Centlivre, Susanna (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))
Susanna Centlivre 1669-1723
(Born Susanna Freeman) English playwright and poet.
Centlivre was one of the most popular female playwrights of the eighteenth century, with her plays receiving over 1200 performances between 1700 and 1800. The Busie Body (1709), The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret (1714), A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718), and other works entertained London audiences throughout the century and formed part of the stage repertoire of the preeminent actors of the period, David Garrick and John Philip Kemble, who found them eminently actable as well as reliable crowd-pleasers. Her most successful works were her comedies, which reflect a transition in theatrical conventions and styles, blending the sharp satire typical of Restoration plays with a more amiable and moral type of comedy, which suited the changing tastes of her audience.
Details concerning Centlivre's early life are scanty, and those that exist—mainly derived from several eighteenth-century biographical sketches—are often contradictory. A 1719 account of her life, which may contain information provided by Centlivre herself, states that her father was a Mr. Freeman of Holbeach in Lincolnshire, and her mother was the daughter of a Mr. Marham of Lynn Regis, Norfolk. Records of a parish church in Whaplode, Lincolnshire—which is near Holbeach—indicate that a Susanna, daughter of William and Anne Freeman, was baptized on November 20, 1669. Her parents both died before she was twelve years old, and within a few years Centlivre married “a Nephew of Sir Stephen Fox.” The marriage lasted only a year. The early biographies of Centlivre are ambiguous: her husband may have died, or the couple may have separated. Afterwards, Centlivre married her second husband, the army officer Mr. Carrol, who apparently died within a year and a half of their wedding. On April 23, 1707, she married Joseph Centlivre, who was Yeoman of the Mouth—one of the royal cooks.
The early biographies generally agree that Centlivre had little formal education, and that she left home to escape ill treatment by a stepmother. One source reports that a neighbor taught her French, which gave rise to her interest in the plays of Molière. Several accounts allude to certain “gay adventures” Centlivre had as a young woman, but they offer different stories. One has it that she joined an itinerant troupe of actors, while another offers a remarkable tale of Centlivre attending Cambridge University for some months disguised as a man. Only with the start of her literary career in London does Centlivre's biography acquire any certainty. Her first play, The Perjur'd Husband, was staged in 1700, and until her third marriage in 1707 she wrote to support herself, producing eight plays in that time. Probably out of financial necessity she joined a company of traveling players in 1706; it was during a performance at court that she met Joseph Centlivre. After her wedding her output slowed, possibly because marriage improved her financial situation, allowing her to spend more time crafting her works. The first play Centlivre produced after her marriage was The Busie Body, written in 1709. It proved one of her most artistically successful and popular works, inspiring a sequel the next year in Mar-plot: or, The Second Part of The Busie Body.
While Centlivre did not move in the highest literary circles, she counted among her friends a number of prominent writers of the period, including George Farquhar, Nicholas Rowe, and Richard Steele. Most of these writers were, like Centlivre, sympathetic to the Whig political party. Although her plays are generally not overtly political, there is evidence throughout Centlivre's works of her political loyalties. In 1714, as heated debates raged over the question of whether a protestant or a Catholic claimant should succeed the grievously ill Queen Anne to the throne, Centlivre took a political position by dedicating The Wonder to the Duke of Cambridge, a member of the protestant House of Hanover who would later become George II. When a Hanover did accede to the throne, Centlivre's loyalty was rewarded with gifts and command performances of The Wonder and other plays. Centlivre celebrated the succession with A Poem. Humbly Presented to His most Sacred Majesty, George, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland. Upon His Accession to the Throne (1714).
Centlivre's Whig sympathies won her an enemy, however. Alexander Pope, one of the eighteenth century's greatest men of letters, as well as a Tory and a Catholic, objected to Centlivre's politics, her anti-Catholic views, and the mere fact that she wrote for a living, which he regarded as pandering to popular taste. In several pamphlets Pope characterized Centlivre as a hack, and in 1717 he and his friends John Arbuthnot and John Gay lampooned Centlivre in the farce Three Hours after Marriage. The play includes Phoebe Clinket, a female dramatist who, like Centlivre, has difficulties getting her plays produced. Centlivre responded by mocking Pope in A Bold Stroke for a Wife, with its veiled allusions to an ape (i.e., A. P.——e). Pope ultimately got the last word in their quarrel, depicting Centlivre as a soporific lady scribbler in his scathing satire The Dunciad (1728). After a serious illness in 1719 Centlivre wrote only one more play, The Artifice, which was staged in 1722. She died a year later, and was buried at St. Paul's church in Covent Garden.
Centlivre had seventeen plays produced in her lifetime, including farces, comedies, tragedies, and plays of mixed type. She was most successful, both artistically and commercially, with her comedies. Her first works in this genre, The Beau's Duel (1702) and Love's Contrivance; or, Le Médecin malgré lui (1703), take cues from earlier models—especially, in the case of Love's Contrivance, from Molière—but bear a strong mark of both Centlivre's own invention and the tastes and concerns of her own era. Taking part in the movement toward “moral” comedy, spearheaded by Richard Steele, Centlivre turned out two plays decrying the vices of the time: The Gamester and The Basset-Table (both 1705). She achieved her greatest success, however, with her comedies of romantic intrigue, including the highly popular Busie Body, which won the praise of Steele in his widely read periodical, The Tatler, and was performed hundreds of times throughout the eighteenth century. The Busie Body introduced the character of Marplot, a signal figure in the transition between Restoration satiric comedy of wit and the more sympathetic comedies of the later eighteenth century. The character was featured in the 1710 sequel Mar-plot: or, The Second Part of the Busie Body, but although this play had a successful run at its first appearance, it was not, unlike the original comedy, revived thereafter.
While not openly political, Centlivre's next notable success, The Wonder, is seen as a reflection of her increasingly Whiggish political views. Centlivre uses the setting in Lisbon to highlight the twin themes of liberty and duty, both to family and to country. She also introduces the character of Frederick, a virtuous merchant penalized by a class-conscious society, whose denunciation of tyranny and praise of English liberty obviously mirror Centlivre's own sentiments. The Wonder later entered the repertory of David Garrick, who played the role of Don Felix over fifty times. The Cruel Gift (1716), a political tragedy, stands as Centlivre's only successful serious play. Modeled after the works of her friend Nicholas Rowe, this work touches again on the themes of personal and political liberty addressed in The Wonder. Centlivre treats these themes in her last major comedy as well. A Bold Stroke for a Wife is, by her own claim, Centlivre's most original play—a comedy of disguise and deception that, as in earlier works, espouses the causes of tolerance and liberty, and offers positive images of the merchant class. Like The Wonder, A Bold Stroke for a Wife was a staple of eighteenth-century theater repertory, a favorite of actors and audiences alike.
Centlivre faced significant obstacles to success in her career as a playwright. Her contemporaries commonly regarded women writers as being of questionable virtue; and, because Centlivre also wrote for money, she also came under fire as a hack, as evidenced by the attacks by Pope and his cohorts. Even the comments of Richard Steele, whose support was crucial to the development of her career, were highly qualified by considerations of gender, praising her works for their “natural” art, based on feminine “instinct” rather than acquired or cultivated skill. As early as the eighteenth century, critics tended to group Centlivre with the Restoration dramatists who came before her, especially the successful female author Aphra Behn. Centlivre's plays generally suffered by the comparison, and were often seen as unsuccessful attempts to imitate the style of Restoration comedy. More recently, however, critics have examined Centlivre's works as part of the transition from the sharp satire of the Restoration to the gentler moral comedy of the later eighteenth century; in that context, assessments of her comedies have been much more positive. Thalia Stathas and F. P. Lock, for example, have discerned a distinct moral tone in her comedies of intrigue, and a diminished emphasis on witty, stylized banter in the dialogue. Centlivre's depiction of virtuous merchants has also drawn the attention of scholars. Douglas R. Butler has found in Centlivre a middle-class sensibility, while LuAnn Venden Herrell has argued that her comedy reflects a social concern about a shifting class structure. Scholars have often focused on Centlivre's portrayal of gender relations and marriage, with many finding in Centlivre a proto-feminist whose political interest in individual liberty extended to claims for greater freedoms for women. Suz-anne Kinney and Richard C. Frushell have observed that, although Centlivre's plays follow the conventional formula in which comedy always ends in marriage, the routes her female characters take to matrimony provide a critique of the social conventions regarding the treatment of women. Centlivre's career—particularly with the powerful, outspoken enemies she attracted—has also provided a useful case study of the struggle of early women writers and the status of women's writing. As Laura J. Rosenthal has suggested, the marginal place of women in eighteenth-century society severely limited their ability to claim even their own writings as their own personal property. As a result of such studies Centlivre's reputation as an early woman of letters and outspoken advocate of personal freedom steadily rose throughout the twentieth century.
The Perjur'd Husband: or, The Adventures of Venice (play) 1700
The Beau's Duel: or, A Soldier for the Ladies (play) 1702
The Stolen Heiress: or, The Salamanca Doctor Outplotted (play) 1702
Love's Contrivance: or, Le Médecin malgré Lui (play) 1703
The Basset-Table (play) 1705
The Gamester (play) 1705
Love at a Venture (play) 1706
The Platonick Lady (play) 1706
The Busie Body (play) 1709
The Man's bewitch'd: or, the Devil to do about Her (play) 1709
A Bickerstaff's Burying: or, Work for the Upholders (play) 1710
Mar-plot: or, The Second Part of the Busie Body (play) 1710
The Masquerade. A Poem. Humbly Inscribed to his Grace the Duke d'Aumont (poem) 1712
The Perplex'd Lovers (play) 1712
An Epistle to Mrs. Wallup Now in the Train of Her Royal Highness, The Princess of Wales. As it was sent to her in the Hague (poem) 1714
A Poem. Humbly Presented to His most Sacred Majesty, George, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland. Upon His Accession to the Throne (poem) 1714
The Wonder: A Woman keeps a Secret (play) 1714
*The Humours of...
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SOURCE: “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret,” in The Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre, Duke University Press, 1952, pp. 171-90.
[In the following excerpt, Wilson surveys the possible sources of one of Centlivre's most artistically successful plays, The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret, and outlines the performance history of the comedy, which highlights the development of her reputation as a legitimate author.]
The Wonder is an excellent light comedy. After [actor David] Garrick had contributed his interpretation of the character of Don Felix, it was often regarded as Mrs. Centlivre's masterpiece. The action is laid in Lisbon. Don Felix, in hiding after wounding Don Antonio in a duel because he would not marry Antonio's sister, secretly visits Donna Violante, with whom he is deeply in love. Violante is allowed a degree of freedom by her father, Don Pedro, because she seemingly accepts his arrangement for her to enter a nunnery the following week. After keeping Isabella's secret as long as necessary, though she meanwhile suffers tortures from Felix's jealousy, she and Felix are married.
In the minor plot, Don Lopez intends on the morrow to marry his daughter, Donna Isabella, to Don Guzman, a wealthy but stupid Spanish grandee, and locks her in her room to secure her until then. She jumps out of a window, but lands in the arms of Colonel Britton, a Scot in Portugal on his...
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SOURCE: Introduction to A Bold Stroke for a Wife, by Susanna Centlivre, edited by Thalia Stathas, University of Nebraska Press, 1968, pp. xi-xxvi.
[In the essay below, Stathas gives full publication and production histories for A Bold Stroke for a Wifeand discusses Centlivre's development and modification of eighteenth-century comic conventions.]
First performed in February, 1718, A Bold Stroke for a Wife, “By the Author of the Busie-Body and the Gamester,” was published that year, probably in the same month, by “W. Mears, J. Browne, and F. Clay.”1 William Mears was the principal partner in most early editions of Mrs. Centlivre's comedy. Publisher as well for Defoe, Dennis, Philips, and Theobald, he aroused Pope's wrath and appears in The Dunciad (A, III.20; B, III.28). In 1719, he assembled A Collection of Plays By Eminent Hands, including A Bold Stroke for a Wife in Volume III. Mears used pages left over from the first edition, retaining the original preliminaries. Since, at the most, he prefixed a half-title page to them, this printing is better termed a first edition than a new issue.2 With Clay he published the second edition in 1724, the year after Mrs. Centlivre's death.3 In 1728, Thomas Astley reissued it in London, replacing the original title page with a new one which bears only his imprint....
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SOURCE: “Writing to Please the Town,” in Susanna Centlivre, Twayne Publishers, 1979, pp. 31-45.
[In this excerpt, Lock examines Centlivre's first four plays, The Perjured Husband, The Beau's Duel, The Stolen Heiress, and Love's Contrivance.The critic judges these works “experiments” which show “an inexperienced dramatist gradually working toward the kind of play that would satisfy both her artistic conscience and her desire for popular success.”]
Centlivre was a pragmatic dramatist: not for her Ben Jonson's defiant “By—'tis good, and if you lik't, you may.”1 Instead, she would have agreed with Samuel Johnson that “The drama's laws the drama's patrons give, / For we that live to please, must please to live.”2 In the Preface to Love's Contrivance, Centlivre recognized that “Writing is a kind of Lottery in this fickle Age, and Dependence on the Stage as precarious as the Cast of a Die; the Chance may turn up, and a Man may write to please the Town, but 'tis uncertain, since we see our best Authors sometimes fail.” The public capriciousness is expressed more graphically in the Prologue to the same play: “Poets like Mushrooms rise and fall of late.” The audiences of Centlivre's day were less homogeneous than they had been, and it was increasingly difficult to predict what would be popular.
Centlivre's first four plays...
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SOURCE: “Marriage and Marrying in Susanna Centlivre's Plays,” in Papers in Language and Literature, Vol. 22, Winter 1986, pp. 16-38.
[In this essay, Frushell surveys the theme of marriage throughout Centlivre's corpus, arguing that her plays reflect major shifts in theatrical style and audience composition from the late Restoration through the early eighteenth century.]
Susanna Freeman Carroll Centlivre was the premiere woman dramatist of the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Her reputation and influence in comedy reached through her own century and the next. If her more famous contemporary dramatists, including Aphra Behn of the previous generation, had been alive in 1800 and looked back over the stage successes of their plays, none could boast of four plays so favored as The Busie Body (1709) with 475 London performances, A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718) with 236, The Wonder (1714) with 232, and The Gamester (1705) with 75. And if the year were moved to 1890, none could claim three plays still performed, and not only in England.1
When Centlivre wrote her nineteen plays between 1700 and 1722, the Restoration stereotypes were still discernible along with a changed comedy. Her plays use Restoration comedic traditions in plot and theme, intermixing them with that strain of the “new” comedy today called risible and humane. Traditions of the...
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SOURCE: “Plot and Politics in Susanna Centlivre's A Bold Stroke for a Wife,” in Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theatre, 1660-1820, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, Ohio University Press, 1991, pp. 357-70.
[In this essay, Butler argues that, despite current critical evaluations of her work, Centlivre's plays do possess social and political ideas, which reflect Centlivre's Whiggish philosophy.]
Although she is generally recognized as England's most popular woman playwright, Susanna Centlivre has inspired relatively little critical attention and even less acclaim. The standard critical observation is that she writes highly theatrical plays, full of action, that are quite innocent of thought. Perhaps Centlivre does not have a serious vision, but she does seem to share certain assumptions with the Whiggish writers of her time, with those who believed that society should guarantee (in Locke's terms) a citizen's life, liberty, and property.
Centlivre's plays, particularly one of her best, A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718), manifest her Whiggish perspective. If Centlivre has political and social ideas—and I think that she does—they are not conveyed most effectively through her language, the preoccupation of the twentieth-century critic. Centlivre gives us few images and little “wit.” Except when they are endowed with broad accents,...
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SOURCE: “Confinement Sharpens the Invention: Aphra Behn's The Rover and Susanna Centlivre's The Busie Body,” in Look Who's Laughing: Gender and Comedy, edited by Gail Finney, Gordon and Breach, 1994, pp. 81-98.
[In this essay, Kinney outlines similarities between Behn's and Centlivre's careers and examines a play by each writer in which “female experience, including the experience of female authorship, is dramatized.”]
Aphra Behn's contribution to the history of literature is, by now, well known. In 1929, in her study of women and literature A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf marks Aphra Behn's career as a “very important corner on the road,” a turning point. With Behn, Woolf argues
We leave behind, shut up in their parks among their folios, those solitary great ladies who wrote without audience or criticism, for their own delight alone. We come to town and rub shoulders with ordinary people in the streets. Mrs. Behn was … forced … to make her living by her wits … She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote, … for here begins the freedom of the mind, or rather the possibility that in the course of time the mind will be free to write what it likes. For now that Aphra Behn had done it, girls could go to their parents and say, You need not give me an...
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SOURCE: “Writing (as) the Lady's Last Stake: Susanna Centlivre,” in Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England: Gender, Authorship, Literary Property, Cornell University Press, 1996, pp. 204-42.
[In the essay below, Rosenthal relates charges of plagiarism leveled at Centlivre to the condition of the female author in the eighteenth century. Noting that Centlivre “experimented with the fluidity of gender identity,” Rosenthal states that the author “avoided obvious appropriation when writing under her own name; in masculine disguise, however, she rewrote more freely.”]
Susanna Centlivre achieved neither the fame nor the notoriety of Colley Cibber, although she did become a significant force on the London stage during the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Her plays continued to be popular long after her death; David Garrick, in fact, chose the lead in her Wonder as his farewell performance.1 Measured by stage longevity, Centlivre led the most successful career of all the women who began writing for the stage at the century's end.2 Her popularity, however, did not preserve her from attack: although Pope aimed the bulk of his satire in the Dunciad at other men, he devoted a line in his catalog of dunces to Centlivre and Eliza Haywood. Pope elsewhere satirized Centlivre as one of Curll's hacks:3 Centlivre (like Haywood) not only wrote,...
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SOURCE: “Centlivre v. Hardwicke: Susannah Centlivre's Plays and the Marriage Act of 1753,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer 1999, pp. 179-98.
[In this essay, Collins accounts for the exceptional popularity of The Busie Body and A Bold Stroke for a Wife in the eighteenth century by arguing that they touched upon public anxieties regarding the legal forms of marriage, which had been increased by the passage of the 1753 Marriage Act.]
The years between 1700 and 1800 saw Susannah Centlivre's plays performed 1,227 times in London theaters. Two plays, The Busie Body and A Bold Stroke for a Wife, accounted for 822 of these performances.1The Busie Body was an immediate hit upon opening at the Drury Lane Theatre on 12 May 1709. After eighteen performances in its first season, it averaged more than six performances annually until 1800, thus becoming the most popular female-authored play of the century. The second spot belongs to Centlivre, too. A Bold Stroke, first performed on 3 February 1718 at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, enjoyed a relatively successful run of six nights. Yet, unlike The Busie Body, this play was not consistently popular with early-century audiences; indeed, after the initial run, it was not produced again in London for ten years. But after 1750 the play's popularity increased markedly—so much so that by the end of...
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SOURCE: “‘Luck be a Lady Tonight,’ or At Least Make Me a Gentleman: Economic Anxiety in Centlivre's The Gamester,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 32, No. 2, Fall 1999, pp. 45-61.
[In this essay, Herrell contends that Centlivre's early comedy The Gamester “explores a fundamental economic anxiety brought on by the shift from a system based on land to one based on ready money.”]
John Dennis, in a 1704 response to yet another of Jeremy Collier's attacks on the immorality of the stage, criticizes Collier for neglecting to discuss what he sees as a more tangible and therefore more serious vice:
But how does [Collier] propose to himself, to bring [reform] about? Why, not by suppressing Vice, but the Stage that Scourges and exposes it. For he meddles not with that Vice that is in the World, let it be never so flaming and outragious. For example, the crying Sin of England next to Hypocrisie, at this time is Gaming; a Sin that is attended with several others, both among Men and Women, as Lying, Swearing, Perjury, Fraud, Quarrels, Murders, Fornication, Adultery. Has not Gaming done more mischief in England within these last Five Years than the Stage has done in Fifty?
Susanna Centlivre's dedication to her 1705 comedy The Gamester, an adaptation of Jean François Regnard's Le...
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Frushell, Richard C. Introduction to The Plays of Susanna Centlivre, Vol. 1, ed. Richard C. Frushell, pp. ix-cxxi. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982.
Extensive introduction to Centlivre's life and works, emphasizing the stage history of her plays and early critical responses.
Fowler, Patsy S. “Rejecting the Status Quo: The Attempts of Mary Pix and Susanna Centlivre to Reform Society's Patriarchal Attitudes.” Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 11, No. 2 (Winter 1996): 49-59.
Argues that Centlivre and Pix “should be recognized for their attempts to reform society's attitudes and thus create a more woman-friendly culture.”
Rogers, Katherine M. “Introduction: and “Susanna Centlivre.” In The Meridian Anthology of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Plays by Women, ed. Katherine M. Rogers, pp. vii-xvii; 185-86. New York: Meridian, 1994.
Discusses Centlivre in the context of early female ventures into the male-dominated territory of the theater. Rogers argues that Centlivre's plays do not evidence a strong feminist awareness.
Additional coverage of Centlivre's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 84.
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