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Susanna Centlivre

Susanna Centlivre
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 and also known professionally as Susanna Carroll, was an English poet, actress, and "the most successful female playwright of the eighteenth century".[1] During a long career at the 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 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]


  • Life 1
    • Early years and marriage 1.1
    • Early writings 1.2
    • 1700–1710 1.3
    • Later years 1.4
  • Themes and genres 2
    • Comedies 2.1
    • Tragedies 2.2
    • Politics 2.3
  • Reception 3
  • List of works 4
    • Plays 4.1
    • Books 4.2
    • Poems 4.3
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Early years and marriage

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.[3] 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.[4] Both parents were parliamentarians, her father eventually being forced to flee to Ireland as a known Dissenter. Several sources state that Holbeach was the possible place of her birth, or at least the place where she spent her childhood. In 1952, biographer John Bowyer wrote 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."[5] Abuse by this new stepmother may have motivated Centlivre to leave her childhood home before the age of 15.[6]

There are two stories of how she then made the transition to acting and eventually arrived in London. The more florid version by John Mottley has Centlivre found weeping by the roadside by Anthony Hammond, a student at the 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 learning "a little Grammar" and "some of the Terms of Logic, Rhetoric, and Ethics" before eventually setting off for London.[7] The more plausible version, by W. R. Chetwood, has her joining 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."[8] Mottley claims that Centlivre's skill in such roles 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."[9] Following Fox's death, Centlivre is claimed then to have married an army officer named Caroll (or Carroll), who died shortly after their union, possibly in a duel. She kept the name Carroll until her next marriage.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

Early writings

In her letters of correspondence (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)."[13] Under this name she had a possible epistolary romance with Celadon (also spelled Celedon), one Captain William Ayloffe. However, the letters "are clever [and] artificial" and more likely to have been intended as practice for the epistolary fiction form.[14]


In 1700, 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.[15] She had joined the Drury Lane Theatre in London by that year, and her first play, The Perjur'd Husband, appeared. As with other plays of that year by John Vanbrugh and Colley Cibber, it was a tragedy with a sexually titillating subplot. It "went off to general applause,"[15] and the prologue explicitly boasted that it had been written by a woman. She was a prolific author and actress thereafter.

In 1702 she wrote The Beau's Duel and The Stolen Heiress, both of which were produced in that year, and then Love's Contrivance for the next season. In 1705, she wrote The Gamester and The Basset Table, the first of which was another great theatrical success.[15] The author appears to have moved in high literary and political circles, as a friend of Nicholas Rowe, Colley Cibber, Ambrose Philips, Thomas Baker, Thomas Burnet, and Richard Steele. She contributed prologues to their plays, as they did to hers. In addition, she was also acting. In 1706 she wrote Love at a Venture in continuation of her gaming theme. Colley Cibber rejected the play as too bawdy, but he plagiarised it for his own play, The Double Gallant. 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.[15]

Centlivre's The Busy Bodie

In 1709, she had one of her greatest successes with The Busy Bodie. The play ran for 13 nights, a remarkable run for the time, and was revived the following season.[15] 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

  • Works by Susanna Centlivre at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Susanna Centlivre at Internet Archive
  • , Susanna CentlivreA Bold Stroke for a Wife: A Comedy
  • Juggernaut Theatre Company.Watson-Canning, Andrea. "Susanna Centlivre (ca 1667 – 1723) Biography."
  • Literary Encyclopedia.Carraro, Laura Favero. "Susanna Centlivre (1669–1723)."

External links

  •  "Centlivre, Susannah".  
  • 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. 
  • Lock, F. P. (1979). Susanna Centlivre. Twayne Publishers. 


  1. ^ Carraro, Laura Favero. "Susanna Centilivre", The Literary Encyclopedia, 20 October 2001, accessed 16 February 2012
  2. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. v.
  3. ^ J. Milling, "Centlivre , Susanna (bap. 1669?, d. 1723)", ODNB, Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 7 October 2014, subscription required.
  4. ^ Lock 1979, p. 14.
  5. ^ Bowyer 1952, pp. 6–7.
  6. ^ ODNB...
  7. ^ Centlivre 2004, p. 23.
  8. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 11.
  9. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 12.
  10. ^ Centlivre 2004, p. 20.
  11. ^ Bowyer 1952, pp. 92–93.
  12. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 149.
  13. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 25.
  14. ^ Bowyer 1952, pp. 16–17.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j ODNB....
  16. ^ ",v"but, Oxford English Dictionary, accessed 24 June 2011 (subscription required)
  17. ^ Bowyer 1952, pp. 224–25.
  18. ^ Bowyer 1952, pp. 244–5.
  19. ^ *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. 
  20. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 84.
  21. ^ Lock 1979, p. 25.
  22. ^ Bowyer 1952, p. 252.
  23. ^ Lock 1979, pp. 132–3.
  24. ^ Lock 1979, p. 29.
  25. ^ 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
  26. ^ Centlivre, Susanna (2009). Milling, Jane, ed. The Basset Table. Broadview Press. 
  27. ^ a b c Morgan and Lyons


See also

List of works

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."[25]

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.[23] 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.[24] 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.


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.

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


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."[22]


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."[20] 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.[21]


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.[19]

Themes and genres

Centlivre died on 1 December 1723 and was buried three days later at the actors' church, St Paul's, Covent Garden, in whose burial register she appears as "Susanna Wife of Joseph Centlivre, from St Martin in the Fields."[18]

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. 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."[17] Her last play, The Artifice, was produced and published in October 1722, although she continued to write poetry.[15]

In 1712, two years before the death of Jacobite uprising and a parliamentary election, she wrote The Gotham Election, which was a satire of electioneering and local bribery. However, this was suppressed by the managers of the Drury Lane.[15] It did not have its debut until 1724, at the Haymarket Theatre.

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

Later years

[15] 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.Female Tatler gentlemen. This political satire was given during an ongoing election struggle and the Tory press struck back. The weekly Tory of squirearchy, a play satirising the The Man's Bewitched Also in 1709, she wrote [15]

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