'Quasi-Historical Farce' Portrays Life Of A Liberated Female Playwright

Feb 5, 2015

In the 1660s, post-Puritan England experienced its own kind of sexual revolution as women enjoyed first tastes of sexual freedom and empowerment.

Playwright Liz Duffy Adam's play, Or, is a "quasi-historical farce" based on this era. At the center of the story is the first professional female playwright, Aphra Behn.

Local actor Chris Caswell portrays Behn in Or, the Vermont Stage Company production now playing at FlynnSpace in downtown Burlington. “The puritans had had their day,” Caswell says. “Then [there was] new freedom, especially sexual freedom, promiscuity on both the sides of men and women. Art was back, the theaters were re-opened and it was a dawn of a new era.”

Behn, a real playwright, was also a spy for the British Crown. “She is using her spy savvy and playwriting skills to figure everything out and write her own story,” says Caswell.

Actor Chris Caswell describes the play as "a bedroom farce with historical elements thrown in."
Credit Lindsay Raymondjack

Caswell describes the play as “a bedroom farce with historical elements thrown in.” She says there is an air of liberation in the play and that the characters are trying to figure out where they fit in society. “All of a sudden doors are open to [women] that hadn’t been before and [they thought], what do they do now? Do they have to get married anymore, do they have to be a mistress and does the money have to come from a man?” Caswell says.  

Behn is known for the risqué subject matter of her plays. Caswell explains, “She could match any male playwright at the time with the bawdy and the sexual innuendo. [Her plays] are fun, over-the-top, wonderful, juicy plays.”

Was Behn taken seriously in her time? “Yes and no,” Caswell says. “She had 19 plays produced. But at the same time, people were always calling attention to the fact that she was a woman. She was constantly being questioned and constantly doing her work.”

"Everything that my character wants, she also wants the opposite at the same time. Trying to figure that out and make it clear to the audience as well is a beautiful challenge." - Chris Caswell, actor

Caswell said that although it’s fun to play a character that actually existed, it is also an interesting challenge to portray Behn’s colorful personality. “Everything that my character wants, she also wants the opposite at the same time. Trying to figure that out and make it clear to the audience as well is a beautiful challenge,” says Caswell.  

“The role speaks to who we are as women. Also, [I’m] just trying to summon her spirit somehow because she actually did exist. I feel like that energy is here in the world and tapping into who she might have been is a part of the challenge and part of the deliciousness of being an actress playing someone real,” says Caswell.

The Vermont Stage Company's production of Or is playing at FlynnSpace in Burlington until Feb. 15.