Susannah Centlivre


Life
?1667-1723; [var. Centilevre]; prob. b. Whadpole, Lincolnshire or poss. in Co. Tyrone, where her father Mr. Freeman [William or Edward], a ‘zealous Parliamentarian’, acc. to seemingly autobiographical notice in Jacob’s Poetical Register (1719), had Plantation grants; brought up at Holbeach, Lincolnshire; ran away from step-mother [or stepfather] and pretended to be valet to Arthur Hammond at Cambridge (‘the Elysian fields of youth where mad-cap love dwells in sunlit ecstasy’), aetat. 15;
 
afterwards went to London and married one Carroll, an officer who died in a duel as had Mr. Fox, ending an earlier liaison; produced The Perjured Husband, appearing as wife, at Windsor, and married the royal chef, Centlivre, 1706; lived expensively at Charing Cross, entertaining men of letters; among 18 plays, 1700-22, her successful comedies include The Busy Body (1710), The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret (1714) in which Garrick appeared often, and A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718);
 
other plays incl. The Perjur’d Husband (1700); Love’s Contrivance (1703); Stolen Heiress [1703]; The Gamester (1705); The Bassett Table (1706); Love at a Venture (1706); The Platonic Lady (1707); A Bickerstaff’s Burial (1710); Marplot (1711); The Perplex’d Lovers (1712); Gotham Election (1715); A Wife Well Manag’d (1715); The Cruel Gift (1717); The Artifice (1723), and The Man’s Bewitch’d (q.d.);
 
bur. St. Martin’s in the Fields, where her plaque reads: ‘Here lies Susanna Centlivre, née Freeman, from Ireland. Playwright, 1 December,1722’; there is a Garland rep. edn. of her plays (1982 - infra). RR CAB ODNB OCEL OCTH DIB OCIL

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Works
Separate Printed editions
: The Wonder, or A Woman Keeps a Secret [1714], rep. in Bell’s British Theatre (1797), and Do., rep. in Cumberland’s British Drama (London: 1817); A Bold Stroke for A Wife [1718] (Dublin 1727), and Do., rep. in Bell’s British Theatre (1797); The Artifice: A Comedy, as it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane (London: W. Mears 1735); The Basset-Table: A Comedy, as it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury- Lane, by His Majesty’s servants [3rd edn.] (London: W. Mears 1735); The Beau’s Duel: or, A Soldier for the Ladies: A Comedy, as it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, by Their Majesty’s servants [and] A Bold Stroke for a Wife [3rd edn.] (London: W. Mears 1735 ); A Bold Stroke for a Wife; a comedy, as is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields (London: for the Proprietors 1735); The busy body: a comedy, as it is acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden (London: Harrison & Co. 1779); The Ghost, in two acts. From Mrs Centliver’s [sic] Man Bewitched, or The Devil To Do About Her (Edinburgh [n. pub.] 1788).

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Collected Works: The Dramatic Works of the Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre: With a New Account of Her Life, 3 vols. [1st edn. 1761] (London [n. pub.] 1872); facs. rep. as The Plays of Susanna Centlivre, 3 vols. (NY: Garland 1982).

Modern Editions: The Busie Body [orig. 1709], rep. as The Comedy of The Busy Body (London: C. Cooke, by R. McDonald 1806); also, The Busy Body; A Comedy, in five acts [with] The Wonder, A Woman Keeps a Secret; A Comedy in five acts, from … the prompt book with remarks by Mrs. Inchbald (London [n.pub.] 1806-07), 2 pls.; A Bold Stroke for a Wife: A Comedy in Five Acts by Mrs. Centlivre, as performed at the Theatres-Royal; printed under the authority of the managers from the prompt-books (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd 1814), 36pp., pl., 18mo.; The Busie Body [Augustan Rep. Series] (William Andrews Clark Memorial Library UCLA 1949); A Bold Stroke for a Wife, ed. Thalia Stathis [Regents Restoration Ser.] (Nebraska UP 1968; London: Arnold 1969), xxvi, 112pp.;The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret [1714] in Fidelis Morgan, ed., The Female Wits: Women Playwrights on the London Stage 1660-1720 (London: Virago 1981) [with plays by Aphra Behn, Mrs. Manley and the anonymous author of the title-play].

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The Plays of Susanna Centlivre, 3 vols. [facs.; orig. 1761; 1872] (NY: Garland Press 1982). Contents, Vol. 1: “The perjur’d husband; or, The adventures of Venice”; “The beau’s duel; or, A soldier for the ladies”; “The stolen heiress; or, The Salamanca doctor outplotted”; “Love”s contrivance; or, Le medecin malgré lui”; “The gamester”; “The basset-table”. Vol. 2: “Love at a venture”; “The platonick lady”; “The busie body”; “The man’s be[t]witched; or, The devil to do about her”; “A Bickerstaff’s burying; or, Work for the upholders”; “Marplot; or, The second part of the Busie-body”; “The perlex’d lovers”. Vol. 3: “The wonder: a woman keeps a secret”; “The Gotham election. A wife well manag’d”; “The cruel gift”; “A bold stroke for a wife”; “The artifice”.

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Criticism
[Q. auth.], ’The Progress of Error, Mrs. Centlivre and the Biographers,’ in Review of English Studies, XVIII (1942); John Wilson Bowyer, The Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre (Duke UP 1952; Conn: Greenwood Press 1968), vii, 267pp., port. [with bibl.]; Fidelis Morgan, Female Wits (Yale UP 1981); Joseph Leerssen, Mere Irish & Fior-Ghael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, Its Development and Literary Expression Prior To The Nineteenth Century (Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub. Co. 1986), pp.120. See also Richard Ryan, Biographia Hibernica, Irish Worthies (London 1821), Vol. I, p.454-60. The British Biog. Archives cites 15 biographical items.

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Commentary
Peter Kavanagh
, The Irish Theatre: Being a History of the Drama in Ireland from the Earliest Period up to the Present Day (Tralee: The Kerryman 1946), quotes Hazlitt, ’The plot never stands still; the situations succeed one another like the changes of machinery in a pantomime. The nice dovetailing of the incidents and cross reading in the situations supply the place of any great force of wit and sentiment. The time for the entrance of each person on the stage is the moment when they are least wanted, and when their arrival makes them either themselves or somebody else look as foolish as possible. The laughableness of [The Busy Body] depend[s] on a brilliant series of mis-timed exits and entrances. Marplot is the whimsical hero of the piece, and a standing memorial of unmeaning vivacity and assiduous impertinence’ (William Hazzlitt, Lectures on the English Comic Writers). Note that kavanagh makes an egregious mistake about her feminism (p.340).

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G. C. Duggan, The Stage Irishman: A History of the Irish Play and Stage Characters from the Earliest Times (Dublin: Talbot Press 1937; NY: Benjamin Blom; London: Longmans 1937; reiss. 1969), discusses Susannah Centlivre’s one act farce, A Cure for Cuckoldom, or a Wife Well-Managed (published 1715), which has its Teague as go-between from the wife of Don Pisato and her Confessor with whom she is infatuated. For further comments on Centlivre’s Stage Irishmen.

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Fidelis Morgan, The Female Wits (London: Virago 1981); gives biog.: b. 1667-77; cites J. H. Mackenzie [Notes and Queries, 1953] claim that she was dg. of William and Ann Freeman, baptised in Whadpole, Lincolnshire … Giles Jacob [Poetical Register, 1719] supports Freeman as father, but Abel Boyer [Political State of Great Britain, vol. 26, 1723] has it that she was born Susannah Rawkins. Other biographers, says Morgan, think that she was born, not in Lincolnshire, but in Ireland, where Freeman, ‘a zealous Parliamentarian … was necessitated to fly at the Restoration.’ Relationship with Hammond where she passed in boys’ clothing as ‘Cousin Jack’, lasted a few months only in Cambridge; in London she married ‘or something like to it’ (Mottley, Compleat List of English Dram. Poets, 1747), at sixteen, a Mr. Fox; then an officer called Carroll. The Perjur’d Husband, tragi-com., was produced at Drury Lane with the help of Abel Boyer, Sept. 1700. It was blamed for indecency in female speeches such as Lady Pizalta’s, ‘Oh the pleasure of hearing my husband lie coughing and calling me to bed in the next room, and my answering, I’m coming, dear; and while he imagines me in the next room undressing, I’m happy in the arms of Ludovico.’ The Beau’s Duel (Lincoln’s Inn Fields, June 1792), the first of many centred round morally independent woman of sense; The Stolen Heiress, criticises law against marriage of such without parental consent (LIF, Dec. 1702); Love’s contrivance, or Le Médicin Malgré Lui (Drury Lane, 1704), Centlivre was incensed by the printer’s trick of subscribing the signature RM to the dedication, and wrote to The Daily Courant giving notice that ‘the name of the author (who for some reasons is not willing to be known at present) does not begin with those letters’; The Gamester (LIF, Feb. 1705), so successful that it was used to open the new Queen’s Th., Haymarket, 27 April 1705, and followed by The Bassett Table, on women gamblers; Morgan quotes feminist passages about science from it. Her Love at a Venture which appeared in Bath in 1706, had been rejected by Colley, who nevertheless stole scenes from it for his Double Gallants, as he admitted in his Apology (1740). She went to Windsor with John Power’s troupe of actors, and there met Centlivre, m. 23 April 1707. The comedy, The Platonic Lady (Haymarket Nov. 1706, was printed in 1707 with a preface disparaging the ‘carping malice of the vulgar world who think it a proof of their sense to dislike everything that is writ by women.’ [See Wells, Microcards] The Busy Body was acted over 450 times before 1800, and was frequently commanded by royalty (Prince of Wales, 22 Oct. 1717, and George I, Dec. 1719). It was praised [by Steele] in The Tatler for ‘that subtlety of spirit which is peculiar to females of wit’, but Robert Wilks threw his script off the stage and swore he wouldn’t act such ‘silly thing wrote by a woman’ (Mottley); 40 eds. by 1884. The Man Bewitched past. com. (Haymarket, 1709) gave rise to an article in The Female Tatler reporting Mrs. Centlivre’s troubles with managers and actors, and was withdrawn from the stage. A Bickerstaff’s burying, one-act black com., afterpiece (1710); Mar-plot, sequel to The Busy Body (Drury Lane, 1710); The Perplexed Lovers (1712), aggressively Whig, it has an epilogue praising Marlborough on the continent which the management shied from speaking; The Wonder! (April 1714), ded. to Duke of Cambridge, with a lead role, Don Felix, which became Garrick’s favourite part, and played by him sixty times, 1756-76. Farces in 1715, The Gotham Election and A Wife Well Managed, the latter of which was never performed as giving offence at exposing Popish priests - ‘Good God,’ said Mrs. Centlivre, ‘To what sort of people are we changed?’ (Dedication, Gotham). Gotham was also suppressed in the climate of early Hanoverian rule, as showing exorbitant pre-election promises, nepotism, etc. The Cruel Gift, a tragedy without deaths (1717), was not successful. A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718) criticised for irreligion but staged eighty times before 1750; The Artifice, a coarse comedy (1722). Morgan reprints The Wonder, A Woman Keeps a Secret, by Susannah Centlivre.

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John Wilson Bowyer, The Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre (Duke UP 1952; rep. Conn: Greenwood Press 1968), cites Jacob’s claim in the Poetical Register that most of the accounts of living authors were written by their own hand; the entry reads ‘dg. of one Mr. Freeman, late of Holbeach, in Lincolnshire … but being a Dissenter, and a zealous Parliamentarian, was so very much persecuted at the Restoration, that he was necessitated to fly into Ireland, and his Estate was confiscated. Nor was the family of her mother free from the severities of those times …’. [Note also that Freeman is a character in A Bold Stroke.] Regarding the report in Flying Post (June 21-23, 1716), that she was born at Holbeach, Bowyer says ‘it is probably that she was born elsewhere, possibly even in Ireland,’ and further that The Flying Post merely assumed that she was a native as well as an early resident of the town. She was certainly associated with Holbeach later, and probably grew up there, before the marriage with Carroll and the Cambridge season with Hammond, whichever came earlier (Mottley has her setting out at fifteen, sixteen, unmarried and alone, for London; Boyer ‘draws a veil’ over several gay adventures and the early marriage). Accounts of the dates of her parents death, and the circumstances of her flight from home also vary, Jacob reports that her father died when she was 3, and her mother when she was 12; but Mottley, and Chetwood (The British Theatre), have her leaving home when her father dies, to escape the ill-treatment of a step-mother. Bowyer accepts her maiden name as Freeman, and regard Rawkins, the name of the ‘widow’ on her marriage certificate to Centlivre (‘St. Liver’) at St. Benet’s as Carroll’s alias. He concludes, ‘Despite the uncertainty as to names and dates, the events narrated fit harmoniously into the kaleidoscopic story of a small town girl without wealth or social position who acquired an education, incl. a good knowledge of French, and was determined to make her way in the world.’ As to Irish characters in her plays, there is only Teague, who carried a letter for Lady Pizalto in A Wife Well Manag’d, the letter being addressed to Father Bernardo with whom she is in love, and which her husband, Don P., discovers. Don P. disguises as Father Bernardo, and beats his wife, returning in his own person to greet the real Father Bernardo, whom he begs to purge his wife of ‘unclean spirits’; Lady P then pummels the priest with her fists, and is rescued by Don P., who finally reveals the discovered letter; she repents and promises to sin no more against her ‘dear Pudsey’. [q.pp.] See also Notes, infra.

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B. G. MacCarthy, The Female Pen, Women Writers and Novelists 1621-1818 (Cork UP 1994), with epigraph from Centilivre [inter al.], ‘Nay, even my own sex, which should assert our prerogative against such detractors, are often backward to encourage the female pen.’

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References
COPAC lists The artifice: A comedy, as it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane (London: W. Mears 1735); The basset-table: A Comedy, as it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury- Lane, by His Majesty’s servants [3rd edn.] (London: W. Mears 1735); The Beau’s Duel: or, A soldier for the ladies, a comedy, as it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, by Their Majesty’s servants. and A Bold Stroke for a Wife [3rd end.] (London: W. Mears 1735 ); A Bold Stroke for a Wife; a comedy, as is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields (London: for the Proprietors 1735); The busy body: a comedy, as it is acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden (1779); The ghost. In two acts. From Mrs Centliver’s Man Bewitched, or The Devil To Do About Her (1788); The comedy of The Busy Body (London: C. Cooke, by R. M’Donald 1806); The Busy Body; A Comedy, in five acts [with] The Wonder, A Woman Keeps a Secret; A Comedy in five acts, from the prompt book … with remarks by Mrs. Inchbald (London [n.pub.] 1806-07), 2 pls.; The Dramatic Works of the Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre: With a New Account of Her Life, 3 vols. [1st edn. 1761] (London [n. pub.] 1872). Also rep. edns., The Busie Body [orig. 1709; Augustan Rep. Series] (UCLA: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library 1949); A Bold Stroke for a Wife [Regents Restoration Ser.] (Nebraska UP 1968; London: Arnold 1969), xxvi, 112pp.; The Plays of Susanna Centlivre, 3 vols. (NY: Garland 1982).

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A. N. Jeffares & Peter Van de Kamp, eds., Irish Literature: The Eighteenth Century - An Annotated Anthology (Dublin/Oregon: Irish Academic Press 2006), lists “From The Wonder! Or A Woman Keeps a Secret” [24].

Eric Stevens Books (1992) lists The Artifice; The Basset-Table; The Perjur’d Husband; The Busie Body; The Gamester, 5 Plays in 1 volume, each with engraved frontispiece [1730s], contemp. calf, pt. of collected ed. [£10].

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Quotations
A Bold Stroke for A Wife (Dublin edn. 1727), Prologue: ’Our plot is new and regularly clear / And not one single tittle from Molière / O’er buried poets we with caution tread / And parish sextons leave to rob the dead.’

Backward?: ‘Nay, even my own sex, which should assert our prerogative against such detractors, are often backward to encourage the female pen.’ (Q. source; epigraph [inter al.] to B. G. MacCarthy, The Female Pen: Women Writers and Novelists 1621-1818, Cork UP 1994.)

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Minor duke: A ‘Dedicatory Preface’ to A Bold Stroke, addressed to Philip Duke of Wharton, refers to the wisdom of the Irish House of Lords in admitting him though a minor, in 1718: ‘We hope the example which Ireland has set will shortly be followed by the English House of Lords ….’. There is no indication of a personal connection of the author with Ireland is suggested. (See Bold Stroke for a Wife, ed. Thalia Stathas, 1968, q.p.).

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Notes
Biographia errata: In and Epilogue’, to The Celebrated Mrs Centlivre (rep. edbn. 1968) [as supra], J. W. Bowyer rehearses details of erroneous biographies: Mrs. Mary Pilkington, in Female Biography (1803), makes her ‘daughter of a dissenting minister’ and adds that she wrote Bickerstaff’s Wedding; Rev. Mark Noble, in a continuation of Granger’s Biographical History of England (1806) thinks that Susanna’s father died in obscurity in Ireland when she was three years old and that her mother followed him to the grave in the same country, and adds that Addison (by confusion with Steele in Tatler, No. 19) praised her work; Biographie Universelle (1813) says that her father fled to Ireland, leaving his daughter in poverty, and died when she was three; Rev. Dionysius Lardner, in Cabinet Cyclopedia, 1838, calls her a friend of Dr. Jewell Farquhar (a peculiar amalgam. of Dr. George Sewell and George Farquhar); Louisa Stuart Costello’s memoirs of Eminent Englishwomen (1844) commits an error regarding the revision of satirical lines in Pope’s Dunciad [where she is one of the dunces that talk themselves to sleep, “At last C--re felt her voice to fail,” in retaliation against a ballad on his Homer’s Iliad, which he erroneously believed her to have written, Bowyer, p.192f.); E. O. Blackburne, in Illustrious Irishwomen, believes her father to have been ‘a respectable farm living in the North of Ireland.’ .

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Biographia corrigenda: The modern biographies by Bowyer and Morgan treat her birth in Ireland as a possibility only. Harry Boylan (Dictionary of Irish Biography, 1988) is more positive and may have a separate source besides the unreliable entries in Lardner and Reade. Boylan states that Centlivre worked her passage as a maid on the boat to England, a detail not noticed by Bowyer or the near-contemporary biographers Bowyer and Mottley, and implying that her sojourn in Ireland lasted till she ran away from her step-parents, in c. 1682. Bowyer has it that she was raised in Holbeach, and probably learned French there possibly from a neighbour. There is public record evidence that in later life, she was associated with fetes in Holbeach, making the likelihood of an earlier childhood association very strong. There is, moreover, a Susanna Freeman entered as the recipient of an inheritance at Holbeach during her childhood, who may be, as Bowyer says, ‘our quarry’ (p.5). The only substantial evidence that she was born in Ireland comes from the burial plaque, which may be no more than a construction on the phrases in the Jacob’s Poetical Register, ‘daughter of one Mr. Freeman, late [itals. mine] of Holbeach … there was formerly an estate in the family of her father; but he being a dissenter &c. … was necessitated to fly to Ireland and his estate was confiscated.’ The Irish authors who perpetuate the Irish-origin story are Read (Cabinet), Blackburne (Illustrious Irishwomen), Boylan (Dict. of Irish Biog.), and A. N. Jeffares (Anglo-Irish Lit., 1980); among those who abstain, significantly, are Webb (Compendium), and Justin McCarthy (Irish Lit., 1904), together with more modern works including Figgis’s Encyclopaedia, DIW, and Hogan, ed., Dictionary of Irish Literature. Oxford Companion to English Literature (ed. Drabble) and Oxford Companion to the Theatre throw no light on the matter. If Centlivre was born in 1667, the date inferred from the fact that Chetwood, writing The British Theatre (Dublin 1750), states from memory that she was 56 at the time of her death, then she was possibly born in Ireland, with the added supposition that her father remained and died there. If she was born in 1677 or 1678, as the author of the biog. account in her Works (1760) alleges, supposedly by a lady who knew her, then most likely she was born in England, her family having by then returned to Lincolnshire by that date. In neither of these accounts is there a hint that she was born in Ireland, though Chetwood was in fact writing there. [BS 2000].

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The Lover’s Cabinet (Dublin 1755) contains Pope’s ‘Eloisa and Abelard’ with ‘The Answer of Abelard’ purportedly by Mrs. Centlivre, but this is an erroneous reconstruction of C----r, intended for the poet Cowper (see Bowyer, op. cit., p. 247.)

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Editor’s hand: The following appears in COPAC under John O’Donovan: A Bold Stroke for a Wife: A Comedy in Five Acts by Mrs. Centlivre, as performed at the Theatres-Royal; printed under the authority of the managers from the prompt-books (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd 1814) [copy at TCD Old Library].

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