Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"I Must Vary Shapes as Often as a Player": Susanna Centlivre and the Liberty of the British Stage

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"I Must Vary Shapes as Often as a Player": Susanna Centlivre and the Liberty of the British Stage

Article excerpt

In the preface to her first play, The Perjur'd Husband (1700), Susanna Centlivre makes reference to the recently erupted controversy over Jeremy Colliers 1698 A Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage. "I should not trouble my Reader with a Preface, if Mr. Collier had taught Manners to Masks, Sense to Beaus, and Good-nature to Criticks, as well as Morality to the Stage," she writes, invoking the discourse of long eighteenth-century antitheatricalism. As The Perjur'd Husband reveals, from the time of her literary debut, Centlivre was contemplating the dynamics of antitheatrical discourse, an interest that would continue throughout her career. Central to many of Centlivre's plays is a persistent desire to defend the liberty and morality of the British stage. Thus many of her characters use elements of theatrical performance to find freedom and achieve their goals. Clarinda of The Beau's Duel (1702) and Angelica of The Gamester (1705) masquerade as men to ensure their romantic happiness, while Miranda of The Busybody (1709) acts the part of the loving mistress to her guardian while seeking to gain access to her fortune and slip his control. Likewise, Fainwell of A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718) plays five separate characters (complete with different styles of costuming) to free Anne Lovely and undermine her disgusting and inappropriate guardians. In each of these works, theatrical performance functions as a path to freedom and happiness rather than an indicator of moral degeneracy.

This essay examines Centlivres work in the context of early eighteenthcentury antitheatrical rhetoric and argues that Centlivre sought throughout her career both to dismiss antitheatrical attacks and to develop a specifically Whig defense of the British stage. Despite their political differences from the Jacobitical Collier and their own status as playwrights, many prominent Whig authors incorporated antitheatrical tropes into their writings. Mary Pix, for instance, often depicted the playhouse as a locus of sexual violence, while Colley Cibber acknowledged the dangers inherent to staged political satire. Meanwhile, Charles Johnson linked costuming and masquerade with Jesuits and Jacobites. Sir Richard Steele, as we shall see, constructed a more measured Whig response to the stage; although he condemns certain forms of spectacle, he constructs in his play The Conscious Lovers a set of characters who use performance and disguise to escape undesirable marriages and find more virtuous-and consensualcompanionate bonds. More so than any other Whig author of the period, though, it is Centlivre who defends in her plays the morality of theater and acting. If Steele creates a space for virtuous Whig masquerade, Centlivre goes a step further, transforming the characters of her penultimate work, A Bold Stroke for a Wife, into actors who perform roles in pursuit of physical, financial, and emotional freedoms. The parent and guardian figures of A Bold Stroke are tyrants, overbearing, uncaring, and oppressive, and their behavior compels Fainwell and Lovely, the plays hero and heroine, to overthrow them through theatrical acts. When Fainwell and Lovely marry, they both demonstrate the power of theater to fight tyranny and apply Whig political principles to the domestic sphere; the ruler must act in the best interests of the subject, or he may justifiably be overthrown.1 Centlivre thus positions the theater as a bastion of Whig political doctrine and the guardian of individual liberties. Simultaneously, she broadens Whig discourse to embrace the stage as a locus of cultural morality.

In 1698, Jeremy Collier released his Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage, inspiring a storm of both criticism and support. Modern critics have long disputed Colliers importance to the annals of eighteenth-century theater history; according to Robert Hume, Collier "mattered quite a lot to playwrights and performers in the period from 1698 to 1705, but very little to the history of drama and theater" (481). …

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