Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Textual Variants and Inconsistencies in Susanna Centlivre's the Basset-Table (1705)

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Textual Variants and Inconsistencies in Susanna Centlivre's the Basset-Table (1705)

Article excerpt

Early eighteenth-century drama occupies a transitional space - almost, one is inclined to say, a black hole - between the Restoration and the Georgian drama of Gay and Lillo, Sheridan and Goldsmith; as a result it often slips out of critical accounts whose primary focus of interest lies in one or other of these more fully delineated periods. It is also neglected in the provision of scholarly editions: there are few, indeed, apart from Shirley Strum Kenny's Steele and Farquhar.1 As a result, little is known about textual revisions, variants, and inconsistencies, in early eighteenth-century plays, though a study of them can often open up, and help to resolve, larger questions about the state of publishing and of the theatre, and about the changing aims and objectives of dramatists. Kenny's publication of a fully revised version of the climactic scene of The Constant Couple reveals important developments in Farquhar's conception of the play and its characters, and insights into the interplay of literary text and its performance.2 In this article I examine revisions, and failures to revise, in Susanna Centlivre's fifth play, The Basset-Table. Centlivre, whose theatrical career began in 1700 and ended in 1722, was the most prolific dramatist of the early eighteenth century and the most popular between The Constant Couple and The Beggar's Opera, and yet, in spite of the resurgence of interest in the last twenty years in women writers, she is strangely neglected both critically and in terms of full scholarly editions: The Basset-Table, for instance, has never had a scholarly edition. 3That her work would repay close textual as well as critical scrutiny is suggested by the texts of The Basset -Table, where, although there are no revisions as fundamental as those in The Constant Couple, I shall argue, apparently small variants and inconsistencies actually raise important issues, since they cast new light on the processes of composition and the diffusion of popular archetypes, and beyond that on Centlivre's methods and in the widest sense her vision for the play.

The Basset-Table was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on 20th November 1705, and the first edition (although dated 1706) was actually published the same month.4 It then went into a second edition in 1706, and eventually posthumous third and fourth editions in 1735 and 1736, before being included in the first volume of the collected Works of 1761, whose copy-text was in all probability the third edition.5 The play supports much of Shirley Strum Kenny's account of the publication of plays in this period. The almost simultaneous performance and first publication reflects Cenili vre's usual practice and that of her age: publication was delayed Only long enough to insure a first run', with first publication most commonly only a fortnight or so after the first performance.6 Such rapid publication, however, inevitably caused some problems. The first edition of The Basset-Table represents a relatively poor text, and has many typographical and other errors and inconsistencies of various kinds: later first editions, like that of The Busie Body (1709) or A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718), are generally more accurate and consistent, probably reflecting greater editorial care in the light of Centlivre's growing reputation. In The Basset-Table, most of the typographical errors, and a few others, were corrected in B2 and most of those remaining in B3, but a number of inconsistencies of a more serious nature were not corrected (some, indeed, were never corrected even as late as the 1761 collected works). This supports Kenny's contention that few eighteenth-century dramatists showed 'concern for the texts of their published works', and that the kinds of errors corrected in subsequent editions 'suggest that printing-house personnel, not authors, read proof ... There is little evidence of playwrights actually reading proof. Like Farquhar, Centlivre showed a casual attitude to printer's copy: 'not only did [s]he not regularize accidentals, [s]he did not even bother to correct obvious errors'. …

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