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.
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.
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.