Article Title

Anti-Colonist Discourse, Tragicomedy, and the "American" Behn


Adam R. Beach


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Recent critical discussion of The Widdow Ranter has been nearly silent on the prologue and epilogue that John Dryden authored for the posthumous production of the play in 1689.1 Highlighting Dryden’s prologue forces two salient but little-discussed issues to the fore: the specific mixed-plot form and function of Behn’s tragicomedy and the blanket dismissals of colonial American society that were widely circulated in England and forcefully espoused by many of Behn’s fellow Royalist playwrights. Writing to an already hostile audience, many of whom would share Dryden’s scorn of English colonials, Behn takes advantage of the mixed tragicomedic form to outline an attractive, complex colonial society, but this positive depiction had little appeal to her contemporaries and expresses what continued to be a minority view in England far into the eighteenth century.2 Ultimately, her vision of colonial life is trumped on the stage by Dryden’s friend Thomas Southerne and his highly successful and more traditional split-plot tragicomedy Oroonoko (1695), which, throughout its hundreds of performances, reinstates the image of a hopelessly depraved colonial world that Behn had contested in her own drama.


1 In Derek Hughes’s view, the dearth of scholarship that explores Behn’s relationship to Dryden is symptomatic of a Behn studies that often loses sight of the specific literary and historical milieu of the Restoration. See his, “Race, Gender, and Scholarly Practice: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko,” Essays in Criticism 52 (2002): 1–22. See also James Winn, John Dryden and His World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 437–38, for an insightful reading of Dryden’s prologue and epilogue that primarily focuses on the post-Revolution politics of 1689.

2 I follow Robert Hume’s (in The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976]) characterization of the generic form of the play as a “mixed plot” tragicomedy. Hume observes that: “As a mixture, the plot is a remarkably well-integrated three-level hierarchy” (211).

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