Janet Todd (ed.), The Pickering Masters: The Works of Aphra Behn, Vol. 5: The Plays: 1671–1677

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Abdelazer, or The Moor's Revenge. A Tragedy is Behn's only tragedy. It was performed on 3 July 1676 but may have had a première before this date. There is no recorded prologue for the performances and the printed text arrived without one, but an epilogue was provided 'Written by a Friend'. When the play was reprinted in 1693, with only occasional substantial correction, as Abdelazer: or, The Moor's Revenge. A Tragedy, As it is Acted at the Theatre Royal, By Their Majesties Servants, it was provided with a prologue beginning, 'Gallants you have so long been absent hence. . .'. This had appeared in Behn's edited volume, The Covent Garden Drolery of 1672, where it had been entitled 'Prologue to the Double Marriage', a play ascribed to Fletcher and Massinger and possibly revived in the theatrical season of 1671–2. The versatile prologue would later appear as the epilogue to the posthumous 1690 edition of The Widdow Ranter, which may suggest that Behn originally wrote it, although it could just as easily be by another playwright such as Edward Ravenscroft. Both Behn and Ravenscroft elsewhere began their prologues with 'Gallants', as, for example, in Ravenscroft's The English Lawyer: 'Gallants, pray what do you do here to day?' or Behn's first play The Forc'd Marriage: 'Gallants, our Poets have of late so us'd yee'. The prologue used in the 1693 reprinting has been reprinted here in square brackets.

Abdelazer was theatrically quite demanding. The battles between various factions of the Spanish court in which the fortunes of both sides are followed required some quick changes of scenes and the shutters of the Dorset Garden theatre had to be employed to suggest various places within a single location. On its first staging in 1676, the play had a strong cast, with Mary Lee and Thomas Betterton playing the leading roles of the Queen and Abdelazer. Abdelazer was reasonably popular and was revived in 1695, probably at the beginning of April, to open the season for Drury Lane. For this production Colley Cibber provided a new prologue described as 'the first fruit [of his Muse] that was ever made publick', although he did not think much of the play and noted the fall off in theatre attendance after the first night. It was for this 1695 production that Henry Purcell wrote his famous music.

Behn's previous two plays The Amorous Prince and The Dutch Lover had taken plots from Don Quixote and Don Felipe. Abdelazer was the first of pg 242what might better be called her adaptations. In An Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691) Gerard Langbaine wrote of Abdelazer 'This Play is originally an old Play of Marloes, call'd Lusts Dominion, or The Lascivious Queen, a Tragedy written about Forty years ago, tho' printed in octavo, Lond., 1661. She has much improv'd it throughout.' Lusts Dominion; or, The Lascivious Queen. A Tragedie had been published in London in 1657 and ascribed by Francis Kirkman the publisher to 'Christofer Marloe, Gent.' possibly to make the play more saleable. If so, the ruse failed since in 1661 the remainder of the 1657 printing was being sold with a new title page. The play has many elements reminiscent of Marlowe; in its overarching and exotic villain who is defeated but never subjugated in spirit, it bears some resemblance to The Jew of Malta as well as to Tamburlane.

None the less, many scholars dispute the attribution whilst yet accepting that there might be an earlier play by Marlowe on which Lusts Dominion was based (support for this idea coming from moments in the text where apparently older and newer versions are juxtaposed). A later date than Marlowe can deliver (he died in 1593) seems appropriate for at least part of the play since there seem to be clear allusions to a tract concerning the death of the Spanish king, Philip II, which occurred after Marlowe's death. There also appear to be other claimants to authorship. Early in 1600, Thomas Dekker, John Day and William Haughton were reported to be writing a work called the Spanish Moors Tragedy which may have been published in February or left uncompleted; several nineteenth-century scholars such as J. P. Collier and Frederick Fleay thought that this play was identical with Lusts Dominion. But the ascription of Lusts Dominion to Dekker, Day and Haughton, which this identification implies, now also seems doubtful, although the play does have some of Dekker's common images such as winged flight and the irregular use of rhyme. The controversy over the authorship of Lusts Dominion is summarised in the editions by J. Le Gay Brereton (Louvain 1931) which embraces the Dekker hypothesis, and by S. R. Golding in Notes & Queries (8 December 1928), pp. 399–402, who supports an imitator of Marlowe for its author.

The likeliest possibility is that the play was written by an unknown and later dramatist — one who approved rhyme and run-on lines — in imitation of, or under the influence of, The Jew of Malta. The writer was probably also influenced by Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus where Aaron the Moor and Tamora, Queen of Spain, are lovers and Aaron muses:

  •         Then, Aaron, arm thy heart and fit thy thoughts
  •         To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress,
  •         And mount her pitch whom thou in triumph long
  •         Hast prisoner held, fett'red in amorous chains. . . . (II, i, 12–15)

pg 243Later, like Abdelazer, Aaron indicates some weariness at the Queen's amorousness: 'Madam, though Venus govern your desires,/ Saturn is dominator over mine' (II, i, 30–31).

Lusts Dominion tells of a wicked Moor Eleazar, tired of the amorous Queen, inspired by hatred for the Spanish, and ambitious for personal power at any cost. With the help of his Moorish officers and the compliance of the Queen he schemes to 'blow up the old King. Consume his Sons,/ And make all Spain a bonefire'. In the process he tries to persuade his wife, whom the new young King loves, to poison the King but she demurs; the Queen has her strangled and Eleazar stabs the King. Seeing Eleazar's growing power, the Queen's second son Philip and the Cardinal who supports him flee to Portugal where they raise an army. They return and are close to victory when the Queen seduces the cardinal into changing sides in the hope of her love. Urged on by Eleazar for whom she appears, despite his obvious scorn of her, willing to decimate her entire family, the Queen declares her second son a bastard and tricks the Cardinal into accepting that he is the father. When he does so, he is immediately condemned. Naturally enough the Queen now expects to rule with Eleazar, but Eleazar suddenly turns to her daughter with whom, he claims, he will reign; the Queen is taken to prison to join her son and the Cardinal. Through a trick, the imprisoned Spanish manage to escape and disguise themselves as Eleazar's officers. They enter a sort of masquerade with Eleazar, who, at the height of his power, is imagining thrones of bones and skulls. They kill him, Philip becomes king, and the Queen his mother takes the unlikely step of retiring to a life of penitence.

There is no doubt that Behn much improved on the original play. Her version is speedier, has shorter speeches, and is more dramatic than Lusts Dominion, which had too many characters and too haphazard a structure. She abandoned such devices as the fairies and the comic duo of Cole and Crab, retaining only one comic soldier. She also omitted the old King Philip and combined Alvero and Hortenzo into Alonzo, brother of Florella (originally Maria), Abdelazer's wife. She filled out the court with minor courtiers, added a banqueting scene and considerably changed the final act. Above all she clarified motivation. Osmin, Abdelazer's creature, is in her play characterised as weary of his subjection to a tyrant and he is given the role of warning Philip and the Cardinal in place of the two 'lowsy friars' of Lusts Dominion. Abdelazer retains his monstrousness but, in Behn's version, the audience is invited to give him some sympathy, especially in his love for his wife. The guilt of the Queen is exaggerated and she agrees to the murder of her husband, while herself stabbing her rival Florella. Her dramatic and just death is Behn's creation.

Like Dryden's complex political play The Conquest of Granada, published pg 244in 1670, Abdelazer uses the Spanish material relating to the conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada and its aftermath. But the historical Queen Isabella, noted for piety and patriotism, is hard to discern in the lusty and amoral Queen of Behn's play. So far from killing her husband Ferdinand she died some years before him. They had no son called Philip but they did have a daughter, Joana, and a son-in-law, Philip of Hapsburg, who, on account of his wife's insanity, claimed the regency of Castile after the death of Isabella.

The 1693 Abdelazer was reprinted for Thomas Chapman and is ascribed to 'Mrs. Anne Behn.' In the Folger copy (B 1716) John Genest, who put his signature and the date 'Decr. 12th 1815' under the title Abdelazer, has erased 'Anne' and substituted 'Aphra'.

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