Aphra Behn’s 1687 play The Emperor of the Moon is something of a curio, a satire of a contemporary scientific culture gone to seed. It depends on pyrotechnics and props, such as “a Telescope twenty (or more) foot long,” and a defiantly absurd lack of realism to show the goings-on in the chaotic house of a “virtuoso” who hopes to spy on the “secret Closet” of moon men. In Behn’s corpus, the play is something of an outlier alongside more urbane, cosmopolitan comedies such as The Dutch Lover and The Rover. However, the remarkable recent digital production by Misty Anderson and a marvelous group of performers not only energizes and makes relevant this gonzo comedy, but also uses an otherwise perfunctory technology to bring to life its crucial themes about knowledge, power, and privacy. Anderson, a professor focusing on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature at the University of Tennessee, may have provided the scholarly impulse and understanding behind the production, but actors Charles Pasternak and Charlotte Munson were equal partners (with Munson’s father Richard providing the music), and the collaborative energy of actors having great fun with Behn’s scenario was evident in every interaction.
Al Coppola, who attended the play and answered questions during its intermission, incisively explained that Behn’s “elaborate farce summons the audience’s blank wonder.” Behn’s play was staged for a culture fascinated by the progress of experimental philosophy, the foundation of our modern science. After Charles II approved the charter of The Royal Society in 1661, England joined and even took the forefront of an exciting international culture of prolific scientific advancement and discovery. But to an outsider like Behn, since no woman would join The Royal Society until 1945, the comic stage and page allowed cynical observers to expose the men who claimed they were solving all the world’s problems behind closed doors. The epithet “virtuoso” came to be used to describe boffins who were dissecting frogs and accidentally setting chemical fires in their home laboratories. By 1687, the Stuart Monarchy had transitioned following the death of the flamboyant Charles to his Catholic brother James, and almost every institution seemed rife for the most savage satire. Behn’s Tory politics should have aligned her to her monarch, but the mechanics of the Glorious Revolution in the year to follow would divide king and countryman and lead to James’s ouster.
It’s fitting then that Behn’s play is about deluded authority thwarted. Behn invites us into the house of Doctor Baliardo (Carol Mayo Jenkins), whose telescopic obsession leads him to neglect his lovestruck charges: daughter Elara (Brittany Pirozzoli) and niece Bellamante (Swisyzinna Moore). Assisted unably by servant Scaramouch (Charlotte Munson), he invites her disguised lovers into the house to assist with his experience. Dons Cintho (Chauncy Thomas) and Charmante (Gerald Dewey) fool him into believing in a world on the moon simply by holding a “glass” with various images in front of the telescope’s mouth. Through this visual manipulation, the Dons convince Baliardio to allow a dual marriage as they further pose as The Emperor of the Moon and the King of Thunderland. The play is broad, and characters clumsily and loudly navigate through various schemes and machinations, culminating in an operatic pageant of song and dance as the fake celestial princes marry the earthbound maidens, interrupted at the end by doofus assistants Scaramouche and Harlequin (Charles Pasternak) dueling for the hand of a servant girl.
Doctor Baliardo is a terrible virtuoso, but the virtuosity of this cleverly staged production through Zoom was nothing short of brilliant. While some characters happened to be quarantined in the same location – Harlequin always glancing over the shoulder of Scaramouch in the same window, for instance – the rest were giving the dazzling illusion that all of these distant actors were mucking about in the same location. At other points a costumed character would suddenly appear, the emerging window playing along with the new guise. Props were used to remind us of our current homebound state rather than the spectacular: at one point a butter knife subbed appropriate for a sword. And video clips and images brought virtual laughter: my favorite involved the nymph, a “beauty young and angel-like” played by the shirtless Ryan Gosling “hey girl” meme.
It was all the more impressive especially for those of us who have been using Zoom to awkwardly manage classroom conversations or department meetings with those little stacked picture windows that may or may not represent an active observer in a distant location. Baliardio himself is interested in a distant location, and Anderson and the cast use Zoom to imagine the virtual and the fantastical. Even in this ridiculous scenario Behn is interested in surveillance and voyeurism, and the way we imagine and mystify sovereign power: that’s what Baliardio sees through his telescope. But the real power – in this case the gullible Doctor – is arbitrary and ridiculous even as it controls and orders the surrounding world based on such authorized but erroneous knowledge and false reports (sound familiar, 2020?). This is a play about watching and observing and interpreting and the mess that comes from that, so instead of fixing our gaze on static stagecraft, we see through the characters’ eyes as they try to gain a true perspective that is, of course, always fake. What can we know and how can we know it? For Behn, science wasn’t the answer. And by framing the play’s interactions as a series of constantly shifting first-person perspectives, this performance allows us to revel in the confusion.
Here, Baliardo’s gender is flipped: no longer father and uncle, now mother and aunt. She is played by the esteemed Carol Mayo Jenkins, fully embodying the doctor’s daffy authority and pretense to erudition in lines like “The Moon… I am transported, over-joy’d, and ecstatic.” It is subversive to imagine contemporary women even having the opportunity to abuse such power, a fantasy of female authority allowed to run amok, and Jenkins would make a wonderful Lady Wishfort from William Congreve’s later The Way of the World. As Behn was perhaps the period’s greatest chronicler and critic of romantic desire, Jenkins and all the actors long and sigh lovingly when imagining seemingly impossible alternate realities, amorous or astronomical.
Considering that the play features a character named Scaramouch, it’s appropriate that this staging ends with dance to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (though not an astute student of dance, this critic cannot confirm that he did the fandango). The anachronisms were part of the fun. I hope here I have portrayed the kinetic energy and invention of this staging. Highlights included Pasternak’s Harlequin and his madly furrowing eyebrows, the lovely singing of Munson and Piriozzoli, the confident and bemused narration of Tyler Nye, and the changing identities of con artists Thomas and Dewey, who bluster delightfully as perhaps the silliest aliens ever imagined. Watching the play live allowed the audience to join in for virtual conversations and celebrations using the chat function: a welcome reprieve from the isolation of the pandemic through this joyful event.
I should note that the actors signed on to this performance with no promise of payment, but the generosity and appreciation of the audience allowed each performer to take home a well-deserved sum of money. That means Anderson and her crew might be more likely to do more performances in the future. Behn’s prologue opens cattily, “Long, and at the vast Expence the industrious Stage / Has strove to please a dull ungrateful Age,” but we’d all be grateful to see this group take on another play and, in Behn’s words again, “thunder… in Heroick Strain!”
If you’d like to request archival footage of R18 Collective’s The Emperor and the Moon for teaching or scholarly purposes, please visit http://r18collective.org/