Centlivre, Susanna (c. 1669–1723)
Centlivre, Susanna (c. 1669–1723)
Centlivre, Susanna (c. 1669–1723)
Successful British playwright whose major comedies became stock pieces of the English theater throughout the 18th century. Name variations: Susan Centlivre; Susanna Carroll; (pseudonym) R.M. Born Susan Freeman around 1669 (some sources cite 1667), probably in Whaplode, England; died on December 1, 1723, in London; probably daughter of William and Anne Freeman; possibly married to "nephew of Sir Stephen Fox," date unknown, widowed; married to a Mr. Carroll, date unknown, widowed; married Joseph Centlivre, on April 23, 1707.
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 Gamester (1705); The Bassett Table (1705); Love at a Venture (1706); The Platonick Lady (1706); The Busy Body (1709); The Man's Bewitched: or, The Devil to Do About Her (1709); A Bickerstaff's Burying: or, Work for the Upholders (1710); Marplot: or, The Second Part of The Busy Body (1710); The Perplexed Lovers (1712); The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret (1714); A Gotham Election (1715); A Wife Well Managed (1715); The Cruel Gift: or The Royal Resentment (1716); A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718); The Artifice (1722).
The beginning of the 18th century in England was a period of political and artistic transition. The bawdy years of the Restoration, after Charles II ascended to the throne of England, encouraged extravagant behavior and artistic license. After the repressive days of the Commonwealth under Cromwell, the British theater saw its first actresses grace the stage, and a growing number of rivaling theaters caused the king to issue two royal patents, one to Drury Lane and the other to Lincoln's Inn Fields. The plays of the Restoration were filled with sexual innuendo and lewd behavior that mirrored the society of Charles II's reign. However, with his death in 1685, and the succession of his son James II, the climate in England began to change. James II, who had hoped to establish an absolute monarchy and return the country to Catholicism, reigned until 1688 when he was forced to flee to France. When James finally had a male heir, "Bonnie Prince Charlie," the people, fearing a Catholic takeover, entreated William III of Orange (Holland), a devout Protestant and husband of James II's daughter, Mary II (1662–1694), to become king of England. William's arrival, and the departure of James II, secured Parliamentary rule in England and the hopes of a Protestant country. The reign of William and Mary and the subsequent rule of Anne , Mary's sister, from 1702–1714, saw a change in society. The bawdiness of the Restoration gave way 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. She has been acclaimed as one of the best comic playwrights of her age. Of the 19 plays that she
wrote, four became stock pieces: The Gamester, The Busy Body, The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret, and A Bold Stroke for a Wife. These comedies continued to be staged in England and the United States throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
While Susanna Centlivre's literary career is easily documented, the early years of her life remain somewhat obscure. Several accounts of her birth and youthful years have been recorded, but there is uncertainty as to the factual accuracy they represent. Nancy Cotton , in Woman Playwrights in England, has combined the various accounts into an amusing amalgamation:
She was precocious, composing a song before she was seven, and self-educated, with a flair for languages, mastering French before she was twelve; nonetheless, she had a wicked stepmother who drove her at the age of fourteen to run away from home with a company of strolling players or, alternatively, with Anthony Hammond, who dressed her in boy's clothes and took her with him to Cambridge for several months as his lover. At the same time, or shortly thereafter, she married, "or something like it," a nephew of Sir Stephen Fox and was widowed in a year. She then married an army officer named Carroll, who was killed in a duel eighteen months later.
The adventures associated with the young Susanna cannot be proved categorically; what can be assumed, however, is that she was self-educated, read at least one foreign language (French), and that she developed a very independent spirit.
Starting in 1700, when as Susanna Carroll she began publishing epistolary writing, an accounting of her life is more complete. At the turn of the century, fictional letter writing was popular and financially rewarding. Her contributions were published in Familiar and Courtly Letters Written by Monsieur Voiture (London, 1700), Volume II of Voiture's Letters (London, 1701), and Letters of Wit, Politicks and Morality (London, 1701). Once she began writing plays in 1700, she wrote often, as this provided her only means of financial support.
In the first year of the new century, Centlivre published her first play, The Perjur'd Husband; or, The Adventures of Venice, which premiered at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. This unsuccessful tragicomedy, which failed to be performed a sixth night—the second of two nights that the playwright kept the evening receipts less house expenses—was criticized for several indecorous expressions used in the subplot. In the Preface to the play, which was published subsequent to the first performance, Susanna Carroll defended the language in the piece, 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." This entangled love story focused on Count Bassino, a visitor to Venice. Having left his wife Placentia in Turin, he met and fell in love with Aurelia, who was engaged to Alonzo. Aurelia returned Bassino's affection and agreed to marry him, though she did not know that he was already married. Bassino's friend, Armando, tried to dissuade him from pursuing this romance. Placentia, having learned about Aurelia, traveled to Venice. Disguised as a man and unable to stop the relationship, Placentia stabs and kills Aurelia. Bassino, not recognizing Placentia, stabs and kills her. Alonzo enters and stabs Bassino in revenge for his lost Aurelia. Alonzo and Bassino's friend, Armando, are left to mourn the dead. The unrelated subplot, and the part that offended some critics, dealt with the Pizalto family. The young Lady Pizalto attempts to take a lover, while her older and lecherous husband tries to have an affair with the maid. Disguises and mistaken identities generate considerable humor and form the basis for subsequent comic devices used in Centlivre's more mature work. Although this first attempt at playwriting was not well received, she was not deterred.
Until her first major success in 1705, she experimented with different styles in her quest to find not only what she excelled at, but also what would please the ever changing audiences of London. Because playwriting was her means of financial gain, pleasing the audiences was of major importance. Although it was not a lucrative profession, there were three avenues for financial reward: theatrical benefits, the sale of copyright, and patronage. F.P. Lock estimates, in his book Susanna Centlivre, that "Centlivre might have grossed anything from 50 to 100 pounds from those of her early plays that reached a third night and perhaps from 100 to 150 pounds from her more successful later ones. How well she could live on these receipts would depend entirely on how frugal or extravagant she chose to be."
Her next two plays, The Beau's Duel; or, A Soldier for the Ladies and The Stolen Heiress; or, The Salamanca Doctor Outplotted, both staged in 1702, showed her capabilities in writing "intrigue comedy." Unfortunately, neither piece was particularly successful. Finally, in June of 1703, commercial success came her way with Love's Contrivance; or, Le Médecin Malgré Lui. Adapted from several plays by Molière, this series of farcical scenes brought continuous laughter from the audiences. The play was filled with numerous delightful comic roles and was restaged for many years. In fact, the last act was frequently staged on its own as an Afterpiece to the regular theatrical presentations of the evening. In the Preface to the play, she acknowledged that comedies should entertain, not strive to educate the audience: laughter was her goal. She also did not adhere to the classical rules of writing, believing that anything was acceptable as long as it pleased the audience. On this account, given the changing tastes of the populace, she did temper the language and innuendo in her plays, explaining in the Preface: "tho' I did not observe the Rules of Drama, I took peculiar Care to dress my Thoughts in such a modest Stile, that it might not give Offence to any."
Centlivre not only had to contend with the fickle taste of the London audiences with regard to the content of her plays, but she also had to deal with the apparent lack of acceptance of work written by women in general. After the Perjur'd Husband, she printed her next plays anonymously. In the Prologue to her second play, The Beau's Duel, she refers to "Our Female Author" and for the third play, The Heiress, the author is referred to as a man. Love's Contrivance, her fourth play and first commercial success, was written by "R.M." Even for her first major success, The Gamester, the author was anonymous and subsequent plays were penned "By the Author of the Gamester." When The Platonick Lady was printed in 1706, she used the Dedication to rail against those who would deny women a place in the literary annals of the English stage: "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?"
My Bookseller … told me, of a Spark that had seen my Gamester three or four times, and lik'd it extremely: Having bought one of the Books, ask'd who the Author was; and being told, a Woman, threw down the Book, and put up his Money, saying, he had spent too much after it already, and was sure if the Town had known that, it wou'd never have run ten days. … It is such as these that rob us of that which inspires the Poet, Praise.
—Susanna Centlivre, Dedication, The Platonick Lady, 1706.
Finally, in 1705, Centlivre found both commercial and artistic success with The Gamester, in which she took advantage of the common 18th-century vice of gambling. This play clearly established her reputation for comedy writing. The characters Valere and Angelica are young lovers; Valere is addicted to gambling, and despite Angelica's pleas and his father's entreaties he cannot abandon the sport. He makes and breaks numerous promises, and Angelica repeatedly forgives him. She gives Valere a miniature of herself, warning him that if he loses it he will lose her love as well. Upon discovering that Valere has again broken his promise not to gamble, Angelica disguises herself as a man and encounters him at the gaming tables where, upon losing, he gives the miniature to this apparent stranger in lieu of money. He is so remorseful after handing it over that he vows never to enter a gambling establishment again. Angelica, believing him to be sincere, willingly forgives his past indiscretions. Remaining in the repertoire of London theaters for at least half a century, The Gamester saw 75 London productions. The play was particularly popular with audiences because of its local color and Centlivre's command of the gambling lingo of the day.
Her plays were produced with great regularity until 1706, when she left London with a company of traveling players to pursue a short-lived career as an actress. While performing at Windsor, she met Joseph Centlivre, whom she married on April 23, 1707. Joseph, one of the royal cooks for Queen Anne, and previously for William and Mary, had the title of Yeoman of the Mouth; he was a widower with two children. The financial security of this marriage enabled Susanna Centlivre to concentrate on her writing. No longer having to write to provide herself with financial security, she could write to perfect her craft, which she did with great success. The Centlivres resided in Buckingham Court until their deaths.
Although Centlivre wrote a number of other comedies (The Bassett Table, Love at a Venture, The Platonick Lady), she did not receive the same critical acclaim that accompanied The Gamester until 1709 with The Busy Body. This was the first play that she wrote following her marriage to Joseph Centlivre. F.P. Lock cites John Mottley's A Compleat List of All the English Dramatic Poets, published in 1747, as asserting that "when it was first offered to the Players, [it] was received very cooly, and it was with great Difficulty, that the Author could prevail upon them to think of acting it." Mottley goes on to report that the play was considered "a silly thing wrote by a Woman, [and] that the Players had no Opinion of it." The opening night audience at The Theatre Royal in Drury Lane was small indeed, but "agreeably surprized" as noted by Mottley; Nancy Cook, in Women Playwrights in England, reports that the second night the house was larger and the laughter stronger; for the third night, the Benefit performance for the playwright, the theater was crowded with an appreciative audience. The play was staged for 13 consecutive performances and continued to be staged in London throughout the 18th and well into the 19th centuries. The plot deals with two pairs of lovers, each trying to overcome the obsessive behavior of parents or guardians. Throughout the various plot twists and counterplots, Marplot, a friend and busybody, continually disrupts and almost ruins the plans of Sir George Airy and Miranda, and Charles Gripe and Isabinda. Cook explains that "in his impertinent but good-natured eagerness to discover his friends' secrets, Marplot repeatedly brings the young lovers near to disaster."
For the next five years, Centlivre wrote a number of comedies that achieved limited acclaim: The Man's Bewitched: or, The Devil to Do about Her; A Bickerstaff's Burying; Marplot; and The Perplexed Lovers. Her next major success was The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret, which opened April 27, 1714, at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and played six nights. Subsequently, it was restaged at least 232 times in London throughout the 18th century. This much-celebrated comedy of intrigue focuses on two pairs of lovers: Felix and Violante, and Colonel Britton and Isabella. Violante's grandfather has left her a sizeable sum of money in his will; in an attempt to get control of this fortune, Don Pedro, Violante's father, arranges for Violante to enter a nunnery. Since she is in love with Felix, she is opposed to her father's intentions. Felix is Isabella's brother. Their father, Don Lopez, wants Isabella to wed an old but wealthy gentleman. Isabella, in her attempt to avoid this unwanted marriage, decides to run away from home; she jumps from her balcony and is unexpectedly caught by one Colonel Britton. Britton takes her to the safety of a neighbor's home, which happens to be Violante's. Violante agrees to keep Isabella's whereabouts a secret from Don Lopez and Felix, and Isabella and the Colonel soon fall in love. The comedy focuses on Violante's attempts to keep the promise she has made regarding Isabella's whereabouts. This leads to many misunderstandings, particularly between Felix and Violante when Felix becomes convinced that Violante is being unfaithful. Violante is able to parry Felix's accusations and displays tremendous strength of character by keeping a secret and remaining loyal to her friend Isabella. F.P. Lock in his detailed study, Susanna Centlivre, writes: "Love and friendship are often at odds in the play. Centlivre uses the conflict to challenge the idea that friendship is a peculiarly male virtue. Violante's ability to keep the secret, to put Isabella's interests before her love for Felix, shows considerable strength of character: more than Felix shows when he is placed in difficult circumstances."
The outright sale of Centlivre's plays generated income as did gifts from well-to-do patrons. Because she was an ardent Whig, one whose loyalty to Parliamentary rule and a Protestant succession never wavered, favor was bestowed upon her. For example, after George I was crowned king of England, her support for the Hanoverian rule was rewarded when the prince of Wales commanded a performance of The Wonder on December 16, 1714. F.P. Lock reports: "in 1717, the prince commanded performances of The Cruel Gift (May 3) and of The Busy Body (October 23). On March 17, 1720, the king himself commanded a performance of The Busy Body for the author's benefit."
The next two pieces that Centlivre wrote, both in 1715, were satirical farces that were not produced in her lifetime. A Gotham Election looks at the Tory corruption in a local election, and A Wife Well Managed makes fun of Catholicism through the activities of a less than pious priest. Given the political situation at the time, it is not surprising that the Master of Revels, who was charged with licensing all theatrics, would not approve of A Gotham Election. Centlivre didn't even submit A Wife Well Managed. With George I's ascension to the throne of England, the cries of the Jacobites to reinstate James III and Catholicism to England were tempered. When the Jacobite rebellion flared in 1715, political references became unwelcome on the stage.
The last years of Centlivre's writing career included three full-length plays: The Cruel Gift (1716), A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718), and The Artifice (1722). Of these, A Bold Stroke for a Wife was deemed a comic success when it was produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields on February 3, 1718, running for six nights. It was repeated throughout the 18th century for 236 London performances. Instead of the usual dual pair of lovers, this piece centers on the adventures of Colonel Fainwell in his attempt to marry Anne Lovely. Before the vows can be said, he must get the permission of four different and difficult-to-please guardians—"an old beau," "a kind of silly virtuoso," "a changebroker," and "a Quaker [hosier]." The lengths to which the Colonel must resort in order to convince these gentlemen resulted in a comedy that pleased audiences well into the 19th century.
Centlivre wrote during a time when few writers, either male or female, were able to earn a living in the theater. George Farquahar, for example, a noted comic writer of the time, died in poverty. Others eventually abandoned the theater for more stable employment. Her early years of writing, from 1700 to 1709, were marked with considerable effort; her plays were staged with regularity in London and while only a few during that time period were deemed artistically successful she was still able to stay afloat financially. When she married Joseph Centlivre, she gained a sense of financial security. From this point forward, she wrote less frequently, but more artfully. She was a highly acclaimed writer of the comedy of intrigue, and her plays follow the trends of an age that had moved from bawdy, sexual innuendo to a more decorous approach to love and marriage. Her plays were restaged throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, providing vehicles for the great comedic actors of the age. Although she was not formally educated, her knowledge of English, French (particularly Molière) and Spanish literature provided the sources for many of her plays. Centlivre overcame the prejudice against women and succeeded where others had failed. She died on December 1, 1723, and was buried in St Paul's, Covent Garden.
Cotton, Nancy. Women Playwrights in England c. 1363–1750. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1980.
Lock, F.P. Susanna Centlivre. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
Bowyer, John Wilson. The Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1952.
Four Celebrated Comedies. London: Printed for W. Mears, 1735.
The Dramatic Works of the Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre with a New Account of Her Life. London: J. Pearson, 1872.
The Plays of Susanna Centlivre. Edited by Richard C. Frushell. 3 vols. NY: Garland, 1982.
The Works of the Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre. 3 vols. London: Printed for J. Knapton, C. Hitch & L. Hawes, 1760–1761.
Anita DuPratt , Professor of Theatre, California State University Bakersfield, Bakersfield, California