|Died||1 December 1723|
Susanna Centlivre (c. 1667 to 1670 – 1 December 1723), born Susanna Freeman and also known professionally as Susanna Carroll, was an English poet, actress, and "the most successful female playwright of the eighteenth century". Centlivre’s “pieces continued to be acted after the theatre managers had forgotten most of her contemporaries.”  During a long career at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, she became known as the second woman of the English stage, after Aphra Behn.
The main source of information on Centlivre's early life is Giles Jacob, who claimed he had received an account of her life directly from her. This was published in The Poetical Register of 1719, but it includes little information about her early life. Centlivre was probably baptised Susanna Freeman at Whaplode, Lincolnshire on 20 November 1669, as the daughter of William Freeman of Holbeach and his wife, Anne, the daughter of Mr Marham, a gentleman of Lynn Regis, Norfolk. Her father was a dissenter and a parliamentarian; as a result, the family surely faced persecution at the Restoration. Several biographical sources state that Holbeach was the possible place of her birth or at least the place where she spent her childhood. There is some mystery surrounding her early life; however, it is generally believed that her father died when she was three, her mother died shortly after remarrying, and her step-father married soon after that. Abuse by this new stepmother may have motivated Centlivre to leave her childhood home before the age of 15.
There are two stories that tell of her transition to acting and eventual arrival in London. The romanticized version has Centlivre found weeping by the roadside by Anthony Hammond, a student at Cambridge. Enraptured by her manners and good looks, he smuggled her into his college, where she was disguised as a male cousin, Jack. There she remained hidden for some months studying grammar and acquiring “some of the terms of logic, rhetoric, and ethics” before “attracting too much attention” and deciding to head to London. The more believable scenario has her joining a company of strolling actors in Stamford (about 25 miles from Holbeach), where she gained popularity acting in breeches roles, for which she was suited due to the a "small Wen on her left Eye lid, which gave her a Masculine Air." Centlivre's skill in such roles charmed many men, especially Mr. Fox, who would soon become Centlivre’s first husband when she was sixteen. However, he died less than a year later. Following Fox's death, Centlivre is claimed to have married an army officer named Carroll, who died in a duel a year and a half after their union. She kept the name Carroll until her next marriage. Although much of her early years is speculation, biographers agree that Susanna’s was predominantly self –acquired through reading and conversation. Looking at her use of French drama, it is not hard to see that Centlivre also had a sound knowledge of the French language. After her husband’s death, Centlivre spent much of her time in London, where she turned to writing partly for financial support.
By 1706, Centlivre had made a small name for herself; however, she still relied on financial support from strolling (acting). It was during a performance 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 that she caught the eye of Joseph Centlivre. 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. There is no evidence to suggest where they resided for the first seven years of their marriage. Eventually, in late 1712 or early 1713, the Centlivres moved into residence at Buckingham Court, paying the highest rent second only to the Admiralty Office. After a long, illustrious career in high literary esteem with writings in the form of poems, letters, books, and, most famously, plays, Susanna Centlivre passed away on 1 December 1723, from lingering effects of a serious illness contracted in 1719. The Evening Post, London Journal, British Journal, and Weekly Journal carry brief notices of her death. Centlivre’s body was buried three days after her death in St. Paul’s, Covent Garden. A little over year later, her husband followed.
Giles Jacob mentions Centlivre’s inclination to poetry with her first poem being written when she was merely seven years old. However, her first published work, a series of five letters, would not appear until May 1700. These letters contain playful, witty back-and-forth banter between her and the correspondent. Although early in her career, she is complimented as woman of sense. In July 1700, Abel Boyers published a second set of Centlivre’s letters (among other writers). This time, Centlivre published the letters under the name of Astrea, a pen name previously used by Aphra Behn, a move that was most likely motivated by attention. In the letters, the exchange between Astrea and Celadon (Capt. William Ayloffe) are of particular interest due to their intense romantic suggestions. However, biographers generally agree that this was merely practice for the epistolary fiction form. We also get a glimpse of Centlivre’s poetry in her correspondence with George Farquhar, who also sometimes published under the name Celadon. Again, it is hard to suggest a definitive romantic relationship between Farquhar and Centlivre due to the motivation behind capturing the public approval. Centlivre continued in September 1700, when she contributed a poem, "Of Rhetorick,” under the name Polumnia, to The Nine Muses, an elegiac poetry collection left on the grave of John Dryden.
In October 1700, Centlivre published her first play, The Perjur’d Husband: or, The Adventures of Venice. This tragicomedy (although considered a tragedy at the time) was performed at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and, according to Centlivre, “went off with a general Applause.” In addition, it was published under Susanna’s name, and the prologue reiterated the pride in its female authorship. By the end of 1700, with a long list of literary acquaintances actors alike, Centlivre was well established in London. Her next play, The Beau’s Duel, was performed in June 1702. Well received in its own right, the play did not see a lengthy stage life. Over the next five years or so, Centlivre wouldn’t see great success do to falling prey to the unfortunate times for women in eighteenth century England. As a result, her next two plays, The Stolen Heiress (December 1702) and Love’s Contrivance (June 1703), were performed under attempts to conceal the sex of the author. Although received well, all of Centlivre’s plays up to this point have been performed at inopportune times in the season. It isn’t until Love’s Contrivance that the experience and notoriety of the cast allows for a three-night run (in addition to some repeats later and an eventual reviving three years after her death). In keeping with the spirit of French adaptation and anonymous publishing, Centlivre’s next comedy, The Gamester, was first performed in February 1705. Here, she claimed her intent to reform gamblers. This play was Centlivre’s most successful to date and saw a current revival through the years.
In 1705, Centlivre, in a brief moment away from the theatre, wrote a complimentary poem for a collection by Sarah Fyge Egerton. Centlivre continued with the gambling theme in her next play entitled The Basset Table, performed in November 1705. Although not overt regarding female authorship, this play’s Epilogue indirectly attributes the play to a woman. Following her success with The Basset Table, Centlivre wrote Love at a Venture and saw it performed in 1706. It is important to remember that, although a successful playwright, Centlivre used the stage as a space to act and receive supplemental income. Another interesting anecdote surrounding this play involves another playwright, Colley Cibber. Cibber was accused of borrowing parts of Love at a Venture to write his own, The Double Gallant. However, as a gesture of friendship in hopes of smoothing things over, Cibber accepted a part in Centlivre’s next play, The Platonick Lady (November 1706). After having grown weary with anonymous authorship, Centlivre used the preface to The Platonick Lady to express her distaste for society’s outlook on the female writer. Following her marriage, Centlivre took some time off. This decision turned out to be a good one; her time away resulted in her most successful comedy, The Busy Body (May 1709). The play ran for 13 nights, a remarkable run for the time, and was revived the following season. Centlivre’s next play, The Man’s Bewitch’d, was first performed in December 1709, and satirized the squirearchy of Tory gentlemen. This political satire was given during an ongoing election struggle and the Tory press struck back. The weekly Female Tatler printed an "interview" that it claimed to have 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 before she persuaded them that she was the victim of a politically inspired hoax.
All of Centlivre’s later works are marked with political affiliation, “notable through the characters of Tory fathers or guardians, whose party fervor forms another obstacle to the happiness of young lovers – always whiggishly inclined.” In March 1710, Centlivre released A Bickerstaff’s Burying, a political satire. Despite the fear of feeling Queen Anne’s wrath, Centlivre was not afraid to openly support the Hanoverian succession. Next, Centlivre took it upon herself to write a sequel to the successful The Busy Body, entitled Marplot, or, The Second Part of the Busie-Body (December 1710). Although it didn’t receive the same attention as its precursor, the play saw the stage seven times. The sequel reflects Centlivre’s interest in politics, specifically the battle between Whig and Tory. Once again, Centlivre takes a brief moment away from dramatic writing to poetry with a complimentary poem on the recovery of the Duke of Newcastle’s daughter. Although seemingly odd, Centlivre was merely following conventional protocol in securing patronage. With her next comedy, The Perplex’d Lovers (January 1712), Centlivre became outspoken in her political stance. Most of her plays over the next five years were directly related to the advancement of the Whigs and the House of Hanover. The play’s success was limited, and it only ran for three nights. The theatre managers banned the Epilogue for fear of backlash. In 1713, after moving into a new home in Buckingham Court, Centlivre wrote two poems. The first poem is a response to Anne Oldfield’s brilliant performance in a play. The second, entitled “The Masquerade,” is addressed to the Duke d’Aumont, ambassador from France. Centlivre’s next play was The Wonder (April 1714), a comedy. She dedicated the play to the then Duke of Cambridge. This political move of showing loyalty to the House of Hanover was risky, but, in the end, paid off for Centlivre when he ascended the throne as King George I. We can see her gloating in an ironic autobiographical poem, "A Woman's Case.” Not to be overshadowed by its political attributes, The Wonder also shows its popularity and importance as being David Garrick’s (a widely known seventeenth century actor) choice “to make his farewell to the stage on 10 June 1776." Centlivre’s next two plays, A Gotham Election and A Wife Well Manag’d, were published separately in 1715 (although A Gotham Election would not be performed until 1724) and fall under her new common theme, political farce. These two plays illustrate how Centlivre was ahead of her time with her exemplification of social problems in the theatre.
In 1716, as a reflective response to a Whig leader’s illness and subsequent retirement, Centlivre contributed poems to a small publication entitled State Poems. Her contribution consisted of one poem, “Ode to Hygeia.” She followed this with a series of poems in response to the political climate of the time. After quite a tumultuous bout with Alexander Pope’s condemning attacks on, among other authors, Centlivre, she and co-author Nicholas Rowe published her next play, The Cruel Gift (December 1716). Although it was her first heroic drama (often considered tragedy), the reception was good, and the play was performed seven times that year. It wasn’t until February 1718, that Centlivre published A Bold Stroke for a Wife. This comical farce was very successful and is considered by some to be her best play. Also, A Bold Stroke for a Wife is the only play for which Centlivre claims complete originality (it wasn’t uncommon for dramatists to procure various plot pieces and characters from other works). Following in her political footsteps, in 1717, Centlivre directed her attention to Charles XII, a Swedish king threatening to attack England. She published a poem, entitled “An Epistle from a Lady of Great Britain to the King of Sweden, on the intended Invasion,” in response to Charles’s threats. We have two records of poems to Mr. Rowe (Nicholas) in 1718. The first was written during a visit to her hometown of Holbeach and is entitled “From the Country, To Mr. ROWE in Town. M.DCC.XVIII.” The second poem followed Rowe’s death and is entitled “A PASTORAL TO THE Honoured Memory of Mr. ROWE.” The sincerity in the elegy brought Centlivre positive attention. In 1719, Centlivre became seriously ill. Although the effects of this illness would linger until her death, she continued to write. We find two more published poems in 1720. Both are included in Anthony Hammond’s A New Miscellany of Original Poems, Translations, and Imitations. Following this, Centlivre published a poem entitled “A Woman’s CASE: in an Epistle to CHARLES JOYE, Esq; Deputy-Governor of the South Sea,” that traces her political associations and makes a point to shine some light on her relationship with her husband. Although she continued to write poetry until her death, her last play, The Artifice, was produced and published in October 1722.
Themes and Genres
Centlivre reflected positively on England's political, economic, and juridical systems. Her plays were often concerned with a theme of liberty within the areas of marriage and citizenry.
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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. She was anti-Catholic to an extreme, as is shown by 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. The majority of her plays eschew party political commentary, her only work with an overtly political agenda being The Gotham Election. Some of her more controversial epilogues, such as that of The Perplexed Lovers where she identifies the out-of-favour war hero Marlborough as the "ONE", were not spoken in the theatre, just published in the play text.
Centlivre is best known for her 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." 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). It often involves disguises, duels (or talk of them), and scenarios that balance emotion and farce. Her best-known comedies feature quick-witted female intellects to equal their male counterparts. Centlivre believed that the purpose of comedy was to entertain. Due to the widespread prejudice against women playwrights, Centlivre was forced to give priority to pleasing her audiences, rather than abiding by theatrical unities and controversial messages.
Little positive is said of her two tragi-comedies, The Perjur'd Husband and The Stolen Heiress, although her pure tragedy, The Cruel Gift, was somewhat better received. These plays were thought to have "figures [that] are shadowy and [a] plot [that] is unconvincing."
Feminism: Women, Marriage, and Liberty
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Reception and Criticism
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Centlivre's plays show a strikingly liberal point of view. She wrote frankly in the face of strong sexual mores that discouraged women playwrights. Centlivre managed to push the boundaries of contemporary social norms, and yet she was widely appreciated only as a comic writer. She did not garner much positive critical acclaim. Although her plays enjoyed success in theatres, critics such as William Hazlitt wrote condescendingly of them. Alexander Pope found her writings offensive for political and religious reasons, and thought them a threat to greater dramatists by pandering to popular taste. He went so far as to assume that she had helped with Edmund Curll's pamphlet The Catholic Poet: or, Protestant Barnaby’s Sorrowful Lamentation. For those reasons she was lampooned as having a supposedly mannish appearance (among other faults), most famously by Pope in several pieces. Regardless of her peers' opinions, her plays continued to be performed for over 150 years after her death.
Overall, Centlivre was a powerful influence on society as a female intellect. Her works encouraged female writers to continue to push the limits of traditional feminine roles by publicly treating the cause of equality between the sexes. The diarist Agnes Porter, governess to the children of the earl of Ilchester, saw a performance of Centlivre's The Busy Body at the Little Theatre, Haymarket on 7 March 1791, but wrote that it was "very badly performed."
List of works
- Carraro, Laura Favero. "Susanna Centilivre", The Literary Encyclopedia, 20 October 2001, accessed 16 February 2012
- Bowyer 3
- Lock 1979, p. 14.
- J. Milling, "Centlivre , Susanna (bap. 1669?, d. 1723)", ODNB, Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 7 October 2014, subscription required.
- Bowyer 5
- Bowyer 8
- Bowyer 9
- Bowyer 12
- Bowyer 7
- Bowyer 15
- Bowyer 92–93
- Bowyer 149
- Bowyer 244
- Bowyer 15-17
- Bowyer 17-19
- Bowyer 31
- Bowyer 33
- Bowyer 41
- Bowyer 51
- Bowyer 60
- Bowyer 64
- Bowyer 83
- Bowyer 94
- Bowyer 138
- Bowyer 142-144
- Bowyer 149-150
- Bowyer 160
- Bowyer 162
- Bowyer 166
- Bowyer 209-210
- Bowyer 212-214
- Bowyer 219-222
- Bowyer 226
- *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.
- Bowyer 1952, p. 84.
- Lock 1979, p. 25.
- Bowyer 1952, p. 252.
- Lock 1979, pp. 132–3.
- Lock 1979, p. 29.
- 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
- Centlivre, Susanna (2009). Milling, Jane, ed. The Basset Table. Broadview Press.
- Morgan and Lyons
- "Centlivre, Susannah". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Bowyer, John (1952). The Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre. Duke University Publications.
- Centlivre, Susanna (2004). O'Brien, John, ed. The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret. Broadview Press.
- Morgan, Fidelis; Lyons, Patrick, eds. (1991). Female Playwrights of the Restoration: Five Comedies. London: J. M. Dent.
- Lock, F. P. (1979). Susanna Centlivre. Twayne Publishers.
- Works by Susanna Centlivre at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Susanna Centlivre at Internet Archive
- A Bold Stroke for a Wife: A Comedy, Susanna Centlivre
- Watson-Canning, Andrea. "Susanna Centlivre (ca 1667 – 1723) Biography." Juggernaut Theatre Company.
- Carraro, Laura Favero. "Susanna Centlivre (1669–1723)." Literary Encyclopedia.