Successful English playwright Susanna Centlivre (c. 1666-1723) crafted major comedies which became stock pieces of the British theater throughout the 18th century.
A Childhood Contested
Susanna Centlivre was born sometime between the years 1666 and 1680, of that sources seem sure. A review of biographical material for Centlivre produces no less than six possible years of birth and two likely countries—Ireland or England—so that her early life has settled firmly in the realm of legend rather than of record. Centlivre might have been born in Holbeach, Lincolnshire because she visited there frequently later in life. Then again, she might have been born in Whaplode, England … or perhaps in County Tyrone because her father owned a large parcel of land there. Centlivre's parentage is also a matter of mystery and myth. She may have been the daughter of commoners William (Edward) and Anne (Marham) Freeman, or her father may have been a Parliamentarian. Either both of Centlivre's parents died during her childhood, or her mother passed away early and her father remarried a woman who became a “wicked stepmother” of sorts and drove Centlivre to run away at age fourteen with a traveling acting troupe. Some claim Centlivre was a prodigy who wrote a song before she was seven and mastered French before she was twelve, while others marvel because she supposedly married at fourteen and was widowed at sixteen.
Many scholars believe that Centlivre ran away to Liverpool in 1682 at age fifteen, then attempted to travel to London by foot (with the assumption that she was born in England and not Ireland). The tale continues with Centlivre meeting Anthony Hammond (sometimes referred to by the name “Arthur”), who took her to Cambridge with him where Centlivre dressed as a young man and posed as Hammond's valet—known to his friends as “Cousin Jack.” The young and adventurous Centlivre is believed to have had fun at Cambridge learning to fence as well as studying ethics, logic, rhetoric and grammar before choosing to continue on to London—or before being sent to London along with a sum of money provided by Hammond to help her get settled.
Accounts of Centlivre's later relationships are far from definitive. Most say Centlivre and a nephew of Sir Stephen Fox were married for all intents and purposes in 1683 or 1684 in London, with the ill–fated union being abruptly severed when the groom was killed in a duel mere months later. Centlivre is then said to have married an officer with the last name of Carroll in 1685 (rumored to go by the alias Rawkins), and he too fell in a duel within the year. Neither of these marriages are on record anywhere, but Women in World History's Anita DuPratt suggested that while the “adventures associated with the young Susanna cannot be proved categorically; what can be assumed … is that she was self– educated, read at least one foreign language (French), and that she developed a very independent spirit.” Centlivre's professional future, although essentially well–documented, is also not without patches. Centlivre may have co–authored a publication called the Female Tatler from 1709–1710, and might have written anti–catholic essays in 1720—as well as penning a lost autobiography in 1761.
Early in her career, Centlivre took work as an amateur actress and often performed in roles that she had written herself. She commanded the heroine's role in her first play—published under the name Susanna Carroll—titled The Perjur'd Husband; or The Adventures of Venice (1700). The production premiered in Drury Lane's Theatre Royal that year, but quickly emerged as a failed tragicomedy. One problem was that many audience members were offended by the fact that some of the characters used coarse language, but Centlivre—as her entry in Women in World History recounts—maintained the integrity of her writing in a later preface to the play, “insisting that the characters were merely reflecting the manners and morals of London and that, until those were reformed, the stage would continue to follow suit. It is not ‘reasonable,’ she wrote, ‘to expect a Person whose inclinations are always forming Projects to the Dishonour of her Husband, should deliver her Commands to her Confident in the Words of a Psalm.’ ” Centlivre also produced two volumes of fictional letters titled Familiar and Courtly Letters of Monsieur Voiture (1700) and Volume II of Voiture's Letters (1701)—both of which were critically, popularly and financially successful because epistolary novels were a popular and lucrative genre of the time.
Centlivre followed the disappointing reception of her first play by generating a solid body of new work. She wrote The Beau's Duel: or, A Soldier for the Ladies and The Heiress: or, The Salamanca Doctor Out Plotted in 1702 and Love's Contrivance a year later in 1703. Centlivre's ability to support herself financially with a writing career was genuinely remarkable. DuPratt explained, “there were three avenues for financial reward: theatrical benefits, the sale of copyright, and patronage,” which meant that a successful playwright must manage to please a wide variety of people—from the average audience member to publishers of the day. Centlivre lived and worked in what was depicted by DuPratt as “a period of political and artistic transition … [from] the bawdy years of the Restoration, … [which] encouraged extravagant behavior and artistic license … [to] a greater sense of decorum. The new middle–class audience preferred farce, comedy of manners and intrigue. The ‘celebrated Mrs. Centlivre’ gained her reputation as a playwright of worth in this climate of change.”
Centlivre wrote seventeen comedies and several tragedies in her lifetime, but published many works anonymously because she recognized a significant prejudice against women who tried to write for the stage. While her first play was published under the name Susanna Carroll, the two that followed were anonymous and by her fourth she was using the masculine initials R.M. as a pseudonym. Centlivre worked hard to refine her craft. She used English, French, and Spanish literature as inspiration and sources for her work and shrewdly analyzed all the responses to each of her plays—honing her writing and authorial judgment until she felt assured that she was succeeding in giving a broader audience what they wanted.
Centlivre released Love's Contrivances in 1703, but it was the 1705 The Gamester that made the playwright famous and fortified her credibility, as well as holding a place in London theater repertoires for close to half a century. DuPratt explained that The Gamester “was particularly popular with audiences because of its local color and Centlivre's command of the gambling lingo of the day.” Gambling was a social and cultural obsession in the eighteenth–century, and Centlivre worked the theme into other plays, but never again as successfully. The Basset–Table (1705) featured a female protagonist in the grip of a gambling addiction, but did not come close to matching the success of The Gamester. Even after this success, which was authored “anonymously,” her plays were recorded as being penned by “the Author of The Gamester.”
Centlivre maintained a prolific output that included the 1706 The Platonic Lady, which was quoted from Women in World History and dedicated to “ ‘all the Generous Encouragers of Female Ingenuity.’ ” and further ranted that the “Vulgar World … think it a proof of their Sense, to dislike every thing that is writ by Women … And why this Wrath against the Womens Works? Perhaps you'll answer, because they meddle with things out of their Sphere: But I say, no; for since the Poet is born, why not a Woman as well as a Man?” In what must have become a last straw of sorts, Centlivre's collegue–actor and playwright Colley Cibber—has been accused of plagiarizing Centlivre's Love at a Venture (1706) in his successful production, The Double Gallant.
In 1706, Centlivre chose to travel with a troupe of players as an actress, and met Joseph Centlivre after a performance in Windsor. He had been a royal chef for the court of William and Mary, and was then a cook for Queen Anne (1665–1714), having received the title of “Yeoman of the Mouth.” A widower with two children, he married Centlivre on April 23, in 1707 and she joined him in Buckingham Court—finally able to focus on perfecting her craft because she no longer had to support herself financially. Her next play—The Busy Body (1709)—was a popular and critical success. Encyclopedia of British Women Writers' Nancy Cotton described it as “a beautifully proportioned intrigue comedy in which two young couples outwit two comic old men.” This production also marked the time when Centlivre once again began to sign her work, having effectively ascended above the prejudice of the day with multiple successes.
In 1714, Centlivre had her next big break with The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret—a notable intrigue comedy that the Biographical Dictionary of English Women Writers noted “was translated into German and Polish, and was chosen both by Kitty Clive and by [David] Garrick for their farewell performances.” Cotton clarified that Centlivre's plays “focused on fast–paced, witty situations rather than witty dialogue. She was an adroit stage technician who wrote for actors rather than for readers.” The successful author sold her plays and was given generous gifts from patrons that shared her political views. Centlivre was, DuPratt explained, “an ardent Whig, one whose loyalty to Parliamentary rule and a Protestant succession never wavered, [and] favor was bestowed upon her.” Centlivre's next two plays—both written in 1715—were never staged in her lifetime. A Gotham Election was a politically inflammatory satirical farce about a corrupt election, and A Wife Well Managed (eventually staged in 1724) targeted Catholicism by mocking an impious priest.
The 1718 A Bold Stroke for a Wife was Centlivre's last comic triumph, but scholars agree that all of her stage successes featured animated dialogue, a broad variety of convincing characters from a range of backgrounds and skilled plotting—producing parts that actors relished and interpreted throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Centlivre died on December 1, 1723 and was interred in St. Paul's Covent Garden in a simple grave without any monument.
Nameless No More
The Dictionary of Literary Biography remarked that “The successful revival of several of [Centlivre's] best comedies in this century is proof of their enduring appeal. A Bold Stroke for a Wife, for example, was successfully revived as recently as the summer of 1988 … Centlivre's comedies have long been recognized as … entertaining and lively, though earlier critics tended to deny them any solid literary merit. Later critics, however, have recognized much more fully the artistry of the plays.” DuPratt pointed out that Centlivre “wrote during a time when few writers, either male or female, were able to earn a living in the theater … a highly acclaimed writer of the comedy of intrigue … [she] overcame the prejudice against women and succeeded where others had failed.” Indeed a legacy that served as a foundation for scores of female playwrights given the opportunity to follow in Centlivre's footsteps.
A Biographical Dictionary of English Women Writers: 1580– 1720, edited by Maureen Bell, George Parfitt and Simon Shepherd, G.K. Hall and Company, 1990.
The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature, edited by Claire Buck, Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 1992.
The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography: New Expanded Edition, edited by Jennifer S. Uglow, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 84: Restoration and Eighteenth–Century Dramatists, Second Series, edited by Paula R. Backscheider, The Gale Group, 1989.
An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers, edited by Paul Schlueter and June Schlueter, Rutgers University Press, 1998.
The Encyclopedia of World Theater, edited by Martin Esslin, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977.
The Female Dramatist: Profiles of Women Playwrights from the Middle Ages to Contemporary Times, edited by Elaine T. Partnow and Lesley Anne Hyatt, Facts On File, Inc., 1998.
International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights St. James Press, 1993.
The Lincoln Library of Language Arts: Volume 2, The Frontier Press Company, 1978.
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by Anne Commire, Yorkin Publications, 1999.
"Centlivre, Susanna." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 14, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/centlivre-susanna
"Centlivre, Susanna." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved January 14, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/centlivre-susanna
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