Sunday, August 30, 2020

Verse in THE ROVER

One of the innovations of Restoration comedy was to write substantially all of the play in verse. English comedies before the Restoration, even if they contained substantial amounts of prose, still had part of the play written in verse.

William Wycherley's Restoration comedy The Country Wife, however, contains almost no verse, other than the prologue and epilogue. True, there is a song, and each act ends with a rhyme to punctuate the action, but with those few exceptions, the play is entirely in prose.

The playwright Aphra Behn tended to follow her own path, though, and her plays usually combine a substantial amount of verse dialogue with the prose. For instance, in her most famous play, The Rover, the first scene is entirely in prose until the men leave. Then, Florinda says:

I ne'er till now perceiv'd my ruin near,

I've no defense against Antonio's love,

For he has all the advantages of nature,

The moving arguments of youth and fortune.

Florinda doesn't want to marry Antonio, in spite of the fact that he is the viceroy's son. Instead, she loves Belvile, an English colonel who is a cavalier, a champion of the king during the English Civil War. Since the play takes place during the Commonwealth period, however, he is living abroad in exile in the Spanish-occupied Kingdom of Naples.

There is no more verse for the rest of the act, but in Act II there is a song, which seems to inspire other characters to speak in verse. After the song, the men who are in love, Pedro, Antonio, and Willmore, have a few lines of elevated verse. The first substantial passage of verse occurs in in the second scene, though, when Wilmore has a long debate with the courtesan Angelica about the relative avarice of men and women. Willmore says:

Poor as I am, I would not sell myself,

No, not to gain your charming high-priz’d person.

Though I admire you strangely for your beauty,

Yet I contemn your mind.

At first, Angelica answers him in prose, but then she begins to take him more seriously and gives this verse reply:

—No, I will not hear thee talk,—thou hast a charm

In every word, that draws my heart away.

And all the thousand trophies I design’d,

Thou hast undone—Why art thou soft?

Thy looks are bravely rough, and meant for war.

Enamored, Angelica not only gives her favors freely to Willmore, but actually makes a gift of gold to him, essentially paying him for the encounter. In spite of all this, the fickle Willmore runs off after another woman. When Angelica's servant tells her this is all one can expect from such a man, the courtesan's language is once more elevated to verse, and she says:

Expect! as much as I paid him, a heart entire,

Which I had pride enough to think when e’er I gave

It would have rais’d the man above the vulgar,

Made him all soul, and that all soft and constant.

In Act III, there are couplets to indicate scene transitions, and in a moment of passion, Belville breaks out into a quatrain, but no more extended periods of verse occur until the fourth act. Don Antonio has a discussion with Belvile in which he orders him to fight a duel on the Don's behalf, since Belvile has just wounded Antonio in the arm. Antonio states in the verse scene that he has a rival in love. As he tells Belvile:

He challeng’d me to meet him on the Molo,

As soon as day appear’d; but last night’s quarrel

Has made my arm unfit to guide a sword.

Belvile hesitantly agrees, realizing that the duel is over his own beloved Florinda. Out on the Molo, Belvile meets the rival, who is actually Florinda's brother, Pedro, rather than a romantic rival. Pedro, you see, is upset that Don Antonio was courting Angelica, when he was supposed to be engaged to Angelica. (Angelica is actually in love with Belvile. Her Facebook relationship status should definitely be: "It's complicated.")

The dialogue for the duel is largely in verse, and at the end, Belvile disarms Pedro, and then lies his sword at Florinda's feet. Satisfied that Antonio (who is actually Belvile in disguise) really does love Florinda, Pedro asks the masked Belvile if he can give his heart entirely to Florinda. Belvile responds, saying:

Entire, as dying saints confessions are.

I can delay my happiness no longer.

This minute let me make Florinda mine.

Pedro agrees, and they decide the ceremony will take place at St. Peter's church. Then Belvile's mask falls off, and... well, again, things get complicated.

Interestingly enough, the best verse in the play belongs to Angelica. In Act IV, she complains to her maid Moretta:

Oh, name not such mean trifles.—Had I given him all

My youth has earn’d from sin,

I had not lost a thought nor sigh upon’t.

But I have given him my eternal rest,

My whole repose, my future joys, my heart;

My virgin heart. Moretta! oh ’tis gone!

Though Angelica is hardly a virgin in body, Willmore is the first man she has ever truly loved, and the betrayal stings. In the last act, she holds a pistol to his breast, declaring:

Had I remain’d in innocent security,

I shou’d have thought all men were born my slaves;

And worn my pow’r like lightning in my eyes,

To have destroy’d at pleasure when offended.

—But when love held the mirror, the undeceiving glass

Reflected all the weakness of my soul, and made me know,

My richest treasure being lost, my honour,

All the remaining spoil cou’d not be worth

The conqueror’s care or value.

—Oh how I fell like a long worship’d idol,

Discovering all the cheat!

Wou’d not the incense and rich sacrifice,

Which blind devotion offer’d at my altars,

Have fall’n to thee?

Why woud’st thou then destroy my fancy’d power?

Behn had a lot to say with The Rover, but it seems she kept her best writing for the verse passages.