The Critic first premiered at London’s Drury Lane Theatre on October 30, 1779. As its title suggests, the play follows a day in the life of a critic, Mr. Dangle, as he is entreated by members of the theatrical world for his patronage and support; the play’s second and third acts feature Dangle (and another critic, Mr. Sneer) watching the rehearsal of The Spanish Armada, an historical tragedy written by their acquaintance, Mr. Puff. Although Puff’s play is meant to arouse pity and fear—the two required tragic emotions according to classical standards— his play is a laughable hodgepodge of bombastic language and ludicrous events.
By the time of The Critic’s premiere, Richard Brinsley Sheridan had already enjoyed great success as a playwright: his first comedy, The Rivals, had opened at Drury Lane four years earlier and was followed by The School for Scandal (1777), widely regarded as his masterpiece. Sheridan had by this time also purchased an interest in Drury Lane and eventually became its manager; his experiences with actors, playwrights, directors, scenic designers and, of course, critics, all found their way into his play about Dangle, Sneer, and Puff. (Sheridan modeled some of the play’s characters on people with whom he had worked.) The play is notable for its depiction of a playwright unable to withstand any criticism, an unscrupulous writer of advertisements, and its thorough parody of theatrical conventions. Though some may feel that mocking a bad play is easier than composing a good one, many readers and viewers find The Critic an hilarious examination of an aesthetically terrible tragedy.