doran gave a sample of the hostility Behn attracted when he wrote in 1864 that she was “the most shameless woman who ever took pen in hand, to corrupt the public.” Female critics were just as severe. “The disgrace of Aphra Behn,” declared the 19th century critic Julia Kavanagh, “is that, instead of raising man to woman’s moral standard [she] sank woman to the level of man’s coarseness.”

      Perspectives started to shift in the early 20th century, when sexual standards relaxed and an interest in women writers developed. Virginia Woolf understood Behn’s significance in paving the way for female writers when she paid tribute to her in A Room of One’s Own. Woolf, however, lost sight of any literary merit when it came to Behn’s work. She and Behn were writers of different times: Woolf wrote when art was romantically seen as a means of self-expression, while Behn wrote openly for money and political purpose, as did her contemporaries. It was not until the emergence of the modern feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s that Behn was written about seriously as a major female writer.

      So, who was Aphra Behn? While very little is known about Behn’s early life, it is estimated that she was born in Kent in 1640. It’s believed that her father, Bartholomew Johnson, was a barber and her mother, Elizabeth Denham, cared for the children of the wealthy Culpepper family. Sir Thomas Culpepper later described Behn as his “foster sister” and it was thought that he perhaps introduced her to the royal circles in which she later moved. Behn was born into a world rife with religious and political tension as the Civil War racked England. By 1642, the puritans had closed the theatres, radical political and religious groups had emerged, and the King was publically executed in 1649.

      In 1663, Behn’s life took an unusual turn when her father was appointed to a military outpost in South Africa and she sailed with her family to Surinam. The time Behn spent at the English settlement provided inspiration for her famous novel Oroonoko, which chronicles the story of a black African prince betrayed into slavery in a New World English colony. It’s a remarkable work for many reasons, not least because it’s often touted to be the first novel penned in English, and contains the earliest stirrings of protest against slavery.

      After England surrendered Surinam to Holland, Behn returned home in 1664. It’s believed she married a Dutch merchant named Hans Behn, though very little is known about the union, which did not last more than a few years.

      By 1666 Behn had come to the notice of the King, possibly through Thomas Culpepper. The King admired Behn for her vivacious personality and great wit, and recruited her as a spy (code-named “Astrea”) in Antwerp during the war from 1665 to 1667. Behn’s chief mission was to establish an intimacy with William Scot, an English expatriate who was supposedly intent on overthrowing the monarchy. Behn was to lure Scot back to the English side with promises of a pardon and a considerable reward, and to gather information on the Dutch fleets and merchant ships. Although she was helpful in exposing the secret plans to exterminate the English fleet in the River Thames in 1667, Behn was virtually abandoned by the King and landed in debtor’s prison when she returned to London in 1668. Her debt was reportedly paid by an unknown person and she was permitted to leave by 1669.

      At this point, Behn made a decision to pursue something that was unheard of for a woman at that time: to support herself financially through writing. It was a hugely momentous moment; a woman was daring to enter the strictly male-dominated arena of 17th century professional theatre. There were, however, a few factors which helped make this possible. Charles II’s return to the throne in 1660 signalled a reversal of the Puritan ethic, the new King was desperate to distinguish himself in every way from his predecessors. When the theatres reopened, they set out very deliberately to subvert traditional values and attitudes. Additionally actresses were permitted to appear on the public stage for the first time and a number of female authors had their works performed. Behn, however, was the first British woman to make a living as a creative writer. She subsequently became one of the most famous and prolific playwrights on the London theatre scene, staging 18 plays from 1670 to 1689.

      Behn’s first couple of plays were romantic tragicomedies including The Forc’d Marriage, which was her first big hit when it premiered in 1670. As its title suggests, it dealt with a subject that Behn would continually return to throughout her career: the damaging effects of arranged marriages. The later part of this decade saw the emergence of sex comedies, which were more daring than anything in the 1660s. They proved a short-lived phenomenon and the early 1680s saw a swing against such candid works – but during this window Behn penned some of her most popular works including 1677’s The Rover, a particular favourite of the King. Like many of her plays, The Rover was a comedy but also a highly sophisticated debate about sexual politics during the Restoration period.

      While Behn had established herself as one of London’s leading playwrights at the close of the 1670s, she was still subject to frequent attacks on her work. Most often the charge was immorality, whether in her personal life or in her plays. When criticised, Behn’s strategy was to counter-attack. When her 1678
      play Sir Patient Fancy was criticised as “bawdy” Behn complained that she was being singled out for criticism on this score simply because she was a woman. In a preface to the play, she complained that male playwrights were permitted to live the most scandalous lives and write the most bawdy plays, “but for a woman it was unnatural”.

      Behn was also not afraid to assert herself when it came to her deeply conservative political views, which are often difficult to reconcile with her status as a boundary-pushing female writer. Her expression of these views ended up causing a hiatus in her playwriting career. In 1682, the King ordered Behn’s arrest for her attack on the illegitimate son of Charles II, the duke of Monmouth. In an epilogue to her 1682 play, Romulus and Hersilia, Behn wrote of the threat the duke posed to succession. While it seems unlikely that she was imprisoned, Behn’s productivity as a playwright declined sharply thereafter.

      The final years of Behn’s life do not seem to have been happy or easy. She became ill, and when she stopped writing plays, found herself in debt again. In a final surge of creative energy Behn turned to fiction, and one of her most famous works, the aforementioned Oroonoko, was published a year before she died in 1689. At the end of her life, Behn still craved literary fame – a shocking stance for a female writer. Behn deserves this fame for her creative work, cultural importance and revolutionary legacy: she gave women a public voice.


      W.R. Owens & Lizbeth Goodman, Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon, Routeledge, 1996.

      Janet M. Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, Rutgers University Press, 1996.

      Belinda Webb, ‘Aphra Behn: Still a radical example’, The Guardian, 2007.

    • Podcast

      Director Eamon Flack, dramaturg Charlotte Bradley and actors Taylor Ferguson, Elizabeth Nabben, Toby Schmitz and Nikki Shiels share their thoughts on Aphra Behn’s 1677 battle of the sexes, and what this classic holds for a modern audience. Produced by Zoe Ferguson for Belvoir.

      Listen here.

    Keep up to date with the latest news at Belvoir