Few playwrights of the Eighteenth century enjoy renown comparable to that of William Shakespeare from the century before. Susanna Centlivre, however, is one such playwright. Her additions to the dramatic community came to be revered for their strong female characters who defied social convention, comedic plotting, and subtle use of satire. By all known accounts, her early childhood is mysterious and difficult to nail down with any certainty. Some accounts have her being born in 1669, while others place her birth in 1667.
She might have been born in Ireland or it could have been in England. Most accounts agree that she lost her parents at an early age, before she was fourteen or fifteen, and shortly thereafter fled home to escape, possibly, an abusive step-mother. Following this, her history is once again obscured. After leaving home, there are reports that she met up with a student at Cambridge and dressed in boy’s clothes in order to live with him and gain a second-hand education.
She was also rumored to have joined a traveling group of actors and performed for a time as boy. Included in this legend are accounts of her being married three times: the first not lasting a year and ending for unknown reasons, the second to a man who died within a year after losing a duel and the third, and only documented marriage, was to Joseph Centlivre. This took place in 1706 when Centlivre was the principal cook to Queen Anne. She remained married to him for the duration of her life, which ended in 1723.
According to common knowledge they met while she was performing as man in Love at a Venture, which was one of her own creations. This “suspect” account of her early life, as Nancy Copeland refers to it, “is thoroughly gendered. It seems designed in part to answer questions about how an obscure woman could acquire the education and experience to become an important playwright. ” This is an important aspect to consider as the duration of her long and prolific career was often criticized and downplayed by the fact that she was a woman.
She was ridiculed for her use of language and her borrowing of other works. She did receive some praise, albeit in a back-handed way, for her ability to plot. Her language was often ridiculed because, to begin with, it lacked the witty back on forth of a man’s play. Centlivre chose instead to rely more on physical action to move her stories along. And when her characters did speak, it was complained that her language was bawdy and immoral. This was a reflection of the times and values concerning drama, especially where a woman was concerned.
Collier, a moral writer of the time, expounded that theatre and drama ought to reflect the morals and behaviors that society should live up to. This restrictive attitude included the use of language. Increasingly, women of this time, especially of the middle and upper classes who were responsible for raising children, were meant to be exemplars or morality. Centlivre’s language with its sexual content and feminist ideals were at odds with this way of thinking. Her language, however, was not the only aspect of her plays to come under fire by the critics.
She also received inordinate amounts of disapproval for “borrowing” plots from other works. The use of borrowing or having assistance by other authors on a work was a practice well in use for many years. Even Shakespeare himself, was known to have adapted some of his plots from other works during his time as a playwright; the practice was still in use over a hundred years later. Many of her plays, such as The Gamester, were adaptations of other plays. What she seemed to lack in creative ability, she well made up for in her ability to adapt them to her own style.
Many of them were in French which she then translated into English, adding her own flare and comedic style. She was also known to have had some help from fellow writers and friends. In the Introduction of the Oxford Classic, Melinda C. Finberg defends Centlivre’s practice by pointing out that “even though she many have borrowed plots form other plays and stories, her use of sources can be quite original, often giving them ironic twist that casts them in a new political light, and adapting stock conventions to comment on the treatment and condition of women in Augustan society.
” In short, whereas it was still acceptable for a man to appropriate the work of another and turn it into something resembling his own image, this practice was unacceptable for a woman. The major objection was not really that she engaged in this practice or that she did it well, but mostly that she was a woman and should not be writing plays to begin with. Her reviews were not always full of criticisms though. There were a few who did attempt to give her credit for the entertainment she created. Her strong suit as a playwright was her ability to create elaborate and tight plot structures.
Unfortunately, even the recognition she received in this regard was colored by the implication that where a man could excel in the art of conversation and banter, only a woman could do as well plotting. Nancy Copeland makes this connection to her sex when she comments, “…George Sewell’s prologue to The Cruel Gift, which promises ‘well written intrigue, and plot, and love’ because these are things in which women ‘take the most delight. ’ Later critics who associate her style with her lack of education are similarly connecting her writing with her gender.
” From this observation it is clear that no matter how good she might have been, she was none-the-less forced to operate within the paradigms of her time, which involved a lesser opinion of women and their ability to produce great art. Despite these criticisms and possible drawbacks, Centlivre was not deterred. Beginning with her first play, The Perjur’d Husband, which was performed in 1700, she went on to create no less than eighteen plays over the next twenty-three years of her career.
Overall, her plays were comedies that included elements of satire; the difference being, “that satire seeks to correct, improve, or reform through ridicule, while comedy aims simply to amuse. ” Centlivre understood very well that it was only through comedy that her plays would remain popular. In an essay date from 1703, she, herself, speaks on the matter when she talks about the difference between decorum and amusement in plays. While she agrees that decorum is the more high-brow approach, she recognizes that the audience is not so concerned with that as it is with being entertained.
She says, “I own they” [critics] “are in the right of it; yet I dare venture a Wager they’ll never persuade the Town to be of their Opinion, which relishes nothing so well as Humour lightly tost up with Wit, and drest with Modesty and Air. ” She goes further to say that while she finds beauty in the correct timing of action, setting, and so forth, her style pleases the audience just as easily so why torture herself when what she is doing works just fine. Part of her genius lay in the fact that she knew the boundaries of her talent and never pushed too far.
Although she understood what made her successful as a writer, this is not to say that she did not, on occasion, push the envelope. She might have contended that “the stage is a reflection of society, not a model for it; reforming the stage will not reform society,” but she certainly did not follow this guideline explicitly. She did, in fact, attempt to change society’s thinking about women in general and a few times, she openly expressed her Whig political views.
It has already been stated that the women of this time were increasingly regarded as objects in that they were meant to be submissive, demur upholders of morality, to raise children and, most importantly, to stay in the domestic circle and out of the political, social realm of men. Centlivre attempted to counteract this mentality by creating strong female characters. Even while they appeared to follow the conventions of the time, for example, allowing guardians to choose an appropriate suitor, they plotted and manipulated to ensure that their guardians chose the men they loved.
Her heroines fought not only for love on their own terms, but also for economic stability that would allow them their independence. Andrea Watson-Cunning pointed out this element of her characters when she noted, “Her resolve to create a world in which women take control of their own economic destiny is certainly a powerful, even feminist (in our contemporary definition of the word), vision of how the dynamics between the sexes could be considered. ” Even while she was constantly criticized for her disregard for social convention, she continued to hold up, even laud, an alternative view where women were more on equal ground.
The females of her stories might have ridiculed aspects of society in a subtle manner by their bold displays of independence, but some of Centlivre’s plays contained clear cut examples of satire. Most of the satire, however, is embedded in the charades that take place during the unfolding of the plot, as was the case in A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718). One of her three best plays, this was the story of Anne who wanted to marry Fainwell, but in order to do so her four guardians each needed to approve him.
The comedy lies in the fact that no guardian would accept a suitor who was recommended by any of the others, so Fainwell had to come up with four different disguises. The satire seeps through in the fact that the guardians represented Tories and Whigs and their eccentric antics made them targets for ridicule. There is no an all-out attack on the guardians, though, as in the case of her other attempts at didactic plays such as The Gamester (1705), and The Basset Table (1706) where the first addresses women’s role in society and the latter has women taking part in gambling.
Each play, however, doesn’t stretch beyond the boundaries of comedy as they both end happily with the women marrying as they are meant to. It is only in the play, The Gotham Election (1715) that Centlivre makes an outright attempt to lampoon the Tories in her story of a real election that took place in the town for which the play is named. However, this play was at first banned from production and was never as popular as any of the others. Susanna Centlivre was a very successful dramatist and one of the most well-known women writers of her time. By the Nineteenth century, her plays were still among the most regularly produced.
Ultimately, her unique perspective and stance on the society of the time continue to make her one of the most intriguing writers of the Eighteenth century.
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