“P’sha, a Man, that’s nothing.”
It’s not that men are nothing in Susanna Centlivre’s 1705 comedy, but it’s clear that they’re not everything to the bold, surprising, and enterprising women who inhabit this play. Centlivre’s early 18th-century society, brimming with how-dees and powdered wigs, might seem odd to us at first, but the attitudes and sentiments expressed are quickly recognizable and, often, marvelously contemporary. We find a lady scientist delivering a broadside on female education, a lady gamester asserting independence (and ensuring that her House always wins), and other women manipulating the system far more astutely than the men who purportedly control it. You might say these women are bent on preserving—or wrangling for—a place in that ‘one percent.’
Centlivre’s women take charge of cash, credit, and chicanery and much of this is made possible by a deck of cards. The ease with which these characters gamble at tremendously high stakes is alarming. (We’ve done the math; Mrs. Sago’s in the hole for what amounts to millions.) In fact, anyone with enough daring (and the purse to back it) could have been made or broken by Basset. The risk was so great that the French set limits on wagers made by the general citizenry, and English law would aim eventually to penalize all who played. The nature of the threat is clear: it’s not just a concern for folks losing their shirts, but there’s the worry of which class might wear them home. The distinctions between richer and poorer, winner and loser are forever in flux around the gaming table and expose the instability that permeates boundaries of all sorts.
Centlivre is a skilled gamer herself, playing with social prescripts and class and gender hierarchies while toying with theatrical convention. Morality plays were all the rage on the late Restoration stage but so, too, was a kind of suggestive, frisky fun. The play opens with an attempt to divide the good from the gaming, but as the story progresses it becomes more and more difficult to know in which camp virtue lies. Even the self-proclaimed righteous characters are attracted to the naughty so that the greatest risks engage the players beyond Lady Reveler’s tables; and everyone’s suit is hearts.
Because this is a Restoration Comedy, we expect that 18th-century notions of decency will be restored by the play’s end and female power inevitably will be contained. Critics suggest that Centlivre somehow fails us with this or, as Nancy Copeland writes, they find the play “deficient in the feminism they expected” (Staging Gender). It would be easy to question the validity of those expectations, but I’d wager that those lady characters are not as altered by the play’s end as the males might wish. David Grimm’s clever contributions to our script underscore this possibility. It could be that centuries of reading Centlivre’s play without the complement of performance has narrowed critical perception. Of course, no woman making her living by writing for the stage (as Centlivre did for years) could stray too far from convention. Still, the playwright serves and subverts it. The method by which order is restored to Sir Richard’s estate is so problematic that, though it may deliver the illusion of male victory, it invites us to loathe it at the same time. The wines, chocolates, and gilded coins embezzled by the ladies are far less odious than the goods Sir James would seize. And marriage—a common enough conclusion for a comedy—is hardly presented as a condition of feminine restraint. If the men’s tricks appear to grant them the upper hand, we should remember that each hand in Basset lasts approximately 90 seconds and then a sonica changes things entirely. When it comes to gaming, we’ve seen only men walk away from the tables; the women, on the other hand, continually signal “Game on.”