THE WIDOW RANTER: A COMEDY/TRAGEDY
By Aphra Behn
First produced in 1689
The Widow Ranter was the last play written by Aphra Behn, Englands first professional female playwright. This play was probably written in 1688, but was first performed a few months after Behns death in 1689. It is the first surviving play to be set in a North American colony; it takes place in and around Jamestown, Virginia in 1676. As a young woman, Behn may have spent some time in another British colony, Surinam, and she may have drawn on that experience in this play.
The Widow Ranter combines a serious plot with a comic one. The serious plot is loosely based on an historical event: the rebellion of a colonist, Nathaniel Bacon, against Virginias colonial government. Bacon himself is the protagonist in this plot: he is portrayed as a noble if flawed character, a hero tragically in love with Semernia, the romantic queen of the local Indian tribe; their doomed relationship in some respects recalls the Pocahontas story. The comic plot gives a satirical picture of the colony. The colonists include the bumbling lower-class members of the ruling council; fortune-hunting gentlemen newly arrived from England ; and the Widow Ranter. Ranter came to Virginia as a servant, but became wealthy by marrying her late master. She swears, smokes, and drinks like a man, and pursues and wins a second husband while disguised as a boy. She is a memorable character who embodies the colonys social chaos but also its vitality. Aphra Behns play is a critique of both colonial Virginia and the English political situation at the time it was written, but despite its satire, this play provides an unusual early portrait of a distinctive colonial culture.