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The Geography of Aphra Behn’s City Comedies

Cynthia L. Caywood

After centuries of obscurity, Aphra Behn (1640-1689) has come to be canonized as one of the most pre-eminent writers of any gender from the Restoration period. Author of at least eighteen new plays, as well as a substantial body of poetry and fiction including Oroonoko, her best known short novel, Behn had a singularly successful dramatic career, which spanned the years 1670 to 1689. Derek Hughes points out that “Behn had twenty-five percent more new plays put on than any male competitor, and she seems to have been regarded as a safe pair of [authorial] hands in a crises” (“Restoration Theatre”, 30). After a sojourn in Surinam as a very young woman and a brief stint in the Netherlands spying for King Charles II, she settled in London and seems to have lived most of her life between the City and Westminster, perhaps in Whitefriars near St. Bride’s Church. This location put her in easy proximity to Dorset Buildings and the theatre with which she was most closely allied, Dorset Gardens, home to Sir William Davenant’s Duke of York’s company. Her easy intimacy with this part of London is reflected in several of her plays, providing the setting for seven of her eight London based comedies. The eighth, The Roundheads;or, The Good Old Cause (1681-82), a political satire about the waning days of the interregnum, is mostly set in vaguely realized state chambers, presumably Whitehall, occupied by the Roundhead faction clinging to power before the arrival of General Monk.

Her use of this setting supported her turn in the early 1670’s towards city or citizens’ comedy, a mode of comedy that first came into popularity during the Elizabethan period. City comedy was set predominately in the emerging middle-class social milieu, featuring shopkeepers and merchants wealthy enough to support a large household and servants. Behn, in fact, based two of her city comedies on earlier ones, adapting them to her own period by updating place names and incorporating the taverns and shops that she knew. The Revenge, or, A Match in Newgate (1680) was partly a revision, partly an adaptation of John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan (1604-04) while The City Heiress: Or, Sir Timothy Treat-all (1682) is based primarily upon Phillip Massinger’s The Guardian (1633). While these plays are written about the middle-class, they do not necessarily assume a sympathetic perspective towards it, and, in the hands of Restoration playwrights, the genre is merged with post-Civil War politics. Behn, ever guided by audience tastes, took up this approach in her work.

In some of these comedies, Behn is wonderfully specific about the street geography of the City of London. Gresham’s Royal Exchange in Cornhill figures prominently in many discussions, and her characters speak of walking the Strand and Lombard Street, buying horses in Smithfield, visiting shops in Pater Noster Row and patronizing such well-known taverns such as the Sun in Cheapside and the George in Whitefriars, supposedly one of Behn’s favorite watering holes. The then shady, dangerous area of Lincoln’s Inn Fields figures in three of her plays, Newgate in two, and the Old Bailey in one. Churches, such as St. Antholin’s in Watling Street or St. Clement’s in the Strand, anchor the settings as well as providing commentary on the characters who attend them, depending upon the parish’s political sympathies. For example, in The Roundheads, the rake Loveless, disguised as a female petitioner, establishes his Puritan credentials by claiming to attend St. Antholin’s, a church notorious for harrying a sleeping City by ringing its bells at 5 AM (Todd, notes, The Roundheads, 485). Occasionally, Behn ventures outside the technical boundaries of the City. The Debauchee (1677) has a general setting of Covent Garden, with attendant references to the Rose Tavern in Russell Street and lodgings in Drury Lane. But, by and large, the parts of London outside the City are only mentioned fleetingly. Characters discuss Pall Mall or St. James Park but we do not see them there, as we do in George Etheredge’s The Man of Mode. Behn also acknowledges the changing character of London and the growth of its suburbs outside the City walls. In The Revenge, she mentions the King visiting Paris Gardens in Southwark . Wealthy characters lodge in Southampton Square, now Bloomsbury, in The Younger Brother (1684), and, in The City Heiress, rich girls attend school in Hackney. But the settings of her London plays remain primarily her world of the City.

Despite this specificity about the City setting, Behn nonetheless avoids too much realism. Although Sir Patient Fancy (1678) contains some oblique references to the Great Fire of 1666, her other earlier comedies, which include The Town-Fopp (1676), The Debauchee, and The Revenge, seem to be set in a pre-fire City or at least an idealized City, as there are no references to the fire or changes it brought. The setting of the last play to be produced in Behn’s lifetime, The Luckey Chance (1686), seems more contemporary with its composition, as a reference to the Monument appears. In The Younger Brother, written in 1684 but not produced until after her death, Behn stages a scene of a fire in a London townhouse from which everyone happily escapes. Presumably, the memory of the great fire was sufficiently faded so that playgoers were at ease with a comic take on the dirt and confusion brought on by a conflagration. Behn also seems careful to honor at least the spirit of Charles II’s order to theatre manager Thomas Killigrew not to portray on the stage any “representations of scenes in the cities of London and Westminster” (Todd, 213). So, although Behn’s characters may speak of The Royal Exchange or the Guildhall, Behn’s actual street scenes are largely safely non-specific. This pattern proves a contrast to William Wycherley, for example, who casually set scenes in the New Exchange (The Country Wife, pub. 1675) and Westminster Hall (The Plain Dealer, pub. 1676). Perhaps a title, the King’s friendship, and an independent fortune allowed Wycherley choices that Behn thought it prudent not to make.

Behn defines her City by means of its contrast to the country, as do many city comedies, and her countryside provides an often paradoxical contrast to London. It is, of course, the source of the various boobs and country bumpkins so essential to Restoration comedy who find their way to London’s merciless streets. One such is the hapless Devonshire squire Sir Credulous Easy in Sir Patient Fancy, in mourning for his dead horse, Gillian, and miserably unsuccessful with the ladies. Yet, Behn’s country also supports the pastoral ideal reflected in much of her writing, particularly her erotic poetry. In this characterization, the country, wholesome and clean, promises to be a refuge from the temptations and evils of London for the puritanical Sir Patient Fancy in the play of the same name. Even the beautiful, worldly townswoman Lady Galliard, in The City Heiress, sardonically evokes the healthful benefits of country life by calling a London balcony a “City Garden, where we walk to take the Fresh air of the Sea-coal smoak” (II, ii, 142-3). Behn, however, in addition to these traditional markers that delineate city and country, provides a darker, financial dimension to the dichotomy. More than survival, success in the highly competitive arenas of the city depends upon a degree of wealth that far outstrips that of the country. Derek Hughes argues that in Behn’s work, the emerging ascendant values of financial dominance and control of the marketplace begin to define masculine success in a way that both replicates and begins to replace the old measure of masculine strength and might. As Hughes phrases it, the “new economy of the purse mirrors the old economy of the sword,” (The Theatre of Aphra Behn, 78). That which allows for financial independence in the country permits only the merest maintenance in the city. In The Town-Fopp, for example, Celinda believes that the country could offer her beloved Bellmour a financial escape from a marriage forced upon him by an uncle seeking to enlarge the family wealth. There the pair of lovers could defy the threat of disinheritance because, she argues, even a scanty Fortune could secure them a sustainable life with each other. By contrast, in London, as Hughes points out, “the alternative to genteel prosperity is not the thatched cottage … It is debtor’s prison … ” (Theatre, 73), a place that Behn purportedly knew well, having been locked up there herself upon her return from her spying mission. The threat of poverty, in fact, acquires a special urgency in Behn, a byproduct of her precarious existence as a professional writer. She offers sympathy towards those characters, particularly her women, who are cut off from their fortunes, or run out of money, or simply have none, and an understanding for the sometimes illegal, sometimes unhappy measures they must take to relieve their financial problems.

If debtor’s prison does not immediately threaten Behn’s characters, the alternative to a charming country cottage might be the filthy garrets of Alsatia, near Whitefriars, an area well-known in Behn’s period for offering sanctuary to those deep in debt. The profligate and penniless rake, Careless, in The Debauchee, lives there after his thirteenth redemption from debtors’ prison. In The Luckey Chance, the aristocratic Gayman, too profligate in his courtship of his lover, Lady Fulbank, has mortgaged himself to her banker husband, Sir Cautious. He hides out in Alsatia, living in a garret. In a gendered twist of fate, he survives as a gigolo, servicing his corpulent landlady, a blacksmith’s wife. Behn offers a humorous but chilling description of his lodgings, with a realistic detail that is somewhat rare in her work. Lady Fulbank is told by her steward that his room is:

a pretty convenient Tub Madam. He may lie along in’t, there’s just room for an old Joyn’d Stool besides the Bed … there had been Dornex Curtains to [the window] in the Days of Yore; but they [are] now annihilated, and nothing left to save his Eyes from the Light, but my Land-ladies Blew Apron, ty’d by the strings before the Window … (Luckey Chance, I, ii, 84-90).

Behn thus shows that London’s traditional evils are increasingly compounded by a growing economic hegemony, born in the streets of City, nurtured at the Royal Exchange, and protected by Guild Hall. This burgeoning power trumps not only love but birth and forces those compromised or defeated by it into the nether spaces of the city, living the lives of the traditionally disenfranchised poor.

Besides the financial contrast, the differences between London and the country also acquire a gendered cast in Behn’s plays. For her male characters, the country is a relatively straightforward space. It contains the estates that provide the wealth for the aristocratic patriarch or the status for the rising middle-class one. The country also offers her male characters a more level sexual playing field than the City, away from the threat of attractive London men who are more successful sexual competitors and the humiliation of rejection from disdainful young women of fortune, including wealthy City wives. In The City Heiress, the superannuated old roué, Sir Anthony Meriwell, tells his pusillanimous nephew, ardently in pursuit of an indifferent London beauty, that the country can be a paradise for any man of birth and fortune. There, in contrast to the highly competitive playing fields of the City,

… every Grove
Affords us Rustick Beauties,
That know no Pride nor Painting,
And that will take it and be thankful, Charles;
Fine wholesome Girls that fall like ruddy Fruit,
Fit for the gathering … (I, i, 415-20).

For men who are fit to compete in the high stakes London game of courtship, however, the city provides an abundance of highly attractive, sophisticated and willing women. Minimally, there is a plethora of bawdy houses for men of means, establishments that Behn is not shy about dramatizing. Ideally, however, there are the lovelorn, beautiful wives of wealthy merchants, neglected by their lumpish husbands in favor of business. These women provide a man “the whole World to range in, and like a wanton Heifer, [he may] eat of every pasture” says Sham in The Town-Fop (I, i, 40-2), creating a clever metaphor that yokes country and city together in a paean to the City’s sustaining and nourishing sexual possibilities.

For Behn’s female characters, however, the country/city dichotomy is far more complicated. As mentioned above, for Celinda in The Town-Fopp, the country is an idealized sanctuary, free from the patriarchal dictates of fathers and uncles. Yet that vision of the country seems to be the exception rather than the rule for women. For the unhappily married Lady Fancy in Sir Patient Fancy, the country promises to be a prison that cuts off her desire by separating her from her lover, Wittmore, and forcing her into the exclusive sexual company of her nauseating, baby-talking old Puritan spouse. Yet the City is not much better. While the lower class women have some freedom to move about, her upper class women, the wives, daughters, and lovers of the wealthy, are largely confined to the chambers and balconies of their stately mansions. Their chaperoned journeys outside these walls are largely undertaken to move them from one interior space to the next. Even the gardens of their home can be treacherous places, especially at night. While it is possible to rendezvous with lovers there, sometimes the meeting can be with the wrong one, as in Sir Patient Fancy, and threatening to one’s honor. Public spaces and places are for the men, where they can meet, scheme, fight with each other, serenade ladies, or outwit fools. Hughes argues that Behn reinforces this gendered geography through the staging of her plays. Her interest in and use of stage doors and balconies, for example, reinforces male control of space. He argues that “to no other Restoration dramatist is the structure of the stage so pregnant, in all its details, with the gendered iconography of the everyday world” (“Theatre,”43).

Behn’s seven city comedies, as well as The Roundheads, also demonstrate Behn’s keen involvement in delineating the political geography of London and reinforcing its boundaries, especially as the Exclusion Crises of 1678-82 waxes and wanes. Lacking a legitimate heir, Charles had named his Catholic brother James as his successor. The crises, which centered on the efforts of Whig factions to bar James’ succession in favor of Charles’ illegitimate, but Protestant son, Monmouth, reinforced the long standing divisions between the City of London and Westminster. Many of the more powerful city fathers, often the wealthy middle-class businessmen that provided the satirical focus of city comedy, were dissenters, Puritans and/or former supporters of Cromwell who allied themselves with the Whig faction that favored Parliamentary intervention in the question of the succession. The efforts to bar James from succeeding his brother spawned several dangerous plots, the most infamous of which was the Popish plot, which purported that Catholic insiders in Whitehall were planning to assassinate the King. The furor that was unleashed when Titus Oates “exposed” the purported plot provoked serious civil unrest that threatened to destabilize the fragile détente between factions still seething over the Civil War. Although he never believed in Oates’ claims, Charles was forced to accede to some of the demands of the plot’s architects, including ordering the execution of Lord Stafford, his longtime Catholic ally and friend. The public and political furor over the question of succession swept many writers along in its wake, most famously John Dryden, whose great poem Absalom and Achitophel is a thinly disguised treatment of the Popish plot and Whig efforts to challenge the King. Supporters of Charles found a strong ally in Behn, who was loyal to the Stuart brothers. Despite her humble origins, Behn was a Tory and feared a return to what she saw as “mob rule.” She believed that Charles and his brother, as flawed as they were, offered both greater stability and personal and artistic freedom. Janet Todd explains the link between her politics and her art: “Aphra Behn did not relish return to the old times and was horrified by any growth in City or democratic power — she never wished to see constraining sexual morality linked with politics again” (Life, 224-5). Behn, who, as a woman, had endured many attacks upon her audacity to write sexually frank plays, could easily imagine what might happen to her career if the Whig forces triumphed.

Behn uses her bully pulpit of the theatre not only to satirize the City but to delineate it as a space that fosters rebellion and treason. It becomes associated with disorder, unnaturalness and treachery. The wealthy old merchants and City aldermen in her plays form a monstrous patriarchy whose authority comes not from the King or through the natural hierarchy of aristocratic birth but through rebellion and the usurpation of rightful authority. Rich through trade, their wealth is often the result of their support of the Cromwellian rebellion, which earned these City fathers confiscated Royalist assets. As frequently, their wealth comes from unscrupulous business practices or through abuse of their power. Following the standard patterns of Restoration comedy, Behn consistently sets them in opposition to young men, often impoverished, young, aristocratic rakes whose greatly superior sexual prowess threatens their security and ascendancy. Seeking to neutralize the threat, these treacherous City fathers usually control the young aristocrat’s fortunes. If the older man is a sexual rival, control is exerted through tricks that mire the younger man in debt or through manipulations that prevent them from a rightful, post-war return to their estates. If the older man is a guardian, he may control access to the younger man’s inheritance. The action of these plays is usually driven by the effort to return the young aristocratic rakes to their rightful places as men of wealth and influence. Without access to their fortunes, the young men are usually forced into tricks or deception to regain what is theirs. The Revenge’s Trickwell, cheated of his estate by Dashit, devotes all his energy to robbing Dashit over and over, aided by a range of disguises worthy of Robin Hood. In The Luckey Chance, Bellmour pretends to be Sir Feeble Fainwood’s Puritanical nephew to infiltrate his household and get closer to Letitia, his fiancée whom Sir Feeble intends to marry. In The City Heiress, perhaps the most political of Behn’s plays, the young rake, Wilding, has turned Tory, much to the disgust of his Whig uncle and guardian, Sir Timothy Treat-all. When Sir Timothy turns against him, Wilding launches an elaborate scheme to steal the proof he needs to show the rich City Heiress that he is indeed his uncle’s heir.

What is interesting about Behn’s use of these conventions is that she links the city fathers’ treachery towards the young men to their political treachery towards the King. For example, the unscrupulous tightwad, Sir Cautious Fulbank, in The Luckey Chance, is also a receiver of stolen imported goods, denying the King his rightful income from duty charges. Others are openly treasonous. Sir Timothy Treat-all, in The City Heiress harbors a large collection of seditious writings. He crows: “Come, come, the World is not so bad yet, but a man may speak Treason within the Walls of London, thanks be to God …” (V, i, 137-9).

Although the battle between the City patriarchs and the rakes is anchored in estates and fortunes, the site of struggle is often the body of a young woman. The most telling indicator of the unnatural state of things is that these old city merchants have control over the women that should rightfully belong to the young men. As guardians or fathers, they have thwarted alliances based on love in favor of those based on wealth, even going so far as to break legal contracts. Both Isabella Fancy of Sir Patient Fancy and Diana Feeble of The Luckey Chance find themselves in this unhappy situation. Some of the old men marry the rakes’ lovers themselves, with the young women driven by poverty or its threat to these repellant alliances. In The Luckey Chance, both Leticia and Julia have married their odious, elderly husbands for this reason. Such unnatural doings prompt more, as daughters are happy to scheme with their lovers against their duplicitous fathers, and wives plot to cuckold their doddering husbands. J. Douglas Canfield argues that, in this struggle between the city fathers and the rakes, the bodies of these young women metaphorically become “the contested ground for class dominance and, ultimately, symbols of the contested land of England itself” (115). Again, the future of the nation is at stake. When the aging patriarchs steer their daughters and wards towards loveless marriages, they do so to enrich their own coffers, with little thought about the futures of their children or family name. As husbands, the old men are often impotent and potentially incapable of fathering a child. In The Luckey Chance, for example, there is much joking between Sir Feeble and Sir Cautious about difficulty of getting and maintaining erections. However, the lack of a legitimate heir on the national stage had driven the country to the brink of another civil war and anxiety about the continuance of the nation itself is played out in the threats posed by the unnatural alliances the old City Fathers characters try to form or enforce.

Behn’s stage thus becomes a comedic battleground where the forces that once split a nation and threaten to do so again are pitted against each other in a way that allegorizes the struggle. The class warfare so characteristic of Restoration comedy also becomes political warfare. In the battle between the tradesmen of the City and the young aristocrats of “t’other end of Town,” as the wealthy tradesman, Dashit in The Revenge sneers, the struggle between the City and Westminster, and between Parliament and the King, both in the 1640’s and the 1680’s, is recapitulated. The corrupted, malformed and treacherous City fathers nearly undo the right order of things in their plotting against the virile and pleasure loving heroes. But nature eventually reasserts itself. In the eventual triumph of young aristocrat over old tradesman comes the purification of the City and the natural triumph of Tory over Whig, and King over those who seek to usurp his authority. Behn came to see this ending and celebrate it, if only for a few brief years before the Glorious Revolution of 1689, in which Parliament finally drove the much hated James from the throne after his accession upon Charles’ death in 1685.

Thus, the geography of Aphra Behn’s city comedies is complex. Delightfully shaped by London’s physical topography, Behn ascribes to those real and familiar surroundings historical meaning and ideological significance. Behn’s transgressive status as a professional female dramatist is reinforced as she vexes such traditional dichotomies as that between city and country by declaring that both fortune and gender disrupt them. The great political struggle of her time is cast both as nothing more than a traditional sexual comedy and nothing less than the great reestablishment of Nature’s true order. Thus, for Behn, map becomes metaphor in a penetrating, complex recapitulation and analysis of her history, her moment and her worldview.

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. The City Heiress: or, Sir Timothy Treat-all. The Works of Aphra Behn. Ed. Janet Todd. Vol. 7. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1996. 8 vols. 1-77.

Behn, Aphra. The Luckey Chance, or, An Alderman’s Bargain. The Works of Aphra Behn. Ed. Janet Todd. Vol. 7. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1996. 8 vols. 209-84.

Behn, Aphra. The Roundheads;or, The Good Old Cause. The Works of Aphra Behn. Ed. Janet Todd. Vol. 6. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1996. 8 vols. 357-424.

Canfield, J. Douglas. “Tupping Your Rival’s Women: Cit-Cuckolding as Class Warfare In Restoration Comedy.” Broken Boundaries: Women and Feminism in Restoration Drama. Ed. Katherine M. Quinsey. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1996. 113-28.

Hughes, Derek. “The Restoration Theatre.” In The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn. Eds. Derek Hughes and Janet Todd. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 29-45.

Hughes, Derek. The Theatre of Aphra Behn. New York, NY: Palgrave, 2001.

Todd, Janet. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

To Cite This Article:

Cynthia L. Caywood, ‘The Geography of Aphra Behn’s City Comedies’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 2 (September 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access]