The Fergusonia File

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Susanna Centlivre's The Busybody, 1709

I can see why Centlivre's The Busybody was such a huge success: it's a fast-paced comedy with a good measure of wit. We've read a number of social comedies this term, but few, if any, made me laugh out loud like this one. In particular, the way that Marplot complicated things was well-handled. It's not that his dialogue was especially humorous, but his bumbling somehow managed to make me laugh (this might have something to do with my being somewhat ill and therefore tired). There's a certain type of situational humour that has you laughing before the key action even takes place; predictability in these cases has a counter-intuitive effect. In this play, I would project ahead to just how Marplot would satisfy his name.

On a more serious note, I was surprised at the number of casual threats of violence, some very explicit (ie. "I had more mind to cut his throat than hear his excuses" III.v.15), in the play. It struck me that casual threats of violence occurred at almost regular intervals throughout; almost none of the longer scenes pass by without someone being threatened or actually beaten (Marplot often falls under each category).

When a writer displays such a "literary tick" I often wonder what underlies it. Finberg foregrounds Marplot's effeminate cowardice, and so we may read the brash violence of the other male characters as establishing a clear divide between the "men and the boys." Women, however, are also threatened with violence (Isabinda does get manhandled in act 5), and twenty-first century readers would normally associate violence toward women as unmanly, or at least ungentlemanly.

If Centlivre were only pandering to her audience's desire for violence, then we might expect there to be more actual duals and fights, but threats outnumber actual skirmishes. I think that it's at least safe to say that the comedy (as many do) privileges the making of one's own fate, the taking of matters into one's own hands. In this light, men who are willing to risk everything in a duel emerge as more useful and therefore more desirable. Yet, the macho big-talk is positioned as even more useful than actual violence.


Blogger Brenna said...

I'm intrigued by your discussion of the violence in the play, Jesse, mostly because I'm surprised that I didn't really notice it. Yes, there are duels and threats, but none of that registered as violent when I read the play. That's really interesting to me, and I'll have to go back over things before tomorrow so I can sort out my thoughts on it.

In fact, I was much more apt to notice verbal abuse in the play, it seems -- I was struck by Sir Jealous and his nastiness towards his own daughter.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Miriam Jones said...

In a way, the play almost makes us complicit with the various thumpings and beatings Marplot undergoes, doesn't it? I had not thought of it as anything other than rough humour, but since Marplot is the most frequent target of actual violence, perhaps something uglier is at play here.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Andrea said...

What I find so interesting about the violence in this play - especially the variety directed by Sir Jealous toward Isabinda - is that it all seems to be forgotten at the end. Of course, the audience remembers it, which could be Centlivre's way of nuancing the "happy" ending.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Ancient of Daze said...

Let's not forget that this time and place in history was itself pretty violent by our standards, when even the wealthy and powerful weren't so much so that they could feel completely safe from the cutpurses and assorted scum that clotted the streets of London (which weren't lit until the 19th century, the first city in the world to do so, I think). Nothing resembling what we would call a police force would make an appearance until about the same time. Although the allusions to violence are more graphic in this play, our previous plays have the men drawing their swords frequently, and -- no surprise -- they are all armed because to go about unarmed in those days was just plain stupid. Sir Francis and Sir Jealous, though old, are quick to lay a caning on whoever stands in their way, which is as much a survival tactic on their part as an indicator of cruelty. Maybe what is significant here is not that Centlivre is creating violent characters but rather that Centlivre is more forward than other playwrights in showing audiences the violence that everyone knew lurked just outside (even inside) the theatre door. For example, we know that her second husband, Carroll, was killed in a duel.

6:51 PM  

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