“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, money-grabbing, 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.”
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 half-pay 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 convinces 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.
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...
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