1709 marked the premiere of “The Busybody” by Susanna Centlivre at the Theater Royal, Drury Lane in London. Centlivre’s play came at a time when society was just getting used to the idea of celebrity. With the reopening of the playhouses, under Charles II, a new era in theater began. From that point forward, actors and actresses such as Thomas Betterton, Elizabeth Barry, Ann Bracegirdle and the notorious Nell Gwynn, were becoming recognized not only for their talent but also for their (hopefully) scandalous personal lives.
The darlings of the stage were not the only ones to be victims of public interest. In early 18th-century London gossip was a well known activity. While today we might get our gossip from friends, text, Twitter, Facebook, or even E! News or People magazine, at that particular point word of mouth was paramount. Newspapers were distributed in the local coffee houses and they did include gossip columns. However, the gossip would not get into or out of the papers without the help of dedicated citizens indulging in the current scandal. It was natural to discuss what your friend wore out in the park, which servants were misbehaving, or which neighbor exhibited indiscreet behavior in public.
The action of “The Busybody” opens in St. James Park, a veritable hotbed of social activity and juicy gossip. It is here that we meet Charles, in want of money, and Sir George Airy, in want of a woman. Next is Miranda, seeking respite from the wandering hands of her guardian; and the faithful and self proclaimed ingenious servant, Patch. Wandering onto the scene is the aforementioned guardian, Sir Francis Gripe, in possession of money, but never satisfied until he has more. The social centrality of the park is emphasized by the character appearances in this first act. The audience meets everyone except the closeted Isabinda, practically imprisoned in her room; and her father, Sir Jealous Traffick, who trusts no English person to have a good influence on his child.
Thrown in amongst these lovers, guardians and servants is Marplot, the so-called “Busybody” of Centlivre’s play. He is described as “a sort of a silly Fellow, Cowardly, but very inquisitive to know every Body’s Business.” Marplot is just the sort of character you can’t help but love. Wanting to know everything about everybody, Marplot is tragically never able to put two and two together. Yet, he is not the only one who complicates life with his inquisitiveness. All the characters suffer from a mischievousness which causes them to be chased into or out of closets, to constantly be sent to help a friend in their latest scheme, or to be deprived of their goal because they were too involved in another person’s activities to notice the deception in front of them. In a society such as this (or such as our own for that matter) the question is “who isn’t the Busybody?”
“The Busybody” opens August 20th in Fort Tryon Park
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Kreis-Schinck, Annette. Women, Writing, and the Theater in the Early Modern Period: The Plays of Aphra Behn and Suzanne Centlivre. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.
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Spurr, John. England in the 1670s: “This Masquerading Age.” Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
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