“Luck be a lady tonight,” or at least make me a gentleman: Economic anxiety in Centlivre’s: The Gamester

“Luck be a lady tonight,” or at least make me a gentleman: Economic anxiety in Centlivre’s: The Gamester

Herrell, LuAnn Venden

John Dennis, in a 1704 response to yet another of Jeremy Collier’s attacks on the immorality of the stage, criticizes Collier for neglecting to discuss what he sees as a more tangible and therefore more serious vice:

But how does [Collier] propose to himself, to bring [reform] about? Why, not by suppressing Vice, but the Stage that Scourges and exposes it. For he meddles not with that Vice that is in the World, let it be never so flaming and outragious. For example, the crying Sin of England next to Hypocrisie, at this time is Gaming; a Sin that is attended with several others, both among Men and Women, as Lying, Swearing, Perjury, Fraud, Quarrels, Murders, Fornication, Adultery. Has not Gaming done more mischief in England within these last Five Years than the Stage has done in Fifty? (29)

Susanna Centlivre’s dedication to her 1705 comedy The Gamester, an adaptation of Jean Francois Regnard’s Le Joueur (1696), aligns Centlivre with Dennis in calling gambling one of the great vices of England and nods to Collier in its recommendation of morality “according to the first intent of Plays” (qtd. in Bowyer 59).1 In so doing, Centlivre manages to associate herself both with the reformers of the stage led by Collier and with Dennis, who cagily asserted that the stage could be an amusing and palatable instrument of reform, rather than an evil. Modern readers have recognized the gambit. The few critics of the play agree with Jay E. Oney’s analysis of Centlivre’s sense of what the market would bear in her production of “a strong script on a timely topic with just the proper mixture of fun and moralization” (192-93).2

But the “moralization,” in this case, is not merely an anti-gambling diatribe. Another topic very much in the minds of the contemporary audience was the fallout from the 1695-96 Recoinage Act, which inspired a flurry of debate that James Thompson characterizes as a questioning of the possibility of controlling or mastering money (47). The Gamester’s title character, Valere, is mastered by money and chance. By tracing this rake’s progress, Centlivre explores a fundamental economic anxiety brought on by the shift from a system based on land to one based on ready money. In this new arrangement, social station could conceivably rise and fall as quickly-and randomly-as the roll of a gamester’s dice. Most scholars who have commented on the play remark in passing that this story of a gamester’s redemption is an exemplary comedy.3 I would argue, however, that the play as a whole, including the epilogue and prologue, transcends the formulaic “reform comedy” structure: Rather, it is a cautionary and pessimistic portrayal of a social system struggling to come to terms with the move away from the conservative Lockean model of the possessive individual to the more modern model of the economic subject. Ultimately, The Gamester rejects this proto-Marxian model, but not without raising doubts about the impossibility of returning to a more stable landed system.

Written as it was during the height of the “second” Collier controversy ( 170308), the play is often overtly didactic. Centlivre allows much on-stage time for the audience to witness the comic vagaries of Dame Fortune and the havoc she wreaks on the various hopeful couples before the rakish Valere is perfunctorily redeemed at the end of the play. Acting in contradiction to Collier’s claim that “these Sparks generally Marry the Top-Ladies, and those that do not, are brought to no penance, but go off with the Character of Fine Gentlemen” (142), Centlivre portrays Valere’s penance and remorse graphically, whether or not the audience-and the other characters-really believes that his repentance is sincere. But gambling within the play is not simply one of the obligatory plot devices providing the obstacle for the stock “young lover” characters. It is also a means of illustrating the tension caused by the changing notions of inherent or intrinsic value during the period after the Recoinage Act. This shift in value is capable of redefining the very nature of things; as Marx put it, “since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and exchanges all things, it is the general confounding and compounding of all things-the world upside-down-the confounding and compounding of all natural and human qualities” (169). In Valere, ancien regime notions of gentlemanly behavior are confounded because of his gambling addiction, and the effects of his behavior ripple outward through his social circle.

During its fourteen-night run at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, all the stalwarts of the Rebel Company appeared in The Gamester in their usual pairings. Valere the gamester (played by John Verbruggen) is in love with Angelica the heiress (Anne Bracegirdle), who loves him but despises his gambling. Also in love with Valere is Angelica’s sister, the widowed coquette Lady Wealthy (Elizabeth Barry), who is in turn pursued both by the upright Mr. Lovewell (Thomas Betterton) and the Marquis of Hazard ([William?] Fieldhouse), who is a footman masquerading as a French nobleman. Valere’s uncle, Dorante (John Corey), is in love with Angelica and has bribed her servant Favourite (Mrs. Hunt) to advance his cause. The plot concerns Valere’s relationship with Angelica; Angelica banishes Valere each time she learns he is gaming. His reaction to this depends on his current streak of luck: at the beginning of the play, when informed that Angelica has cast Valere off yet again, his valet Hector (George Pack) pronounces, “If he has lost his Money, this News will break his heart” (1.1).

One of Valere’s early speeches, given as he is riding high on a big pay-off, sets up his utopian idea of the gamester’s milieu:

Who is happier than a Gamester; who more respected, I mean those that make any Figure in the World? Who more caress’d by Lords and Dukes? Or whose Conversation more agreeable-Whose Coach finer in the Ring-Or Finger in the Side Box produces more Lustre-Who has more Attendance from the Drawers-or better Wine from the Master,-or is nicer serv’d by the Cook?-In short, there is an Air of Magnificence in’t-a Gamester’s Hand is the Philosopher’s Stone, that turns all it touches into Gold. (3.1)

While Valere can think of nothing better than the gambling life, virtually all the other main characters condemn him for his profligacy, calling to mind Collier’s general definition of a stage libertine: “A fine Gentleman that has neither Honesty, nor Honour, Conscience, nor Manners, Good Nature, nor civil Hypocrisie” (144). His long-suffering manservant, Hector, succinctly delivers the dominant opinion on the dangers of gaming; when Valere claims that he, as a gamester, has mastered alchemy with the Midas touch “that turns all it touches to Gold,” Hector responds, `And Gold into Nothing” (3.1). This suspicion of such “alchemy” is particularly applicable to the era following the Recoinage Act. The play illustrates the change in the way wealth was judged and circulated, and takes up what Thomas Kavanagh calls the “increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of money,” specifically the question of “how different societal groups related to this circulation of money-how they responded to being redefined, at least within the context of the game, by the cards they drew and the points they threw” (29-30).

The points that Valere throws, or his luck with the dice, redefine his social group and dictate the complicated maneuvering of the other characters, with various potential pairings of couples appearing and disappearing rapidly. His actions at the gaming table redefine his peers; his dice throwing turns social relationships into a high-stakes game. A bejeweled portrait of Angelica serves as a marker of Valere’s fortune and his heart; tracking its progress through various hands is a tangible warning of how, once she is invited in, Lady Luck can disorder a previously stable system. The game that Valere plays is not a mere diversion, nor does he play it as a gentleman should, with a disinterested air. Rather, his obsession threatens the stability of the larger culture in which he operates, undercutting the social strata.

Valere’s emotional state is dictated by his luck throughout the play-he is unable to gamble in typical gentlemanly fashion, and both his honour and his love are subsumed by the quest for more cash to gamble away: “I promis’d to visit Angelica again to Night, but fear I shall break my Word,” Valere airily tells Hector after his winning streak. `And will you prefer Play before that charming Lady?” Hector asks him. Valere’s answer, “Not before her-but I have given my Parole to some Men of Quality, and I can’t in Honour disappoint `em” (3.1), comes not more than several hours after he has received Angelica’s gem-adorned portrait as a token of his renunciation of gambling and vowed undying devotion to her in grand heroic style (2.1). If Valere has no money, his promises to Angelica are worthless; if he has cash and is ready to play, he follows the genteel code of honor. Valere’s conduct is based on his economic status at any given moment. J. G. A. Pocock notes that “in the credit economy and polity, property had become not only mobile but speculative: what one owned was promises, and not merely the functioning but the intelligibility of society depended upon the success of a program of reification” (113). Because Valere’s “investments,” such as they are, are so overtly speculative, his promises, figuratively speaking, are not worth the paper they are printed on.

Valere’s course of action reinforces Centlivre’s attack on the intelligibility of society and traces the erosion of any notion of intrinsic value in his own character. He clashes with his father, Sir Thomas Valere, who has thrown him out of the house for his rakishness, and he bargains with his father for more cash as a tradesman might (1.1). He strikes up an association with Count Cogdie, in order that he may learn how to throw loaded dice (1.1). He refuses to pay off his considerable debts, except, as he says, those “honourable” ones incurred at play. He commands Hector to lie on his behalf, for which Hector is often beaten (1.1; 2.2; 3.1; 4.3; 5.1). He nearly capitulates to Lady Wealthy’s proposition for his sexual favors in return for her cash, in blatant disregard of his friendship with Lovewell, Lady Wealthy’s long-time suitor (4.1). All the while, Valere protests mightily that the other characters do not seem to place the same value on his honor, pledge, and word as he does. Hector comments wonderingly, “Ah, what a Juggler’s Box is this Word Honour! It is a Kind of Knight of the Post-That will swear on either Side for Interest I find” (3.1). Valere is a graphic representation of the type portrayed by Dennis; in him, gambling coexists with the attendant sins of “Lying, Swearing, Perjury, Fraud, Quarrels, Murders, Fornication, [and] Adultery” (Dennis 29).

The persona of the gentleman gambler is still with us today, in sources as diverse as the obligatory casino scene in any James Bond film to Kenny Rogers’s song “The Gambler.” Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier ( 1528) frames in the negative what becomes the long-standing precedent for gentlemanly gambling, in terms that describe Valere perfectly: gaming is not a vice for the courtier “unless he should do so too constantly and as a result should neglect other more important things, or indeed unless he should play only to win money and to cheat the other player; and, when he lost, should show such grief and vexation as to give proof of being miserly” (127). Valere violates all these rules of conduct-he doesn’t know when to hold `em or fold `em, and he routinely makes the socially unacceptable mistake of counting his money while sitting at the table.

Centlivre takes care to establish Valere’s violations of the gentleman gamester’s code from the first and ultimately brings the audience to the realization that Valere is altogether without honor. Valere’s violations spread to his entire social circle, indicating the virus-like power of the new economic system. The first lines in the play are from Hector, bemoaning his lot in serving a gamester. He supposes that Valere’s luck has been bad, putting him “out of Humour” ( 1.1 ), so that Hector doesn’t dare ask him for any dinner-the usual state of affairs while Hector has been in his service. Valere’s acquaintances and all their servants are well aware of his obsession and the effect it has on him: when Hector tries to persuade Angelica’s maid, Favourite, that he is at business, her response indicates the emotional involvement with gaming against which Castiglione warns: “Yes, yes, I guess the Business; he is at shaking his Elbows over a Table, saying his Prayers backwards, courting the Dice like a Mistress, and cursing them when he is disappointed” (1.1). An exchange between the two servants comparing the merits of Valere with old Dorante indicates the play’s pessimistic view of the leveling effect of Valere’s gambling. Favourite’s description of Valere deliberately invokes an unkempt member of the lower class:

HECTOR: Ay, but Women generally love green Fruit best: besides, my Master’s handsome.

FAVOURITE: He handsome! Behold his Picture just as he’ll appear this Morning, with Arms across, down-cast eyes, no Powder in his Perriwig, a Steenkirk tuck’d in to hide the Dirt, Sword-knot untied, no Gloves, and Hands and Face as dirty as a Tinker. This is the very figure of your beautiful Master.

HECTOR: The Jade has hit it.

FAVOURITE: And Pocket as empty as a Capuchin’s. (1.1)

Indeed, the stage directions for his first entrance read “Enter Valere, in disorder”; an obvious sight gag would be to match his “disorder” to Favourite’s description. And throughout the scene, “disorder” is keyed to violations of class and conduct, as we see when Hector chases his master around the stage.

Further action in the play illustrates Valere’s abandonment, which seems to place Centlivre in agreement with Collier’s assertion in A Short View that enslavement to one’s passions is among the worst of crimes (164). In The Gamester, Centlivre is more closely aligned to Collier’s Short Crew on the function of comedy than to the stance of her own earlier work, where she had repudiated Collier and asserted along with Dryden and others that the purpose of comedy was to entertain. Centlivre sets up a situation in which Valere’s lack of control provides Lady Wealthy a way to satisfy her appetite for Valere-an appetite that Centlivre links to Valere’s dissipation. After a comic scene in act 2 in which Angelica discovers Valere on his knees before Lady Wealthy-a posture that Lady Wealthy attempts to pass off as evidence that Valere is courting her rather than pleading for her help to win back Angelica’s good graces-Lady Wealthy sets out to purchase Valere’s sexual favours. “Oh, that I could once bring Valere within my Power,” she fantasizes, “I’d use him as his ill Breeding deserves; I’d teach him to be particular. He has promised Angelica to play no more; I fancy that proceeds from his Want of Money, rather than Inclination” (3.2).

The letter she sends him, accompanied by a check for L100, underscores both his willingness to do anything for money and her lapse in moral behavior. She asks Valere to return her affections and makes it clear that Valere’s greed provides the opportunity for her to pursue him: “I confirm my Words in a golden Shower-‘Tis what I believe most acceptable to a Man of your Circumstances” (4.1). Both Valere and the audience know what Lady Wealthy is asking for. Lady Wealthy bypasses the standard mode of flirtation and turns instead to a straightforward financial transaction, in a singular moment of social disorder and a reversal of standard gender roles. An intuitive gambler herself, she has read Valere’s hand correctly: despite his assertion to Hector in act 1, scene 1 that he detests the wealthy widow, the sight of what amounts to cash in hand is too much for him. He debates, “What must I do now? prove a Rogue, and betray my Friend Lovewell . . . But then Angelica, the dear, the faithful Maid-But then a Hundred Guineas, the dear tempting Sight!” (4.1).

The abstractions of honor, love, and friendship nearly lose out to Lady Wealthy’s gift. Only Lovewell’s expedient entrance saves Valere from accepting the solicitation-a scene in which Valere seems to recognize that his honor is not an inherent quality: “Ha, Lovewell! thou com’st in good Time; for my Virtue’s staggering” (4.1). His response to Lady Wealthy objectifies his honor as a gentleman, to be purchased by the highest bidder; Lady Wealthy’s money trumps the portrait of Angelica and all of Valere’s worthless promises upon his receipt of it.

Another character in this sub-plot is corrupted by the gamester’s vice. On the face of it, Lovewell appears to be the model of virtue, as he steadfastly refuses to game with Valere, moralizes on Lady Wealthy’s coquettish tricks and the disreputable crowd of admirers surrounding her, remains her faithful and patient suitor, and triumphs by winning her hand in the end. But even this seeming contrast to Valere is redefined by Valere’s economic irresponsibility. Although he has loved Lady Wealthy since before her first marriage, Lovewell is incapable of persuading her to accept his hand now that she is widowed: he freely admits that his “long successless Love assures me I have no Power” (2.1). Even while she herself admits that he is the best of her suitors, Lady Wealthy fixes her mind on Valere. When Valere exposes her perfidy in act 4, Lovewell offers to duel with his friend for Lady Wealthy’s nonexistent honor. Valere refuses, begging a previous engagement at the gaming-table (yet another indication that he is no gentleman), and Lovewell realizes that “Something must be done; but what I know not” (4.1 ).

His solution, as he informs Lady Wealthy, is to falsify the situation and manufacture honor in her where there is none: “I have since been with Valere, sworn to him the Letter was a Plot of mine, the Hand and Bill all counterfeit, to satisfy my jealous Scruple, if there were Affairs between ye, he believed it, and your Honour’s free from all ill Tongues” (5.2). Essentially, he blackmails and purchases her by a falsehood, indicating that old notions of honor are ineffective in a system rendered economically chaotic. The new bond between them is a contract, but it is one based on deception and dishonor, giving the lie to Valere’s description of Lovewell as “a Gentleman without Exception” (1.1).

Angelica also must find a way to move through this new economic landscape and to deal with the redefinition of her role necessitated by Valere’s flirtation with Lady Luck. Lady Wealthy may have won the trick in act 4, but Angelica wins the round in act 5. She is aware that the odds are against her from the start. The “odds” are not entirely familiar, dramaturgically speaking: Centlivre’s plot departs from the usual comic structure of young lovers thwarted by older characters. In fact, Sir Thomas sees Valere’s love for Angelica as being his only redeeming quality: “I know your Love, and [it is] the only Thing I like in you: She’s a virtuous Lady, and her Fortune’s large” (1.l). The obstacle is framed in economic terms-it is Valere’s gambling that comes between him and this virtuous lady. A commonplace repeated throughout the play is first stated by Favourite, as she and Hector argue the respective merits of Dorante and Valere: “For she that marries a Gamester that plays upon the Square, as the Fool your Master does, can expect nothing but an Alms-House for a Jointure” (1.1). This view, reiterated by almost every character in the play, is not only a contradiction of Valere’s picture of the gamester’s life, but also a very real possible fate for Angelica if she does not redeem her occasional suitor. The difference in the women’s estates ups the ante for Angelica, as an early conversation between them points out:

LADY WEALTHY: Believe me, Sister-I had rather see you married to Age, Avarice, or a Fool-than to Valere, for can there be a greater Misfortune than to marry a Gamester?

ANGELICA: I know `tis the high Road to Beggary.

LADY WEALTHY: And your Fortune being all ready Money will be thrown off with Expedition-Were it as mine is indeed . . . (2.1)

Although Lady Wealthy’s motives are suspect at this point (we discover several lines later that she wants Valere for herself), her business sense is sound. When Angelica turns on her in shock and surprise at this disclosure, given her advice, Wealthy replies, “My Estate’s intail’d enough to supply his Riots, and why should I not bestow it upon the Man I like?” (2.1).

Even though the immediate effect her advice has on Angelica is to cause her again to forgive Valere, Lady Wealthy reinforces Angelica’s sense that she must hedge her bets as fully as she can. After castigating Valere in act 2 for playing false and breaking his vow to her yet again, Angelica reveals the steadfastness of her love for him and asks for what amounts to a business contract, framed conditionally: “I differ from my Sex in this, I would not change where once I’ve given my Heart, if possible-therefore resolve to make this last Trial-banish your Play for Love, and rest secur’d of mine” (2.1). Her rhetorical stance is similar to that taken by conservative theorists in the debates surrounding the Recoinage Act in the belief that contractual relationships could “maintain a monetary system which is stable and which will not reveal money to be yet another commodity” (Thompson 69). She attempts simultaneously to set a new standard of their love, replacing its current economic foundation, and to corner the market. She does so by a Lockean insistence on contract and trust, in which Thompson observes that “stability or security is dependent on each subject’s observing his pledge” (58).

As a signifier of their bargain, she offers Valere a physical symbol of their business deal, the portrait set with diamonds, and stipulates that if he loses it “thro’ Avarice, Carelessness, or Falshood,” he loses her heart. Valere’s unreliability is so obvious by this point that the foreshadowing is more than a bit heavy when he responds, “I agree; and when I do, except to yourself, may all the Causes ranked with your Disdain, pursue me-This, when I look on’t, will correct my Folly, and strike a sacred Awe upon my Actions” (2.1).

All very well, as long as he keeps it, but the audience must observe sarcastically with Favourite that the portrait is “worth two hundred Pounds, a good Moveable when Cash runs low” (2.1). Joanna M. Cameron claims that the portrait “keeps the audience aware of Angelica’s influence on Valere in scenes in which she does not appear” (36). I’d quibble with Cameron’s wording and emphasize that what the portrait does is remind the audience of how little Angelica’s influence matters; as soon as act 3 opens, we discover that Valere has borrowed five guineas from “Honest Jack Sharper” (3.1) and has won 557 1/2 guineas. He has already broken the contract, although the portrait is still in his possession. In fact, the structure of the play suggests that he went immediately from Angelica’s presence to the sharper.

Hector bets on Angelica when he urges Valere to marry her before his luck changes, but Valere, too taken by his streak of good luck, questions whether he should marry at all. Again, observes Hector, Valere’s “Pocket and [his] Heart runs counter” (3.1). It is this state of affairs over which Angelica must triumph, and she ends act 3 with her assessment of the situation. She speaks in verse before her exit, marking the seriousness of the venture:

For when from Ill a Proselyte we gain,

The goodness of the Act rewards the Pain:

But if my honest Arts successless prove,

To make the Vices of his Soul remove,

I’ll die-or rid me from this Tyrant Love. (3.2)

Her “honest Arts” (a wonderful oxymoron, in this context, implying as it does the disguise and manipulation she is about to employ) further exemplify the social disorder and gender reversals caused by Valere’s gambling fixation: in order to gain mastery over Love, the tyrant, Angelica must beat Valere at his own game. In act 4, scene 4, the game is Hazard, a French import and an early form of craps. Centlivre underscores the far-reaching effects of Valere’s gambling addiction by featuring a high-stakes game in which, arguably, the only “skill” involved is in throwing loaded dice undetected.

Centlivre structures the discovery scene in order to display Valere in company with Count Cogdie, the gaming-table attendants, and a shady crowd of gamesters (4.4). Valere loses a vigorous round of Hazard and curses, blasphemes, accuses other players of cheating, and argues petulantly all the while. His emotions are at the whim of Fortune; when his luck turns, he laughs and declares, “I have more Manners than to quarrel now I’m on the winning Side” (4.4), a shameful admission for a well-bred man. Into this atmosphere enters Angelica on her mission of redemption, disguised, pointedly, as a man. She further scandalizes and titillates the audience by joining in the game and acquitting herself more than admirably. Although she is perfectly well-mannered, she fits right into the company, strolling in and employing gaming terminology like a pro.

The argument that Angelica and Valere have near the end of the game again illustrates the parallel permutations of honor and economy. Valere, who has lost his entire stake and then some to Angelica, asks to set a hundred Guineas “upon Honour.” Angelica’s refusal-“I beg your Pardon, Sir, I never play upon Honour with Strangers” (4.4)-is both ironic and startling, showing as it does a fundamental change in social interactions. Earlier in the play; Valere tries to raise fifty Guineas from the pawn-broker, Mrs. Security, with nothing more than his good name. She refuses indignantly, her name of course the indication that something more substantial is required. She is quite right to do so; as Hector pronounces, “I’d have you to know, my Master’s Note is as good as a Banker’s-sometimes, when the Dice run well” (1.1). A gentleman’s word, in this system, is no longer good enough; honor built on a foundation of chance is worth nothing. This chaotic economy is never more clear than when Valere, remembering Angelica’s picture, appraises it as worth more than his life but offers it up as a stake after a minimum of persuasion from Angelica.

Moreover, after having lost the portrait fair and square, he regains not a shred of equanimity but, rather, threatens to cut Angelica’s throat if she does not restore it to him. He threatens to challenge her to a duel, as well. A lover’s display of affection, surely, but this is also a case of exceptionally poor sportsmanship combined with immorality. Fortunately, he is distracted, allowing her to run away before he can carry through. After calling himself a monster and enumerating his crimes (a far cry from his earlier assessment of his life), Valere exits the stage after a verse bemoaning, yet accepting, the justice of his fate (5.2). Angelica has won-but only through disguising her gender and blending in with a thoroughly rakish lot. Because of Valere’s lack of honor, she is reduced to a disreputable masquerader.

“Where is the Immorality of Gaming,” Valere asks disingenuously earlier in the play, “Now I think there can be nothing more moral-It unites Men of all Ranks, the Lord and the Peasant-the haughty Dutchess, and the City Damethe Marquis and the Footman, all without Distinction play together” (3.1). Because Valere is cowed and discredited by the end of the play, not without some last-ditch efforts at bluffing, it is clear we are not meant to agree with his assessment but, rather, to recognize the startling negative effect of Valere’s purchasable honor. Angelica gives him a scalding rebuke and is only persuaded to take him back through witnessing Sir Thomas’s murderous rage at Valere’s stupidity; after drawing his sword on his own son, Sir Thomas disowns Valere. Ironically, Angelica uses the terminology she earlier eschewed to extract yet another vow from Valere: “Valere, come back, should I forgive you all-Would my Generosity oblige you to a sober Life.-Can you upon Honour (for you shall swear no more) forsake that Vice that brought you to this low Ebb of Fortune?” (5.2).

This exchange, more than any other, underscores the fact that honor has become a hollow concept. If we’ve been paying attention to Valere’s actions, the answer to Angelica’s question is a resounding “No,” leading us to wonder why she resorts to this useless terminology. She is falling back on old notions of honor rather than realizing that in this new society, as Kathy Strong frames the point in a somewhat different context, “pledges and promises necessitate a reliance on honesty, but invite the opportunity of illicit gain through falsehood” (1). Angelica asks Valere for a pledge based on honesty, despite the fact that he has failed her again and again. Through his dishonest pledge, then, Valere will gain Angelica’s ready money.

Throughout the play, honor is consistently undermined and illustrated by the lack of honor, with little or nothing to take the place of honor. Centlivre advances her only stipulative definition in act 2, scene 2, when Hector presents Sir Thomas with a list of Valere’s debts in the hope that Sir Thomas will settle the accounts. Sir Thomas refuses on moral grounds to pay the so-called “debts of honour” to Valere’s mistress, his fellow gamblers, and his userers, and he revises the notion of honorable debts in favor of the new mercantile class: “He that makes no Conscience of wronging the Man-Whose Goods have been delivered for his Use, can have no Pretence to Honour-whatever Title he may Wear” (2.2). But tellingly, even here, while displaying Centlivre’s Whiggish concern with “the increased importance of merchants in English society” (Loftis 65), the definition is framed in the negative, illustrating the anxiety produced by the move away from a landed economy. If there is no honor, then, the play allows very little hope that Valere’s reclamation is in any way meaningful.

While Valere’s lines in the last scene are downcast and penitent and while his father settles two thousand a year on him, the status of Angelica’s fortune has not changed. Given Valere’s previous lack of ability to keep his word, his debased notion of honor, and the play’s repeated warnings about the danger of marrying a gamester, Valere’s repentance is suspect. Underneath the trappings of a standard comic denouement and a return to the status quo is the fear that ready money might be “a socially destructive threat to due respect for rank and privilege” (Kavanagh 52). Angelica may have won the round, but Valere is now in possession of more cash; and who knows what temptations may arise after the obligatory country dance?

In his curtain speech, Valere proclaims his complete redemption:

Now Virtue’s pleasing Prospect’s in my View,

With double Care I’ll all her Paths pursue;

And proud to think I owe this Change to you

Virtue that gives more solid Peace of Mind,

Than Men in all their vicious Pleasures find;

Then each with me the Libertine reclaim,

And shun what sinks his Fortune, and his Fame. (5.2)

But Valere, as we have seen, has resisted each reclamation that the play’s plot twists have presented. Most critics of The Gamester agree with Robert D. Hume’s remark that the piece is “a highly competent if entirely implausible exercise in reform and reclamation” and with his categorization of it as a “well-handled didactic play” among the period’s “reform comedies” (469).

Critics also avoid discussing the prologue and the epilogue. While I am in general agreement with John Wilson Bowyer’s claim that, for many works of this period, prologues and epilogues have little thematic connection to the plays themselves (63), I would argue that, in this case, the prologue and epilogue frame the play in a way that emphasizes the impossibility of Valere’s reclamation. The play is not a reform comedy in the typical sense of the term: as the chances that Valere will relapse are so high, any reform must take place on the part of the audience, making The Gamester more didactic, and perhaps more realistic, than other reform comedies of the period. Hume further notes that “modern critics tend to find [The Gamester] self-delusory, or even dishonest” (470). However, an analysis of the framework provided by the prologue and epilogue authorizes a reading that maintains a consistently negative attitude toward the outcome of Angelica’s marriage to Valere.

The prologue and epilogue, written by Nicholas Rowe and Charles Johnson, respectively, provide the audience with a plausible outcome of the young couple’s marriage. Both pieces narrate a son of rake’s progress, leading to the deterioration of a marriage in which one of the partners is a gamester. Bowyer, the only critic to discuss anything about the pieces other than their authorship, mentions only the “sermonizing epilogue on the vicious effects of gambling for both men and women” (59). However, his comment that the play “asserts the goodness of ordinary human beings” (62) ignores the overall pessimistic tone of the play, which is substantiated by the monologues.

The first six lines of Rowe’s prologue establish the controlling metaphor of the speaker as a young wife (the stage), who, while formerly “kept fine, caress’d and lodg’d” (9) by her new husband (the town), has discovered that the honeymoon is over. On the face of it, the metaphor plays out as a typical rant against the fickleness of the audience, which is weary of what it once enjoyed and is not so prone to attend the plays: “Sometimes, indeed, as in your Way it fell, / You stop’d, and call’d to see if we were well” (15). The speaker complains of her childbearing (playwriting) efforts and calls her progeny “Toads” (22), alludes to the gender of the playwright by mentioning a midwife (26), and threatens to abandon the current “toad,” or play, to the parish if the neglectful audience forsakes it. Oddly, from a staging perspective, Centlivre’s Dramatic Works ( 1872) lists Thomas Betterton as the speaker of the prologue, which bit of casting ignores the clear identification of both the “Plaintiff Stage” and “humble Wives” with the pronoun “we” in the first six lines. It is possible to assume that Betterton was given the speech as a nod to his managerial role at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, thus making him a fitting “voice” for the stage, despite the gender mismatch. The speaker complains that the audience’s “Love [has] dwindled to Respect” (14) but does not identify what new entertainment has taken the place of the playhouse.

I have observed that Favourite’s first description of Valere, which occurs early in the first scene, pictures him “courting the Dice like a Mistress” (1.1). Given that the prologue would still be fresh in the audience’s minds, it is reasonable to assume that they might imagine the charms of a wife paling beside those offered by a new amour. And, as I have shown, the play shows over and over again that Valere’s inclination is toward gaming above all else, including his betrothed. This theme is borne out in the epilogue’s sad words of advice about a young man ruined by gambling.

Throughout the play, several of the characters have uttered dire predictions about Valere’s fate if he refuses to renounce gaming. In threatening to disown his son, Sir Thomas shouts, “then try if what has ruin’d you, will maintain you” (1.1); in refusing Hector the money to pay Valere’s debts, he shouts, “Play, hang, or starve together, I care not” (2.2). Hector compares the lives of gamesters to those of highwaymen hanged for their crimes (3.1). Dorante points out to Angelica that Valere’s “head-strong Courses and luxurious Life, will ruin both your Peace and Fortune” (3.2), and although she quibbles with him over his motives for informing on Valere, she does not argue with his conclusion. Sir Thomas, delighted by the news that Angelica and Valere are finally to wed, announces that he plans to settle two thousand pounds a year on his son. “He shall make thee a swinging Jointure, my Girl” (5.2), he says exultantly to his future daughter-inlaw.

The modern sense here, of course, is that Angelica is going to receive a jointure “to die for”-but the slang, given all the previous allusions to hangings and ruin, takes on a more ominous meaning when it culminates in the epilogue. “As one condemn’d, and ready to become / For his Offences past, a Pendulum,” begins the speaker, who plays out the subject of the simile as one “Condemn’d . . . to play that tedious, juggling Game, a Wife” (1, 7-8). The speaker has long deliberated over the choice between the hangman’s or the hymeneal knot and is giving the usual address to the crowd before being carted away for punishment ( 10). In contrast to Valere’s euphoric picture of gambling utopia, the speaker in Johnson’s epilogue shows the downward spiral of the gamesters, dismissed as “Fortune’s sporting Footballs” (15). The speaker catalogues vignettes from the play itself: the gamester’s hopes and fears, his inability to rule his passions, his loss of “his good Dad’s hard-gotten hoarded Gain” (20), and his failure to raise more cash from the sharpers. But the epilogue goes beyond the scope of the play and follows the twists of Fortune to their logical conclusion: the gamester observed by the embittered wife becomes a sharper himself, is still unable to best Fortune, and at last must admit that “this itch for Play has likewise fatal been” (31).

There is some possible gender confusion in the casting of the epilogue as well as the prologue: Bowyer points out that there is uncertainty about whether John Verbruggen or his wife Susanna delivered the epilogue. As the first gendered pronoun in the speech is “his,” in the second line, it is understandable that one might assume that the dissolute gamester is the speaker. However, since there is such a strong thematic link between the monologues and the play itself, it would be odd for the actor playing Valere to deliver these lines; he has just ended the play with an edifying speech about his own redemption. When the speaker uses first person, the pronoun “I” refers to the noun “Wife,” as noted above. Furthermore, there is a clear distinction established between the speaker/wife and the group of gamesters/the audience, whom she addresses as “You roaring Boys” in the section of the epilogue beginning the “Word of good Advice” (11, 9). Given that the turning point of the plot calls for the actress playing Angelica to dress in men’s clothing, and given that the syntax points toward a female speaker, it makes good dramatic sense for an actress originally to have delivered the epilogue.

The closing lines of the epilogue return to the metaphor established by the prologue: this wife is the same stage who no longer diverts the audience; but here the question of what entertainment has taken her place is answered:

You fly this Place like an infectious Air,

To yonder happy Quarter of the Town,

You crowd; and your own fav’rite Stage disown;

We’re like old Mistresses, you love the Vice,

And hate us only ’cause we once did please. (39-43)

The stage has been abandoned for what Centlivre makes clear in her dedication is one of England’s greatest vices; but it is not only the clever wordplay that matters here. The parallel to what has just occurred in the play-the marriage of Angelica and Valere-is clear as well and would be further enforced if the epilogue were delivered by the same actress playing Angelica. Pierre Bourdieu notes that “Marriage is the occasion for an (in the widest sense) economic circulation which cannot be seen purely in terms of material goods” (120); Thompson, in examining Bourdieu’s concept of marriage as economic transaction, concludes that “those texts in which these two, the economic and symbolic (or, in our terms, the financial and the domestic), can be seen to touch are fraught with anxiety” (4). The Gamester produces anxiety because of the means by which Angelica’s fortune is transferred. There would be far less tension, for instance, if the pairing were Valere and Lady Wealthy, as the play has made it clear that Lady Wealthy’s fortune is entailed, thereby rendering Valere’s obsession manageable. But nothing has changed about Angelica’s money by the end of the play-all we are left with is Valere’s unbelievable and unsubstantiated change of heart.

Rather than taking place in its rightful sphere, upon `Change, in this case, economic circulation occurs amongst the gamblers out “upon the Square” (1.1) under conditions that are neither honourable nor productive. Although Bowyer points out how unlikely and unsatisfactory it is that Valere “eats his cake and has it too” (60), he assumes that the audience will join him in hoping “that [Angelica] is right in thinking that [Valere] has reformed forever” (62). But surely Centlivre’s audience would have been just as skeptical of his eleventh-hour conversion, especially when it is so strongly linked with the despair and futility of the wife of the prologue and epilogue, who has made the mistake of marrying a gamester.

It is nonsensical to attempt to force the play into the reform model in this fashion. To do so is to disregard the hopeless scenario anticipated by the prologue, illustrated at Valere’s every turn, and summed up in the epilogue. Valere has shown no inherent honor. He will not remain reformed but will succumb to the lure of Angelica’s ready money. As the audience has seen, Valere is irredeemable: “Few are his Joys, and small the Gamester’s Rest” (5.2), which will perhaps inspire them, not Valere, to reform before they come to such a pass. “In this period of extreme social change and the transition to agrarian capitalism,” says Thompson, “money and credit come to stand for the potential of liquid assets, to their dangerously enabling capacities” (35). In this reading of The Gamester, then, Centlivre has written a reform comedy only in the broadest of senses. If anything, the play offers a realistic portrayal of what damage an inveterate gamester can cause his social sphere when liquid assets are accessible. Hector’s observation that Valere’s fob is the barometer of his emotional state, which changes with his fortune, prefigures Manes 1844 observation about the true alchemical properties of money:

Money, then, appears as this overturning power against the individual and against the bonds of society, etc., which claim to be essences in themselves. It transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence, and intelligence into idiocy. (168-69)

Just how thoroughly these bonds of society have been overturned is illustrated by a minor character in the play, the Marquis of Hazard. He is chief of the foolish suitors who surround Lady Wealthy, whom he courts with stilted French and mismanaged posturing. He is actually Mrs. Security’s nephew, a footman who is attempting to pass as a French nobleman in order to marry a rich woman of quality. While his social blunders seem to give validity to the notion that honor is an inherent quality, it is gaming that admits him into polite society in the first place. As Marx and Valere both claim, money has the power to obliterate former notions of class, as well as the potential for reconfiguring notions of value in both the public and private spheres. The Marquis is exposed as Robin Skip and ridiculed by the entire company in the last scene of the play, indicating a seeming return to the status quo further enforced by the predictable pairings of lovers and the usual triumph of youth over age. But because so many of the characters’ virtues have been turned into vice by way of Valere’s slavish adulation of Lady Luck, Robin Skip’s lines= `Who once by Policy a Title gains, / Merits above the Fool that’s born to Means” (5.2)-ring truer than Valere’s last speech lauding his own reform.

The implausibility of that reform is not Centlivre’s main point, ultimately, as it is certain that Valere’s renewed luck will overturn the bonds of love and honor; rather, it is Angelica’s plight, and the near-certain squandering of her non-landed fortune, to which the play anxiously returns. As a landed economy becomes ever more impossible off-stage, notions of inherent honor tied to that land become more and more suspect to timely writers like Centlivre, who resolves The Gamester in typical reform comedy fashion but introduces inescapable concerns about how the individual must function in the rapidly changing economic system of the day.


1 Cameron documents Centlivre’s use of both Regnard and Charles Du Fresny’s Le Chevalier Joueur (1697). See Bowyer for the most comprehensive bibliographic list of Centlivre’s sources.

2 See also Hume 469-70, Loftis 65, and Rogers 161.

3 Criticism on The Gamester generally falls into two categories: a plot summary in the midst of biography (see, e.g., Bowyer and Lock), or a brief analysis as part of a larger work (see, e.g., Oney, Loftis, and Hume). Most criticism takes the form of Hume’s, in that the play is mentioned in a line or two, while examining “exemplary,” “reform,” or “sentimental” comedies in general.

4 Bowyer compares the record in the Diverting Post of 27 Jan.-3 Feb. 1705, which identifies John Verbruggen as the speaker, with the 1725 edition, which identifies Susanna Verbruggen (59n. 13). That the complete works give the epilogue to Mrs. Santlow supports my reading of the speaker as female. As it is likely that an actress would have done the part in breeches, the audience might call to mind Angelica’s appearance dressed as a boy in the pivotal gambling scene in act 4, thereby reinforcing the dramatic connection between the afterpiece and the play itself.


Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice. Traps. Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Bowyer, John Wilson. The Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1952.

Cameron, Joanna M. “Susanna Centlivre’s Satirical Retorts to Jeremy Collier: The Gamester and The Basset-Table.” M.A. Thesis. U of Houston-Clear Lake, 1992.

Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier. Traps. Charles S. Singleton. New York: Doubleday, 1959.

Centlivre, Susanna. The Dramatic Works of the Celebrated Mrs. Centlivre, with a New Account of Her Life. Vol. I. London, 1872.

Collier, Jeremy. A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. New York: AMS, 1974.

Dennis, John. The Person of Quality’s Answer to Mr. Collier’s Letter, Being a Disswasive from the Play-House. The English Stage: Attack and Defense 1577-1730. Collier Tracts 1703-1708. Ed. Arthur Freeman. New York: Garland, 1973.

Hume, Robert D. The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.

Kavanagh, Thomas M. Enlightenment and the Shadows of Chance: The Novel and the Culture of Gambling in Eighteenth-Century France. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Loftis, John. Comedy and Society from Congreve to Fielding. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1959.

Marx, Karl. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Ed. Dirk J. Struik. New York: International Publishers, 1964.

Oney, Jay E. “Women Playwrights During the Struggle for Control of the London Theatre, 16951710:’ Diss. Ohio State U, 1996.

Pocock, J.G.A. Virtue, Commerce, and History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Rogers, Pat. The Augustan Vision. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1974.

Strong, Kathy. “‘Give Credit Where It’s Due’: The Instability of Credit and Falsehood n Elizabeth Inchbald’s Such Things Are.” Unpublished essay, 1999.

Thompson, James Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and the Novel. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1996.

University of North Texas

LUANN VENDEN HERRELL is Assistant Professor of English at Walla Walla College. The essay included in this volume is part of a longer project that uses performance analysis in examining several of Susanna Centlivre’s plays.

Copyright Studies in the Literary Imagination Fall 1999

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