On Tuesday evening, we rehearsed short pieces by Jacob Juntunen (Code Name--Astrea) and Heather Jeanne Violanti (Aphra, Where Have You Behn?) for this weekend’s Aphra Behn Coffeehouse, and we found some intriguing connections among their work. Dan Smith caught up with these two playwrights via email to ask them a few questions. Both will be in attendance on Saturday at 1:00 at the Newberry Library.
Q: Both of you chose to write about Aphra Behn's life (and/or afterlife). Heather's play suggests a possible love connection between Aphra Behn and John Dryden, while Jacob's includes an affair with an unnamed young woman. "Or," is also invested in Aphra's romantic affiliations. Why is Behn's biography, in particular her love life, so interesting?
Heather Jeanne Violanti: I'm fascinated by Behn's biography because so much of it remains conjecture--some facts are known, but a lot of the time, the best we can do is guess. There's a strong erotic element to her writing--both passionate and playful, expressing love for both men and women--and I think this naturally leads to speculation that she had a passionate and playful "love life."
I honestly don't think the real Aphra was in love with John Dryden, but this relationship just emerged one day in writing the play. I began work on this play while in college--it was my first full-length play--and I was struggling with John's character. By coincidence, he was onstage with Aphra a lot. I remember sitting in the Gibbons Hall basement lounge discussing this with my friend Stephanie, an actor, and she made the suggestion "What if Aphra is in love with John?" And I tried that out--and it added a new dimension to the play
Jacob Juntunen: When making drama about artists, I think including their personal lives helps humanize them. I think of Shakespeare in Love, Sunday in the Park with George, or Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, and how the personal details in each help audiences relate to the artists involved. Spectators may not have completed a great work of art, but most of us have been in love. As far as Behn, specifically, though, Restoration drama is so full of sexual intrigue that it's almost impossible not to include it in a play about her. Her biography, to me, also suggested a James Bond-type spy thriller which, of course, has to include sex for information and double-crossing lovers.
Q: Both of your plays, like "Or," include rather farcical portrayals of Charles II. Jacob's play presents him as a kind of espionage pimp, and Heather focuses on his attachment to dogs, implying that he treated his mistress Nell Gwynn as a puppy. What made you choose to exploit Charles II for comic effect?
JJ: Another aspect of Behn's biography that's so appealing, at least to me, is that she's often referred to as the first professional writer who was a woman. Given that women playwrights are still at such a disadvantage--and even women protagonists--I was interested in casting at least one character of male power who clearly did not deserve the honors offered him. Since no one outranks a king, Charles II seemed like the obvious choice to set against an intelligent, powerful, Aphra Behn. So I suppose for me the farcical portrayal of Charles II is to contrast Behn's strengths.
HV: For me, Charles II just looks so silly in his Coronation portrait--that big curly wig, all those red robes--he looks like a regal Captain Hook. He did suffer from bouts of depression throughout his life--having endured the execution of his father and many years of exile--and I do try to address this later in the play--but for the most part, he come across as a clown. That's how I always thought of him--until I saw a production of Howard Barker's VICTORY recently--the King Charles in that is not only clownish, he's also terrifying--a Shakespearean villain obsessed with holding on to his tenuous power.
As for the obsession with dogs, Charles really loved spaniels--there's a breed of mini-spaniels named after him, the Cavalier King Charles. He's even holding a little spaniel in his lap in his baby portrait in London's National Gallery. And I love dogs, too--so I thought--what a fun idea to put some invisible dogs in the play! (Charles is always fussing over the dogs, but we never see them).
Q: Why is critical reception of Aphra Behn intriguing for both of you? One character in Heather's play is Virginia Woolf, perhaps Aphra's greatest champion. Jacob, on the other hand, depicts Harold Bloom, one of Aphra's greatest detractors.
HV: Throughout history, Aphra seems to have divided the critics--they either love her or hate her. And until recently, so many of them dismissed her simply because she was a woman, or she was a woman writing about things that weren't considered "proper" for a woman to write about (like sex and politics). On the other hand, her supporters deified her, like Virginia Woolf, perhaps glossing over how at times, Aphra bowed to the convention of her time (the "happy" marriages tacked on to the comedies, for instance, though of course, this is what comedic structure demands).
JJ: I've been teaching theatre history for colleges in one form or another since 2001, and in one of my earliest syllabi I hit upon the notion of teaching the idea of the canon alongside theatre history. Instead of simply presenting plays chronologically, I reasoned, I would assign readings from a "classic canon"--which, unsurprisingly was mainly white men--and then go back and present a more "modern canon" post-1990s that includes more women and minorities. So for at least ten years I've been interested in what we read in school and why; I've wondered, how are canons of literature formed, maintained, and changed? Aphra Behn falls into the latter category, a playwright who proably wouldn't be in anthologies from the 1950s, and I wanted to present the power of the critic and professor alongside the power of the writer in my play. In fact, I would say in the end who we read, who we remember, and how writers' stories are told is more in the hands of scholars than writers. So, while Behn succeeded in her time as a professional writer, I wanted to explore whether that success translates into the modern era. Dealing with Bloom's take on her seemed like the most natural way to do so.
Q: Your plays similarly employ direct address to the audience. What made you choose this device? Is this related to the convention of asides in Restoration comedy? Or did you just want Aphra to speak directly to us?
HV: I love the theatricality of the Restoration plays--particularly the direct address as used in asides,the Prologue, and Epilogue. I knew when I began writing my play that to stay true to this form, Aphra had to address the audience. And there would be a Prologue and Epilogue.
JJ: I wish I'd been clever enough to use direct address to make a sly formal comment on Restoration comedy, and if you want to give me credit for that, I'll happily take it. But the real reason I used direct address is that, as I mentioned, Behn's biography struck me as James Bond-like. This led me to the idea of a summer blockbuster film about her--which, in all honesty, I'd love to see and write if there are any film producers out there. From there, it was a simple step to a trailer about this movie, and that evolved into a review of the movie. But I like the idea that it's related to Restoration comedy's asides, so let's say it was about that instead.
Q: Any current projects you want to share?
HV: I'm working on expanding a one act play, AN APPLE A DAY, into a full-length. I wrote it for the Women's Work Lab at New Perspectives here in NYC. It juxtaposes the experiences of a modern day schizophrenic woman with a woman diagnosed with hysteria in the 1890s. I have a one-night only performance of another play, LANDSCAPE WITH HOUSE AND DOG, coming up at Coffee Black Productions, also in NYC, in March, and I'm working on revising that too. I'd like to revisit APHRA WHERE HAVE YOU BEHN?, though since I began it 10 years ago, I worry that, as a whole piece, it might be out of date, or past its viable moment. I am so happy and grateful, though, to see it onstage at the Aphra Behn Coffeehouse!
JJ: My next full length play, Joan's Laughter, will be produced by Chicago's side project theatre in May and June. It's the untold story of Joan of Arc's last minutes of life, based on a newfound 1431 document claiming at the last Joan recanted. In my play, she must decide whether to listen to a priest who says she can save her soul by repudiating her Voices, or to continue asserting her Voices were from God despite their silence. From its historical inspiration, Joan’s Laughter explores the abandonment we all feel in our darkest moments. More about it and my other plays can be found at www.jacobjuntunen.com, and once a week I post a new short play at www.ripostetotheworld.blogspot.com.