On Nuns, Husbands and Purgatories : Aphra Behn’s The History of the Nun and 18th-Century Actors’ Adaptation for the Theatre



Year of publication 2023
Type Appeared in Conference without Proceedings
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description Robert Southerne’s tragicomedy The Fatal Marriage, or, The Innocent Adultery (1694) is a unique mix of two distinct stories, a comic and a tragic one, which both ultimately go back to Boccaccio’s Decameron. While the comic plot had been known to English audiences in several Renaissance iterations – including Edward Sharpham’ The Fleire (c. 1607), the first part of Thomas D’Urfey’s The Comical History of Don Quixote (1694), and John Fletcher’s The Night Walker, or, The Little Thief (c. 1611, rev. by James Shirley by 1633) – the tragic plot clearly borrows from Aphra Behn’s then recently published novella The History of the Nun, or, The Fair Vow-Breaker (printed 1689). Multiple adaptations of both the stories and their complex relationships in the 18th century show us that the adaptation process for the theatre goes well beyond the textual material of the sources, as well as beyond the straightforward “source – adaptation” connection. What is even more interesting is that two most influential 18th-century adaptations of Southerne’s plots, The Humours of Purgatory (1716) and Isabella, or, The Fatal Marriage (1757), were both written by actors who previously played in Southerne’s piece. The adapters (Benjamin Griffin and David Garrick, respectively), therefore, not only streamlined their chosen strand of their source, but also imbued their works with the element of “ghosting”, as described by Employing Marvin Carlson. The present paper will use Aphra Behn’s novella (and, to a lesser extent, Southerne’s comic plot from Decameron) and its afterlife to explore the issue of late early-modern dramatic adaptation from a theatrical rather than purely literary perspective.
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