Susanna Centlivre Centlivre, Susanna (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Susanna Centlivre 1669-1723

(Born Susanna Freeman) English playwright and poet.

Centlivre was one of the most popular female playwrights of the eighteenth century, with her plays receiving over 1200 performances between 1700 and 1800. The Busie Body (1709), The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret (1714), A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718), and other works entertained London audiences throughout the century and formed part of the stage repertoire of the preeminent actors of the period, David Garrick and John Philip Kemble, who found them eminently actable as well as reliable crowd-pleasers. Her most successful works were her comedies, which reflect a transition in theatrical conventions and styles, blending the sharp satire typical of Restoration plays with a more amiable and moral type of comedy, which suited the changing tastes of her audience.

Biographical Information

Details concerning Centlivre's early life are scanty, and those that exist—mainly derived from several eighteenth-century biographical sketches—are often contradictory. A 1719 account of her life, which may contain information provided by Centlivre herself, states that her father was a Mr. Freeman of Holbeach in Lincolnshire, and her mother was the daughter of a Mr. Marham of Lynn Regis, Norfolk. Records of a parish church in Whaplode, Lincolnshire—which is near Holbeach—indicate that a Susanna, daughter of William and Anne Freeman, was baptized on November 20, 1669. Her parents both died before she was twelve years old, and within a few years Centlivre married “a Nephew of Sir Stephen Fox.” The marriage lasted only a year. The early biographies of Centlivre are ambiguous: her husband may have died, or the couple may have separated. Afterwards, Centlivre married her second husband, the army officer Mr. Carrol, who apparently died within a year and a half of their wedding. On April 23, 1707, she married Joseph Centlivre, who was Yeoman of the Mouth—one of the royal cooks.

The early biographies generally agree that Centlivre had little formal education, and that she left home to escape ill treatment by a stepmother. One source reports that a neighbor taught her French, which gave rise to her interest in the plays of Molière. Several accounts allude to certain “gay adventures” Centlivre had as a young woman, but they offer different stories. One has it that she joined an itinerant troupe of actors, while another offers a remarkable tale of Centlivre attending Cambridge University for some months disguised as a man. Only with the start of her literary career in London does Centlivre's biography acquire any certainty. Her first play, The Perjur'd Husband, was staged in 1700, and until her third marriage in 1707 she wrote to support herself, producing eight plays in that time. Probably out of financial necessity she joined a company of traveling players in 1706; it was during a performance at court that she met Joseph Centlivre. After her wedding her output slowed, possibly because marriage improved her financial situation, allowing her to spend more time crafting her works. The first play Centlivre produced after her marriage was The Busie Body, written in 1709. It proved one of her most artistically successful and popular works, inspiring a sequel the next year in Mar-plot: or, The Second Part of The Busie Body.

While Centlivre did not move in the highest literary circles, she counted among her friends a number of prominent writers of the period, including George Farquhar, Nicholas Rowe, and Richard Steele. Most of these writers were, like Centlivre, sympathetic to the Whig political party. Although her plays are generally not overtly political, there is evidence throughout Centlivre's works of her political loyalties. In 1714, as heated debates raged over the question of whether a protestant or a Catholic claimant should succeed the grievously ill Queen Anne to the throne, Centlivre took a political position by dedicating The Wonder to the Duke of Cambridge, a member of the protestant House of Hanover who would later become George II. When a Hanover did accede to the throne, Centlivre's loyalty was rewarded with gifts and command performances of The Wonder and other plays. Centlivre celebrated the succession with A Poem. Humbly Presented to His most Sacred Majesty, George, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland. Upon His Accession to the Throne (1714).

Centlivre's Whig sympathies won her an enemy, however. Alexander Pope, one of the eighteenth century's greatest men of letters, as well as a Tory and a Catholic, objected to Centlivre's politics, her anti-Catholic views, and the mere fact that she wrote for a living, which he regarded as pandering to popular taste. In several pamphlets Pope characterized Centlivre as a hack, and in 1717 he and his friends John Arbuthnot and John Gay lampooned Centlivre in the farce Three Hours after Marriage. The play includes Phoebe Clinket, a female dramatist who, like Centlivre, has difficulties getting her plays produced. Centlivre responded by mocking Pope in A Bold Stroke for a Wife, with its veiled allusions to an ape (i.e., A. P.——e). Pope ultimately got the last word in their quarrel, depicting Centlivre as a soporific lady scribbler in his scathing satire The Dunciad (1728). After a serious illness in 1719 Centlivre wrote only one more play, The Artifice, which was staged in 1722. She died a year later, and was buried at St. Paul's church in Covent Garden.

Major Works

Centlivre had seventeen plays produced in her lifetime, including farces, comedies, tragedies, and plays of mixed type. She was most successful, both artistically and commercially, with her comedies. Her first works in this genre, The Beau's Duel (1702) and Love's Contrivance; or, Le Médecin malgré lui (1703), take cues from earlier models—especially, in the case of Love's Contrivance, from Molière—but bear a strong mark of both Centlivre's own invention and the tastes and concerns of her own era. Taking part in the movement toward “moral” comedy, spearheaded by Richard Steele, Centlivre turned out two plays decrying the vices of the time: The Gamester and The Basset-Table (both 1705). She achieved her greatest success, however, with her comedies of romantic intrigue, including the highly popular Busie Body, which won the praise of Steele in his widely read periodical, The Tatler, and was performed hundreds of times throughout the eighteenth century. The Busie Body introduced the character of Marplot, a signal figure in the transition between Restoration satiric comedy of wit and the more sympathetic comedies of the later eighteenth century. The character was featured in the 1710 sequel Mar-plot: or, The Second Part of the Busie Body, but although this play had a successful run at its first appearance, it was not, unlike the original comedy, revived thereafter.

While not openly political, Centlivre's next notable success, The Wonder, is seen as a reflection of her increasingly Whiggish political views. Centlivre uses the setting in Lisbon to highlight the twin themes of liberty and duty, both to family and to country. She also introduces the character of Frederick, a virtuous merchant penalized by a class-conscious society, whose denunciation of tyranny and praise of English liberty obviously mirror Centlivre's own sentiments. The Wonder later entered the repertory of David Garrick, who played the role of Don Felix over fifty times. The Cruel Gift (1716), a political tragedy, stands as Centlivre's only successful serious play. Modeled after the works of her friend Nicholas Rowe, this work touches again on the themes of personal and political liberty addressed in The Wonder. Centlivre treats these themes in her last major comedy as well. A Bold Stroke for a Wife is, by her own claim, Centlivre's most original play—a comedy of disguise and deception that, as in earlier works, espouses the causes of tolerance and liberty, and offers positive images of the merchant class. Like The Wonder, A Bold Stroke for a Wife was a staple of eighteenth-century theater repertory, a favorite of actors and audiences alike.

Critical Reception

Centlivre faced significant obstacles to success in her career as a playwright. Her contemporaries commonly regarded women writers as being of questionable virtue; and, because Centlivre also wrote for money, she also came under fire as a hack, as evidenced by the attacks by Pope and his cohorts. Even the comments of Richard Steele, whose support was crucial to the development of her career, were highly qualified by considerations of gender, praising her works for their “natural” art, based on feminine “instinct” rather than acquired or cultivated skill. As early as the eighteenth century, critics tended to group Centlivre with the Restoration dramatists who came before her, especially the successful female author Aphra Behn. Centlivre's plays generally suffered by the comparison, and were often seen as unsuccessful attempts to imitate the style of Restoration comedy. More recently, however, critics have examined Centlivre's works as part of the transition from the sharp satire of the Restoration to the gentler moral comedy of the later eighteenth century; in that context, assessments of her comedies have been much more positive. Thalia Stathas and F. P. Lock, for example, have discerned a distinct moral tone in her comedies of intrigue, and a diminished emphasis on witty, stylized banter in the dialogue. Centlivre's depiction of virtuous merchants has also drawn the attention of scholars. Douglas R. Butler has found in Centlivre a middle-class sensibility, while LuAnn Venden Herrell has argued that her comedy reflects a social concern about a shifting class structure. Scholars have often focused on Centlivre's portrayal of gender relations and marriage, with many finding in Centlivre a proto-feminist whose political interest in individual liberty extended to claims for greater freedoms for women. Suz-anne Kinney and Richard C. Frushell have observed that, although Centlivre's plays follow the conventional formula in which comedy always ends in marriage, the routes her female characters take to matrimony provide a critique of the social conventions regarding the treatment of women. Centlivre's career—particularly with the powerful, outspoken enemies she attracted—has also provided a useful case study of the struggle of early women writers and the status of women's writing. As Laura J. Rosenthal has suggested, the marginal place of women in eighteenth-century society severely limited their ability to claim even their own writings as their own personal property. As a result of such studies Centlivre's reputation as an early woman of letters and outspoken advocate of personal freedom steadily rose throughout the twentieth century.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Perjur'd Husband: or, The Adventures of Venice (play) 1700

The Beau's Duel: or, A Soldier for the Ladies (play) 1702

The Stolen Heiress: or, The Salamanca Doctor Outplotted (play) 1702

Love's Contrivance: or, Le Médecin malgré Lui (play) 1703

The Basset-Table (play) 1705

The Gamester (play) 1705

Love at a Venture (play) 1706

The Platonick Lady (play) 1706

The Busie Body (play) 1709

The Man's bewitch'd: or, the Devil to do about Her (play) 1709

A Bickerstaff's...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

John Boyer Wilson (essay date 1952)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret,” in The Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre, Duke University Press, 1952, pp. 171-90.

[In the following excerpt, Wilson surveys the possible sources of one of Centlivre's most artistically successful plays, The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret, and outlines the performance history of the comedy, which highlights the development of her reputation as a legitimate author.]

The Wonder is an excellent light comedy. After [actor David] Garrick had contributed his interpretation of the character of Don Felix, it was often regarded as Mrs. Centlivre's masterpiece. The action is laid in Lisbon. Don Felix, in hiding after...

(The entire section is 6562 words.)

Thalia Stathas (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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

[In the essay below, Stathas gives full publication and production histories for A Bold Stroke for a Wifeand discusses Centlivre's development and modification of eighteenth-century comic conventions.]

First performed in February, 1718, A Bold Stroke for a Wife,By the Author of the Busie-Body and the Gamester,” was published that year, probably in the same month, by “W. Mears, J. Browne, and F. Clay.1 William Mears was the principal partner in most early...

(The entire section is 6358 words.)

F. P. Lock (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Writing to Please the Town,” in Susanna Centlivre, Twayne Publishers, 1979, pp. 31-45.

[In this excerpt, Lock examines Centlivre's first four plays, The Perjured Husband, The Beau's Duel, The Stolen Heiress, and Love's Contrivance.The critic judges these works “experiments” which show “an inexperienced dramatist gradually working toward the kind of play that would satisfy both her artistic conscience and her desire for popular success.”]

Centlivre was a pragmatic dramatist: not for her Ben Jonson's defiant “By—'tis good, and if you lik't, you may.”1 Instead, she would have agreed with Samuel Johnson that “The...

(The entire section is 6840 words.)

Richard C. Frushell (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Marriage and Marrying in Susanna Centlivre's Plays,” in Papers in Language and Literature, Vol. 22, Winter 1986, pp. 16-38.

[In this essay, Frushell surveys the theme of marriage throughout Centlivre's corpus, arguing that her plays reflect major shifts in theatrical style and audience composition from the late Restoration through the early eighteenth century.]

Susanna Freeman Carroll Centlivre was the premiere woman dramatist of the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Her reputation and influence in comedy reached through her own century and the next. If her more famous contemporary dramatists, including Aphra Behn of the previous generation, had...

(The entire section is 10341 words.)

Suz-anne Kinney (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Confinement Sharpens the Invention: Aphra Behn's The Rover and Susanna Centlivre's The Busie Body,” in Look Who's Laughing: Gender and Comedy, edited by Gail Finney, Gordon and Breach, 1994, pp. 81-98.

[In this essay, Kinney outlines similarities between Behn's and Centlivre's careers and examines a play by each writer in which “female experience, including the experience of female authorship, is dramatized.”]

Aphra Behn's contribution to the history of literature is, by now, well known. In 1929, in her study of women and literature A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf marks Aphra Behn's career as a “very important corner on the...

(The entire section is 8235 words.)

Margo Collins (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Centlivre v. Hardwicke: Susannah Centlivre's Plays and the Marriage Act of 1753,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer 1999, pp. 179-98.

[In this essay, Collins accounts for the exceptional popularity of The Busie Body and A Bold Stroke for a Wife in the eighteenth century by arguing that they touched upon public anxieties regarding the legal forms of marriage, which had been increased by the passage of the 1753 Marriage Act.]

The years between 1700 and 1800 saw Susannah Centlivre's plays performed 1,227 times in London theaters. Two plays, The Busie Body and A Bold Stroke for a Wife, accounted for 822 of these...

(The entire section is 8343 words.)

LuAnn Venden Herrell (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “‘Luck be a Lady Tonight,’ or At Least Make Me a Gentleman: Economic Anxiety in Centlivre's The Gamester,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 32, No. 2, Fall 1999, pp. 45-61.

[In this essay, Herrell contends that Centlivre's early comedy The Gamester “explores a fundamental economic anxiety brought on by the shift from a system based on land to one based on ready money.”]

John Dennis, in a 1704 response to yet another of Jeremy Collier's attacks on the immorality of the stage, criticizes Collier for neglecting to discuss what he sees as a more tangible and therefore more serious vice:

But how...

(The entire section is 7933 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Frushell, Richard C. Introduction to The Plays of Susanna Centlivre, Vol. 1, ed. Richard C. Frushell, pp. ix-cxxi. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982.

Extensive introduction to Centlivre's life and works, emphasizing the stage history of her plays and early critical responses.

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

Argues that Centlivre and Pix “should be recognized for their attempts to reform society's attitudes and thus...

(The entire section is 169 words.)