Mrs. Susannah Centlivre Critical Essays

Susannah Freeman


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

If Mrs. Susannah Centlivre became the most popular playwright of her time, there was good reason for it. As a professional playwright, she wrote to eat, and thus to please. She gave the audience what they wanted, and she gave them plenty of it. Writing to please the audiences of the early eighteenth century was no easy task. In the preface to Love’s Contrivance, Mrs. Centlivre complains 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.” If audiences were notoriously fickle, playwrights were careful also not to anger the moral reformers, who needed only the scantest traces of profanity or bawdy language to brand a play licentious.

Mrs. Centlivre’s solution was to write entertaining plays that would offend very few theatergoers and, with any luck, please most of them. Thus, she avoided tough satiric material. Her plays may poke fun, but they rarely abuse; they mock, but rarely malign. In English drama written between 1660 and 1685, so-called Restoration drama, comedy was often savagely satiric—and there was a good stock of comic butts: merchants, Puritans, fops, pedants, coquettes, and old lechers. Mrs. Centlivre adopted many of the comic types of the Restoration stage but treated them with a tolerance uncharacteristic of her models.

Indeed, the stock character is a major component of Mrs. Centlivre’s drama and is usually found in formulaic plots, often variations on the boy-gets-girl theme. Mrs. Centlivre created characters not for the ages but for the Friday-afternoon show. She expected that her audience would recognize the character types and take delight in the predictable action, as the greedy merchant loses his money or the resourceful maid wins her beau. Indeed, in a play by Mrs. Centlivre, plot is often preeminent, featuring disguises, chance meetings, lovers’ assignations, schemes, and counter-schemes—all the elements that could be expected from a busy play of intrigue. Centlivre’s characters never stop to ponder aloud the ethics of their actions; rather, they pursue their aims until they are either fulfilled or frustrated. Much of Mrs. Centlivre’s art, then, depended on giving new life to old characters and old plots, and in this she was very successful.

The Gamester

In The Gamester, she wrote a didactic play showing the reformation of a compulsive gambler. The main action concerns Valere, who is in love with Angelica. Angelica returns his love but will not marry him unless he gives up gambling. Valere has another reason to forsake the dice when his father, Sir Thomas Valere, announces that he is tired of paying his son’s debts and that he must marry Angelica or lose his inheritance. Therefore, Valere asks Angelica’s forgiveness one more time, which she bestows, giving him a diamond-studded portrait of herself to seal the bargain.

Predictably, Valere still cannot resist the gaming tables, and he loses all his money to a pert young gentleman who turns out to be Angelica disguised in breeches; she has come to verify a rumor that Valere has broken his promise. Having won all his cash, Angelica convinces him to stake the precious portrait, which she also wins, and she dashes out before he has a chance to win it back.

When Valere goes to Angelica to claim her hand, she demands the portrait as proof of his faith. When he cannot produce it, she reveals it herself, making Valere believe that their relationship is over. Indeed, the situation looks desperate: When Sir Thomas enters the scene and learns what has happened, he disinherits his son. Sir Thomas’s severity seems to shock Angelica, though, and she takes Valere back, recognizing, perhaps, her own hand in his downfall. Convinced that the couple will marry, Sir Thomas restores his son’s fortune.

In writing The Gamester, Mrs. Centlivre was trying to capitalize on the vogue for didactic comedy that developed in the first decade of the eighteenth century. Didactic comedy, in which a character is reformed from vicious ways, never dominated the stage, but professionals such as Colley Cibber, Sir Richard Steele, and Sir John Vanbrugh all wrote plays of this type, with various degrees of success. Steele’s The Lying Lover: Or, The Lady’s Friendship (pr. 1703) was a failure, but as noted above, The Gamester enjoyed a successful run. Steele wrote a ponderous, preachy play; Mrs. Centlivre wrote something quite different.

Unlike The Lying Lover, The Gamester does not take itself too seriously. In his play, Steele works in a sermon on the evils of dueling, but Mrs. Centlivre never rails against gambling. Her prime interest is in the gamester, not in gaming itself. By reclaiming a gambler, she gives her play a moral pretext and a handy plot formula. Shocking people into giving up gambling was not her purpose; in fact, as a compulsive gambler, Valere does not have a bad life. He must occasionally avoid his creditors, and his dealings with Angelica and Sir Thomas are sometimes a bit awkward, but ultimately, his vice causes him relatively little hardship or distress. At the end of the play, he is a bit richer, and he has the girl.

In one sense, Valere’s gaming works as Angelica’s rival for his attentions. Because Mrs. Centlivre does not portray the life of a gamester as a difficult one, Valere’s prime motive in giving up the dice is to win Angelica (and his inheritance). Mrs. Centlivre is, in effect, giving...

(The entire section is 2307 words.)