From 1700 until her death in 1723, Mrs. Susannah Centlivre was probably the most prolific and popular playwright in England. In her first ten years as a professional, she turned out a dozen plays for the stage; in the second half of her career, another seven.
Some of her plays closed after one or two nights, but others became exceptionally popular. The Busie Body, The Wonder, and A Bold Stroke for a Wife were major successes for Mrs. Centlivre, although these pieces had their longest runs after 1750. The Busie Body, her most popular play, was mounted at least 475 times between its premiere and 1800. David Garrick, the greatest actor of the century, gained at least part of his fame by his frequent portrayal of Marplot, the good-natured bungler in The Busie Body. For the last role of his career, Garrick chose Don Felix, a jealous lover in The Wonder. The Busie Body and The Wonder even survived the doldrums of Victorian theater, becoming repertory pieces on the modern stage in Great Britain and the United States.
Mrs. Centlivre never became rich writing plays, but she did achieve some celebrity in literary circles. As a woman playwright, she was something of a novelty. Other women published plays, but very few. In her lifetime, Mrs. Centlivre had only two serious female rivals, Mary Manley and Mary Pix. Neither woman wrote so much or so well. Mrs. Centlivre also competed with male writers, becoming a friendly rival to such accomplished dramatists as George Farquhar, Nicholas Rowe, and Sir Richard Steele. Modern critics generally view Mrs. Centlivre as a competent professional whose plays make great theater, if not great literature.
Bowyer, John Wilson. The Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1952. The standard biography and literary analysis. Provides a thorough survey of Mrs. Centlivre’s life and writings. Portrait, bibliography of Mrs. Centlivre’s writings, and index.
Collins, Margo. “Centlivre v. Hardwicke: Susannah Centlivre’s Plays and the Marriage Act of 1753.” Comparative Drama 33, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 179-198. An analysis of the social function of plays, focusing on The Busie Body and A Bold Stroke for a Wife.
Herrell, LuAnn Venden. “‘Luck Be a Lady Tonight’ or at Least Make Me a Gentleman: Economic Anxiety in Centlivre’s The Gamester.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 32, no. 2 (Fall, 1999): 45-61. An examination of Mrs. Centlivre’s moralizing against gambling as an attack on the wider social system. Provides an in-depth analysis of the play.
Kreis-Schinck, Annette. Women, Writing, and the Theater in the Early Modern Period: The Plays of Aphra Behn and Suzanne Centlivre. Cranbury, N.J. : Associated University Presses, 2001. An examination of the dramatic works of Mrs. Centlivre and Aphra Behn. Bibliography and index.
Lock, F. P. Susannah Centlivre. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Lock’s focus on Mrs. Centlivre’s plays is literary and critical as opposed to biographical and historical. He analyzes the plays in their historical context and concludes that her work fluctuates broadly. When at her best, she wrote amusing, light comedy of distinction. Chronology, bibliography, and index.
Rosenthal, Laura J. Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England: Gender, Authorship, Literary Property. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996. Includes a discussion of Mrs. Centlivre in relation to her male critics.