The Art of Theatrical Diplomacy: Bodies and Words in Early Anglophone Women’s Drama

Conference: The European Conference on Arts & Humanities (ECAH2022)
Title: The Art of Theatrical Diplomacy: Bodies and Words in Early Anglophone Women’s Drama
Stream: Literature/Literary Studies
Presentation Type: Oral Presentation
Sandra Perot, Berkshire School, United States


Aphra Behn and Susanna Centlivre successfully produced plays that remained in regular rotation for eighteenth-century Anglophone acting companies throughout the transatlantic world. They created female archetypes whose characters were shaped by popular actresses as much as the actresses shaped and defined the rolls they played. Audiences purchased the experience to view these performances also part of this complex system of commodification. The plays Behn and Centlivre wrote and the female characters they created, along with the actresses who performed these roles, became essential in crafting cultural representations of female bodies that helped shape contemporary understandings of “normativity,” and gender roles in a changed and changing Anglophone society. As playwrights, Behn and Centlivre sold bodies of plays and bodies of actresses in their plays, taking advantage of audience desire to see women publicly displayed. My talk introduces the role of women in late-seventeenth-century theatre and suggests that when Charles II legally allowed women to perform and write for British theatre he unknowingly also changed British society, particularly society’s view of women. Aphra Behn’s "The Rover" empowered women (albeit in a socially conventional manner) while allowing them to appear in the only real “roles” available to them at the time: chaste wife, devoted nun and licentious courtesan. Susanna Centlivre’s play "The Perjur’d Husband" likewise challenged conventional marriage and was modeled after Behn’s earlier work, "The Rover."

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