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.
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.
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.
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.