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Centlivre v. Hardwicke: Susannah Centlivre's Plays and the Marriage Act of 1753 Margo Collins The years between 1700 and 1800 saw Susannah Centlivre's plays performed 1,227 times in London theaters. Two plays, The Busie Body and A Bold Stroke for a Wife, accounted for 822 of these performances.1 The Busie Body was an immediate hit upon opening at the Drury Lane Theatre on 12 May 1709. After eighteen performances in its first season, it averaged more than six performances annually until 1800, thus becoming the most popular female-authored play of the century. The second spot belongs to Centlivre, too. A Bold Stroke, first performed on 3 February 1718 at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, enjoyed a relatively successful run of six nights. Yet, unlike The Busie Body, this play was not consistently popular with early-century audiences; indeed , after the initial run, it was not produced again in London for ten years. But after 1750 the play's popularity increased markedly—so much so that by the end of the century it was performed almost as often as Centlivre's earlier play.2 Only a few critics have attempted to explain the popularity of these two plays. John Wilson Bowyer and Nancy Copeland both attribute the late-century success ofA Bold Stroke to the popularity of the various actors who played the role of the hero, Colonel Fainwell. Thalia Stathis attributes the success to "cleverly wrought stage business," "plot intrigue," "amusing male roles," "structural unity," and "concentrated action." Jess Byrd credits The Busie Body's popularity to Centlivre's "preference for laughing comedy with an improved moral tone" and characters and a plot that are "amusing but inoffensive, and . . . satisfy the desire of the growing eighteeth-century middle-class audience for respectability on the stage." Similarly, Fidelis Morgan asserts that Centlivre's comedies in general managed to please a "new and more po-faced audience," largely because "compromise and adaptation for the mealy-mouthed were in demand" in the latter 179 1 80Comparative Drama halfofthe century.3 These critics are right, to some degree. However, the factors that they identify, either individually or combined, account only partially for the phenomenal popularity of The Busie Body and A Bold Stroke, particularly when the performance histories ofthese two plays are compared with those of Centlivre's other plays— plays which, like The Busie Body and A Bold Stroke, were "amusing but inoffensive."4 Indeed, most ofCentlivre's plays are typical of early eighteenth-century comedies. They trade in dramatic commonplaces of plots involving young lovers' attempts to marry against the will of the young woman's father or guardian ; disguises and letters—misdirected, intercepted, or merely fraudulent; and characters that are designedly stereotypical. The Busie Body and A Bold Stroke are no exceptions. So Bowyer, Copeland, Byrd, and Morgan perhaps cast their claims a bit broadly. What separates The Busie Body and A Bold Stroke from Centlivre's other plays, and what more fully explains the popularity of these plays, is their emphasis on the written legalities of marriage. Performed during a period of increasing literacy and legalism, these plays reflect the eighteenth century's anxiety about the gap between one's signature and one's intent, the gap between the written and the spoken word. The plays themselves simultaneously hinge on the idea of the written contract as more legally binding than the spoken contract—particularly when that contract involves marriage—and express the concern that the written contract is perhaps as mutable as the spoken contract. I argue that the thematic interest in the written legalities of marriage found in these plays contributed to their popularity because it tapped into a fund of anxiety about marriage that existed throughout the Restoration and eighteenth century but that became particularly pervasive after the passage of Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753. Both the Marriage Act and Centlivre's plays elicited anxieties about the legal forms ofmarriage, and the tremendous popularity of the plays in the second half of the century suggests that their negotiations of marriage and legalism appealed to a theater-going population concerned with the new limits imposed on marriage. By examining the congruency of...