Written and produced by Jenna Fuller and Brooke Allen (cite)
In this episode, Jenna and Brooke consider the rapid growth in popularity of coffeehouses and its influence on gossip culture in seventeenth-century England, paying particular attention to Behn’s plays, The Emperor of the Moon, The Rover, and The Widow Ranter.
- What does Behn suggest about gossip culture? Who is it serving and harming?
- How does The Emperor of the Moon manipulate the viewer’s gaze, and what does this communicate about the effects of gossip?
- What does the excerpt from The Rover suggest about the popularity of gossip culture during this time?
- How did gossip culture impact Behn’s own life, and how is this seen in her writing, particularly The Widow Ranter?
- How has gossip culture changed since the seventeenth century? How has it remained the same?
- Beach, Adam R. “Carnival Politics, Generous Satire, and Nationalist Spectacle in Behn’s The Rover.” Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 28, no. 3, 2004, pp. 1–19, doi: 10.1215/00982601-28-3-1.
- Mannheimer, Katherine. “Celestial Bodies: Readerly Rapture as Theatrical Spectacle in Aphra Behn’s Emperor of the Moon.” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700, vol. 35, no. 1, 2011, pp. 39–60, doi: 10.1353/rst.2011.0005.
- Pincus, Steve. “‘Coffee Politicians Does Create’: Coffeehouses and Restoration Political Culture.” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 67, no. 4, 1995, pp. 807–34, doi: 10.1086/245229.
- Ward, Wilber Henry. “Mrs. Behn’s The Widow Ranter: Historical Sources.” South Atlantic Bulletin, vol. 41, no. 4, 1976, pp. 94–98, doi: 10.2307/3198959.
- Washburn, Wilcomb E. “Bacon, Nathaniel (1647–26 October 1676).” Dictionary of American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2000, doi: 10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.0100043.
- Withington, Phil. “Where Was the Coffee in Early Modern England?” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 92, no. 1, 2000, pp. 40–75, doi: 10.1086/707339.
We would like to thank Jonah Berglund for the use of “Overhand Jazz” (via Pixabay) for the intro and outro sequences in this episode.
ELIZABETH. Author, spy, political propagandist, Aphra Behn was one of the first English women to earn a living by her pen. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the English Civil Wars, expanding transatlantic slave trade, and settler colonialism in the Americas, with frankness and complexity Behn’s work engages a range of topics, from gender identity to political power.
My name is Elizabeth Tavares and I am so pleased to welcome you to “Aphra Behn: The Podcast.” This limited series celebrates the 350th anniversary of the first public performance of a work by Behn, surveying major trends across translations of romances and scientific texts, timely plays, erotic poetry, and inventive novellas. Researched, written, and produced by University of Alabama undergraduates during the coronavirus global pandemic in the spring of 2021, this series offers a primer to one of the most influential writers in English you’ve never heard of.
Listen to the seven episodes, covering topics from climate and gambling to gossip and marriage, in any order. Each episode includes a special feature, including short performances from plays and interviews with world-class scholars. Want to learn more? Check out our website for show notes as well as links to popular and scholarly resources. We’re grateful to the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, the Samford Media Center, and the Alabama Digital Humanities Center for their support of this project. And thank you for listening. Now on with the show.
JENNA. Hi, I’m Jenna Fuller
BROOKE. and I’m Brooke Allen. Welcome, this is a podcast examining Aphra Behn and her works.
JENNA. In this episode, we will discuss Aphra Behn’s critique of gossip culture in seventeenth-century England, and the phenomena of people-watching and coffeehouses. Just as coffee shops are popular places to gather today, they were also very popular in England during the late 1600s. In fact, the first coffeehouse in England was opened around 1652. People would gather in coffeehouses to not only enjoy their coffee, but also to gossip with one another and catch up on the latest news.
BROOKE. Phil Withington describes coffeehouses as “a crucible for political debate and news in revolutionary England.” Furthermore, Steve Pincus says that coffeehouses “offer(ed) a social space for public criticism of the state” and “welcomed everyone regardless of gender, social status, or political outlook.” For these reasons, as coffee shops became more popular, so did gossip culture.
JENNA. Through plays like Behn’s The Emperor of the Moon, The Rover, and The Widow Ranter, readers get a glimpse into gossip culture during the Restoration era and the anxieties it posed.
BROOKE. Aphra Behn—throughout her life a victim of many rumors surrounding her mysterious background, religious affiliation, and possible espionage—offers a satirical view of gossip culture during this time period.
JENNA. Filled with many moments of covert watching, The Emperor of the Moon is an excellent example of Behn’s critique of gossip culture and highlights her position on the subject of gazing as well as displaying the effects that may occur as a result in one’s facilitation and participation in such activities.
BROOKE. The structure of the play is important in achieving Behn’s goal for the text. The Emperor of the Moon is a farce, which is a play that is so overwhelmed with exaggerated humor that it cannot be taken seriously. The format of the play is important because it reveals Behn’s views of gossip culture as being ridiculous and shows how she wanted to reveal this to the audience in a way that was easy to understand. Furthermore, Behn intentionally avoided using high language to make her play accessible to all audiences and to appeal specifically to a lowbrow audience. This is revealed in the epistle dedicatory, that is placed before the printed version of the play, when Behn says “in humbler comedy we next appear.”
JENNA. Also in the epistle dedicatory, Behn states explicitly her views on gossip culture and what negative effects resulted from it. She says that gossip culture distracted from and took away the value of theatre and that “the only diversion of the town now, is high dispute, and public controversies in taverns, coffee-houses, and those things which ought to be the greatest mysteries in religion . . . look like so many fanatical stratagems to ruin the pulpit as well as the stage.” This line wonderfully sets up Behn’s satirical intentions for her farce and reveals that gossip culture harmed the audience of and the actors in plays by removing attention from the once glorified stages.
BROOKE. The notion of watching from the outside or unconsented peeping is introduced first in the contexts of theatre. In the prologue, Behn compares the actors of the stage to puppets who are meant to entertain an audience that is removed from the action of the play. The text itself also comments on this idea by placing a play within a play as the characters create a deceitful farce.
JENNA. The notion of observing a subject who isn’t aware of the beholder’s gaze also continues throughout the play itself. Scaramouch and Harlequin, two of the characters in Behn’s farce, reference this careful watching as they are constantly sneaking and hiding to observe others. The detailed stage directions detail much of the sneaking that the characters indulge in throughout the duration of the play. A stage direction for Harlequin indicates he “was hid in the hedges, peeping now and then, and when his master went out he was left behind.” The audience’s gaze is manipulated later through lighting, when Scaramouch illuminates the dark stage with a candle, revealing Scaramouch’s awareness of the seemingly ever present gaze.
BROOKE. In addition to the audience’s eternal eye, Katherine Mannheimer suggests that a desire for privacy and a desire to know the unknown—which is essentially what gossip culture revolves around—are present within the play. This can be seen through Doctor Baliardo and his telescope. For example, in his hopes of seeing the people of the moon Doctor Baliardo says, “it were flat treason if it should be known; but thus unseen, and as wise politicians should, I take survey of all: this is the statesman’s peeping hole, through which he steals the secrets of his king, and seems to wink at a distance.” In this excerpt, Doctor Baliardo acknowledges the distanced observing that has come to consume the minds of many, and he reveals a desire for privacy in a world consumed with the lives of others as he requests that Scaramouch “take care that none enter.” These lines also provide insight into the popularity of political gossip during the Restoration era, as this was a time characterized by intense political turmoil and polarizing political division.
JENNA. As well as illustrating Behn’s depiction of the inclination to preserve one’s sense of privacy, the play has two main concerns that are intertwined to create the plot and overarching conflict present within the piece. The secret romances that are hidden from Doctor Baliardo lead the characters to come up with a farce about a utopia on the moon to distract him. We have already discussed the role of this farce within a farce, but what about the focus on the romance plots?
BROOKE. The play’s romance plots seem to drive a great deal of the covert action of the play, particularly due to the fact that the romances are the primary reason the deceitful farce is created by the characters at all. Whether it’s Scaramouch and Harlequin dressing in disguises to compete for Mopsophil’s love or Cinthio and Charmante hiding in the closet to avoid being caught by Doctor Baliardo, hidden romantic relationships or romantic feelings occupy the majority of the play. This could be a critique on the obsession with sexual and romantic relationship rumors within gossip culture during the time.
JENNA. Similarly, The Rover is a play centered around groups of people gossiping. The play opens with cavaliers Belvile and Willmore gossiping about the people around them during Carnival in Naples. The following is a reading from this scene. The voice of Belvile will be done by Jenna Fuller, and the voice of Willmore will be read by Brooke Allen.
BELVILE [JENNA]. Oh the fantastical rogues, how they’re dressed! ‘Tis a satire against the whole sex.
WILLMORE [BROOKE]. Is this a fruit that grows in this warm country?
BELVILE [JENNA]. Yes: ‘tis pretty to see these Italians start, swell and stab, at the word cuckold, and yet stumble at horns on every threshold.
WILLMORE [BROOKE]. See what’s on their back. “Flowers of every night”: ah, rogue, and more sweet than roses of every month! This is a gardener of Adam’s own breeding. What think you of those grave people? Is this a wake in Essex half so mad or extravagant? I like their sober grave way: ‘tis a kind of legal authorized fornication, where the men are not child for’t, nor the women despised, as amongst our dull English; even the monsieurs want that part of good manners.
BELVILE [JENNA]. But here in Italy, a monsieur is the humblest best-bred gentleman: duels are so baffled by bravos, that an age shows not one but between a Frenchman and a hangman, whose is as much too hard for hum on the Piazza, as they are for a Dutchman on the New Bridge. But see, another crew.
BROOKE. This scene perfectly portrays the gossip culture that Aphra Behn was critiquing. Here, Belvile and Willmore gossip about people who are standing near them, commenting on their clothes and their actions. Since much of The Rover’s plot seems to be centered around gossip, we can see just how prevalent gossip was during the 1600s. Behn herself could have even been impacted by the popularity of rapid rumor-spreading and gossip culture.
JENNA. Furthermore, The Rover also presents a depiction of Behn’s own perception on the subject of gossip and gossip culture as depicted within the discourse surrounding the various characters. One such character of particular note is that of Nick Blunt. His naivete surrounding the motivations and societal positions of Lucetta are subject to extensive mockery and gossip from his peers.
BROOKE. The reasons behind the mockery and gossip are, of course, not revealed to Blunt himself until he is forced to confront the reality of the situation. He only truly realizes what has occurred after being left alone, bereft of his belongings and clothing. Blunt’s predicament illustrates the pejorative effects of unfettered gossip and depicts who gossip harms in its wake.
JENNA. Blunt’s response to having been misled and subsequently robbed by Lucetta is to attempt to transfer his anger and resentment onto another woman as a means to reassert his power and dominance over women as a whole. Florinda is harmed the most violently as a result of Blunt’s perceived entitlement as well as a domino effect—in the context of the play—of persistent gossip culture.
BROOKE. The role of gossip and gossip culture is prevalent within the motivations and actions of each character with the play. Be it the humorous result of Blunt being left without his belongings, or the horrific of Florinda attempted assault.
JENNA. Interestingly, Behn’s play The Widow Ranter is loosely historical in that Aphra Behn got her information about Nathaniel Bacon from London accounts of his rebellion. This stands out because Behn is in a way relying on this culture of partial truth and rumors to get the background information for The Widow Ranter.
BROOKE. This reveals just how common rumors and gossip culture were, even in the media. According to Wilber Henry Ward, Behn probably got the information about the rebellion from “a London news-pamphlet titled Strange News from Virginia,” and the information turned out to be unreliable.
JENNA. Behn’s lack of reliable details regarding Nathaniel Bacon and his rebellion is evident throughout The Widow Ranter, particularly in her depiction of Bacon. Wilcomb E. Washburn says that Bacon had a “dark side” that “was always present” in his “background,” so it is interesting to see that he is portrayed as a brave hero in The Widow Ranter.
BROOKE. Behn certainly sought to paint Bacon in a way that contradicted assumptions that he was a rebellious leader. In the play, we see Bacon and the king, fighting for Semernia’s love.
Bacon’s desire for Semernia’s hand places him in a romantic plot that has the audience supporting Bacon and portrays him as the honorable protagonist, motivated by his love for Semernia.
JENNA. Behn’s use of information about Bacon that might not have been entirely accurate shows that gossip culture influenced many areas of life during the time period, and I think this still can be said about today’s culture. Today, gossip culture still exists and is a large part of many peoples’ lives.
BROOKE. Coffeehouses still serve as places to gather, but gossip culture and these notions of unconsented peeping or distant watching of others’ lives take a different form today. People have moved away from using coffee houses for gossip and now use digital media to do so.
JENNA. Yes, these notions are still relevant as many use social media to look into other peoples’ lives from a distance. Through apps like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, it is easy to know what anyone is doing at any given second. We can peer into friends’, celebrities’, and even strangers’ lives just by accessing these websites and through the protection of our phone screens, scroll through our feeds.
BROOKE. Social media has not only added another way to distantly look into other peoples’ worlds, but it has also given us another way to gossip and spread rumors. Pictures and posts can easily be commented on, saved, and sent to other people just at the click of a button. These features have made it easier to take pieces of others’ lives and share unsolicited opinions about them with any of our friends.
JENNA. I think some of the dangers that Behn pointed out about gossip culture are still very relevant. Even though our mediums and methodology may look a little different than those during the Restoration era, the patterns and popularity of gossip culture can still be readily perceived today. In this episode, we explored coffeehouse and gossip culture during the 1600s and saw how gossip culture brings about notions of distant watching and observing from afar.
BROOKE. We also saw that these concepts about gossip culture are still relevant today and that some of the dangers surrounding gossip culture are still present even though they may be depicted in different ways. We hope you enjoyed our conversation of Behn’s satire concerning gossip culture during the Restoration era.
JENNA. Thanks for joining us, and be sure to check out the other episodes in this podcast series for more information about Aphra Behn and her works.