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Analysis of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Plays

Richard Brinsley Sheridan (30 October 1751 – 7 July 1816) was the best playwright of eighteenth century England, a time of great actors rather than great playwrights. Judged on theatrical rather than strictly literary merit, Sheridan also ranks with the best English writers of comedy: William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, William Congreve, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw. Until the era of Wilde and Shaw, only Shakespeare’s plays had held the stage better than Sheridan’s.

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Of Sheridan’s plays, The School for Scandal, a comedy of manners, is universally acclaimed as his masterpiece. Also applauded are The Rivals, another comedy of manners; The Duenna, a comic opera; and The Critic, a burlesque. The two comedies of manners have fared better over time than have the two more specialized works, perhaps because their attractions are apparent even in printed form and perhaps because changes of taste have gone against the specialized works. The topical allusions in The Critic are mostly lost on modern audiences, and The Duenna affronts modern sensibilities with episodes of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. In Sheridan’s own opinion, his best piece of work was act 1 of The Critic.

In recent times, Sheridan’s reputation has waned: His “artificial” comedies lack the high seriousness that the modern age demands. Yet the basis of his appeal remains: effective theater embodied in smooth traditional plots, stock characters fleshed out by Sheridan’s observations of his time, and some of the wittiest dialogue ever written. Sheridan has never been known for the originality of his plots and characters, some of which can be traced through Shakespeare and Jonson all the way back to Roman comedy, but—like Shakespeare and Jonson—he had the assimilative genius to transform the old into something lively and new. Revolving around a trickery motif, chronicling the age-old battles of the sexes or the generations, culminating in a marriage or marriages, his plots still entertain with their well-paced intrigues and discoveries. Onto the old stocks he grafted such memorable characters as Mrs. Malaprop, Joseph Surface, Lady Teazle, and Sir Fretful Plagiary. One reason why Sheridan does not seem dated is his language, a distinctly modern prose idiom, supple, utilitarian, informal, expressing the hopeful coherence of the early modern era.

Sheridan’s achievement is even more impressive when one considers that he wrote all of his plays (except for the adaptation of Pizarro) during a period of five years when he was in his mid-twenties and during a period of severe restrictions on the theater. The upper- and upper-middle-class establishment controlled the theater with an iron grip through limitations on the number of theaters, official censorship, and the unofficial censorship of its tastes. No play could be presented that did not satisfy the political and social assumptions of the ruling classes. It is remarkable that, under these restrictions, Sheridan could get away with saying as much as he did.

“Poor Sherry,” said the prince of Wales, a line echoed by other noble contemporaries of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and even by Sheridan’s admirer Lord Byron. Unhappily, the verdict of the prince of Wales and his crowd still represents the official response to Sheridan, coloring understanding of his plays with an argumentum ad hominem. This official line runs something as follows: “Poor Sherry was motivated by overwhelming vanity and self-interest. That is why he entered the theater and why he left the theater to enter politics. A poor Irish actor’s son, he always wanted to hobnob with the rich and powerful, to be part of le beau monde, whose attitudes he reflects in his plays. There was something calculating, something insincere and insubstantial, about the fellow. Same thing about his plays.” This is the establishment Sheridan safely tucked away in the Poets’ Corner.

There is also, however, an antiestablishment Sheridan—the penniless child suffering at Harrow, the spirited young man dueling for his girl, the member of Parliament sympathizing with the American and French revolutions, whose servants in his plays are smarter than their masters. True, Sheridan’s leading characters are usually gentry or better, and Sheridan usually exhibits the doings of le beau monde. In addition, he does not issue a clarion call for revolution and the institution of a republic. He was working within the restrictions of accepted traditions, theatrical tastes, and official censorship. Within those restrictions, however, he exhibited le beau monde as vain, moneygrabbing, and scandalmongering. As a playwright, Sheridan enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing the fashionable world pay and applaud to see itself pilloried.

Sheridan lived in the midst of what one of his characters calls “a luxurious and dissipated age,” but the people enjoying the luxuries and dissipations were standing on the heads of a mass of poor people. He could not attack the upper classes directly, even though they offered big targets for satire. In particular, their illusions about themselves, their pretensions of nobility and gentility, made them vulnerable. Sheridan knew a whoring society when he saw one, and he satirized its illusions and pretensions relentlessly.

Sheridan’s satire is milder in tone, however, than that of cynical Restoration comedy or the savage attacks Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift could deliver. The tone of Restoration comedy harks back to the dark, stinging satire of Ben Jonson, who presented the world as little better than a zoo. Such satire incorporates the conservative vision of the Great Chain of Being, wherein human nature is permanently flawed, half angel, half animal. The animal side must be cynically accepted or flogged into good behavior by Church, State, and satirists. Sheridan’s satire is more optimistic, softened by the influence of the sentimental mode that grew up in the eighteenth century as the main competitor of the satiric mode, especially in the novel and drama.

Originating in Nonconformist religious thought and maturing in Romanticism, sentimentalism rested on the revolutionary doctrine that human nature is essentially good. Stressing empathy and the humane emotions, sentimentalism was susceptible to hypocrisy. It also had a devastating effect on drama: Tragedy turned into melodrama, and comedy turned to provoking sympathetic tears. The two most notorious examples of sentimental literature, Henry Mackenzie’s novel The Man of Feeling and Richard Cumberland’s play The West Indian both came out in 1771, just before Sheridan began writing. Like his fellow countryman Oliver Goldsmith, Sheridan accepted the underlying doctrine of sentimentalism but reacted against its excesses. Not unnaturally, Goldsmith and Sheridan thought comedy ought to provoke laughter.

To produce “laughing comedy,” Sheridan returned to the witty, satiric comedy of manners of the Restoration, but without the Restoration cynicism and sexual license. Whereas the Restoration offered refinement and style as a substitute for goodness, Sheridan still believed in its possibilities. The result is a warmly human balance similar to that in Henry Fielding’s novels. As William Hazlitt said of The School for Scandal, “it professes a faith in the natural goodness, as well as habitual depravity, of human nature.” Human frailties are laughed at and, if acknowledged, usually forgiven. Among prominent failings is hypocrisy, and anyone too good is suspect. Most of all, empathy has become a sense of participation—the author’s and the audience’s—in the vices and follies of humankind. This laugh of recognition is perhaps Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s greatest gift to “high seriousness.”

The Rivals

Sheridan’s first play, The Rivals, reflects his own experiences—his life in Bath, his elopement with Elizabeth Linley, his duels—but it is not strictly autobiographical. Nor was it only a succès de scandale, although being the talk of the town probably helped Sheridan at the time. Rather than seeing parallels to Sheridan’s life in The Rivals, modern audiences are more likely to notice parallels to Shakespeare’s plays, for Sheridan drew unashamedly not only on his own experiences but also on his predecessors’ work. These two seams in the play reveal Sheridan’s apprentice patchings, but what is amazing is that he sewed them all up so well. When the play failed in its first performance, Sheridan revised it within a few days and turned The Rivals into one of the great English comedies of manners.

Set in the fashionable resort town of Bath, The Rivals concerns the efforts of Captain Jack Absolute, “son and heir to Sir Anthony Absolute, a baronet of three thousand a year,” to win the hand of Miss Lydia Languish, an heiress who “could pay the national debt.” Miss Languish, however, entertains romantic notions of marrying only for love: She is determined to wed a penniless suitor who will elope and live with her in blissful poverty. To humor her fantasies, Captain Absolute pretends to be Beverley, “a halfpay ensign.” His wooing is further complicated by the opposition of Mrs. Malaprop, Lydia’s battle-ax guardian aunt; and by two rivals, bumbling country squire Bob Acres and duelist Sir Lucius O’Trigger (whose love letters are actually being delivered to Mrs. Malaprop by the maid, Lucy). The final complication is the appearance of Sir Anthony with news of an arranged marriage for Jack. After a heated confrontation between father and son, this complication proves to be the resolution of the plot: The young lady intended for Jack Absolute is Miss Lydia Languish. The discovery of Beverley’s true identity alienates Lydia, but she is brought around when Jack’s life is threatened by a duel with the rivals. Averted at the last moment, the threatening duel also persuades Julia Melville to forgive Mr. Faulkland, Jack’s friend, for doubting her love.

Drawn out too long, Mr. Faulkland’s almost psychotic behavior mars the tone of the play, but his fantasies of doubt correspond to Lydia’s fantasies of romance, perhaps pointing up the theme that a good marriage must be rooted in reality: true love and a solid bank account. The other characters provide a display of diverse human nature. Reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the cowardly suitor Acres contrasts with the equally ridiculous O’Trigger, whose name describes his ready disposition. Lydia’s whims and Sir Anthony’s commands typify the ludicrous demands that sweethearts and fathers can make, and Mrs. Malaprop’s comical misuse of words (“a nice derangement of epitaphs”) epitomizes the cavalier misunderstanding of reality that the characters exhibit.

The play is full of notable examples of human illusion—O’Trigger’s “honor,” Sir Anthony’s parental authority, Bob Acres’s “polishing” (that is, new clothes, hairdo, dancing lessons, and swearing), Mrs. Malaprop’s vanity, Faulkland’s doubts, and Lydia’s romance. Their illusions make them easy marks for one another and for the streetwise servants. To manipulate them, one simply plays up to their fantasies. For example, Jack is “Beverley” to Lydia, a dutiful son to Sir Anthony, and a flatterer to Mrs. Malaprop. All the characters with illusions are worthy of study, but perhaps the most important are Mrs. Malaprop, Faulkland, and Lydia.

On the periphery of the action, Mrs. Malaprop is symbolically at the play’s center. She provides a simplified example of how illusion works. Her funny misuse of words, symbols of reality, epitomizes the break with reality. She thinks her big words make her, as O’Trigger says, “a great mistress of the language,” “the queen of the dictionary,” or, as Jack says, a leader in “intellectual accomplishments, elegant manners, and unaffected learning.” The reality is summed up in Jack’s intercepted letter: “I am told that the same ridiculous vanity, which makes her dress up her coarse features, and deck her dull chat with hard words which she don’t understand, does also lay her open to the grossest deceptions from flattery and pretended admiration.” To Sir Lucius O’Trigger, she is “Delia,” a female counterpart of romantic Beverley. When Sir Lucius sees the real thing, however, he turns her down—as do Jack and Acres. Clinging to her illusions, Mrs. Malaprop stomps off the stage, huffing that “men are all barbarians.”

The illusions of Faulkland and Lydia are essentially overreactions of the young to the sterile social order represented by Mrs. Malaprop and the older generation: Their illusions are examples of sentimentalism, the gross exaggeration of feeling that Goldsmith and Sheridan deplored. Faulkland is a man of sensibility, but unfortunately, as he notes, love “urges sensibility to madness.” His “too exquisite nicety” leads him constantly to question and torture Julia, a “mild and affectionate spirit” any man would be lucky to find. The least suggestion can send him into paroxysms of doubt: Jack and even the “looby” Acres are able to play on his sensibility at will. He is, as he finally admits, a “fool.” Lydia’s overreaction contrasts with that of Faulkland, but she would agree with him that “when Love receives such countenance from Prudence, nice minds will be suspicious of its birth.” Fed by sentimental novels, her overheated mind throws prudence to the wind. Jack easily deceives her by playing her romantic games and speaking the language of the novels she has read. Thinking to outwit and shock her relatives, she is shocked to discover herself “the only dupe at last.” The young lady who had hoped for a “sentimental” elopement with all the trimmings must settle for being “a mere Smithfield bargain.” Actually, she gets more than she bargained for: When confronted by the reality of a truly romantic situation—men dueling to the death over her—she comes to her senses.

The illusions of all these characters in The Rivals say something about the society in which they live. First, being born in the upper strata apparently encourages illusions about oneself: Only wealth and privilege could create a Mrs. Malaprop. Second, to sustain those illusions apparently requires a lot of lying and deceiving. Third, with all the lying and deceiving, it becomes difficult to find anything genuine—hence the hard search of Faulkland and Lydia for true love. That Sheridan himself sought the genuine is suggested by his repeated use throughout the play of the word “sincerity,” apparently a quality he found in short supply in eighteenth century England.

The Duenna

Musically untalented, Sheridan wrote the comic opera The Duenna in collaboration with his father-in-law and brother-in-law (both named Thomas Linley) and probably with the help of his wife. Despite this piecemeal method of composition, the completed opera was an immense success. In particular, the opera is a testimony to Sheridan’s patchwork skill and to the talented Linleys, whose tunes were hummed about London streets. Typically, however, the words of the songs are bland, and so are the opera’s stock characters, some of whom are almost indistinguishable from one another. Of all Sheridan’s works, The Duenna most requires performance, since it depends so much on acting, spectacle, and music (twenty-seven songs in all).

Set in Seville, The Duenna features not one but two pairs of lovers thwarted by tyrannical parents. Donna Louisa’s father has arranged an unsuitable match for her, notwithstanding her love for Don Antonio, and Donna Clara’s father and stepmother are forcing her into a convent, even though she is loved by Don Ferdinand. Both young ladies run off and, assisted by bribed nuns and priests (the latter also drunk), marry their lovers in a convent. Louisa tricks her father, Don Jerome, with the help of her governess, old Margaret the Duenna. When Don Jerome vows “never to see or speak to” Louisa until she marries his choice, Louisa and the Duenna trade places, and the penniless old Duenna marries Louisa’s intended, IsaacMendoza, a rich Jew who has never seen Louisa and who thinks he is adding to his coffers.

Like most of Sheridan’s works, The Duenna offers sparkling intrigue and dialogue. Here again, a female servant masterminds the plotting, but to a great extent the fathers and the villain outsmart themselves. The scheming Mendoza, recently converted to Christianity and hence standing “like the blank leaves between the Old and New Testament,” is well known for being “the dupe of his own art.” Of the characters, only the ugly Duenna, the obnoxious Mendoza, and the drunken priest Father Paul stand forth with any distinction, and they are stereotypes.

The broad strokes of the stock characters and action do provide simplified versions of some of Sheridan’s themes. For example, the hypocritical nuns and priests show, as Louisa notes, that “in religion, as in friendship, they who profess most are ever the least sincere”—a forewarning of Joseph Surface in The School for Scandal. Louisa herself seems of two minds on the relationship of love and wealth. Early in the opera, she sings that she loves Don Antonio “for himself alone,” since he has no wealth. Later in the play, faced with the prospect of being disinherited, she changes her tune: “There is a chilling air around poverty that often kills affection that was not nursed in it. If we would make love our household god we had best secure him a comfortable roof.”

At least Louisa’s aims are different from her father’s, who sets forth his marriage as a proper example: “I married her for her fortune, and she took me in obedience to her father, and a very happy couple we were. We never expected any love from one another, and so we were never disappointed.” Such cold-blooded reasoning is a reminder of how often, in Sheridan’s plays, the older and younger generations are at odds on the subject of marriage. The two views presuppose radically different ideas not only of marriage but also of personality and society: The vital difference is between valuing someone “for her fortune” and “for himself alone.” Thus, in Sheridan’s plays, the struggle within the family is a microcosm of the larger struggle between the old and new order in society. There is no doubt about which side Sheridan took, as his own father opposed his marriage to Elizabeth Ann Linley (old Thomas had the absurd notion that the Sheridans were too good for “musicians”).

Another theme in The Duenna revolves around the idea of “seeing.” There are a number of observations on how subjective states, especially love, affect one’s seeing, especially of the beloved. The merging of subject and object here, encouraged perhaps by eighteenth century empathy, foreshadows Romantic “seeing,” wherein what is observed takes its coloring from the imagination. The Duenna also contains a number of warnings about such “seeing”: Don Jerome gets so angry that he does not recognize his daughter posing as the veiled Duenna, and Don Ferdinand gets so jealous he does not recognize his beloved dressed as a nun. In the opera’s most philosophical song, however, Don Jerome gets the final word on “seeing”:

Truth, they say, lies in a well,
Why, I vow I ne’er could see;
Let the water-drinkers tell,
There it always lay for me;
For when sparkling wine went round,
Never saw I falsehood’s mask;
But still honest truth I found
In the bottom of each flask.

He seems to say that people need their illusions, or at least their opiates.

Possibly Don Jerome was speaking for Sheridan, since the opium of entertainment is precisely what Sheridan provided in The Duenna. The first English comic opera to use specially composed music, The Duenna was a forerunner of the operettas by W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan and the Broadway musical, which by now have institutionalized sentimental “seeing.”

The School for Scandal

If The Rivals shows the fashionable world on vacation, The School for Scandal shows it back home in London, working hard to “murder characters” and “kill time.” If the duelist O’Trigger is deadly, he is nothing to this school of piranhas, which renders “a character dead at every word.” The difference between vacation and work is precisely the difference in tone, theme, and achievement between The Rivals and The School for Scandal. No seams or weaknesses obtrude in The School for Scandal, the title of which sums up the play’s prevailing imagery and unity.

The play begins with a marvelous expository device: The “scandalous college” is in session, headed by its “president,” Lady Sneerwell. As the pupils gather—Snake, Joseph Surface, Mrs. Candour, Crabtree, Sir Benjamin Backbite—the audience hears juicy bits of scandal about the president and each pupil. The key information is that Sir Peter Teazle has a pack of trouble. The Surface brothers, to whom Sir Peter is “a kind of guardian,” are competing for Maria, Sir Peter’s rich ward. Joseph, the older brother, is a scheming knave who, with “the assistance of his sentiment and hypocrisy,” passes for a paragon of virtue, while Charles is “the most dissipated and extravagant young fellow in the kingdom.” Joseph enjoys the favor of Sir Peter, and Charles, that of Maria. During a recess, Sir Peter is also shown having fits with his young wife. Country-bred Lady Teazle has blossomed into a London woman of fashion, even joining Lady Sneerwell’s group and carrying on a flirtation with Joseph. The scandalmongers, however, have linked her to Charles.

The Surfaces are unmasked when Sir Oliver Surface, a rich uncle, returns from many years in the East Indies and puts the brothers to the test. Posing as a moneylender, Sir Oliver observes Charles’s dissipation, even purchases the family portraits from him—but forgives the young man when Charles will not part with the portrait of dear Uncle Oliver. Charles also sends some of the money to old Stanley, a poor relation in distress, but when Sir Oliver, posing as Stanley, applies to Joseph, he is given the brush-off. In a famous scene, Joseph is also discovered hiding Lady Teazle behind a screen and Sir Peter Teazle in a closet, where each has heard an earful. The screen symbolizes Joseph’s character and the nature of the society in which he flourishes, and the closet suggests where Sir Peter has been hiding. The truth comes out, however—confirmed by the confessions of Snake—and the people have to live with it. Now the centerpiece of a raging scandal, stodgy Sir Peter mellows; Lady Teazle and Charles will reform; Joseph’s punishment is being “known to the world”; and Snake hopes his good deeds will not spoil his professional reputation. Meanwhile, the audience, schooled by a master, has been treated to a delightful exposition of illusion and reality in society.

Sheridan exposes a shallow society in which appearances rule: It is not what you are but what you appear to be that counts; reputation is all. The main proponent of this philosophy—still not entirely discredited even in modern society—is the well-spoken Joseph Surface, whose hypocrisy illustrates another danger inherent in sentimentalism. Actually, the talented Joseph represents both types prominent in his society: the hypocrite, who manipulates appearances to enhance his own reputation, and the scandalmonger, who manipulates appearances to tear down the reputations of others (as Joseph shows, the two callings go together). Behind facades of gentility, both types feel free to indulge their basest instincts. For example, the motives acknowledged by scandalmongers include bitterness over being slandered oneself, personal spite, impersonal malice, fun, and following the fashion, though the dullness of their lives is also a factor. They have nothing better to do than sit around and gossip about other people’s lives, with perhaps a touch of envy. As Lady Teazle makes clear, these “are all people of rank and fortune.” They represent a society rotten at the core.

Luckily, this decadent society includes a saving remnant that is not fooled by appearances. There is the faithful old servant Rowley, who believes in the goodness of a reprobate’s heart. There is crusty Sir Oliver, who is sickened by scraps of morality and who believes that a man is not sincere if he has not made any enemies. There is Lady Teazle, whose personal development through the play marks the course of the plot. At first she is drawn to the world of appearances, of high fashion and rich furnishings, of the circle of scandalmongers and Joseph. Her turning point comes when Joseph suggests that she go to bed with him, literally and figuratively. She returns to her country wisdom and rejects him. When the screen is pulled down and she is caught in Joseph’s quarters, she refuses to second his story and dubs him “Good Mr. Hypocrite.” Thereafter, she withdraws from the “scandalous college” and turns over a new leaf.

Finally, there is Charles, the reprobate himself. His regeneration is harder to believe than Lady Teazle’s, but Sheridan shrewdly keeps him offstage until halfway through the play, by which time he contrasts favorably with Joseph and the scandalmongers. Although dissolute and bankrupt, Charles has two important qualities that Joseph lacks: benevolence and honesty. Unlike the hypocritical Joseph Surface, Charles Surface is exactly what he appears to be. His loss of reputation has, in fact, freed him to be himself, and his experience has prepared him to see himself and others clearly. He is given the two main symbolic gestures in the play: pulling down the screen and selling off the family portraits. Symbolically, he attacks both the pretensions of his society and their hereditary basis. Charles’s auction of the family portraits now seems merely funny, but the mockery involved in “knocking down” one’s ancestors “with their own pedigree” was probably a shock to the eighteenth century system, even though Sheridan softened the revolutionary gesture by keeping it in the family.

The Critic

In the tradition of The Rehearsal (pr. 1671) by George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Thumb: A Tragedy (pr. 1730), Sheridan’s The Critic is a burlesque, a type of comedy especially popular in eighteenth century England. The Critic provides an engaging and informative survey of the theatrical world in Sheridan’s time. Despite its many topical references, the play also has potential for revival in the contemporary age of self-conscious art, in which burlesque is a staple of television comedy. The topical references, in fact, would reverberate with a certain irony, since it appears from The Critic that things have not changed all that much in the theater.

Act 1 opens on a breakfast scene, where the critic Mr. Dangle holds court, entertaining all sorts of solicitations. This day there appear Mr. Sneer, another critic; Sir Fretful Plagiary, a vain playwright (based on Richard Cumberland); Mr. Puff, an advertising writer who has authored a play; and Signor Pasticcio Ritornello and a chorus of Italian girls come for audition (the scene probably gives some insight into the Sheridan house hold). Repartee, malice, and dissimulation fly around the table, in the manner of theatrical shoptalk, with Mrs. Dangle occasionally clearing the air in straightforward language.

In the other two acts, Dangle and Sneer attend a rehearsal of Puff’s play, a wretched tragedy entitled The Spanish Armada. Again there is much opportunity for satire. Puff has given the actors permission “to cut out or omit whatever they found heavy or unnecessary to the plot”; thus, the play is very brief. Brief as it is, it is a smashing parody of the kind of tragedy written in Sheridan’s time, full of clumsy exposition, bombastic verse, stilted characters, and improbable, sensational events, ending with a triumphant sea battle and a procession of all the English rivers accompanied by George Frederick Handel’s water music and a chorus.

The faked feelings of the actors in the play-within-the-play are reminders that theater is the essence of illusion, and the framing action of The Critic is a reminder of how theater people are often caught up in the illusion. To Mr. Dangle, the theater is more important than the real world: When he reads “the news,” it is the theatrical news rather than the news of the impending French invasion. He is such a stargazer because he considers himself a moving force in the theatrical world, as he tells Mrs. Dangle: “You will not easily persuade me that there is no credit or importance in being at the head of a band of critics, who take on them to decide for the whole town, whose opinion and patronage all writers solicit, and whose recommendation no manager dares refuse!” Representing a commonsense point of view, Mrs. Dangle is a counterweight to the vanity that is such an occupational hazard for theatrical (and literary) people. At regular intervals, she tells Mr. Dangle that he is ridiculous: “Why should you affect the character of a critic?” and “Both managers and authors of the least merit laugh at your pretensions. The Public is their Critic.”

The real critic in the play is the play itself, as the double meaning in the title indicates. Taking a hard look at the eighteenth century theater, The Critic first notes the ideal: “the stage is ‘the mirror of Nature.’” The statement is a reminder of how theatrical illusion, and art in general, can paradoxically arrive at the truth. The theater (and art), however, can also go astray, as it did in Sheridan’s time. First there is comedy, which strayed into two sorts: “sentimental” comedy, which contains “nothing ridiculous in it from the beginning to the end,” and “moral” comedy, which treats “the greater vices and blacker crimes of humanity.” To her discredit, Mrs. Dangle prefers the former sort, and Mr. Sneer defends the latter: “The theatre, in proper hands, might certainly be made the school of morality; but now, I am sorry to say it, people seem to go there principally for their entertainment.” As for what was happening to tragedy, Mr. Puff’s The Spanish Armada is sufficient example. Choosing Mr. Puff to be the featured author was an inspired symbolic stroke: as a master of “puffing” (advertising) who commands the language of “panegyrical superlatives,” the ability to exaggerate or even invent reality (“to insinuate obsequious rivulets into visionary groves”), he truly represents the spirit of the age in the theater.

Sheridan’s remaining plays little enhance his literary reputation, but they do reveal a great deal about his political and social attitudes. The plays are St. Patrick’s Day, a two-act comedy; A Trip to Scarborough, an adaptation of Sir John Vanbrugh’s comedy The Relapse (pr., pb. 1696); and Pizarro, an adaptation of August von Kotzebue’s tragedy Die Spanier in Peru (1794).

Pizarro

Pizarro is an embarrassing reminder of the kind of tragedy which Sheridan parodied in The Critic. Treating the depredations of European invaders against the noble Incas, the play gives evidence of Sheridan’s antipathy to colonial oppression (it echoes his speeches in Parliament against British rule in India) and his ability to satisfy the growing popular taste for romantic melodrama. In its day, Pizarro was a tremendous box-office success.

St. Patrick’s Day

Like Pizarro, St. Patrick’s Day was probably a vehicle for specific actors. The short farce also satisfied the requirements of an afterpiece, a slighter work presented after the main play. Full of scheming and disguising, it dramatizes Lieutenant O’Connor’s winning of Miss Lauretta Credulous over the opposition of her father, Justice Credulous, who hates Irishmen and soldiers. Aside from its lighthearted action, St. Patrick’s Day is notable for its Irish sentiments and its sympathy for the lot of poor soldiers (in Sheridan’s time, often Irishmen).

A Trip to Scarborough

A Trip to Scarborough, a much more substantial work, was adapted from The Relapse, a favorite Restoration comedy. In his adaptation, Sheridan trimmed the plot and cleaned up the sexual innuendo of the original. The adaptation has many features similar to those of Sheridan’s other comedies of manners—in particular, an intrigue centering on assumed identity and rivalry between two brothers for a rich heiress. In the course of the intrigue, the penniless Tom Fashion triumphs over his older brother, Lord Foppington, “an ungrateful narrow-minded coxcomb.” Furthermore, Lord Foppington is roughly handled by the father-in-law, Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, a jovial Yorkshireman whose personality and household (Muddymoat Hall) are in a tradition stretching to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839).

The humbling of a lord in A Trip to Scarborough is another example of the antiestablishment Sheridan, a side that the official pronouncements have preferred not to mention. Yet it is as much a part of Sheridan as his inspired ability to write entertaining comedy. A subversive element in eighteenth century Britain, Sheridan was constantly chipping away at the illusions and pretensions of the old order and interjecting stirrings of the egalitarianism that was sweeping away the old order elsewhere. His attack on primogeniture, at the heart of the old system, is typical:

Lord Foppington: . . . Nature has made some difference ‘twixt me and you.
Tom Fashion: Yes—she made you older.

Something of a transitional figure in British drama, Sheridan looked back to Restoration comedy for his inspiration, but his social attitudes looked forward to George Bernard Shaw. During the long barren stretch of two hundred years between Restoration comedy and Shaw, Sheridan preserved the comic spirit in British drama largely through the force of his talent.

Principal drama
The Rivals, pr., pb. 1775; St. Patrick’s Day: Or, The Scheming Lieutenant, pr. 1775, pb. 1788; The Duenna: Or, The Double Elopement, pr. 1775, pb. 1776 (libretto; music by Thomas Linley the elder and Thomas Linley the younger, and others); A Trip to Scarborough, pr. 1777, pb. 1781 (adaptation of Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse); The School for Scandal, pr. 1777, pb. 1780; The Critic: Or, A Tragedy Rehearsed, pr. 1779, pb. 1781; Pizarro: A Tragedy in Five Acts, pr., pb. 1799 (adaptation of August von Kotzebue’s Die Spanier in Peru); Complete Plays, pb. 1930; Plays, pb. 1956 (L. Gibbs, editor); The School for Scandal and Other Plays, pb. 1998 (Michael Cordner, editor)

Other major works
Poetry: “Clio’s Protest,” 1771; “The Ridotto of Bath,” 1771; A Familiar Epistle to the Author of the Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers, 1774; “Epilogue to The Rivals,” 1775; “Epilogue to Semiramis,” 1776; “Verses to the Memory of Garrick, Spoken as a Monody,” 1779; “Epilogue to The Fatal Falsehood,” 1779; “Prologue to Pizarro,” 1799; “Lines by a Lady of Fashion,” 1825.
Nonfiction: Speeches of the Late Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Several Corrected by Himself), 1816 (5 volumes); The Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1966 (3 volumes; C. J. L. Price, editor).
Miscellaneous: The Plays and Poems of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1928, 1962 (3 volumes; R. Compton Rhodes, editor).

Bibliography
Ayling, Stanley. A Portrait of Sheridan. London: Constable, 1985.
Davision, Peter, ed. Sheridan: Comedies. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1986.
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Worth, Katharine. Sheridan and Goldsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

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Categories: Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Theatre Studies

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