Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Luck Be a Lady Tonight," or at Least Make Me a Gentleman: Economic Anxiety in Centlivre's the Gamester

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Luck Be a Lady Tonight," or at Least Make Me a Gentleman: Economic Anxiety in Centlivre's the Gamester

Article excerpt

John Dennis, in a 1704 response to yet another of Jeremy Collier's attacks on the immorality of the stage, criticizes Collier for neglecting to discuss what he sees as a more tangible and therefore more serious vice:

   But how does [Collier] propose to himself, to bring [reform] about? Why,
   not by suppressing Vice, but the Stage that Scourges and exposes it. For he
   meddles not with that Vice that is in the World, let it be never so flaming
   and outragious. For example, the crying Sin of England next to Hypocrisie,
   at this time is Gaming; a Sin that is attended with several others, both
   among Men and Women, as Lying, Swearing, Perjury, Fraud, Quarrels, Murders,
   Fornication, Adultery. Has not Gaming done more mischief in England within
   these last Five Years than the Stage has done in Fifty? (29)

Susanna Centlivre's dedication to her 1705 comedy The Gamester, an adaptation of Jean Francois Regnard's Le Joueur (1696), aligns Centlivre with Dennis in calling gambling one of the great vices of England and nods to Collier in its recommendation of morality "according to the first intent of Plays" (qtd. in Bowyer 59).(1) In so doing, Centlivre manages to associate herself both with the reformers of the stage led by Collier and with Dennis, who cagily asserted that the stage could be an amusing and palatable instrument of reform, rather than an evil. Modern readers have recognized the gambit. The few critics of the play agree with Jay E. Oney's analysis of Centlivre's sense of what the market would bear in her production of "a strong script on a timely topic with just the proper mixture of fun and moralization" (192-93).(2)

But the "moralization," in this case, is not merely an anti-gambling diatribe. Another topic very much in the minds of the contemporary audience was the fallout from the 1695-96 Recoinage Act, which inspired a flurry of debate that James Thompson characterizes as a questioning of the possibility of controlling or mastering money (47). The Gamester's title character, Valere, is mastered by money and chance. By tracing this rake's progress, Centlivre explores a fundamental economic anxiety brought on by the shift from a system based on land to one based on ready money. In this new arrangement, social station could conceivably rise and fall as quickly--and randomly--as the roll of a gamester's dice. Most scholars who have commented on the play remark in passing that this story of a gamester's redemption is an exemplary comedy.(3) I would argue, however, that the play as a whole, including the epilogue and prologue, transcends the formulaic "reform comedy" structure. Rather, it is a cautionary and pessimistic portrayal of a social system struggling to come to terms with the move away from the conservative Lockean model of the possessive individual to the more modern model of the economic subject. Ultimately, The Gamester rejects this proto-Marxian model, but not without raising doubts about the impossibility of returning to a more stable landed system.

Written as it was during the height of the "second" Collier controversy (1703-08), the play is often overtly didactic. Centlivre allows much on-stage time for the audience to witness the comic vagaries of Dame Fortune and the havoc she wreaks on the various hopeful couples before the rakish Valere is perfunctorily redeemed at the end of the play. Acting in contradiction to Collier's claim that "these Sparks generally Marry the Top-Ladies, and those that do not, are brought to no penance, but go off with the Character of Fine Gentlemen" (142), Centlivre portrays Valere's penance and remorse graphically, whether or not the audience--and the other characters--really believes that his repentance is sincere. But gambling within the play is not simply one of the obligatory plot devices providing the obstacle for the stock "young lover" characters. It is also a means of illustrating the tension caused by the changing notions of inherent or intrinsic value during the period after the Recoinage Act. …

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