Susanna Centlivre (1667–1723)
Note: the 19th--century biographiy below preserves a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
CENTLIVRE, SUSANNAH (1667?–1723), actress and dramatist, is said to have been the daughter of a Mr. Freeman of Holbeach, Lincolnshire, a man of some position, who suffered on account of his political and religious opinions after the Restoration. After the confiscation of his estate he went with his wife, the daughter of a Mr. Marham or Markham, a 'gentleman of good estate at Lynn Regis in Norfolk,' who was also obnoxious to the authorities, to Ireland, where Susannah is by some supposed to have been born. At this early point her biographies commence to be at issue. The account generally accepted is that of Giles Jacob, which states that her father died when she was three years of age, and her mother when she was twelve. Whincop, or the author, whoever he was, of the list of dramatic poets appended to 'Scanderbeg,' who wrote while she was still living, asserts that her father survived her mother, and married a second wife, by whom the future dramatist was so ill-treated that she ran away from home, with little money or other provision, to seek her fortune in London. Biographers have recorded various supposed exploits—one of which consisted in dressing as a boy and living in Cambridge under the protection of Anthony Hammond, then an undergraduate of St. John's, and subsequently commissioner of the navy, the 'silver-tongued Hammond' of Bolingbroke. They also mention a marriage (?), which lasted one year, with a nephew of Sir Stephen Fox. They have neglected a biographical record supplied after her death in Boyer's 'Political State,' xxvi. 670, a portion of which runs as follows: 'From a mean parentage and education, after several gay adventures (over which we shall draw a veil), she had, at last, so well improv'd her natural genius by reading and good conversation, as to attempt to write for the stage, in which she had as good success as any of her sex before her. Her first dramatic performance was a tragi-comedy called "The Perjur'd Husband," but the plays which gained her most reputation were two comedies, "The Gamester" and "The Busy Body." She writ also several copies of verses on divers subjects and occasions, and a great many ingenious letters, entitled "Letters of Wit, Politics, and Morality," which I collected and published about twenty-one years ago.' In presence of this statement, which commands respect, the origin assigned her in the 'Biographia Dramatica,' and accepted in later compilations, seems more than doubtful. The same writer states that 'her father's name, if I mistake not, was Rawkins.' A connection lasting a year and a half, and rightly or wrongly styled a marriage, subsequently existed between her and an officer named Carroll, who died in a duel. Her early plays, when not anonymous, are signed 'S. Carroll.' 'The Busy Body,' printed in 1709, is the first that bears the name of Centlivre, the previous play, 'The Platonic Lady,' 1707, being unsigned. Her first appearance as an actress was made, according to Whincop or his collaborator, at Bath in her own comedy, 'Love at a Venture,' which was produced in that city after being refused at Drury Lane. She then joined a strolling company, and played in different country towns. While acting at Windsor, about 1706, according to the same authority, the part of Alexander the Great in the tragedy of that name, or, more probably, in the 'Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great' of Lee, she captivated Mr. Joseph Centlivre, principal cook to Queen Anne and George I, whom she married, and with whom she lived till her death. This took place on 1 Dec. 1723 in Buckingham Court, Spring Gardens, where, according to the rate-books of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, her husband resided between 1712 and 1724. Pope, in 'An Account of the Condition of E. Curll,' calls her 'the cook's wife in Buckingham Court.' She is usually stated to be buried close at hand, in the parish church of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields; but Mr. Peter Cunningham discovered in the burial register of St. Paul's, Covent Garden, the entry: '4 Dec. 1723, Susanna, wife of Joseph Centlivre, from St. Martin-in-the-Fields' (Gent. Mag. 1850, pt. ii. p. 368). No record of her acting in London is preserved, and it is supposed that her histrionic efforts were confined to the country. In spite, accordingly, of the romantic stories associated with her name, her life, like that of most of her contemporaries, is practically the history of her works and her literary friendships. She enjoyed a certain amount of intimacy with Rowe, Farquhar, Steele, and other dramatists, some of whom wrote prologues for her plays, and with Budgell, Dr. Sewell, Nicholas Amhurst, &c., with all of whom she corresponded. Of her plays, nineteen in number, fifteen were acted, generally with success. The list is as follows: 1. 'The Perjur'd Husband, or the Adventures of Venice,' tragedy, 4to, 1700, acted the same year at Drury Lane. 2. 'Love at a Venture,' comedy, 4to, 1706, refused at Drury Lane, and acted by the Duke of Grafton's servants at the New Theatre, Bath. It is taken from 'Le Galant Double' of Thomas Corneille. Cibber, by whom the play was refused, is accused of incorporating it into his 'Double Gallant.' 3. 'The Beau's Duel, or a Soldier for the Ladies,' comedy, 4to, 1702, acted at Lincoln's Inn Fields 21 Oct. 1702, taken in part from Jasper Mayne's 'City Match.' 4. 'The Stolen Heiress, or the Salamanca Doctor outplotted,' comedy, 4to, no date (1703), acted at Lincoln's Inn Fields 31 Dec. 1702, and taken from 'The Heir' by Thomas May. 5. 'Love's Contrivance, or Le Médecin malgré lui,' comedy, 4to, 1703, acted at Drury Lane on 4 June 1703, and taken from the comedy of Molière of the same name, and from 'Le Mariage forcé;' this play is signed R. M. in the dedication to the Earl of Dorset. 6. 'The Gamester,' comedy, 4to, 1705 and 1708, acted at Lincoln's Inn Fields, not for the first time, 22 Feb. 1705. In the 'Biographia Dramatica' the play is said to be borrowed from 'Le Dissipateur.' This is impossible. 'Le Dissipateur' of Destouches, acted in 1753, was in part taken from Mrs. Centlivre, whose 'Gamester' is an adaptation of 'Le Joueur' of Regnard, played 1696. 7. 'The Basset Table,' comedy, 4to, 1706, acted at Drury Lane 20 Nov. 1705. 8. 'The Platonick Lady,' comedy, 4to, 1707, acted at the Haymarket 25 Nov. 1706. 9. 'The Busy Body,' comedy, 4to, 1709, acted at Drury Lane 12 May 1709. This play, one of the most successful of its author, first introducing the character of Marplot, was so coldly regarded by the actors, that Wilks is said to have thrown down his part of Sir George Airy, and to have been with difficulty induced to resume it. A portion of the plot is taken from 'The Devil is an Ass' of Ben Jonson. 10. 'The Man's bewitched, or the Devil to do about her,' comedy, 4to, no date (1710), acted at the Haymarket 12 Dec. 1709. This clever farce is said, without much justification, to be indebted to 'Le Deuil' of Hauteroche, which name is in the 'Biographia Dramatica' erroneously supposed to be a pseudonym of Thomas Corneille. 11. 'A Bickerstaff's Burial, or Work for the Upholders,' farce, 4to, no date, acted at Drury Lane 27 March 1710, afterwards revived at Drury Lane 5 May 1715 as the 'Custom of the Country.' This play is said to be founded on one of Sinbad's voyages in the 'Arabian Nights.' The publication of 'Les Mille et une Nuits' by Galland, 1704–1717, had very recently commenced, and this source seems doubtful. A curious coincidence, hitherto unnoticed, is that 'Le Naufrage ou la Pompe funèbre de Crispin' of Lafont, produced in Paris on Saturday, 14 June 1710, is all but identical with the work of Mrs. Centlivre, who, however, is at least earlier in date. Parfaic frères, the historians of the French stage, suggest an origin for the plot earlier than the 'Arabian Nights.' 12. 'Marplot, or the Second Part of the Busy Body,' comedy, 4to, 1711, Drury Lane 30 Dec. 1710, afterwards altered by Henry Woodward and called 'Marplot in Lisbon.' 13. 'The Perplex'd Lovers,' comedy, 4to, 1712, Drury Lane 19 Jan. 1712, from the Spanish. 14. 'The Wonder! A Woman keeps a Secret,' comedy, 12mo, 1714, acted at Drury Lane 27 April 1714, and owing something to 'The Wrangling Lovers' of Ravenscroft. 15. 'A Gotham Election,' farce, 12mo, 1715, never acted, a dramatic satire on the tories, dedicated to Secretary Craggs, who sent the author by Mrs. Bracegirdle twenty guineas. A second edition of this, 12mo, 1737, is called the 'Humours of Elections.' 16. 'A Wife well managed,' farce, 12mo, 1715, supposed to have been acted at Drury Lane in 1715, taken from the 'Husband his own Cuckold' of John Dryden, jun. 17. 'The Cruel Gift, or the Royal Resentment,' tragedy, 12mo, 1717, drawn from the first novel of the fourth day of the 'Decameron,' acted at Drury Lane 17 Dec. 1716. 18. 'A Bold Stroke for a Wife,' comedy, 8vo, 1718, acted at Drury Lane 3 Feb. 1718; in this piece she was assisted by a Mr. Mottley. 19. 'The Artifice,' comedy, 8vo, 1721, acted at Drury Lane 2 Oct. 1722. These works were collected in three volumes, 12mo, 1761, and reprinted in 1872. The comedies of Mrs. Centlivre are often ingenious and sprightly, and the comic scenes are generally brisk. Mrs. Centlivre troubled herself little about invention, 'A Bold Stroke for a Wife' being the only work for which she is at the pains to claim absolute originality. So far as regards the stage, she may boast a superiority over almost all her countrywomen, since two of her comedies remain in the list of acting plays. More than one other work is capable, with some alterations, of being acted. A keen politician, she displays in some of her dramatic writings a strong whig bias, which was in part responsible for their success. Steele in the 'Tatler' (No. 19) speaks of 'The Busy Body,' and says that 'the plot and incidents are laid with that subtlety of spirit which is peculiar to females of wit.' Some of her most successful works were translated into French, German, and other languages. The volume of letters to which allusion is made in Boyer's 'Political State' (see above) has not been discovered. A supposition that it might be a work, 'Letters and Essays on several subjects, Philosophical, Moral, Historical, Critical, Amorous,' &c., 1694, mentioned by Lowndes (Bibl. Man. p. 1348), must remain conjecture, as the work is not in the British Museum. She left at her death many valuable ornaments presented to her by royalty or the aristocratic patrons to whom she dedicated her dramas.
[Life of Mrs. Centlivre prefixed to her works, 3 vols. 1761; List of English Dramatic Poets affixed to Whincop's Scanderbeg; Boyer's Political State of Great Britain, 1711–40, vol. xxvi.; Genest's Account of the English Stage; British Essayist, vol. i. (ed. Chalmers); Peter Cunningham's Handbook to London; Pope's Dunciad; Notes to Poetical Register (Giles Jacob), 1723.]