Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Busie Body

Susanna Centlivre was one of the most famous British dramatists of the early eighteenth century. She wrote nineteen plays, but today her reputation rest on only three of them, The Busie Body, The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret, and A Bold Stroke for a Wife.

Of those three, The Busie Body was the most popular throughout the eighteenth century. The piece borrows freely from Molière's The Bungler as well as John Dryden's adaptation of that play, Sir Martin Mar-all. Centlivre added much of her own humor, however, as can be seen in this exchange from Act I:

Charles: My Lady Wrinkle, Sir, why she has but one Eye.
Sir Francis: Then she'll see but half your Extravagance, Sir.

The plot is as ridiculous as most eighteenth-century comedies. Charles is in love with the beautiful Isabenda, but her father, Sir Jealous Traffick, is obsessed with all things Spanish, and is determined to marry her off to a Spanish husband. Meanwhile, Charles's father Sir Francis is set upon marrying his pretty little ward, Miranda, and getting his hands on her thirty-thousand-pound inheritance.

Miranda is in love with Charles's friend, Sir George Airy, though she pretends to dote on her guardian in order to humor him. Into this web of affections walks Marplot, a well-meaning but bungling gentleman who seems to mangle everything he touches. "Lord, Lord, how little Curiosity some People have," Marplot says, adding just in case we didn't get the title's reference: "Now my chief Pleasure lies in knowing every Body's Business."

Just as Hamlet must by indirections find directions out, Miranda must sometimes say the opposite of what she means in order to get what she wants. In Act III, she connives a way to make Marplot unwittingly set up a tryst with her lover, Sir George, saying, "advise him to keep from the Garden Gate on the left Hand; for if he dares to saunter there, about the Hour of Eight, as he used to do, he shall be saluted with a Pistol or a Blunderbuss." George has never met her at this gate, but now he knows not only which gate to find her at, but also at which hour to come!

Poor Marplot never catches on, and when Miranda later hides George behind a chimney-board, pretending she is keeping a pet monkey, the busy-body announces that he's a crack monkey trainer. Marplot later complains he never could have guessed Miranda was engaging in a deception. "Who cou'd divine your Meaning, when you talk'd of a Blunderbuss, who thought of a Rendevous?" he asks, "and when you talk'd of a Monkey, who the Devil dreamt of Sir George?" Miranda replies that this just proves he has no knowledge of women, since he "can't reconcile Contradictions."

The fifth act shows the young people at last outmaneuvering parents and guardians. George dresses as a Spaniard to hoodwink Sir Jealous, and Miranda uses the promise to marry Sir Francis to get control over her estate and a license to marry George. What makes the play stand out, however, is not the mechanisms of its plot, but the insights of its heroine, Miranda. In the last act, she reflects:

Now to avoid the Impertinence and Roguery of an old Man, I have thrown my self into the Extravagance of a young one; if he shou'd despise, slight or use me ill, there's no Remedy from a Husband, but the Grave; and that's a terrible Sanctuary to one of my Age and Constitution.

The brief soliloquy isn't enough to spoil the mood of the play's silly ending, but it does provide some depth lacking in other plays of the period. Perhaps this is what helped The Busie Body to become one of the top comedies of the eighteenth century.