Female ingenuity in the plays of Susanna Centlivre: a rhetorical study
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Between 1700-1722, Susanna Centlivre was the most successful and prolific dramatist in England, writing nineteen plays, seventeen of which saw production during her lifetime. In spite of her popularity and the durability of several of her pieces, until recently, Mrs. Centlivre received scant attention from critics. Earlier critics who considered her works, did so only to find her plots unfocused and flawed, her characterizations weak, and her themes derivative. Recent critics now credit her with a few focused plots but narrow their attention to her thematic treatment of blocking parents, brothers, and guardians. In this context, the critics find that she offers little that is either unified or original. However, my study reveals that Mrs. Centlivre understood the theatrical conventions she inherited from the Restoration. And she reversed the stereotypes inherent in those conventions, thereby creating plays that focused on female characters who thwart the male power-structure that would contain them. These characters practice a variety of deception strategies with which they remove the social and familial restrictions placed on them. Centlivre's presentation of a variety of such strategies points to her concern with the depiction of females in drama and reveals her belief in female ingenuity. Chapter I of this study establishes the scholarly context on which the critical issues of this dissertation are based. Chapter II examines five plays and analyzes Mrs. Centlivre's use of females in male disguise. Chapter III considers two plays that illustrate the use of female characters in masks or veils. Chapter IV analyzes three plays that show skillful female characters employing unconventional forms of deception. Chapter V contains the conclusions drawn from this study.