THE PROVOKED WIFE: The Life annes of Susannah Cibber by Mary Nash
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THE PROVOKED WIFE: The Life annes of Susannah Cibber

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The Life and Times of. . ."" is an overworked biographer handle, but Mary Nash has earned the right to use it, unquestionably, by parlaying the story of that ""sweet syren,"" Susannah Arne Cibber, into an exuberant, dramatic, unconscionably juicy chronicle of early 18th-century London's theatrical and musical energies. Theatrical--because Susannah, the foremost noble sufferer (Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia, Polly Peachum) of the day, studied with father-in-law Colley Cibber (the Poet Laureate), became entangled in husband Theophilus Cibber's legendary actors' rebellion, feuded with Kitty Clive and Peg Woffington, drew scorn from Dr. Johnson in Irene, and shuttled between the two greatest houses, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, and the two greatest actors, James Quin and David Garrick. Musical--because her brother, Thomas Arne (credited with ""Rule Britannia"" and ""God Save the Queen""), was Handel's only worthy British rival, and because Handel, charmed by her limited but limitlessly expressive contralto and patient with her ignorance of written music, tailored sections of Samson and Messiah for her. At the Messiah premiere in Dublin, the Chancellor of St. Patrick's Cathedral responded to Susannah's rendition of ""He Was Despised"" by rising and shouting: ""Woman, for this all thy sins be forgiven thee!"" By ""sins,"" the Chancellor meant Susannah's renowned adultery--at her husband's greedy instigation, she had begun an affair with wealthy William Sloper, and, when the dalliance deepened and the couple tried to tear free of Theophilus, that scrawny, fawning, hubristic over-actor sued Sloper for alienation of affections, precipitating the scandalous trial whose transcript became a mainstay of Victorian pornography. Nash combines the melodramatic elements--love, lust, murder, and, above all, greed--with her own infectious humor and impeccable, unostentatious scholarship, never cheapening the historical and literary currencies, never allowing the dust of her research to settle on these breathing players. Attention: theater scholars who would fain reach a broader audience--this is how it's done.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1977
Publisher: Little, Brown