Richard Brinsley Sheridan
BORN: 1751, Dublin, Ireland
DIED: 1816, London, England
The Rivals (1775)
The School for Scandal (1777)
The Critic (1779)
Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Sheridan, Richard Brinsley, photograph. The Library of Congress.
Irish author Richard Brinsley Sheridan was both a dramatist and a statesman. He is best known for his contribution to the revival of the English Restoration comedy of manners, which depicts the amorous intrigues of wealthy society. His most popular comedies, The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777), display his talent for sparkling dialogue and farce. Like other writers of the genre, Sheridan satirized society, though his dramas reflect gentle morality and sentimentality.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born into Literary Family. Sheridan was born in October of 1751 in Dublin, Ireland, the son of a prominent actor and a noted author. His mother, Frances Chamberlaine Sheridan, wrote one fairly successful play and one respected novel. She died while he was an adolescent. His father, Thomas Sheridan, was a playwright, actor, theater manager, orator, and also a scholar of English elocution who published a dictionary. Sheridan’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Sheridan, spent many intimate years with Irish author Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels (1726).
Drama and Marriage. When Sheridan was eight, the family moved to London, where he attended the prestigious boarding school, the Harrow School. Though he disliked school, he proved to be an excellent student and began writing poetry at an early age. After composing dramatic sketches with friends, Sheridan considered becoming a playwright. His father, however, intended him to study law, and he began an informal program of legal studies after leaving the Harrow School in 1768.
When the family moved to Bath in 1770, Sheridan met Elizabeth Linley, an outstanding singer and famed beauty, with whom he eloped three years later. Shortly after their marriage, Sheridan abandoned his legal studies in order to devote himself to writing. Soon, Sheridan found himself living in London during the 1773-1774 season without an income and with a child on the way. Sheridan would not permit his wife to sing for money, even though she could command as much as fifteen hundred pounds for a series of concerts.
While Sheridan was not yet successful writing dramas, the theater had widespread popularity in this period in Great Britain. Theater appealed to the upper, middle, and even lower classes. Upper gallery seats could be purchased for as little as one shilling, allowing for the poor to attend on occasion. The repertoire performed in this period reflected all genres, including comedies, melodramas, farces, tragedies, and dramas.
First Success as Playwright. Success for Sheridan began with The Rivals in 1775. Initially, the performance of the play failed because of miscasting and the play’s excessive length. Undaunted by the poor reception, Sheridan recast several roles, abbreviated sections of the play, and reopened it ten days later to a unanimously positive response. The success of The Rivals derived from the use of one of comedy’s oldest devices: the satirizing of manners.
The favorable reception of The Rivals led immediately to other opportunities for Sheridan. At Covent Garden on May 2, 1775, his two-act farce St. Patrick’s Day; or, The Scheming Lieutenant appeared and earned for itself a minor place in the afterpiece repertoire. The farce contains many of the elements of The Rivals: idiosyncratic but essentially good-natured characters, scenes of disguise and of revelation, quick, verbal strokes, and a farcical starring role rich in numerous assumed disguises for the principal male actor.
Continued Popularity. In The Duenna, first performed at Covent Garden on November 21, 1775, Sheridan once more rose beyond competence to brilliance. The Duenna played an unprecedented seventy-five nights that first season and was praised by audiences and critics alike.
Sheridan earned a small fortune in this first year and a half of dramatic penmanship and directing. When famed actor and director David Garrick retired as part-owner of the Drury Lane Theatre, Sheridan, in concert with his father-in-law, Thomas Linley Sr., and wealthy physician James Ford, purchased Garrick’s share. In the following two years, Sheridan revived a number of Restoration comedies, and wrote and produced his most successful comedy, The School for Scandal, which debuted on May 8, 1777.
End of Play writing Career. In 1779, Sheridan produced his last successful work, The Critic; or, Tragedy Rehearsed. His last play was Pizarro (1799). A historical drama, Pizarro met with popular acclaim but was soon forgotten. Critics today consider it a disappointing conclusion to Sheridan’s theatrical career.
Political Career. In 1780, Sheridan made a career change. He was elected to the House of Commons, where he excelled as an orator. His speeches are considered brilliant masterpieces of persuasion and verbal command. At the time, Great Britain was facing challenges to its empire and supremacy. The ongoing American Revolution, which did not completely end until 1783, resulted in the loss of many of Britain’s North American colonies. However, Britain soon began settling Australia and New Zealand, adding again to its colonial empire. At home, the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland resulted in the formal creation of the United Kingdom in 1800.
During his time in Parliament, however, Sheridan’s interest in politics kept him from his theatrical endeavors, and his management of Drury Lane became haphazard. In an attempt to beautify the aging theater, he rebuilt the interior, but it burned down shortly thereafter. Left without resources, Sheridan was unable to finance another parliamentary campaign. His last years were spent in poverty and disgrace.
Sheridan died in London on July 7, 1816, in the sixty-fifth year of his life. Though Sheridan expired in poverty, he was mourned widely and was buried at Westminster Abbey, in the Poets’ Corner.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Sheridan's famous contemporaries include:
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784): This English writer was best known for his dictionary and witty aphorisms. His works include A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).
King George III (1738-1820): This controversial king ruled England and Ireland during most of Sheridan's life. George III suffered from mental health issues and oversaw the loss of the American colonies.
William Hazlitt (1778-1830): This British writer and literary critic occasionally supported and praised Sheridan. His books include The Spirit of the Age (1825).
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824): This scandalous British poet and writer was often ostracized from society for his misdeeds, despite his wealth and charm. Among his best-known works was the narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818).
Works in Literary Context
Scandal as Theme. A product of his time, Sheridan’s plays showed the influence of William Shakespeare’s plays (consciously or unconsciously). It is also believed that Sheridan was greatly influenced by his contemporary William Congreve and Sir John Vanbrugh as well as the comedies of the David Garrick era. Sheridan also reacted to the tenor of his times by including in his plays a tolerance of human nature that he believes will support social good rather than individual self-interest. Sheridan’s originality was to dramatize the agents of scandal and slander more vividly than any purely decorative comic wits or would-be wits had been represented since the time of Congreve.
Influence. Plays like The Rivals and The School for Scandal were believed to be principally responsible for an English revival of comedy, though some later scholars disagreed. The School for Scandal in particular affected British playwrights who followed. Through his partial interest in Drury Lane—though he was a distracted manager for much of his tenure—Sheridan was also able to play an influential role in the course of British theater.
Works in Critical Context
Frequently Performed. Sheridan wrote and produced three plays that have been performed more frequently than the works of any other playwright between Shakespeare and Shaw. The Rivals, The School for Scandal, and The Critic entered the performing repertoire immediately upon their first appearance in the 1770s, and one or more of them is still performed every year. Since their debut, both The Rivals and The School for Scandal have been popular with critics and audiences alike. Modern critics have focused on Sheridan’s skilled use of dialogue and manipulation of character in his major dramas.
The Rivals. Tom Moore, Sheridan’s biographer and first systematic critic, wrote, ‘‘The characters of The Rivals... are not such as occur very commonly in the world; and, instead of producing striking effects with natural and obvious materials, which is the great art and difficulty of a painter of human life, [Sheridan] has here overcharged most of his persons with whims and absurdities, for which the circumstances they are engaged in afford but a very disproportionate vent.’’ Subsequent critics have attributed the comedy’s greatness to its exuberant play with language and with language’s power to obfuscate reality, but this language emanates from, as well as serves to form, distinctly drawn, wonderfully absurd characters. One of Sheridan’s recent critics argues persuasively that the twenty-three-year-old playwright, who denied plagiarism in the preface to the first edition of The Rivals, depended heavily upon Shakespeare.
The School for Scandal. Few disputed the artistry of The School for Scandal in its time. It has been presented on stage to paying audiences every year since its premiere. Henry James and George Bernard Shaw, a century after its first appearance, found fault with its sentimentality. But a century after James and Shaw, critics have rediscovered Sheridan’s greatest play and found it worthy of serious attention.
With The School for Scandal, Sheridan answered the expectations many had for his management of Drury Lane after Garrick. There were detractors, including his father, Thomas Sheridan, who remarked: ‘‘Talk about the merit of Sheridan’s comedy, there’s nothing to it. He had but to dip in his own heart and find there the characters both of Joseph and Charles.’’ Most critics welcomed Sheridan’s greatest comedy and hoped the playwright would produce more of them.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Sheridan was adept as using the ''reversal of fortune'' plot line to comic effect. Here are some other works that contain the reversal-of-fortune plot, sometimes known as peripeteia:
Great Expectations (1860-1861), a novel by Charles Dickens. Things change for the poor orphan Pip when he learns of a large fortune coming his way.
The Little Princess (1905), a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A young girl whose father has died in the jungle grows up in poverty, until one day she realizes she is the lost heir to a vast fortune.
Reversal of Fortune (1990), a film by Barbet Schroeder. In this movie based on the true events surrounding husband and wife Claus and Sunny von Bulow, a large fortune is to be gained if a lawyer can wrangle the appeal.
Trading Places (1983), a film directed by John Landis. In this Academy Award-nominated comedy, two wealthy brothers make a bet on whether or not a poor man will be affected by instant wealth.
Responses to Literature
1. List the types of humor in The Rivals and The School for Scandal. Create a presentation of your lists using examples from the plays.
2. In a short essay, analyze Sheridan’s view of love and marriage as revealed in his plays.
3. How did Sheridan’s involvement in the theater community affect his plays? See The Critic in particular. Write an essay about your conclusions.
4. In a group discussion, highlight the different classes in Sheridan’s plays. Which class does he seem to understand and empathize with the most?
5. Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop is responsible for a literary term. Discuss in an essay why audiences find Mrs. Malaprop amusing. Then research malapropism and find your own examples of such usage.
Davidson, Peter, ed. Sheridan: Comedies. London: Macmillan, 1986.
Loftis, John. Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977.
Moore, Thomas. Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, 1825.
Sichel, Walter. Sheridan. London: Constable, 1909.
Auburn, Mark S. ‘‘The Pleasures of Sheridan’s The Rivals: A Critical Study in the Light of Stage History.’’ Modern Philology 72 (February 1975): 256-71.
Durant, Jack D. ‘‘The Moral Focus of The School for Scandal.’’ South Atlantic Bulletin 31 (November 1972): 44-53.
Jackson, J. R. De J. ‘‘The Importance of Witty Dialogue in The School for Scandal.'' Modern Language Notes 76 (November 1961): 601-607.
James, Henry. ‘‘The School for Scandal at the Boston Museum.’’ Atlantic Monthly 34 (December 1874): 754-57.
Jason, Philip K. ‘‘A Twentieth-Century Response to The Critic.’ Theatre Survey 15 (May 1974): 51-58.
Leff, Leonard J. ‘‘The Disguise Motif in Sheridan ’ s The School for Scandal. Educational Theatre Journal 22 (December 1970): 350-60.
Shaw, George Bernard. ‘‘The Second Dating of Sheridan. ’ ’ Saturday Review 81 (1896): 648-50.