The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 6. Mrs. Centlivre
Broadly viewed, eighteenth century drama shows decided reaction from the immorality that provoked the attacks of Sir Richard Blackmore and Jeremy Collier. Yet, despite many evidences of an awakening sense of moral responsibility in the attitude of the court, of society and of administrators of the law, the conversion of drama was neither sudden nor complete. Farquhar, whose dramatic work is subsequent to Collier’s attack, maintains, essentially, the spirit of restoration comedy. Even The Careless Husband, despite Cibber’s good intentions, presents the stock characters of restoration comedy purged of their gross excesses, doubtless, but yet not wholly chastened in spirit. The tendencies of earlier comedy are maintained in the dramatic work of Mrs. Centlivre. The sins of various dramatists of her sex seem to have been visited chiefly upon Mrs. Aphra Behn; but, though Mrs. Centlivre has largely escaped the notoriety of the “chaste Aphra,” the character of her drama is without fear rather than without reproach. A certain concession to Collier’s charge that “the Stage-Poets make their Principal Personages Vicious, and reward them at the End of the Play,” may, perhaps, be detected in the fifth-act repentance which she allows to sinners whose consciences have lain comfortably dormant through the earlier acts. Yet, for the most part, she can be acquitted of any intention “to moralise the stage.” With considerable skill in dramatic structure and facility in securing comic effect, she was content to achieve theatrical effectiveness with little hesitation as to methods. An early attempt at blank-verse tragedy, The Perjur’d Husband, or The Adventures of Venice (1700), proves that her dramatic aptitude did not extend either to verse or to tragedy. Her forte lay in cleverness of comic intrigue and fluency of prose dialogue Her characters often have the salient traits which are within the ready grasp of the actor, while the best of them are more vital comic creations. Marplot, in The Busy-Body (1709) and its sequel (1710), Marplot in Lisbon, is much more than a copy from Molière’s L’Étourdi; and Don Felix, in The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret (1714), became one of Garrick’s most popular parts. From Molière and from Spanish sources, Mrs. Centlivre drew materials freely for various plays; but she deserves credit for ability in adaptation and for the addition of effective original touches. Of her later plays, A Bold Stroke for a Wife (1718) was a successful comedy, and The Artifice (1722) reflects in some measure the influence of sentimental drama. Mrs. Centlivre serves as a convenient illustration of the fact that comedy had not wholly responded to the movement for its moral improvement; but it is fair to recall, at the same time, that the epilogues appended to some of Young’s dramas maintain the restoration practice of enlivening tragedy with coarsely comic epilogues.