Susanna Centlivre

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Susanna Centlivre
Susanna Centlivre.jpg
A mezzotint of Susanna Centlivre by Peter Pelham (1720) originally painted by D. Fermin
Born Susanna Freeman
c. 1667–1670
Died 1 December 1723
Nationality English

Susanna Centlivre (c. 1667 to 1670 – 1 December 1723), born Susanna Freeman, also known professionally as Susanna Carroll, was an English poet, actress, and "the most successful female playwright of the eighteenth century".[1] During her long career at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, she became known as the Second Woman of the English Stage after Aphra Behn. Many actors and actresses of the 18th and 19th centuries won their fame through their performances of characters in her celebrated plays. Perhaps the best known of these was David Garrick, who chose to end his acting career as Don Felix in The Wonder, a role that had brought him critical acclaim.[2]


Early life and marriage[edit]

The main source of information on Centlivre's early life is Giles Jacob, who claimed that he had received an account of her life directly from her (published in The Poetical Register (1719)); however, there is little biographical information contained in this account about her early life, although she gave her father's last name as Freeman.[3] Both of her parents were parliamentarians, her father eventually being forced to flee to Ireland as a known dissenter.[citation needed] Several sources state that Holbeach was the possible place of her birth or, at the very least, the place of her childhood (Abel Boyer gives no opinion on the matter). Biographer John Bowyer wrote in 1952 of "one assumption that Susanna's father died when she was three, that her mother re-married but died before Susanna was twelve, and that her step-father himself remarried shortly after."[4] Abuse by this new stepmother eventually motivated Centlivre to leave her childhood home before the age of 15.[citation needed]

There are two stories on how she then made the transition to acting, eventually arriving in London. The more fantastic version, by John Mottley, has Centlivre being found weeping at the roadside by Anthony Hammond, a student at the University of Cambridge. Enraptured by her manners and good looks, he smuggled her into the school where she was disguised as his male cousin, Jack. There, she remained hidden for some months learning "a little Grammar" and "some of the Terms of Logic, Rhetoric, and Ethics" before eventually setting off for London.[5] The more likely version, by W. R. Chetwood, states that she joined a company of strolling actors in Stamford, where she gained popularity acting in breeches roles, for which she was suited due to the "small Wen on her left Eye lid, which gave her a Masculine Air."[6] Mottley claims that, in such roles, Centlivre's skill charmed many men, especially "one Mr. Fox, a Nephew of the late Sir Stephen Fox" to whom Centlivre "was married, or something like it; in the sixteenth [possibly fifteenth] Year of her Age; but, whether by Death, or whatever Accident it happened, they lived not together above one Year."[7] Following Fox's death, Centlivre is claimed to then marry an army officer named Caroll (also spelled Carroll), who died shortly after their union, possibly in a duel. She kept the name Carroll until her next marriage.[8]

Joseph Centlivre was smitten with her when she played the role of Alexander the Great in Nathaniel Lee's tragedy The Rival Queens; or, the Death of Alexander the Great for the court at Windsor Castle. Though he was of a lower social class, a mere "yeoman of the mouth [cook] to Queen Anne", they were married on 23 April 1707.[9] Their marriage was considered a family affair, since the two were from separate parts of the royal household; the couple eventually moved into residence at Buckingham Court, paying the highest rent second only to the Admiralty Office. They resided here until her death.[10]

Early writings as Astraea[edit]

In her letters of correspondence[when?] (later collected in three book anthologies), Centlivre used Aphra Behn's penname of Astraea as her own poetic name, claiming a great admiration for the "genius of Mrs. Aphra Behn (the earlier Astraea)."[11] Under this pen name, she had a possible romance through letters with Celadon[when?] (also spelled Celedon), one Captain William Ayloffe; however, the letters "are clever [and] artificial" and more likely practices in the epistolary fiction form.[12]


In 1700, she possibly contributed a poem "Polminia: Of Rhetorick" to The Nine Muses, an elegiac poetry collection left on the grave of John Dryden.[citation needed] She had joined the Drury LaneTheatre in London by that year, and her first play, The Perjur'd Husband, appeared. As with other plays of that year, it was a tragedy with a sexually titillating subplot, like the plays of John Vanbrugh and Colley Cibber. The play was a great success,[citation needed] and the prologue explicitly boasted that it had been written by a woman. She was a prolific author and actress thereafter.

Title page of Centlivre's A Bold Stroke for a Wife, 1718

In 1702, she wrote The Beau's Duel and The Stolen Heiress, both of which were produced that same year, and then Love's Contrivance for the next season.[citation needed] In 1705, she wrote The Gamester and The Basset Table, the first of which was another great theatrical success.[citation needed] The author appears to have moved in the highest literary and political circles; she was a friend to George Farquhar, William Burnaby, Nicholas Rowe, Colley Cibber, Ambrose Philips, Thomas Baker, Thomas Burnet, and Richard Steele,[citation needed] and she contributed prologues to their plays, while they contributed to hers. In addition to these plays, she was also acting.[citation needed] In 1706, she wrote Love at a Venture in continuation of her gaming theme. Colley Cibber rejected the play as too bawdy; nonetheless, he plagiarised the play for his own The Double Gallant.[citation needed] The next year, she wrote The Platonick Lady, with a preface to the printed play which denounced the prejudice that led to any work by a woman being judged as inherently inferior to a work by a man.[citation needed]

In 1709, she had one of her greatest successes with The Busy Bodie. The play ran for thirteen nights, a remarkable run for the time, and was revived the following season.[citation needed] In it, the character Marplot brings utter confusion to a series of couples who are attempting to woo one another. The comedic twist is that his well-intentioned efforts nearly derail all the romances. Marplot was one of David Garrick's favourite roles.[citation needed] In refusing a loan, the character Sir Francis cuts off an objection with "But me no Buts!"[13] The play had over 450 performances by 1800, and went through 40 editions by 1884, with both George I and George II commanding performances to be done.[citation needed] The sequel, Marplot; or, the Second Part of The Busy Bodie, was, however, not much of a success.[citation needed] Also in 1709, she wrote The Man's Bewitched, a play satirising the squirearchy of Tory gentlemen in the country.[citation needed] This political satire was given during an ongoing election struggle, and the Tory press struck back. The weekly journal The Female Tatler printed an "interview" that it had done with Centlivre, where she insulted the actors and blamed them for all her failures. The acting company was on the verge of walking out on her until she persuaded them that she was the victim of a political fight and a hoax.[citation needed]

Later years[edit]

In 1712, two years before the death of Queen Anne, at a time when both parties were making secret overtures to the Old Pretender, Centlivre took an explicit pro-Hanoverian position in public.[citation needed] In 1714, when Queen Anne died and the Hanoverians were invited to the throne, Centlivre bragged of her foresight and acumen with her poem, "A Woman's Case", while also dedicating her play, The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret, to King George I. In 1715, a year of Jacobite uprising and a Parliamentary election, she wrote The Gotham Election, which was a satire of electioneering and local bribery. The managers of Drury Lane suppressed its performance, however, and it did not debut until 1724 at the Haymarket Theatre.[citation needed]

In 1716, Centlivre wrote The Cruel Gift, a tragedy, with Nicholas Rowe, which she followed in 1718 with one of her best-known plays, A Bold Stroke for a Wife.[citation needed] Centlivre became seriously ill in 1719. Nicholas Amhurst referenced her and her illness in a poem describing a plea for death to "stop thy savage hand".[14] Her last play, The Artifice, was produced and published in October 1722, though she continued to write poetry after that.[citation needed]

Centlivre died on 1 December 1723 and was buried three days later at the actor's church, St Paul's, Covent Garden. In the church's burial register, she is listed as "Susanna Wife of Joseph Centlivre, from St Martin in the Fields."[15]

Themes and genres[edit]

Centlivre wrote in positive reflection of England's political, economic, and juridical systems. Her plays were often concerned with a theme of liberty within the areas of marriage and citizenry.[16]


Centlivre is best known for comedies, often following the Spanish style, which is "romantic in plot and spirit, [but containing] far more of the emotions of love and jealousy than Restoration comedies."[17] This type of comedy tended to focus on the romantic intrigues among a triangle of wealthy main characters (generally one young woman being fought over by two young men, one promiscuous, the other devoted) involving disguises, duels (or talk of them), and scenarios that balance emotion and farce. Her best known comedies feature quick-witted female intellect to equal the male counterparts.[citation needed] Centlivre believed that the purpose of comedy was to entertain.[citation needed] Due to the prejudice many people of the time had against women playwrights, Centlivre was forced to prioritise her aim to please over theatrical unities and controversial messages.[18]


Little positive is said about her two tragicomedies, The Perjur'd Husband and The Stolen Heiress, though her pure tragedy, The Cruel Gift, was better received (though not on the level of her comedies). These plays were thought to have "figures [that] are shadowy and [a] plot [that] is unconvincing."[19]


Poster for 1807 production of Centlivre's The Wonder: a woman keeps a secret

Centlivre was sometimes a political dramatist who not only allied herself with Whig authors, but who took deliberate pains to strike out at Tories and their causes.[citation needed] She was anti-Catholic to the extreme, as shown through some of her play dedications, prologues and epilogues. This is especially apparent in her dedication at the beginning of The Wonder, where she expressed her strong support for the proposed Protestant succession. A majority of her plays escape party-political comments, while her only work with an overtly political agenda is The Gotham Election.[citation needed] Some of her more controversial epilogues, such as in The Perplexed Lovers where she identifies the out of favour war hero Marlborough as the "ONE", were not spoken aloud but published with the play text instead.[citation needed]


Centlivre's plays show a strikingly liberal point of view, and she wrote frankly in the face of strong sexual mores that discouraged women playwrights.[citation needed] Centlivre managed to push the boundaries of contemporary social norms, and yet she was widely appreciated only as a comedic writer.[citation needed] She did not garner much positive critical reputation; even while her plays enjoyed success in theatres, critics such as William Hazlitt wrote condescendingly of them.[20] Alexander Pope found her writings offensive for political and religious reasons, and also thought them threatening to greater dramatists by pandering to popular taste. He even went so far as to assume that she had helped with Edmund Curll's pamphlet The Catholic Poet: or, Protestant Barnaby’s Sorrowful Lamentation.[21] For those reasons, she was lampooned as having a supposedly mannish appearance (among other faults), most famously by Alexander Pope in several pieces.[citation needed] Regardless of her peers' opinions, her plays continued to be performed for over 150 years after her death.[citation needed]

Overall, Centlivre was a powerful influence on society as a female intellect, and works encouraged female writers to continue to push the limits of traditional feminine roles by publicly treating the theme of equality between sexes.[citation needed] The diarist Agnes Porter, governess to the children of the earl of Ilchester, saw a performance of Centlivre's comedy The Busy Body at the Little Theatre, Haymarket on 7 March 1791, but wrote that it was "very badly performed."[22]

List of works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Carraro, Laura Favero. "Susanna Centilivre", The Literary Encyclopedia, 20 October 2001, accessed 16 February 2012
  2. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. v.
  3. ^ Lock 1979, p. 14.
  4. ^ Bowyer 1952, pp. 6–7.
  5. ^ Centlivre 2004, p. 23.
  6. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 11.
  7. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 12.
  8. ^ Centlivre 2004, p. 20.
  9. ^ Bowyer 1952, pp. 92–93.
  10. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 149.
  11. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 25.
  12. ^ Bowyer 1952, pp. 16–17.
  13. ^ "but, v", Oxford English Dictionary, accessed 24 June 2011 (subscription required)
  14. ^ Bowyer 1952, pp. 224–5.
  15. ^ Bowyer 1952, pp. 244–5.
  16. ^ *Kreis-Schinck, Annette (2001). Women, Writing, and the Theater in the Early Modern Period: the Plays of Aphra Behn and Suzanne Centlivre. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 73. 
  17. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 84.
  18. ^ Lock 1979, p. 25.
  19. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 252.
  20. ^ Lock 1979, pp. 132–3.
  21. ^ Lock 1979, p. 29.
  22. ^ A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen. The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter, ed. Joanna Martin (London: Hambledon Press, 1998), p. 108. ISBN 1852851643
  23. ^ Centlivre, Susanna (2009). Milling, Jane, ed. The Basset Table. Broadview Press. 
  24. ^ a b c Morgan and Lyons


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