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the emperor of the moon

3 february 2016

The Emperor of the Moon is a late-17th-century "pantomimic farce" that is in print and still shows up occasionally on stage, over 300 years later. It's not as well known today as Aphra Behn's signature play The Rover or her novella Oroonoko, but it was very popular in its day and for a century thereafter.

Much of the action of The Emperor of the Moon, as you might imagine, consists of characters performing "strange fantastical" business with "Antick Leaps and Skips" as the stage directions put it. Such business is lost for the most part in Shakespeare's texts, less than a century earlier; we have little but the lines of dialogue. But Behn's farce preserves verbal descriptions of 17th-century slapstick. One of the best scenes consists of characters freezing and pretending to be a "hanging" to trick the half-cracked Doctor Baliardo. Inevitably one of them, Harlequin, can't resist hitting the Doctor as he walks past. Your mileage may vary, but I love this kind of stuff; it's a distant forerunner of The Three Stooges or Ernie Kovacs.

The Emperor of the Moon is based (probably by hearsay) on Arlequin, Empereur dans la Lune (1684) by Nolant de Fatouville, as that farce was performed as a commedia dell'arte-style improv by Giuseppe-Domenico Biancolelli.1 But Behn's version recalls farces from higher up in the canon, too. Two young gentlemen want to marry two young ladies who are being held close by a tyrannical older relative; two servants play various tricks to expose their betters' peculiarities. That's the basic outline of Molière's Précieuses ridicules (1659), though Behn adds a lot of extra plot and some additional characters. The form of the peculiarities changes as well, becoming a satire not of stylish affectation but of pseudo-science, as in Ben Jonson's Alchemist. Though Behn's play is far lighter and more forgiving than Jonson's. In the end its problems evaporate, and The Emperor of the Moon seems to contain nothing serious at all.

Naturally, recent criticism is not content to let a play about early-modern science remain unserious. Judy A. Hayden notes that The Emperor of the Moon "has been explored in the context of contemporary concerns about farce and spectacle, as a satire on the Royal Society or pedantic male scholarship, as a critique on identity issues, and even as an example of class mobility" ("Harlequin Science" 167). Hayden herself reads the farce as a "satire on pluralist notions" (179), and it surely is that. Doctor Baliardo, who combines the stock roles of dragon guardian and pseudo-academic idiot, is convinced that the Moon holds a race of people who can descend to communicate with us, bring us knowledge, and even marry our daughters. He's like Fox Mulder without the sexy monotone.

The servants Scaramouch and Harlequin play the Doctor for a fool2 while they maneuver the young gentlemen Cinthio and Charmante closer to the charms of Elaria and Bellemante. Meanwhile the two trickster servants are themselves rivals for the hand of the rich governess Mopsophil. Some of the best scenes in the play have the two servants preposterously showing up to court Mopsophil in the totally inadequate disguises of a pharmacist and a farmer. These scenes, which are the meat of the play's comedy, don't have much to do with satirizing belief in a plurality of worlds, but perhaps they are a trenchant commentary on class mobility.

If I seem skeptical of "reading too much into" The Emperor of the Moon, I don't mean to be sophomoric about it. It seems to me that writing good comedy includes finding a setting that one can exploit for laughs. Much contemporary comic writing, from The Simpsons to Seinfeld to Archer – or if you want satire of scientists, The Big Bang Theory – depends on grabbing serious topical issues and burlesquing them. The burlesque may be incidental, but it's present – and still incidental. In other words, to think of any of these farces as essentially written or consumed as theoretical interventions in science studies – or even as metacriticism of farce itself – is to miss much of what they're about. However, any interest that The Big Bang Theory will hold for 25th-century critics may be entirely theoretical, too. Comedy is about our attitudes toward science, and it is also about knocking idiots on the skull as they walk past.

Behn, Aphra. The Emperor of the Moon. 1687. In The Works of Aphra Behn, vol. 3. Edited by Montague Summers. 1915. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967. 383-463.

1Judy A. Hayden, "Harlequin Science: Aphra Behn's Emperor of the Moon and the Plurality of Worlds," English 64 (2015): 167-182, p. 171; see also Summers, pp. 386-87.

2And yes, I admit that since reading the Doctor's line "Scaramouch! Scaramouch!" (Act 2, Scene 3) I have been walking around singing "Will you do the fandango?"

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