Judy A. Hayden has performed a great service for students and fans of Aphra Behn by opening up her earliest plays to the kind of serious, historically-based reading normally focused on plays like The Rover and The Roundheads. As in the vein of work by scholars such as Derek Hughes and Susan Owen, Hayden’s goal in this study is to [End Page 63] situate these early plays in their historical and theatrical contexts as well as to begin reading them closely as literary texts. The result is illuminating: a more complete picture of Behn as both savvy playwright and loyal royalist from 1671–1676. In detailing this picture, Hayden also contributes to the ongoing transformation of Aphra Behn from marginalized woman writer to major literary figure.
Hayden acknowledges the gender politics present in Behn’s dramatic works, as, for example, in her frequent use of cross-dressing roles. However, Hayden refuses to limit her inquiry to issues surrounding Behn’s own gender and argues that we should not “over-emphasize Behn’s concern either with the female plight or with her own femaleness, since in the context of writing publicly, she insisted on her male qualities” (14). By reading Behn’s early plays in the context of what contemporary male playwrights were staging, Hayden shows that “what appear to be feminist issues are often a covert construct for Stuart political ideology” (16). Behn emerges as a playwright commenting on and observing the Stuart court using the same devices and plots as contemporary male playwrights while contributing her own innovations.
Hayden argues that Behn’s political commentary appears in her plays long before the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, which “modern scholarship all too frequently acknowledges…as the impetus behind the political comment in Behn’s dramatic works” (2). Earlier political material was available to Behn, who makes use of it in the plays Hayden examines in individual chapters: The Forc’d Marriage, or The Jealous Bridegroom (1671), The Amorous Prince, or, The Curious Husband (1671), The Dutch Lover (1673), and Abdelazer, or The Moor’s Revenge (1673). Appendices to the volume reprint a series of royal proclamations and other relevant documents from the 1670’s in order to demonstrate the continuing urgency throughout the decade of earlier Restoration political issues such as rioting, seditious libel, and threats associated with popery.
Hayden also devotes an early chapter to The Young King: or The Mistake, initially surprising because Janet Todd includes this play in Volume 7 of The Works of Aphra Behn: plays from 1682–1696. Todd points out the play was first performed in 1679 and published in 1683, while acknowledging Behn may have written it as early as the 1660s. Hayden builds on the possibility of this earlier composition date, turning it into a part of her political argument regarding Behn’s use of Don Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño (1636) as source material. Through the figure of the Dacian Queen, Behn gives form to audience fears about Parliament’s possible “feminine usurpation” of royal power (39). Since Calderón’s play was in print in Amsterdam in the early 1660s, “It seems quite possible, then, that given the immense popularity of the play, Behn could have obtained access to it during the period she functioned as a spy for the King in the Low Countries. …this suggests that The Young King was probably The probably conceived, if not written, prior to The Forc’d Marriage, which is often considered her first play” (35). Hayden goes on to develop her reading of The Young King as Behn’s earliest dramatic expression of support for indefeasible hereditary succession and notes Behn’s political acumen in seeing that it was ripe for the stage in 1679.
Hayden’s readings of the plays are engaging, detailed, and original, largely because she does take Behn’s early work seriously, refusing to accept an early Behn that is [End Page 64] somehow primitive or unskilled...