Susanna Centlivre Critical Essays


(Drama Criticism)

Susanna Centlivre 1669-1723

English dramatist and poet.

In terms of number of performances, Centlivre could fairly be called the most successful English dramatist after William Shakespeare and before the twentieth century. Only three other pre-1750 playwrights—Shakespeare, Phillip Massinger and Colley Cibber—had plays still regularly staged in the nineteenth century. Like her more famous counterpart, the Restoration playwright Aphra Behn, Centlivre suffered the prejudices, slights, and outright attacks peculiar to the station of the woman writer, but her plays lasted much longer and were performed much more frequently than those of Behn. Because her works are better performed than read, she was long dismissed by critics. Recent recognition of her theatrical skill and interest in her unique perspective as a female Whig dramatist have returned Centlivre to prominence as a major playwright of the early eighteenth century.

Biographical Information

The facts of Centlivre's birth remain in dispute, but the standard version of her origins identifies her as the child of William and Anne Freeman of Lincolnshire, baptized in 1669. According to some accounts, Mr. Freeman was a supporter of the Cromwellian party prior to the Restoration, placing the family in Ireland as exiles at the time of Centlivre's birth. A dissenting story of her parentage first appeared in an obituary written by a journalist personally known to Centlivre: Abel Boyer believed that Centlivre was born to a Mr. Rawkins, of lower estate than Mr. Freeman was thought to be. Documentary evidence exists to support both stories but confirm neither. Her early years are clouded by legend: Boyer refers provocatively to the “gay Adventures” of her youth (“over which we shall draw a Veil,” he adds), and John Mottley includes in her biography a story in which a young Centlivre, fleeing a wicked stepmother, is picked up weeping at the side of a road by a Cambridge student. The young man, Anthony Hammond, secreted her away in his college rooms, according to Mottley's narrative—an arrangement that allowed her to get a brief, second-hand university education before venturing on to London to establish herself in the theater. Mottley was also an acquaintance of the playwright, as was William Chetwood, who agreed that Centlivre fled her stepmother but wrote that she joined a troupe of traveling players.

Most scholars concur Centlivre was married, “or something like it,” in Mottley's words, three times. Her first marriage was to the nephew of Sir Stephen Fox; it ended within a year, due to unknown circumstances. She soon married again, this time an officer of the army named Mr. Carroll, but she was widowed within a year and a half. The legitimacy of both marriages is a common problem for biographers; in Centlivre's day marriage laws were not clear and the common stereotype of the authoress as a loose woman made hers more suspect than usual in the eyes of her critics. Her third marriage, however, is fully documented. She wed Joseph Centlivre, a Yeoman of the Kitchen, on April 23, 1707, having already achieved a measure of success through what all her biographers agree was a large measure of skill and hard work.

Centlivre's journalist friend Boyer helped her launch her career in 1700, with the production of the tragicomic play The Perjur'd Husband at the Drury Lane Theatre. For the next two decades Centlivre worked steadily at playwriting, though she published her first several plays anonymously. Even her first major success was released without her name attached; The Gamester (1705) did so well at Lincoln's Inn Fields that it was used two months later to open the new Haymarket Theatre. In 1706 Centlivre offered her play Love at a Venture to Colley Cibber, who was managing the Drury Lane Theatre, but Cibber rejected it. When Cibber produced a very similar play, The Double Gallants (1707), under his own name, Centlivre had little recourse, but when Cibber's plagiarism was publicized he was roundly criticized. In the meantime, Centlivre had taken the play to the Duke of Grafton's servants, a troupe of strolling players then at Bath. Evidence suggests that she joined the troupe herself as a traveling performer. Legend holds that the players performed Alexander the Great (some say The Rival Queens) for the court at Windsor, with Centlivre herself taking the title role. It was as Alexander, the story goes, that Centlivre first attracted the notice of one of the Queen's cooks, Joseph Centlivre. After their wedding the couple lived at Buckingham Court, Spring Gardens, which was Centlivre's home for the rest of her life.

Although she was now financially secure, Centlivre continued to write plays, though not without difficulty. Her next play, The Busie Body (1709), was nearly rejected by Drury Lane, and contemporary newspapers document the actors' contempt for “a silly thing wrote by a Woman.” Centlivre's confidence in pressing the play was well-founded; it became one of her most successful works, winning the praise of Richard Steele in The Tatler and enjoying command performances at court in the subsequent decade. Her next few plays were beset by further tensions with actors, exacerbated by remarks attributed to her in The Female Tatler, complaining of their lack of respect and gratitude. Centlivre denied ever making such statements, but the damage was done. Centlivre's Whiggish politics, about which she became increasingly open, further created problems for theater companies eager to avoid censure from Queen Anne's Tory government. In 1714 she dedicated her The Wonder to Prince George Augustus of the House of Hanover, Duke of Cambridge, in another show of Whig sympathies. Her faith was well-placed: the Duke soon became King George I, and the play became one of the most popular of the eighteenth century. She wrote two political satires in 1715, both of which were repressed by the Master of Revels, and a tragedy, The Cruel Gift, in 1716. Her Whig sympathies, anti-Catholic beliefs, and commercial success also made Centlivre a target for the era's keenest satirist, Alexander Pope. He alluded to her in his attacks on the publisher Edmund Curll, another member of the Whig literary circle, and lampooned her in the character of the playwright Phoebe Clinket in the farce Three Hours after Marriage (1717), which he wrote with John Gay and John Arbuthnot; five years after her death he included her in his catalogue of dullards, The Dunciad (1728). Pope also accused Centlivre of participating in an attack on him in the poem The Catholic Poet, but this accusation is likely incorrect. Centlivre produced her final major comedy in 1718; A Bold Stroke for a Wife successfully played at Lincoln's Inn Fields that year, and continued to be a favorite actor's vehicle well into the next century. Her health began to decline in the next year, and she wrote only one more play, the stridently political comedy The Artifice (1722), which was not a popular success. Centlivre died on December 1, 1723, and was buried at St. Paul's in Covent Garden.

Major Dramatic Works

The Busie Body, The Wonder, and A Bold Stroke for A Wife have long been regarded as Centlivre's major works. Comedies of intrigue, these are the plays that were longest lived and most frequently performed. As in many comedies of the time, they feature heroines crossed in marriage by their guardians and plots focused on tricking those guardians out of their plans. The Busie Body is unique in adding a comic central character as the focus of the action: Marplot, the “busy body” of the title, is a classic “humours” character, one whose absurdly exaggerated character traits are the source of his jests. Unlike the earlier humours comedy of Ben Jonson or Thomas Shadwell, however, Centlivre's treatment of Marplot is more gentle: Marplot is a friend to the lovers, and he retains many good qualities. His actions are laughable, but he is never the butt of satire; in many ways he is the hero of the play, making possible the happy resolution. The Wonder focuses more on the heroines and their lovers: Felix, the jealous hero whose sweetheart's father wants to place her in a nunnery, was a favorite role for David Garrick, one of the greatest actors of the eighteenth century. Set in Lisbon, the play gave Centlivre the opportunity to express her political views by contrasting the despotism of the southern nations with the liberty of England, and by addressing, through the tyrannical behavior of the heroines' fathers, the issue of the limits of authority. The theme of the despotic guardian is dramatized most fully in A Bold Stroke for a Wife, in which the suitor Fainwell faces the impossible tasks of winning the consent of four very different guardians for the hand of Ann Lovely. It is notable that although Centlivre's critics frequently accused her of excessive “borrowing”—a practice all playwrights participated in, but one that was easy to criticize in a woman—her most successful plays were her most original. She used stock comic situations and common “humors” characters but, as with the character of Marplot, she often used them in new ways and for different effects. Her treatment of familiar comic types shows her debt to Restoration comedy, but also points toward the sentimental comedy of the eighteenth century, making her a transitional figure in the development of English comic drama.

Critical opinion of Centlivre as a minor dramatist restricted the study of her works to The Busie Body, The Wonder, and A Bold Stroke for a Wife well into the twentieth century, but modern reassessments of her talent and importance have begun to increase the standard Centlivre canon. Two of Centlivre's earlier plays, The Gamester and its companion piece The Basset Table (1705), are now more widely read, especially because of their attention to women's relationship with money in the early eighteenth century. Her first popular hit, The Gamester is Centlivre's adaptation of Jean-François Regnard's Le Joueur (1696), with more substantial roles for the women and a happy ending in keeping with the fashion of “reform comedy.” The Gamester is more didactic than Centlivre's other successful comedies: she makes the effort to correct a social vice through satire, an effort not evident in the comic roles of Marplot or the foolish guardians. The Basset Table was less successful, though very similar in plot, character, and intention. A significant difference in The Basset Table is Centlivre's emphasis on the “learned lady” character, typically the butt of comedy but here portrayed sympathetically. The restraint of the educated women towards gambling supports the value of women's education, while the folly of the uneducated women demonstrates the dangers of their ignorance to themselves and others.

Critical Reception

Centlivre struggled for acceptance as a dramatist despite—and in some cases because of—the popularity of her plays. Richard Steele's frequent admiration of her in The Tatler was a significant mark of success, but Steele's comments also underscore the difficulties she faced. His defense of her as a woman playwright obliquely points toward the very real prejudice she faced from critics, actors, theater managers, and others who felt that a woman had no place writing for the theater. F. W. Bateson contends that her comedies are the eighteenth-century equivalent of a “railway reading”—that is, without intellectual or literary significance. Whatever Centlivre's reputation as a literary figure, she was appreciated in the theaters well into the nineteenth century: in sheer number of performances, she outlasted all of her contemporaries, with plays still in repertory as late as 1887. Nonetheless, scholars tended to view her more as a curiosity than a serious dramatist. The first significant critical study of Centlivre is John Wilson Bowyer's biography of 1952, which continues to be a primary reference on the author's life and works. Bowyer accepted much of the received legend of Centlivre's life uncritically, but defended her against the charges of plagiarism and unoriginality that had often been brought against her by earlier critics. As Bowyer notes, being a woman was repeatedly a disadvantage to Centlivre, making her more vulnerable to the common complaints of vulgarity and pandering to unsophisticated tastes. As scholars took more interest in rediscovering women authors, Centlivre gradually became better understood. Two early studies that further established Centlivre's importance are Thalia Stathas's 1968 edition of A Bold Stroke for a Wife, with a substantive introduction identifying Centlivre's strengths as a dramatic craftsperson, and F. P. Lock's updated 1979 biography. The late 1980s and 1990s, concurrent with the rise of gender studies, saw a significant increase in studies of Centlivre, most often focusing on her status as a female author in a male-dominated society. Centlivre's treatment of women is a primary theme of scholarship, especially her depiction of marriage and how women fare in finding and surviving a husband. Richard Frushell, Margo Collins, and Annette Kreis-Schink are among the critics who have discussed Centlivre's acute sense of marriage tensions; some scholars have even suggested that Centlivre's own life may have influenced her portrayals of gender relations. The topicality of her plays has inspired political criticism; Centlivre's outspoken support of Whiggish causes was matched, according to some readers, by Whiggish values permeating her plays. The intersection of gender and political themes has brought renewed attention to The Gamester and The Basset Table, which contain some of Centlivre's most progressive female characters. As Victoria Warren suggests, the unsettling combination of women and money in those plays spoke directly to Centlivre's predicament as a woman compelled for much of her life to write for her livelihood.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

The Perjur'd Husband; or, The Adventures of Venice 1700

The Beau's Duel; or, A Soldier for the Ladies 1702

The Stolen Heiress; or, The Salamanca Doctor Outplotted 1702

Love's Contrivance, or, Le Médecin Malgré Lui 1703

The Basset Table 1705

The Gamester 1705

Love at a Venture 1706

The Platonick Lady 1706

The Busie Body 1709

The Man's Bewitched; or, The Devil to Do about Her 1709

A Bickerstaff's Burying: or, Work for the Upholders 1710


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Anonymous (essay date 1760-61)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Anonymous. “To the World.” In The Dramatic Works of the Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre, Vol. 1, 1872. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, an introduction to the 1760-61 edition of Centlivre's collected works, the author emphasizes the difficulties the playwright faced because of her gender and uses Centlivre's career as the basis for a denunciation of women's oppression worldwide.]

Be it known that the Person with Pen in Hand is no other than a Woman, not a little piqued to find that neither the Nobility nor Commonalty of the Year 1722, had Spirit enough to erect in Westminster-Abbey, a Monument justly due to the Manes of the...

(The entire section is 1971 words.)

F. W. Bateson (essay date 1929)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bateson, F. W. “Mrs. Centlivre.” In English Comic Drama 1700-1750, pp. 61-77. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929.

[In the following excerpt, Bateson offers praise for Centlivre's ability to write to the taste of her audience, suggesting that her plays were commercially rather than artistically successful. Bateson also remarks on Centlivre's skillful use of disguise and mistaken identity in comic plots.]


‘What a Pox have the Women to do with the Muses?’ exclaims the Critick of A Comparison between the Two Stages. ‘I hate these Petticoat Authors; 'tis false Grammar, there's no Feminine for the Latin word, 'tis entirely of...

(The entire section is 4743 words.)

John Wilson Bowyer (essay date 1952)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bowyer, John Wilson. “‘It Is a Woman's.’” In The Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre, pp. 41-91. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1952.

[In the following excerpt, Bowyer discusses Centlivre's first period of success (1700-03), when the playwright began to attract public attention as an author. Bowyer highlights her adaptations of earlier plays and her efforts to establish herself as female author.]

At the end of 1700 Mrs. Centlivre was well established in London. Her friends included Tom Brown, Abel Boyer, William Ayloffe, George Farquhar, Mrs. Jane Wiseman, Mrs. De la Rivière Manley, Mrs. Catharine Trotter, Mrs. Sarah Fyge Egerton, Mrs. Mary Pix, Lady Sarah...

(The entire section is 5976 words.)

John Loftis (essay date 1959)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Loftis, John. “The End of the War and Change in Comedy, 1710-1728.” In Comedy and Society from Congreve to Fielding, pp. 77-100. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959.

[In the following excerpt, Loftis provides the political and social context for the increasingly favorable representation of merchant characters in early eighteenth century comedy. He groups Centlivre with Richard Steele and Colley Cibber as the leading playwrights of the era, observing that their artistic success correlates with their sympathy for the merchant classes and for Whiggish values in general.]

In William III's reign and in the earlier years of Anne's, party politics...

(The entire section is 6841 words.)

Patsy S. Fowler (essay date winter 1996)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Fowler, Patsy S. “Rejecting the Status Quo: The Attempts of Mary Pix & Susanna Centlivre to Reform Society's Patriarchal Attitudes.” Restoration and Eighteenth Century Theatre Research 11, no. 2 (winter 1996): 49-59.

[In the following essay, Fowler interprets Centlivre's plays as feminist texts intended to advance the social status of women. Focusing on The Basset Table and The Busie Body, Fowler views Centlivre as the inheritor of a feminist agenda promoted earlier by Aphra Behn as well as the beneficiary of Behn's efforts to create a space for women playwrights.]

Aphra Behn may have cracked the glass ceiling of the male-dominated...

(The entire section is 4072 words.)

Laura J. Rosenthal (essay date 1996)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosenthal, Laura J. “Writing (as) the Lady's Last Stake: Susanna Centlivre.” In Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England: Gender, Authorship, Literary Property, pp. 204-42. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Rosenthal examines the gender issues involved in the authorial relationship between Centlivre and Colley Cibber, who was accused of plagiarizing from her. Rosenthal suggests that the limits placed on women as property holders affected contemporary interpretations of authorial ownership for men and women.]


Colley Cibber grew rich, famous,...

(The entire section is 10097 words.)

Brean S. Hammond (essay date 2000)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hammond, Brean S. “Is There a Whig Canon? The Case of Susanna Centlivre.” Women's Writing 7, no. 3 (2000): 373-90.

[In the following essay, Hammond considers Centlivre as a test case for the construction of a Whig school of literature that would stand in contrast to the Tory writers—including John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Gay—who have traditionally dominated English studies. Hammond argues that Centlivre demonstrates Whig political sympathies with respect to specific political figures and events, but that she writes with a worldview correspondent with her Tory contemporaries.]

Book the Second of Pope's Dunciad closes with...

(The entire section is 7896 words.)

Jacky Bratton (essay date 2000)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bratton, Jacky. “Reading the Intertheatrical, or, the Mysterious Disappearance of Susanna Centlivre.” In Women, Theatre, and Performance: New Histories, New Historiographies, edited by Maggie B. Gale and Viv Gardner, pp. 7-24. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Bratton contends that Centlivre's diminished importance in the canon of eighteenth-century theater results from a ideological bias toward texts that correspond with traditional Western literary values, including the autonomy of the artist, the primacy of the text over the collaborative performance experience, and the distinction between the commercial and the artistic.]


Susanna Centlivre (1667-1723) published twenty plays and had nineteen of them staged between 1700 and 1720; adding up the number of years in which each of her plays was produced in London during the eighteenth century, Judith Phillips Stanton arrives at the remarkable figure of 289. They were published or republished 122 times.1 The popularity of Centlivre's three most acted comedies, The Busie Body (1709), The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret (1714) and A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718) extended well into the nineteenth century; so that in terms of stage success, before the twentieth century, Centlivre is second only to Shakespeare.2

And yet she is more or less forgotten by modern audiences. In 1997 there was a website entitled ‘Susanna Centlivre, The Forgotten Playwright of the Eighteenth Century’, which has itself now disappeared.3 She wrote Garrick's favourite role, Don Felix in The Wonder!, in which he chose to take his farewell of the stage;4 but, according to the critics, she never wrote a witty line. When her plays are mentioned in mainstream critical discourse,5 it is as Whiggish Restoration-and-water, harmless but ultimately dreary fun, part of the deplorable reaction and decline initiated by Collier's attack upon the stage. His Short View of the Immorality and Profanity of the Restoration Stage, published two years before her first play was produced, was long supposed to have corrupted the sensibility and the playgoing habits of London society: the result was said to be an audience so misled as to prefer Mrs Centlivre, while the more sensitive genius of Congreve was driven from the stage. Critics from Elizabeth Inchbald in 1808 to Bonamy Dobree in 1924 attributed Congreve's failure, and Centlivre's success, to ‘the degraded taste of the public’.6 It was Byron who actually blamed Centlivre for Congreve's rout: ‘I … know that Congreve gave up writing because Mrs Centlivre's balderdash drove his comedies off.’7

During the ensuing century her plays gradually ceased to be produced, at least in a form that had to be attributed to her. The critical exercise of canon-formation was able to exclude her work; in the twentieth century, accounts of the drama of the eighteenth century began to dismiss it completely, to extraordinary effect. The convention amongst summarising literary critics until the 1960s was to refer their readers only to Farquhar, who died in 1707, or straight to the unplayable sentimental comedies of Cibber and Steele, leaving the student of theatre baffled as to what the early eighteenth century thought was funny.8 It is striking that the feminist recuperation of the female dramatists of the Restoration has focused on the work of Aphra Behn, who now finds a leading place in the literary canon; Centlivre does not. Many feminist commentators echo the emphasis on Centlivre's conformity to Whig, mercantile values and seem disappointed to discover her supreme technical skills: they prefer Behn, a complex writer whose work can be compared with that of male contemporaries, and discovered to be great literature.9 Laura Rosenthal, in her book on the development of literary property as part of the commodification and professionalisation of Early Modern culture,10 sees Centlivre as deliberately setting herself up to fail as a contender for literary honours. Pointing out that ‘dramatic writing raises particular ambiguities of intertextuality and originality’, she argues that Centlivre was acutely aware of the challenge her success might present to the male literary establishment. Rosenthal suggests that she deliberately avoided claiming originality or genius for her work, publishing her most popular, intertextual pieces anonymously or under a male name, and where she wrote as herself deliberately characterising her plays as trivial entertainments. She refrained from the publication of her collected plays so as to avoid any claim to literary prestige. The consequences of this gendered negotiation of power and submission were, I would argue, perpetuated in the emergent discourse of Romantic and post-Romantic aesthetics, and are still operative today; Centlivre is only one woman theatre worker to suffer from them.

Centlivre is heavily disadvantaged by hegemonic ideology. Her work can be—indeed, has to be—condemned as inferior three times over. In the first place, Centlivre's plays fail to fulfil the basic requirement of art in bourgeois society, that it be the unique product of the autonomous artist, the individual ‘genius’ at work alone, challenging and expanding the horizons of human experience.11 Extending Rosenthal's observation, we may say that this is the case with all dramatists: none can operate fully without the co-operation of other creative artists, and their work will be not only added to, but transformed, by the actor, the scene-painter and others. When the aesthetic of autonomy was first articulated in Western literary and philosophical thought around 1800, there was a strong move to free the dramatic writer from what was perceived as the impediment of theatrical realisation. Coleridge and Charles Lamb insisted that the work of the great dramatists, especially Shakespeare, was best appreciated as literature, by the solitary reader. In the closet, Centlivre's work reads as incomplete, as indeed it is; she wrote for performance. Wrested from its context, it is impoverished and compromised, shown to be reliant upon what she takes from and gives to others. In artistic practice, as the aesthetic of autonomy gained ground in England, writers for the stage struggled to assert exclusive possession of their work and repudiate all theatrical involvement, until by the 1880s Arthur Wing Pinero could write his drama, having it ‘laboriously thought out, every detail of it’ and printed, complete with stage directions, before he entered the theatre, where, he said, ‘rehearsal is not—or certainly should not be—a time for experiment’.12

Centlivre's failure to create literature is expressed from the first as a lack of ‘wit’, an essential tool for neutralising and converting theatrical pleasure to an acceptable aesthetic response. Wit is the rationalising abstraction of laughter by the exercise of mind, converting human relations into a play of language. Critics, from the writer who composed a study of her work for the Morning Chronicle in 1758 onwards, have agreed that Centlivre's language did not do this. Reviewing a production of The Wonder! he pronounces that ‘the language is contemptible to the last degree’.13 Most subsequent writers have agreed with him. Bertram Shuttleworth in 1953 speaks of her ‘rather flat, but unexpectedly natural dialogue’;14 Nancy Cotton, who uses many superlatives in her discussion of Centlivre, is apparently self-contradictory over this issue. She says Centlivre ‘is a writer of small verbal distinction. She did, however, have a good ear for jargon, slang, religious cant, dialect, and foreign accent.’ In other words she can write interesting realistic dialogue; what is lacking is the literary quality of wit. Even for Nancy Cotton, therefore, A Bold Stroke for a Wife ‘has no depth but is an excellent stage play’.15 Douglas R. Butler spells out the implications of this in the eyes of the literary critic. Writing in 1991 about the same play (under the extraordinary heading of ‘Closet Drama’), he claims Centlivre has ‘little wit’, and deduces that she ‘does not have a serious vision’ because her ideas are ‘not conveyed most effectively through her language’.16

The second barrier to Centlivre's being taken seriously is succinctly expressed by F. W. Bateson, in 1927. He states that all but six of her plays are ‘almost completely worthless’, but that these six comedies,

all have a certain vitality and technical finesse, and are as good examples as one can hope to find of the work of the professional dramatist of the eighteenth century. They have, it must be admitted, no intellectual or literary significance; the writing is never distinguished and the characterization, with the single exception of Marplot in The Busie Body, is conventional and superficial. But the purpose for which they were written is fulfilled, to a greater or lesser extent, in all of them. They amuse, they distract the mind. Mrs Centlivre's comedies occupy the position in the literature of the eighteenth century that is now filled by the detective story. They are the railway reading of Georgian England.17

This attractive passage captures the evaluation of her work as ‘entertainment’ that asserts its essential difference from art. Such work amuses and distracts, serving to pass time when one has an excuse for self-indulgent avoidance of intellectual pursuits. It has no literary significance, however good of its kind it might be, because it has only the technical vitality of professional (paid) work, which can never be the life of art. Again, this remains an assumption in the work of recent critics. F. P. Lock, in the only current monograph about Centlivre, speaks dismissively of hers as ‘the representative career of a prolific, professional dramatist’. Pointing out John Loftis's false opposition in calling Centlivre ‘thoroughly professional, much concerned with the money to be made from her plays’. rather than with ‘artistic consistency’, even Jacqueline Pearson hastens to claim that despite being an ‘accomplished practical playwright’ Centlivre had ‘her own consistent vision as an artist’.18

Pearson's anxiousness as a feminist to make the ‘larger claim’ of artistic integrity for Centlivre, like Bateson's vehement, sneering dismissal sixty years before, signals the third and most important ideological issue. The process of the elevation of plays into literature is part of a hegemonic move upon the theatre. To take Centlivre's work seriously, as we take that of her only theatrical rival, Shakespeare, would challenge the way in which plays are read as literature, and undermine the division between art and entertainment that protects literature from the market-place; it would also allow a woman's work to undermine the fundamental binary, the distinction between mind and body, upon which Western patriarchal culture rests. The feminist writer prefers the less radical option of asserting the literary value of her female subject; the masculine discourse, however, knows that this claim cannot be made without undermining the whole structure.

The purity of the aesthetic is guaranteed by its lack of function, and thus its distinction from the material and the mortal. Through our grasp of the aesthetic, our recognition of beauty in pure art, the power of Reason can be applied to the physical world that so delights our senses and bring the bodily under moral control. This has amounted to a ‘programme of spiritual hegemony’ whereby ‘sensibility’ became the foundation of moral life and the rational education of desire became ‘an active, transformative force’ that teaches us pleasure in the material world is wrong.19 The peculiar dangers involved in finding art in the setting of the theatre are vividly described by Centlivre's contemporary, Jeremy Collier:

The business of Plays is to recommend virtue … This design has been oddly pursued by the English Stage. Our poets … have in a great measure the Springs of Thought and Inclination in their Power. Show, Musick, Action and Rhetorick, are moving Entertainments … But … If delight without Restraint, or Distinction, without Conscience or Shame, is the supream Law of Comedy, 'twere well if we had less on't. Arbitrary Pleasure, is more dangerous than Arbitrary Power. Nothing is more Brutal than to be abandon'd to Appetite.20

Collier is less direct, but even more extreme, about the role of women in this dangerous business of theatre. He cites Dryden as censuring the Roman dramatists for ‘making Mutes of their single women’, not allowing them to speak. He himself feels this ‘old Discipline would be very serviceable upon the Stage’ in his own time.21 He does not want to hear the voices of women. In the English theatre after the Restoration, the novel presence of women on stage contributed to the imperative that aesthetic distance be preserved, and that first wit, and later sensibility (the intellectualised response to feeling), should police the bodily. The outstanding and enduring success of a woman as writer is an unmanageable challenge to the masculine aestheticisation of the theatre's public space. Bateson begins his chapter on Centlivre with a quotation from an eighteenth-century source: ‘What a Pox have women to do with the Muses?’22


To make a valuation of Centlivre's work that explains its success without simultaneously condemning it as dangerously second-rate we have, I would argue, to free our consideration of all plays in the theatre from the ideologically-driven aesthetics I have outlined. Rejecting these three grounds of condemnation—that her work is not literature because it is collaborative, that it is compromised by the populist and commercial creative processes of the theatre, and that it is morally and aesthetically suspect because it provokes and includes rather than suppresses bodily response from an audience—I want to offer a conceptualisation of her work that addresses and analyses its theatrical success. By analogy with a range of accepted terminology I want to call this concept ‘intertheatricality’.

Some modern writers have begun to move towards reading Centlivre's work in its context. Her theatrical success is noted, sometimes quite enthusiastically, by modern writers. Nancy Cotton begins by announcing that she was ‘the most successful of England's early women playwrights, perhaps the best comic playwright between Congreve and Fielding’23 (this is not actually a very large claim). Jacqueline Pearson is self-consciously bolder: ‘Her best comedies are the most brilliant of the century: I would not myself exclude even Goldsmith or Sheridan from this. [Their] disappearance from the stage … is a serious loss.’24 Her theatrical artistry is suggested when Fidelis Morgan points out that in The Wonder! Centlivre achieved a ‘brilliant compromise’, a play with ‘one foot in each century’, ‘finding a way to please the new and more po-faced audience with a distressing degree of vitality’.25 I would argue that, in the first place, at the moment Centlivre was writing her ability to match the feeling of her audience was an outstanding, and a unique, achievement. The early eighteenth-century stage was reeling under the loss of fashionable patronage, the assaults of Collier and his followers, and the influx of audiences with different cultural imperatives and agendas; the successful dramatist had to negotiate and reconcile contradictory audience demands, delivering the bodily pleasure of laughter within the grip of repressive sensibility. What Fidelis Morgan sees in The Wonder! is an instance of this, an ingenious compromise between moral sentiment and rakish attitudes. Richard Frushell prefaces his edition of her plays—the first complete edition, published in 1982—with the confident assertion that ‘there can be no doubt that Mrs Centlivre is one of the most … savvy playwrights of the first quarter of the eighteenth century. She was at once actively regardful of the Restoration comic traditions of plot and theme, mindful of textual and tonal fashions of her own day, and unwittingly prescient of what would please in generations after her.’26

Her success, then, is the entertainer's success, in matching her offering to the taste of the time. But Frushell's final clause troubles this simple formulation. It signals that there is a dimension of her success—its long duration—that cannot be accounted for as merely shrewdness and observation of her market; he is content to ignore the challenge this presents to his account, and dub her ‘unwittingly prescient’. But performers and indeed writers whose skill is in echoing contemporary vibrations are just those whose work goes out of date. There are many examples of such transient success amongst Centlivre's contemporaries, including all the writers of the comedy of sensibility, and most of the satirists and poets of the time. But her best work requires no footnotes. It did not only succeed in those circumstances for which it was written: on the contrary, the extensive stage histories which Frushell provides demonstrate that her plays have an astonishing degree of flexibility and transferability across both space and time.

The huge figures for years of performance given at the head of this essay were computed by Judith Stanton from The London Stage, which details recorded performances in the capital. Frushell's net is cast more widely. He shows that even Centlivre's minor work had a busy life on the theatrical fringe; The Man's Bewitched (1709) was turned into a harlequinade and given at Bartholomew Fair, for example, and Love's Contrivance (1703), a pastiche of three plays by Molière, was a favourite in the tavern theatres of the day. Centlivre herself claimed a hundred performances for this play.27 Her major plays were staged from Covent Garden to the Crown Inn, Islington, and then across Britain and the world. Sybil Rosenfeld records them as the staple of British provincial circuits and strolling companies;28 Frushell documents that General Burgoyne's soldiers played her first in America, and the theatre in Sydney mounted her work as early as 1796; the records of theatres large and small in Ireland, Canada, Australia and the USA show her plays as standard repertoire well into the next century. Such a record is not simply accounted for as a capacity to respond to the passing fashion at the time the plays were first written; these texts are alive in stage entertainment.

Frushell's evidence offers some suggestive leads from which to begin a revaluation of Centlivre's work according to a different perspective. He remarks an extraordinary number of adaptations, shortened versions and rewritings of her plays. Some are selections or cut versions for small playhouses, some open adaptations by actors, while others are by dramatists who tried to pass off the results as their own, as in the case of Colley Cibber's The Double Gallant (1707), which is clearly taken from Centlivre's Love at a Venture (1706), which he had read and rejected in his role as manager. Her texts lived on in twenty new versions, as well as in their original shapes. Bowyer's exhaustive work on the derivations and analogues of her writing similarly demonstrates that the plays had an ancestry as well as a rich and varied posterity.

They also existed in close relationship with their own generation of entertainments. All eighteenth-century plays were presented within a programme of entertainments, framed and punctuated by interludes of various kinds. F. P. Lock, producing a purely literary reading of Centlivre, explicitly chooses to pretend the plays did not suffer from such destructive interruptions.29 Frushell reports, with a note of surprise, that ‘Success in the theatre came also because her plays often had the good fortune to be accompanied by popular afterpieces, vocal and instrumental music, dancing, and interesting para-dramatic entertainments otherwise—the total theatrical evening as much a draw as the plays that mainly constituted it.’ He also shows that these theatrical successes were often command or benefit nights30—moments when someone, either powerful members of the audience, who could choose what would please them most, or a working performer who could predict what would bring in the biggest audience receipts, put together the best possible bill.

I suggest that the choice of Centlivre on these nights is not a matter of her good fortune; that her plays have a quality that made them especially suitable and likely to be selected for galas, benefits and evenings of choice entertainment, just as they were fruitful ground for the adapter and the theatrical thief. The last clue to the special value of Centlivre's work to be found in Frushell's stage history is that his account of their productions reads like a roll-call of major actors, all of whom founded a reputation on roles in these plays. They seem to have made the careers of a long succession of men. Frushell, in noting this, quotes Edward Shuter's critique of the dramatist from a performer's point of view:

Mrs Centlivre's Comedies have a vein of pleasantry in them that will always be relish'd. She knew the Genius of this nation, and she wrote up to it; her Bold Stroke for a Wife, was a masterpiece that much increased her reputation: it establish'd that of Kit Bullock … a smart sprightly actor …31

The plays, then, belong to the theatre—they support it and are supported by it. They are precisely the kind of writing that refuses to be understood on the page, as ‘Drama’; their capacity to please must therefore be challenged or obscured, lest the autonomy of art be undermined by it. Their excellence is not in spite of, but because of their multiple strands of connection, their place within their milieu, meshed to writing past and present, to actors and their strengths and needs, to music, dancing the audience's pleasures. They have to a high degree the quality of ‘intertheatricality’.

By intertheatricality I mean that mesh of connections between theatre texts and between texts and their creators and realisers that makes up the moving, multi-dimensional, cross-hatched background out of which individual performances, nights at the theatre, regularly crystallise. The plays written and performed within a single theatrical tradition are all more or less interdependent. They are uttered in a theatrical code shared by writers, performers and audience which consists not only of language, but of genres, conventions and memory—shared by the audience—of previous plays and scenes, previous performances, the actors' previous roles and their known personae on and off stage. There is a collaboration, taking place not only over the period of the creation of a play in rehearsal, but anew, live, each night of its performance in front of an audience, that creates shared meaning out of the concatenation of theatre systems that is far more complex than any set of conventions deployed by a writer whose medium is print.

The extent to which this quality, especially when it is presented in the work of a woman, is perceived as threatening and needing to be critically put down is signalled by the charges brought against Centlivre. After she is denied the literary quality of wit, she is denied the other literary marker, originality; indeed she is accused of plagiarism. John Wilson Bowyer, writing in 1952 in a critical tradition that made the identification of sources and analogues its primary method, was nevertheless surprised at ‘[t]he extent to which scholars have sought sources for The Busy Body … They seem to have assumed that Mrs Centlivre could not write a play of her own. Except for the two scenes from Jonson, her borrowings are general and no discredit to her’.32 The issue is control, integration and integrity: women lack integrity, they and their works are permeable, inadequately bonded and bounded; this is deprecated by classic dramatic theory which demands a defined shape, an integration of all parts subordinated to whole, a single forward drive, climax and closure. Feminist writers have sought to discover a female counter-tradition at work within the literary, tracing a line from Aphra Behn to Centlivre to Hannah Cowley, whose play Who's the Dupe? (1779) is based upon the subplot of Centlivre's The Stolen Heiress (1702). It would be more effective as a recuperative strategy to see these female writers as central to a different tradition—that of intertheatricality. They could be said to be leaders in a practice that they shared with countless other women and men, of making plays within, instead of at odds with, the context in which the theatre artist works. Centlivre explicitly acknowledged this when she dismissed literary prescriptions in her preface to Love's Contrivance, saying ‘the criticks cavil most about Decorums, and cry up Aristotles Rules’. Tongue in cheek she owns they are in the right, but that ‘the Town’—audiences—do not agree; so while ‘the Unity of Time, Place and Action’ are no doubt ‘the greatest Beauties of a Dramatick Poem’, successful plays are created by ‘the other way of writing’. And this other, or Other, way is the procedure of the person who crystallises the successful moment—or string of moments—out of the intertheatrical chemistry of plots, players and expectations. The differences between Shakespeare's use of earlier dramatic sources, Cibber's casual appropriation of Centlivre's play as so much ‘Poetical Lumber’ handy for his use, the actors' conversion of A Bold Stroke for a Wife into a fairground droll, and Centlivre's translation and condensation of three plays by Molière, lie in the politics of public utterance and the construction of critical control.

Centlivre encapsulates a salient feature of her method when she goes on, in this same preface, to describe her construction of plays in a metaphor from her husband's realm, the kitchen.33 She says her audience ‘relishes nothing so well as Humour lightly tost up with Wit, and drest with Modesty and Air …’. The ingredients of a salad are not fixed; we may pick out the bits we like better, or tip the whole thing into a sandwich and add a piece of cheese. Entertainment is created like a salad, which may contain variable amounts of lettuce; The Busie Body may please one day as a main course, another as a three-act snack. Thalia Stathas is troubled by the ‘tonal shifts and shifts in characterisation’ that abound even in Centlivre's best plays. She prefers for that reason A Bold Stroke for a Wife which provides a fairy-tale structure, the wooing of four guardians who are strongly contrasting cartoonish humorous characters, to justify the comic shifts ‘without making them incredible’. But it is this characteristic structuring to convince and amuse scene by scene, rather than according to an integrated unity of plan, that gives the plays their powerful malleability, and makes them—as Stathas herself concedes—ideal vehicles for the actor. Seeking the reason for Garrick's love of The Wonder!, she says ‘The changing moods of Don Felix are said to have been a perfect vehicle for Garrick's skills, and the rapidity with which these changes occur itself demands a virtuosity in characterisation which few actors can achieve convincingly.’34 Perhaps not, today; but for many decades such virtuosity was the actor's stock-in-trade. That is why the role of Fainwell in A Bold Stroke for a Wife was chosen by the great comic actors—Shuter, Woodward, Bannister, Charles Kemble, Charles Mathews, Robert Elliston—and by all the barnstormers of the provincial circuits, and of Ireland, Scotland, Australia and colonial America. It is a play that is about acting your way to success, the trickster's triumph, the apotheosis of impersonation; and every man who believed in the power of the stage—which must needs have been a powerful belief, to keep the strolling player on the flinty and unresponsive road, convinced of his personal ability to charm money out of Philistine pockets—would want to see himself in it.


The best demonstration of the intricate mesh which is intertheatricality is a consideration of one play. Centlivre's most popular production was The Busie Body (1709), which Hazlitt said had been played a ‘thousand times in town and country, giving delight to the old, the young, and the middle-aged’.35 It was staged in London during eighty-seven years of the eighteenth century, with 475 known performances. There were doubtless many more, not only at unrecorded little theatres, but at the main houses, where it was the play of all others to be put on when the advertised piece for some reason failed: an actress ill, an actor detained in the country, and at an hour's notice Covent Garden could stage a successful performance of The Busie Body.36 Into the next century this was still the case: John Philip Kemble kept a production in reserve, always ready in case of accidents.37 From London the play was carried across the world by strollers, professionals and amateur gentlemen; it was a stock piece at the foundation of most anglophone theatres. Any pile of old playbills, from Devon to Virginia, will probably contain its name.

The rapid success of the play, despite the hostility of its original performers and a thin attendance on the first night, caused considerable critical unease. Richard Steele wrote a favourable notice in The Tatler, for which, according to Bowyer, Centlivre was for ever grateful. To the modern eye Steele's praise is lukewarm and patronising, and chiefly concerned, as most critics have been, to explain away a moral impossibility—the success of a woman dramatist:

On Saturday last was presented The Busie Body, a comedy, written (as I have heretofore remarked) by a woman. The plot and incidents of the play are laid with that subtilty of spirit which is peculiar to females of wit, and is very seldom well performed by those of the other sex, in which craft in love is an act of invention, and not, as with women, the effect of nature and instinct.38

It is significant that Bowyer should assert that Centlivre was eternally indebted to Steele for disempowering her and allaying audiences' fears of an unnatural success by reducing her writing to ‘the effect of nature and instinct’.

Many critics have since worked hard at explaining away her success by seeking to show which men she borrowed the play from. The first suggestions of sources appear in an early critical account of her work, David Baker's Biographia Dramatica 1782, and by the time Bowyer wrote borrowings from Francis Fane's Love in the Dark (1675), Dryden's Sir Martin Mar-all (1668), Molière's L'Étourdi (1653), John Dryden Jnr's The Husband His Own Cuckold (1696) had all been suggested as her sources. None of them bears anything but a slight general resemblance to her work. There is one significant analogue, however, and that is a scene in Ben Jonson's The Divell is an Asse (1616). This is clearly a rewriting on her part, interesting in the way in which Centlivre changed the balance of power in the important scene she borrowed from the male characters to her heroine Miranda. Modern feminist critics like Jacqueline Pearson and Suz-Anne Kinney find the controlling power of Miranda throughout the play attractive, reading her as a stand-in for the writer.39 But theatre audiences have been less interested in her than in the eponymous Busy Body, Marplot, the one character in all Centlivre's writing that Bateson allowed to be original. (Even this is disputed by the source hunters, who find a tenuous resemblance to the ineffectual servant Pug in Jonson's play.) But the original creation Marplot is still strikingly successful because of his intertheatricality. Like many iconic creations—Falstaff, Pickwick, Dracula, James Bond, Superman—he takes on a life of his own, and exists within and beyond the play in his own right. Centlivre wrote a sequel to feature him again, Marplot, or the Second Part of the Busie-Body (1710). Woodward, for whom Marplot was a signature role, then adapted this into a farce afterpiece, Marplot in Lisbon (1755), which found its way into the first collected edition of Centlivre's works in 1760-61. By the early nineteenth century the character was ripe for further updating, and was transmogrified into Paul Pry, in a play written first by John Poole and then by Douglas Jerrold.40 Poole acknowledged a French source for his subplot, but insisted the rest was all his own. It ‘became one of the greatest theatrical hits of the age: it had one of the longest runs recorded since The Beggar's Opera’.41 The farce was a star vehicle for John Liston, in which he was known to thousands and modelled in china by the Bloor Derby works.

So the text, transformed and redirected by Centlivre's work, was also deeply embedded in other writings; and on a second axis, in the performances of actors. Even more than Fainwell and Don Felix, Marplot was a comic actor's vehicle; the play was staged so that Edward Shuter could repeat his much-loved creation of the role, Henry Woodward could inject funds into the Covent Garden box office, or Garrick could challenge him in it.42 The text became not only a pretext for the character, but a malleable vehicle for him. It was changed around him, giving him more prominence, presumably by the actor playing the role. Beginning as a five-act comedy, the play was cut to three acts by the exclusion of the second love intrigue, without cuts to Marplot's appearances or lines; and even the printed editions hint at the nature of the role, the spaces that were given to its performer for extemporisation and extra business. In 1776, after Woodward performed his famous Marplot for the last time, the printed editions43 change markedly; one might speculate that they are changed to show or suggest his alterations to the text, now that they had ceased to be a trade secret of his. At the end of Act II, for example, the editions of 1776 onwards show a changed order of speeches, and violence is done to the sensible sequence of exits in order to give Marplot the tag, and a moment on stage when he is alone with the audience. No doubt these changes happened even more in the theatre than is recorded in print; Marplot is allowed out of the frame of the plot, into direct and conspiratorial relationship with the audience.

If Miranda is a surrogate for the writer, Marplot is perhaps the opposite: he is a kind of anti-dramatist; he conspires with the actor and the audience to disintegrate the play. His interference, with the best of intentions, spoils plots and ruins closures; he is not a gull, or the foppish, would-be wit of earlier plays, for he has no vanity or covetousness or sense of envy or emulation towards the lovers. He is indeed a virgin, a point which is more stressed in Marplot than the earlier play; and he is a coward, a desexualised innocent, a kind of wild child who just wants to know what they are all doing. A well-trained audience, with a proper sense of how a love-intrigue plot should be conducted, watches with horrified amusement as his well-meaning interference lays it in ruins over and over again.44 He is in that sense an unruly member of the audience taking control, the disintegrative force outside of both the writer's text and the theatrical pact. And like both audience and comic performer, at the end of both The Busie Body and Marplot he remains outside the pattern of the fiction, resisting, or immune to, closure, the dance, the marriages. The writer is not helpless in this intertheatrical nexus, of course, but collaborates in it, actively creating a channel through which the work of others flows, and is enabled and developed. She participates in a process which is a manifestation of the female aesthetic discussed by Jane Marcus, ‘in terms of repetition, dailiness and process’:45 the work of creation in collaboration.

It is too narrow to define intertheatricality simply as a female tradition. It is perhaps not a coincidence that group composition and devising were methods preferred by many feminist theatre groups in the 1970s and 1980s. But the point is not that only women do it, or might be argued to do it particularly well, or alternatively that they are critically assigned to consideration as parts of such groups so as to avoid giving them any higher status. I would rather regard collaborative practice as a model for understanding the creative process in the theatre that reflects, more nearly than the Aristotelian masculine metaphors of the drama do, what actually happened—‘wie es eigentlich war’—and still happens now. If that is so then it should, by classic Rankean criteria, be the basis of theatre history. That it is not bespeaks the ideological structuring of the discourse.

The rejection of the intertheatrical model of creativity has been made necessary by the aesthetic of autonomy and its insistence upon the uniqueness of the text and the creative artist. It has been achieved by dubbing intertheatrical works commercial, entertainment, professional, feminine, and in all possible ways both inferior and dangerous to true art. To fight back, that tradition must assert that real plays are not inviolable, single-authored creations. Their collaborative and multiple creation is integral to them, and includes not only borrowing from play to play, rewriting night by night, but also many more dimensions: the non-verbal systems of spectacle and sound, the other items on the bill, who is in the audience, and the presence in performances of the actors and their own personae, with their remembered other performances in this role, their known other roles, their rumoured private lives. Intertheatricality, the co-operative operation of the theatre, is a feminine aesthetic, in the same way that entertainment is a feminised tradition; neither is really confined to women, but both are excluded and downgraded by that association, in the service of ‘male’ models of history and of genius.


  1. Judith Phillips Stanton, ‘This New-Found Path Attempting: Women Dramatists in England, 1660-1800’, in Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, eds., Curtain Calls (Athens, Ohio University Press, 1991), pp. 325-54, 336.

  2. John Wilson Bowyer, The Celebrated Mrs Centlivre (Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1952), p.v.

  3. Drury Lane, 16 May 1776. See Thalia Stathas, ‘A Critical Edition of Three Plays by Susanna Centlivre’, Stanford University Ph.D., (Ann Arbor, University Microfilms Inc., 1966), pp. 475-8.

  4. See for example the brief dismissal in Simon Trussler, The Cambridge Illustrated History of British Theatre (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 143, where her picture adorns a short essay on ‘the female wits’ safely cordoned off from the main text in a grey box; and Richard W. Bevis, English Drama: Restoration and Eighteenth Century, 1660-1789 (London, Longman, 1988), p. 162, who discusses her work in a page under the unpromising heading ‘Stagnation 1708-1720’.

  5. Elizabeth Inchbald, ‘Remarks on A Bold Stroke for a Wife’, published in The British Theatre 11 (London, Longman, Hurst, Rees & Orme, 1808), p. 4; and see Bonamy Dobree, Restoration Comedy 1660-1720 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1924), in which he says (p. 140) that The Way of the World was ‘too civilized for an age that revelled in the scribblings of Mrs Pix’. He does not mention any of Centlivre's plays except The Gamester, cited as an example of British dramatists' propensity to stage the obvious, where Frenchmen allow suggestion to work: p. 49.

  6. Quoted in Bowyer, The Celebrated Mrs Centlivre, p. 97. The supposition that Congreve retreated from the stage jealous and Centlivre's success is recorded in Hazlitt, Lectures on the Comic Writers, 1819, Lecture VIII, ‘On the Comic Writers of the Last Century’, in Complete Works, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols (London, Dent, 1930-34), Vol. 6 (1931), pp. 149-68, p. 155.

  7. For a summary of dismissive critical approaches see F. W. Bateson, English Comic Drama, 1700-1750 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1929), pp. 61, 75-7; for the habit of omitting Centlivre altogether, see for example John E. Cunningham, Restoration Drama (London, Evans Brothers Ltd, 1966) and Oscar Brockett, The Theatre, an Introduction (New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965).

  8. See for example Marilyn L. Williamson, Raising Their Voices: British Women Writers, 1650-1750 (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1990); Cheryl Turner, in Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century (London, Routledge, 1992), speaks of Centlivre only in lists; the index entry on her ‘as dramatist’ refers to a footnote to chapter two in which the author lists women whose achievements have remained obscure in comparison with Behn's. An Annotated Bibliography of Twentieth-Century Studies of Women and Literature, 1600-1800 (New York and London, Garland, 1977) by Paula Backscheider, Felicity Nussbaum and Philip B. Anderson, has 75 entries under Behn and 33 under Centlivre, relying heavily on Bowyer, bibliographic notes and unpublished dissertations. Since then Centlivre has been included in general studies such as Nancy Cotton's Women Playwrights in England, c.1363 to 1750 (Lewisburg, PA, Bucknell University Press, 1980), and Jacqueline Pearson's The Prostituted Muse (London, Harvester, 1988), and has been accorded a long descriptive entry by Jean Gagen in vol. 84 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography ed. Paula R. Backscheider (Detroit, Gale Research Inc., 1989. But all of these sources still see Centlivre as a successor to Behn, one of a group of lesser dramatists; and the only single-author study, F. P. Lock, Susanna Centlivre (Boston, Twayne, Publishers, 1979), is purely literary in its approach, and concludes that ‘in the wider perspective of English drama as a whole, Centlivre can rank only as a minor figure’ (p. 134).

  9. Laura J. Rosenthal, Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England: Gender, Authorship, Literary Property (Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 7.

  10. This formulation, and much of the following section, derive from Peter Burger, ‘The Institution of Art as a Category of the Sociology of Literature’ (1979), in P. and C. Burger, eds, The Institutions of Art, trans. Loren Kruger (Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 1992).

  11. Pinero told this to his first biographer: see H. Hamilton Fyfe, Sir Arthur Pinero's Plays and Players (London, Greening, 1930), p. 259.

  12. Quoted in Stathas, ‘A Critical Edition’, p. xi.

  13. Review of Bowyer, Theatre Notebook 8, 20, cited in Rosenthal, Playwrights and Plagiarists, p. 133.

  14. Cotton, Women Playwrights in England, pp. 144-5.

  15. Douglas Butler, ‘Plot and Politics in Susanna Centlivre's A Bold Stroke for a Wife’, in Schofield and Macheski, Curtain Calls, pp. 357-70, p. 357.

  16. Bateson, English Comic Drama, p. 64.

  17. Lock, Susanna Centlivre, p. 134; Pearson, The Prostituted Muse, pp. 202-3.

  18. See Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford, Blackwell, 1990), p. 21.

  19. Jeremy Collier, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, 1698; reprinted from the 3rd ed. (New York, AMS Press, Inc., 1974), pp. 163-4.

  20. Ibid., p. 21.

  21. Bateson, English Comic Drama, p. 61; the quotation is from A Comparison Between the Two Stages (1702), attributed to Charles Gildon.

  22. Cotton, Women Playwrights in England, p. 122.

  23. Pearson, The Prostituted Muse, p. 228.

  24. Fidelis Morgan, The Female Wits: Women Playwrights on The London Stage 1660-1720 (London, Virago, 1981), p. 329; see also Marilyn L. Williamson, Raising Their Voices: British Women Writers 1650-1750 (Detroit, Wayne State University Press 1990).

  25. Susanna Centlivre, The Plays of Susanna Centlivre, edited with an introduction by Richard C. Frushell, 3 vols (New York and London, Garland Publishing Inc., 1982), Vol. 1, p. ix.

  26. In her Preface to The Platonick Lady (1706).

  27. Sybil Rosenfeld, Strolling Players and Drama in the Provinces 1660-1765 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1939), passim.

  28. Lock, Susanna Centlivre, p. 72.

  29. Frushell, Plays, vol. 1, pp. xvii, xxviii; The Busie Body had 22 royal command performances, including the night, 22 October 1717, when the Prince of Wales demanded it instead of Othello.

  30. Frushell, Plays, vol. 1, p. lxvii.

  31. Bowyer, The Celebrated Mrs Centlivre, p. 103.

  32. Joseph Centlivre was a cook in the royal household.

  33. Stathas, ‘A Critical Edition’, pp. xxi, 477.

  34. Quoted in Frushell, Plays, vol. 1, p. xxvii.

  35. See examples given in ibid., p. xciv, n. 68.

  36. Morgan, The Female Wits, p. 59.

  37. The Tatler, no. 19, 24 May 1709, quoted in Bowyer, The Celebrated Mrs Centlivre, p. 98.

  38. Suz-Anne Kinney, ‘Confinement Sharpens the Invention’: Aphra Behn's The Rover and Susanna Centlivre's The Busie Body’, in Gail Finney, ed., Look Who's Laughing: Gender and Comedy (New York, Gordon and Breach, 1994), p. 96; see also Pearson, The Prostituted Muse, pp. 220-1.

  39. Haymarket, 1825; Coburg, 1827.

  40. Jim Davis, John Liston Comedian (London, The Society for Theatre Research, 1985), p. 56.

  41. See Frushell, Plays, p. xxix; he cites Arthur Murphy's story that Garrick took on the role because Woodward, confident of his drawing power in the part, refused to continue without a rise in his salary.

  42. Busie Body is the first play in The New English Theatre in Eight Volumes, Containing the most valuable plays which have been Acted upon the London Stage, (London, Rivington et al., 1776); it occurs in vol. 8 of Bell's British Theatre, also dated 1776; most editions from 1777 onwards reflect these same alterations.

  43. See Pearson, The Prostituted Muse, p. 210, for an interesting interpretation of Marplot as a feminised figure, parodying stereotypes of female inquisitiveness and weakness - a notion which reinforces the tension his stage activity creates.

  44. ‘Daughters of anger/material girls’, in Regina Barreca, ed., Last Laughs, Women's Studies Vol. 15 (New York, Gordon and Breach, 1988), pp. 281-308, 287.

Annette Kreis-Schinck (essay date 2001)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kreis-Schinck, Annette. “‘What pleasant Lives Women lead in England, where Duty wears no Fetter but Inclination’: Dramatic Representations—Susanna Centlivre.” In Women, Writing, and the Theater in the Early Modern Period: The Plays of Aphra Behn and Suzanne Centlivre, pp. 71-82. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Kreis-Schinck considers the nexus of Centlivre's gender politics and her Whiggish nationalism, finding the playwright inconsistent in her treatment of women and liberty. Kreis-Schink suggests that Centlivre's popularity owed much to her dramatization of the tension between progressive politics and...

(The entire section is 6493 words.)

Susanna Centlivre (essay date 1703)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Centlivre, Susanna. “Preface to Love's Contrivance.” In The Dramatic Works of the Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre, Vol. 2, 1872. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1968.

[In the follow essay, originally published in the 1703 edition of Love's Contrivance, Centlivre defends her style of playwriting by pointing to her popular success with audiences. The author also mentions her debt to Molière.]

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 Criticks cavil...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

Susanna Centlivre (essay date 1709)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Centlivre, Susanna. “Epistle Dedicatory.” In The Busie Body. Los Angeles: Augustan Reprint Society, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1949.

[In the following essay, originally published in the 1709 edition of The Busie Body, Centlivre seeks the patronage of Lord Sommers, a highly prominent Whig who had recently been made president of Queen Anne's Privy Council upon the Whigs' return to power in 1708.]


May it please Your Lordship,

As it's an Establish'd Custom in these latter Ages, for all...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

Victoria Warren (essay date summer 2003)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Warren, Victoria. “Gender and Genre in Susanna Centlivre's The Gamester and The Basset Table.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43, no. 3 (summer 2003): 605-24.

[In the following essay, Warren disputes the categorization of Centlivre's comedies as “sentimental,” maintaining that in such plays as The Gamester and The Basset Table the playwright undercuts sentimental morality, and also drawing an analogy between her learned ladies and the uneasy social status of the playwright herself.]

The play's the thing.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet (II.ii.641)

Restoration theater—spanning the...

(The entire section is 8685 words.)

Antonella Rigamonti and Laura Favero Carraro (essay date 2003)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Rigamonti, Antonella and Laura Favero Carraro. “Women at Stake: The Self-Assertive Potential of Gambling in Susanna Centlivre's The Basset Table.Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 16, no. 2 (2003): 53-62.

[In the following essay, Rigamonti and Carraro contend that Centlivre's Basset Table likely failed as a follow-up to the more successful Gamester because the playwright posed a more direct challenge to accepted social norms for women. Comparing the play to similar works by male playwrights, the authors highlight Centlivre's unique take on the empowering possibilities offered to women at the gaming table.]

Almost as a...

(The entire section is 5263 words.)

Elizabeth Inchbald (essay date 1806)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Inchbald, Elizabeth. “Remarks.” In Remarks for the British Theatre (1806-1809), n.p. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1990.

[In the following essay, first published in an 1806 edition of The Busie Body, Inchbald offers a brief biography of Centlivre, emphasizing the need for unmarried or widowed women and mothers to earn a living and defending authorship as a legitimate profession for women. Critiquing The Busie Body, Inchbald contends that the character of Marplot, especially in the hand of an able comedian, made possible the long life of an otherwise mediocre play.]

When a man follows the occupation of a woman, or a woman...

(The entire section is 897 words.)

F. P. Lock (essay date 1979)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Lock, F. P. “The Busy Body.” In Susanna Centlivre, pp. 63-77. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Lock cites The Busie Body as an excellent example of Centlivre's style and method, emphasizing her careful construction of plot and skillful use of intrigue.]

Two years elapsed between Centlivre's marriage in 1707 and the production of her next play. She put the interval to good use in writing what is probably her best play. The Busy Body remained popular with theatergoers on both sides of the Atlantic for over one-hundred-fifty years. Yet this success was not won without a struggle. Mottley tells us that “when it...

(The entire section is 6748 words.)

Suz-Anne Kinney (essay date 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kinney, Suz-Anne. “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, pp. 81-98. Langhorne, Penn.: Gordon and Breach, 1994.

[In the following essay, Kinney discusses Behn and Centlivre as feminist pioneers in the theater, observing several similarities in the two playwrights' approaches to female characters, but suggesting that Centlivre's plays may reflect the increased conservatism of the early eighteenth-century theater.]

Aphra Behn's contribution to the history of literature is, by now, well known. In 1929, in her study of...

(The entire section is 8250 words.)

Elizabeth Inchbald (essay date 1808)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Inchbald, Elizabeth. “Remarks.” In Remarks for the British Theatre (1806-1809), n.p. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1990.

[In the following essay, first published in an 1808 edition of A Bold Stroke for a Wife, Inchbald commends Centlivre's skill as a dramatist but censures her for depicting licentiousness.]

Susannah Centlivre, the writer of this play [A Bold Stroke for a Wife], says of it, in her dedication to the duke of Wharton,—

All that I have to assert in favour of this piece is, that the plot is entirely new, and the incidents wholly owing to my own invention; not borrowed from...

(The entire section is 819 words.)

Thalia Stathas (essay date 1968)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Stathas, Thalia. Introduction to A Bold Stroke for a Wife, edited by Thalia Stathas, pp. xi-xxvi. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.

[In the following excerpt, Stathas discusses the stage history and sources for A Bold Stroke for a Wife, one of Centlivre's most successful plays. Stathas identifies plotting and realistic dialogue as the strengths of the play and links it to the gentler style of wit associated with sentimental comedy.]

A Bold Stroke for a Wife was first produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields on February 3, 1718.1 It was performed six times, almost consecutively, with Christopher Bullock playing Fainwell, the comedy's...

(The entire section is 5217 words.)

Douglas R. Butler (essay date 1991)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Butler, Douglas R. “Plot and Politics in Susanna Centlivre's A Bold Stroke for a Wife.” In Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater, 1660-1820, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, pp. 357-70. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Butler distinguishes Centlivre's style in A Bold Stroke for a Wife from Restoration comedy, suggesting that plot, rather than witty banter, is the center of her plays and of their political meaning.]

Although she is generally recognized as England's most popular woman playwright, Susanna Centlivre has inspired relatively little critical attention and even less...

(The entire section is 5511 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Frushell, Richard C. “Marriage and Marrying in Susanna Centlivre's Plays.” Papers on Language and Literature 22, no. 1 (winter 1986): 16-38.

Links Centlivre's treatment of marriage to the concerns and mores of Restoration comedy, calling the playwright a “barometer” of changes in the drama in the early eighteenth century.

Jerrold, Walter. “Susanna Centlivre: ‘The Cook's Wife of Buckingham Court’.” In Five Queer Women, pp. 139-99. New York: Brentano's, 1929.

Chiefly biographical study of Centlivre as one of five professional female authors, relying heavily on legend and conjecture; emphasizes...

(The entire section is 320 words.)