According to the annual Presidential Proclamation, March is Women’s History Month. To celebrate, over the next five weeks, G.L.O.C. NICOLE DRESPEL will shine spotlight on a few of her favorite funny women from the olden days. This week: 18th century actress/playwright SUSANNA CENTLIVRE.
Gorgeous Ladies of Historical Comedy
By Nicole Drespel
In my head, you guys read that and then you’re all like “Seriously, Drespel? ANOTHER lady from 1700s England?” And then I’m all “Ugh. Cool it. I’m already losing sleep over the potentially exclusionary, Eurocentric nature of these subjects. Being a recreational historian is freaking hard.” And then you’re all, “Lame. By the way, is it true that you’re going to continue writing these even after Women’s History Month ends?” And then I’m all “Yes!” And then you guys are all, “Okay. Well, can we have a little more historical diversity in the future?” And I’m all, “Totally.” And then you’re all, “I love you.”
Centlivre was born around 1667. Most of what we know about her early life is just legend and lore. But legend and lore are awesome so I’m going to give them to you like they’re facts. Centlivre ran away from home at fifteen to escape an abusive father. She was widowed twice before she was twenty, losing one husband to unknown causes and one to a duel. Then she dressed up as a boy in order to attend Cambridge and eventually met up with a band of wandering actors and joined the theatre.
Once Centlivre began working, her life was no less exciting though it did become more factually sound. There are fewer dead husbands but just as much wearing of pants. As an actress, Centlivre was known for playing breeches roles. Those are roles where women played men or played women who were playing men. There was also a lot of metaphorical pants-wearing because Centlivre was a total badass. She managed to support herself as a playwright, churning out about one play every year. It’s no wonder financial stability is a major theme in her work. Her best known plays center around smart women fighting for independence from overbearing male relatives while struggling to secure the hand of the man they love. And succeeding. You know how we all worry about having it all? Centlivre figured that ish out in the 1700s. She remarried for a third time to the Queen’s cook. I refuse to believe I’m the only one who gets all swoon-y about the idea of marrying a royal cook.
Centlivre had a string of major successes. Perhaps the biggest was The Busie Body, which she fought to have produced by the Drury Lane despite initial disinterest. It ran for thirteen performances, which was a very big deal back then even though Andrew Lloyd Weber is laughing really hard at that number now. Like many of Centlivre’s stories, it’s a twisty-turny tale of crossed loves and triangles and plotting. A sequel was unsuccessful, the original play was revived several times.
Here’s a short clip featuring Miranda and Sir George. They are both clever and rather stubborn but very much in love with one another.
Miranda: Prithee, no more of these Flights; for our Time’s but short, and we must fall into Business: Do you think we can agree on that same terrible Bugbear, Matrimony, without heartily Repenting on both sides.
Sir George: It has been my wish since first my longing Eyes beheld ye.
Miranda: And your happy Ears drank in the pleasing News, I had Thirty Thousand Pound.
Sir George: Unkind! Did I not offer you in those purchas’d Minutes to run the Risque of your Fortune, so you wou’d but secure that lovely Person to my Arms.
Miranda: Well, if you have such Love and Tenderness, (since our Woing has been short) pray reserve it for our future Days, to let the World see we are Lovers after Wedlock; ’twill be a Novelty—
Centlivre is better known for her plots than for her dialogue, but that cracked my shit up.
Food. Love. Money. Artistic success: Centlivre really did have it all. (I swear I didn’t list that in order of my personal priorities.) (I’m lying.) But she wasn’t without her detractors. She came under a lot of scrutiny for the political slant of her plays which were very pro-Whig/anti-Tory. One paper printed a made-up interview with her in which she complains about her acting company. And Alexander Pope forever memorialized her as a total bore in his Dunciad. But haters gonna hate and by the late 18th century, Centlivre was one of the most produced dead playwrights. With each passing decade, scholarly interest in her continuously increases. And now, she’s officially been declared a Gorgeous Lady of Historical Comedy. Centlivre 1. Haters 0.