Two playwrights dominated the London theater scene at the beginning of the 18th century. Both were women. One was the — Aphra Behn (the subject of a previous post in this newsletter). The other was Susanna Centlivre.
As with Aphra Behn, relatively few details are available to us about Susanna Centlivre’s origins and early life. She was born in Ireland around 1667 to English parents who had immigrated because of religious persecution. One story about her youth was that when her mother died and father remarried, she was so ill-treated by her step-mother that she left home at the age of 12. Another story is that she was a precocious child who composed poems and set them to music before she was 10 years old.
Another story is that once away from home — possibly around the age of 16 — she was taken in my a student at Cambridge University and from him learned to read and write.
However that happened, she developed her natural inclination to use and manipulate the language.
A marriage to a man named Freeman and his subsequent death are also part of her story.
Fending for herself, she joined a troop of traveling actors, and during that time got her first taste of playwriting. Her work during this time shows a firm knowledge of the French theater and very likely a good handle on the French language. She not only wrote plays but also poetry, and her first published work appears in print in 1700. It was a set of letters containing witty banter between her and an unnamed correspondent.
Later that year, the first of her plays, The Perjur’d Husband: or, The Adventures of Venice, was published. It is a tragicomedy that was performed in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and provoked, in her words, “great Applause” from the audience. During the next year more of her plays and poems were published, and she became well-established in London’s literary circles.
In 1705, after several less than successful productions, her play The Gamester was a hit and was one that was revived numerous times after her death.
The “strolling company” with which she was connected landed in Windsor in 1706, where she caught the eye of Joseph Centlivre, a chief cook in the court of Queen Anne and King George I.
The two got married and lived together until her death in 1723. Alexander Pope, who did not think much of her work, called her “the cook’s wife in Buckingham Court.”
Pope’s opinion, however, did not have much effect on the theater-going public who loved her work. During the first two decades of the new century, she had 19 of her plays produced in various theaters. The most successful and long-remember is The Busy Body, first produced in 1709 and memorable for its character Marplot. Marplot is a humorous and well-meaning meddler who inserts himself into the romances of others. The play ran for 13 nights — far longer than was usual for the time — and it was revived the next year.
The time in which she wrote was a highly partisan one, and Centlivre could not avoid taking sides. She was openly supportive of the Hanover succession (King George I and Queen Anne), and her plays and published poetry reflect those leanings. Although her plays were unsatisfactory to many of her critics such as Pope and William Hazlitt, they were highly popular with audiences and continued to be performed long after her death.
Centlivre survived much of her adult life as a single woman, something in itself unusual for her day. She not only survived but achieved fame and respect in a society that offered far few opportunities to women than to men. By any standard, what she accomplished and what she left behind was extraordinary.
Here’s an excerpt for The Busy Body that will give you an idea of what her plays were like:
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