As the title of Ann Marie Stewart's The Ravishing Restoration: Aphra Behn, Violence, and Comedy suggests, Stewart examines the presence of sexual violence—rape and attempted rape—in Aphra Behn's comedies. In her introduction, Stewart claims to "deconstruct" Behn's plays in order to isolate how "cultural assumptions" shaped dramatic scenes of violence against women (16). Stewart explains that the purpose of her study is to question "how and why Behn utilizes sexual violence in her plays" and to examine the relationship between such scenes of violence and the genre of comedy of intrigue (21). Ultimately, Stewart concludes that Behn's "creations" are both "unique" and "complex" (21).
For the most part, The Ravishing Restoration is concerned with isolating tokens of rape or attempted rape scenes in Restoration drama, complicating genre distinctions, and providing close readings of Behn's and other playwrights' plays. Readers who desire a lengthy discussion of how sexual violence functions in a specific Behn play will be delighted, for Stewart studies nine of Behn's plays that include rape or attempted rape scenes. Further, Stewart includes an overview of other Restoration dramatists' renderings of sexual violence in order to offer a context for studying Behn's plays.
After an introduction that sets up Stewart's argument and provides some (albeit not enough) context for critical scholarship on sexual violence against women in the Restoration, Stewart focuses an entire chapter on Restoration dramatists other than Behn. With an argument that spans approximately one hundred pages, Stewart gives [End Page 10] other dramatists a large amount of textual space in The Ravishing Restoration. After quickly introducing comedy of intrigue as a genre in the first chapter, Stewart discusses approximately sixty plays, some comedies and many tragedies. In a book about Aphra Behn's comedies, a reader might wonder why half of the chapter examines tragedies. However, Stewart contends that some of Behn's "comedies" might better be understood as "tragicomedies" because of their blending of "life-threatening attacks" and "serious action" with playfulness and happy endings (25). After reading the first chapter, it is apparent that Stewart's close readings of fourteen plays by playwrights other than Behn serve as a springboard for her discussion of the author's work in the second half of the book. Playwrights studied in the first chapter include John Dryden, John Crowne, Susanna Centlivre, John Vanbrugh, William Congreve, William Wycherley, the Earl of Rochester, Thomas Otway, and Mary Pix. Ultimately, Stewart describes these authors' works in order to show how Behn's examples of rape or attempted rape compare to other playwrights' treatment of sexual violence. The Ravishing Restoration shows that Behn created different kinds of heroines subjected to assault; as an early example in the book, Stewart argues that Behn's characters are "typically virtuous, unmarried, and vulnerable" whereas playwrights such as Crowne's are "loose, worldly women" (26). Stewart also portends that Behn's comedies include more scenes of rape than her contemporaries' work; and Stewart astutely points out that threats of sexual assault in Restoration comedies are part and parcel of the battle of the sexes, in addition to observing the ways in which Behn's rape scenes bear rhetorical similarity to late seventeenth-century she-tragedies and heroic tragedies.
Stewart's second chapter, interestingly titled "Seducing Behn: Staging Power and Persuasion," exclusively analyzes nine of Behn's plays and all of her rape or attempted rape scenes. The Ravishing Restoration seldom discusses performance history, but it does consider how Behn's plays reflect cultural values and attitudes about women in late seventeenth-century England. Further, the book's close readings provide a helpful evaluation of Behn's characters and plot development as Stewart demonstrates why plots "suddenly [turn] violent" and the tones of scenes change "from seduction to attempted rape"—oftentimes due to a breakdown in communication between characters (61). Stewart does a fine job of tackling the frequently studied The Rover, and the book particularly shines in its analysis of Behn's tragicomedies such as The Dutch Lover, The City Heiress, and The...