Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
In eighteenth century Great Britain, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s lot was pretty much cast when he was born into a genteelly poor Irish theatrical family. All of these social disadvantages, however, worked to his advantage in the theater. Being Irish has given numerous British writers of comedy special insight into the vices and follies of their fellow Britons, as well as the rhetorical skills to air their observations. Being in a theatrical family was obviously an advantage for the aspiring playwright. Finally, being genteelly poor sparked his ambitions with both positive and negative charges. Combined, these factors made Sheridan acutely aware of the disparity between his personal worth and his actual place in society—always a great aid to developing a sense of comic incongruity.
Although lacking wealth and social position, Sheridan’s family was both well educated and talented. Both his father and mother were children of scholarly clergymen. On being graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, Sheridan’s father, Thomas, already a playwright, entered the theater as an actor and soon advanced to manager. Sheridan’s mother, the former Frances Chamberlaine, wrote novels and plays. After initial prosperity, the family of six (Richard was the third son) ran into hard times when a minor political indiscretion—reminiscent of an indiscreet sermon that ruined his own father—forced Thomas out of his position. He suppressed some antigovernment lines in a play, thus antagonizing the Irish public. After two years of acting in London, Thomas tried to reestablish himself in Dublin, but without success. Taking his family with him, he returned to England, where, moving from place to place, he pursued an impecunious existence as actor, author, editor, lecturer on elocution, and projector of ambitious undertakings.
After attending Sam Whyte’s Seminary for the Instruction of Youth in Dublin, Richard was entered into Harrow School, despite the family’s precarious financial situation. How precarious that situation was became evident when, to escape creditors, the rest of the family fled to France, where they lived for...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Between 1775 and 1779, Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote five plays, two of which remain popular theater pieces. Indeed, among the many comic plays of the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, The Rivals and The School for Scandal are the only ones still being produced, except for Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773). Having achieved such successes while still in his twenties, Sheridan forsook a promising career as playwright and turned to other pursuits: theater management and politics.
Sheridan’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Sheridan, had distinguished himself in the classics at Trinity College in Dublin, taken holy orders, and become an educational reformer as head of a school in Dublin. The future playwright’s father, also named Thomas Sheridan, took his M.A. at Trinity College. Though prepared for a clerical career, he preferred the stage, becoming manager of Dublin’s Smock-Alley Theatre and the country’s leading actor. Sheridan’s mother, Frances, not only was the author of three popular romantic novels but also wrote three comic plays, two of which were produced at London’s Drury Lane.
Frances Sheridan was her younger son’s tutor until 1757, when he was enrolled in Samuel Whyte’s grammar school; however, a year later the Sheridans moved to England. In 1762 Richard was sent to Harrow, where he remained until about 1768, gaining a reputation for pranks, indolence, and carelessness but at the same time enjoying the esteem of his schoolfellows and the admiring attention of his masters. He was, in fact, unhappy there and felt deserted by his parents, who had moved to France, where his mother died in 1766.
When he was seventeen, Sheridan left Harrow for London, where his father again was living. For a time he was tutored by a physician, the owner of a fencing and riding school, and his father. In 1770 Thomas Sheridan again moved his family, this time to Bath. Though his father’s entertainment and educational ventures were unsuccessful, the move was propitious for young Sheridan, for in Bath he met seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Ann Linley, a celebrated soprano known for her beauty. So she could escape an unwanted admirer, a family friend named Thomas Matthews, she and Sheridan eloped to France in March, 1772. There they went through a marriage ceremony but lived apart until they returned to England two months later, when Sheridan faced Matthews in two duels. Seriously wounded in the second encounter, Sheridan had a long recuperation, following which, on April 6, 1773, he entered the Middle Temple, London. A week later, against their...
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Was Richard Brinsley Sheridan a truly “sentimental” author? Sheridan’s heyday as a playwright (1775–1779) came amid changing sensibilities in both English culture and theater. The bawdy, rambunctious entertainment of the Restoration gave way to far more conservative drama in the eighteenth century. As a result, plays became concerned with morality and earned the title “sentimental comedies” because of the excessive emotion used to achieve moral lessons. Sheridan’s work arrived late in the sentimental period, when plays were shifting toward social satire. Although the bad are punished and the good rewarded in his work, the characters also take sharp jabs at the society in which Sheridan wrote his witty plays.
- Sheridan was practically born into the theater. His father, Thomas, was an actor-manager at the Theatre Royal in Dublin.
- Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals almost did not become the classic it is regarded as today. Its first performance was disastrous, but when one of the key roles was recast, the play was a success.
- Like his father, Sheridan was also interested in the business aspect of theater (and the money that came with it). In addition to his playwriting, Sheridan was a shareholder in the Drury Lane Theatre.
- Another of Sheridan’s famous plays, The Critic, was not entirely original. It is based on The Rehearsal, a Restoration-era piece.
- Sheridan was highly active in politics. On the heels of his most famous plays, Sheridan served in Parliament for nearly three decades.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin, Ireland, and was christened on November 4, 1751. His father was an actor and author, a path that Sheridan himself would choose for his vocation. He was educated at Harrow School in London, England. After the family moved to Bath in 1770, Sheridan met and eloped with a young singer, Eliza Linley. Their marriage contract was invalid due to a lack of parental consent, however. Sheridan fought two duels on her behalf, nearly dying in the second, and finally, after three years, the couple's families withdrew their opposition and the pair were legally married in 1773.
Sheridan had begun to study the law the year before, and, in 1773, he entered as a barrister in the Middle Temple. When the law failed to provide him with adequate financial means, Sheridan turned his attention to writing drama. His first play, The Rivals, was completed in a few weeks and opened in 1775 at the Covent Garden Theatre. The production closed the same day; Sheridan revised the work, shortening the structure and recasting his actors. The play reopened to great success only ten days later. A few months later, his second work, St. Patrick's Day, opened. Sheridan next collaborated on an operatic play, The Duenna, with his father-in-law. Both of these works were popular with audiences.
After writing and producing three successful plays in 1775, Sheridan and some partners bought the Drury Lane Theatre in 1776, and he became its manager. In 1777, his play A Trip to Scarborough was presented at the Drury Lane, and, three months later, School For Scandal became his most popular play. In 1779, Sheridan became the sole owner of the theatre, and his last play for another twenty years, The Critic, opened to the same success as his earlier works.
Despite critical and popular success, Sheridan had accumulated a huge amount of debt. On the surface, he appeared a success. By his late twenties, he was the owner of the most famous theatre in England and was a well-known, successful playwright, yet his finances were in ruins.
In 1780, Sheridan was elected to Parliament. By all reports, Sheridan was a brilliant orator, but he never achieved the kind of success he desired, due in part to British prejudices against his Irish birth. Sheridan's wife died in 1792; she had left him years earlier because of his drinking and infidelity. The same year, the Drury Lane Theatre was condemned and torn down. Sheridan went even further into debt but managed to rebuild the theatre. Three years after his wife's death, he married Hester Jane Ogle, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the Dean of Winchester. Sheridan wrote his last play, Pizarro, in 1799. The income from this last successful production only slightly reduced his mountain of debt. Finally, Sheridan was ousted from Drury Lane's management due to his mishandling of funds. When he lost his Parliament seat, he also lost protection against arrest for his debts. Sheridan was imprisoned several times for failure to pay his debts; his furniture was sold, and he was living in filth at the tune of his death in 1816. Although he died in financial ruin and ignominy, the work that he produced for the stage in the years 1773-1779 earned Sheridan a place among the great writers of drama.