Sheridan, Richard Brinsley
Richard Brinsley Sheridan 1751-1816
(Born Thomas Brinsley Sheridan) Irish playwright, librettist, and poet. The following entry presents recent criticism of Sheridan's works. For additional discussion of Sheridan's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 5.
During his brief career as a playwright, Sheridan helped revive the English Restoration comedy of manners, which depicts the amorous intrigues of wealthy society. His best-known comedies, The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777), display Sheridan's talent for sparkling dialogue and farce. Like his Restoration predecessors William Congreve and William Wycherley, Sheridan satirized society, but, unlike them, he softened his humor with gentle morality and sentimentality. While his plays are frequently noted for a lack of incisiveness and psychological depth, they are considered by most commentators to be the work of an outstanding theatrical craftsman. Drawing from earlier dramatic conventions, Sheridan created entertaining and well-wrought comedies that have endured in their popular and critical acclaim.
Sheridan was born in Dublin in 1751. His father was a prominent actor and his mother a writer. The family moved to London when Sheridan was still a boy. There, Sheridan disliked his schooling, but proved to be an excellent student and began writing poetry at an early age. After composing dramatic sketches with friends, he considered becoming a playwright. His father, however, intended him to study law. When the Sheridans moved to Bath in 1770, Richard met Elizabeth Linley, a singer and famed beauty. Though she had many suitors, Linley eloped with Sheridan in 1773. Shortly after their marriage, Sheridan abandoned his legal studies in order to devote himself to writing. The initial performance of his first play, The Rivals, 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. With the success of his opera The Duenna; or, the Double Elopement and the comedy St. Patrick's Day; or, The Scheming Lieutenant in 1775, Sheridan established himself as a prominent dramatist. Meanwhile, Sheridan purchased the Drury Lane Theatre and became its manager. In the next two years, he revived a number of Restoration comedies and wrote and staged his most well-known play, The School for Scandal. By the end of the decade, Sheridan had produced his last successful stage work, The Critic; or, Tragedy Rehearsed (1779). In 1780 Sheridan was elected to the House of Commons. His excellence as an orator was duly noted by his contemporaries; however, Sheridan's interest in politics kept him from his theatrical endeavors and his management of the theater became haphazard. He wrote only one more play, Pizarro—an adaptation of August von Kotzebue's drama Die Spanier in Peru oder Rollas Tod—which appeared in 1799. Somewhat later, in an attempt to beautify the aging theater at Drury Lane, Sheridan had the interior completely rebuilt. The structure burned to the ground shortly thereafter, and left without resources, Sheridan was unable to finance another Parliamentary campaign. Most of Sheridan's last years were spent in poverty and disgrace; however, shortly before his death, Sheridan managed to regain his reputation as a distinguished statesman and dramatist. When he died in 1816, he was mourned widely and was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.
In his comic drama The Rivals Sheridan satirizes manners using humor that is pointed but never cruel. Essentially an ironic play about character, The Rivals presents a number of absurd individuals and then proceeds to ridicule their flaws and idiosyncrasies. Among its range of characters, the play introduces the infamous figure of Mrs. Malaprop, from whose humorously inappropriate word usage the term “malapropism” is derived. Sheridan's libretto for the light opera The Duenna features characters and incidents drawn from Roman New Comedy and ends with a double marriage happily realized despite the opposition of Don Jerome—the play's stodgy father figure. Another of Sheridan's minor works, the farcical St. Patrick's Day; or, The Scheming Lieutenant exists very much in the mode of The Rivals and endeavors to amuse audiences with its affable, if preposterous, characters. The School for Scandal is both the most popular of Sheridan's comedies and the most strongly reminiscent of the Restoration period. This attack on a gossip-loving society demonstrates Sheridan's brilliant display of wit in its sharp indictment of manners that departs considerably from the gentle tone and approach of The Rivals. The story follows a double plot as it portrays the manipulative Lady Sneerwell, the hypocritical Joseph Surface, the naïve socialite Lady Teazle, the irascible Sir Peter Teazle, and the reformed libertine Charles Surface, among many other comic figures. Heavily influenced by the Duke of Buckingham's The Rehearsal, Sheridan's The Critic; or, Tragedy Rehearsed provides a satirical look at the theatrical world and is a burlesque of the vanity of artists and critics.
Although The Rivals and The School for Scandal have been popular since their inception—the former principally for its fine characterization and the latter for its superb use of language and technical refinement—some recent critics have claimed that Sheridan was neither responsible for an English revival of comedy nor particularly innovative. Others have faulted his refusal to develop emotional subtleties in his characters, and have found his dialogue superficially witty, but lacking depth. Some have contended that the deliberate staginess of Sheridan's works detracts from their artistic value. Others have acknowledged that Sheridan chose to exaggerate and vary the traditional comedy of manners in order to heighten the theatricality of his plays and thereby intensify the audience's enjoyment. Contemporary criticism has continued to focus on Sheridan's skilled use of dialogue and manipulation of character in his major dramas, while a number of scholars have also begun to analyze Sheridan's lesser works of drama and poetry, and to study his political career.
The Duenna; or, The Double Elopement (libretto) 1775
The Rivals (play) 1775
St. Patrick's Day; or, The Scheming Lieutenant (play) 1775
The School for Scandal (play) 1777
A Trip to Scarborough [adapter; from the play The Relapse by John Vanbrugh] (play) 1777
The Critic; or, Tragedy Rehearsed (play) 1779
Pizarro [adapter; from the play Die Spanier in Peru oder Rollas Tod by August von Kotzebue] (play) 1799
The Works of the Late Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan (plays) 1821
The Plays and Poems of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (plays and poetry) 1928
The Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (letters) 1966
The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (plays) 1973
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SOURCE: “Poet,” in Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 47-64.
[In the following excerpt, Durant surveys Sheridan's work as a poet.]
Whether penning a sweet love lyric to Eliza, or dashing off a song for performance at the theater, or acknowledging some special occasion, great or small, Sheridan always displayed a bright flair for versifying. Excluding the songs in his major plays, his poetic canon includes at least sixty titles; and these poems embrace an immense variety of forms and subjects and obviously constitute a substantial segment of Sheridan's literary achievement.
I POETIC SATIRE: “THE RIDOTTO OF BATH”
Quite possibly he broke into print as a poet on May 9, 1771, with the publication in The Bath Chronicle of “Hymen and Hirco: A Vision,” a rather bland “Juvenalian” satire attacking Walter Long, the aging Wiltshire squire who for a time was contracted to marry Elizabeth Linley, Sheridan's own future bride. But a poem quite definitely Sheridan's appeared in The Bath Chronicle on October 10, 1771: “The Ridotto of Bath, a Panegyrick, Being an Epistle from Timothy Screw, Under Server to Messrs. Kuhf and Fitzwater, to his brother Henry, Waiter at Almack's.” The little poem satirizes the opening ball at the New Assembly Rooms of Bath—an occasion gloriously celebrated just ten days earlier on September...
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SOURCE: “Sheridan's Grotesques,” in The Theatre Annual, Vol. XXXVIII, 1983, pp. 13-30.
[In the following essay, Durant discusses Sheridan's juxtaposition of the comic and the terrifying in his dramas.]
From the beginning of his career as a writer, Richard Brinsley Sheridan demonstrated a distinct flair for the grotesque. His first published poem, “The Ridotto of Bath” (1771), pictures gaudily dressed people crowding into the new Assembly Rooms at Bath and gorging themselves in a disgustingly comic way. They disfigure themselves with chewing and swallowing; they spill food all over their clothes and trample it messily into the carpeting.1 Another poem of the same year, actually a loose translation from the Greek poetaster Aristaenetus, presents two deformed prudes, one with a hunched back and the other with a single eye, who earn the speaker's contempt by daring to make judgments against his ladylove while suppressing torrid passions of their own. They can pretend to virtue only because they find in “blest Deformity” an “antidote to Love's attack.”2 The effects here, and in “The Ridotto of Bath,” qualify as “grotesque” because they assert “the co-presence of the laughable and something which is incompatible with the laughable.” Displaying a “strong affinity with the physically abnormal,” they achieve “a mixture in some way or other of...
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SOURCE: “‘Absolute Sense’ in Sheridan's The Rivals,” in Ball State University Forum, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 10-19.
[In the following essay, Parker considers Sheridan's balance of wit and sentimentality in The Rivals.]
Sheridan has frequently been accused of trying to revive a moribund dramatic tradition, namely Restoration comedy. In these terms, he becomes a kind of second-hand Congreve, and not a very good one at that. Other critics, pointing to the sentiment in his plays, accuse him of being the very thing he supposedly ridicules, a sentimentalist.1 Neither of these accusations, which in effect try to put Sheridan's comedies snugly into one of two camps, takes into account what is now starting to become a critical commonplace: the Georgian period had its own view of comedy and, in its own way, developed the laughing tradition.2 Sheridan is no exception. At his best, he adapted the conventions of the past to his own comic ends.
Unlike what the Scotchman (in Sheridan's fragment of the same name) calls “Grave Comedy” (804), which strives to inculcate a serious moral, Sheridan's plays reflect folly and seek to mend it. More than that, like the Restoration comedies of the past, his plays deal with artifice, though in Sheridan's case the artifice is the sentimental pose. Comedy for Sheridan has a corrective function, directed not just...
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SOURCE: “Plot, Character, and Comic Language in Sheridan,” in Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan: Change and Continuity in the English and European Dramatic Tradition, edited by A. R. Braunmuller and J. C. Bulman, Associated University Presses, 1986, pp. 274-85.
[In the following essay, Hogan views the plotting and characterization of Sheridan's dramas as in some ways lacking, but acknowledges the brilliance of his comic language in The Rivals, The School for Scandal, and The Critic.]
Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan—these two Irishmen are inevitably considered the preeminent comic talents of the English-speaking theater in the eighteenth century. Indeed, many literary historians have said that from the retirement of Congreve and the death of Farquhar early in the eighteenth century, until the appearance of Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, and W. B. Yeats late in the nineteenth century, there were no dramatists who even approached the quality of Goldsmith and Sheridan.
Like all generalizations, this one is a bit too general. This long period hardly saw the profusion of masterpieces that appeared during the reign of Elizabeth I or of Charles II, and an overwhelming number of the plays produced between 1700 and 1890 now strike us as too full of high fustian and low theatrics, and too evocative of easy tears and brainless belly laughs. Still, John Gay's The...
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SOURCE: “Representation and Experimentation in the Major Comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan,” in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3, Spring, 1992, pp. 309-30.
[In the following essay, Wiesenthal studies Sheridan's concern with modes of artistic representation in The Critic, The School for Scandal, and The Rivals.]
In his 1825 biography of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Thomas Moore pauses briefly to consider a “ludicrous little drama” entitled Ixion, the incomplete product of a juvenile collaboration between the nineteen-year-old Sheridan and a school chum. Insignificant in itself, the fragment, as Moore suggests, is yet “highly curious as an anticipation of The Critic,” for not only is it a burletta written in the form of a rehearsal, but it also features an embryonic precursor of Sheridan's famous Mr. Puff in its main character, a playwright-critic named Simile. “It is amusing,” Moore reflects by way of conclusion, “to observe how long this subject was played with by the current of Sheridan's fancy.”1
More than merely “amusing,” the fragment from Sheridan's juvenilia suggests an early, conscious fascination with the very nature of the dramatic form of representation itself. Perhaps the most manifold of the sister arts, the drama, as a type of “story unfolding through a visible enactment,”2 offered the young...
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SOURCE: “‘Future Retrospection’: Rereading Sheridan's Reviewers,” in Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 47-57.
[In the following essay, Taylor examines early critical reaction to Sheridan's satirical drama The Rivals.]
The withdrawal of The Rivals after a disastrous opening performance at Covent Garden on 17 January 1775 is a well-established part of theatrical lore: a combination of sloppy acting and miscasting doomed the initial staging, and eleven days and some quick rewriting and recasting later, the play was successfully remounted, and it held the stage for fifteen nights. Since then it has become a mainstay of theatrical repertories, one of a handful of works representing the sprawling and diverse field of eighteenth-century theatre.
The responses of London newspaper critics to the first production suggest another possible reason for the initial failure of The Rivals: Sheridan had written a self-consciously novel play, one that set tradition and contemporaneity in conflict and satirized both. This theme is delightfully expressed by Mrs Malaprop in her muddled announcement: ‘our retrospection will now be all to the future’ (IV. ii. 136-7). Theatrical and social convention run up against the romantic sentimentalism in vogue and the patriarchal challenges of the novel and its readers. To some...
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SOURCE: “The Political Career of Richard Brinsley Sheridan,” in Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 131-50.
[In the following essay, Clayton recounts Sheridan's actions and reputation as a Whig politician and a member of Parliament.]
When Thomas Moore was preparing his biography of Sheridan he was told by Lord Thanet that Sheridan never liked any allusion to his being a dramatic writer.1 Outstanding success as a playwright eased, and arguably enabled, Sheridan's introduction to the society of the Westminster political world, but his theatrical work, both as writer and manager, was a potent reminder that Sheridan had to work for a living and did not spring from a background of landed wealth and aristocratic leisure. This background remained the most powerful qualification for political leadership amongst the Whig élite—far more powerful than the recommendation of talent by itself. Charles James Fox could offer both talent and aristocratic pedigree, and in that fact lies the single most important explanation of why Fox could lead the Whigs, in spite of his manifest lack of judgement on occasion, and why Sheridan could never be seen as a legitimate Whig leader. Not only did allusions to Sheridan's theatrical background carry a clear message of his status as a parvenu on the political stage, but association with the theatre...
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SOURCE: “Trying Sheridan's Pizarro,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 38, Nos. 3-4, Fall-Winter, 1996, pp. 359-78.
[In the following essay, Carlson analyzes the dynamics of language, colonial oppression, and filial responsibility in Sheridan's adapted play Pizarro.]
The most popular play of the 1790s in London and the second most popular play of the entire eighteenth century is Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Pizarro, adapted from the German of August von Kotzebue. Featuring an all-star cast of John Kemble, Sarah Siddons, and Dorothy Jordan, Sheridan's Pizarro dramatizes Peruvian struggles for independence against Spain as announced by Kotzebue's title, Die Spanier in Peru oder Rollas Tod. Virtually forgotten now, the play was so popular then that to be “pizarroed out of my memory and recollection, in every company I enter” was apparently a comprehensible phrase and experience in London society during the early summer of 1799 (Simpson 90). The play ran continuously from May to July of 1799, in the process restoring the dwindling coffers of Drury Lane and “swallow[ing] up every other Competitor” for public attention on stage and off. Already by 1800 the English version of the play had seen fifteen editions and numerous extended critical commentaries.1
Today those few scholars who know the play view it as a literary...
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Durant, Jack D. “Truth for Sheridan: The Biographical Dilemma.” In A Fair Day in the Affections: Literary Essays in Honor of Robert B. White, Jr., edited by Jack D. Durant and M. Thomas Hester, pp. 119-30. Raleigh, N. C.: The Winston Press, 1980.
Surveys numerous injustices done to Sheridan by biographers since his death.
Choudhury, Mita. “Sheridan, Garrick, and a Colonial Gesture: The School for Scandal on the Calcutta Stage.” In Theatrical Journal 46, No. 3 (October 1994): 303-21.
Studies the use of Sheridan's The School for Scandal, produced in Calcutta in 1782, as a means of putting an innocent face on British colonial expansion.
Durant, Jack D. “Sheridan, Burke, and Revolution.” In Eighteenth Century Life 6, Nos. 2-3 (January-May 1981): 103-13.
Summarizes Sheridan's political differences with the conservative thinker Edmund Burke.
———. “Sheridan's Picture-Auction Scene: A Study in Contexts.” In Eighteenth Century Life 11, No. 3 (November 1987): 34-47.
Probes the comic potential of the picture-auction scene (Act IV, scene i) in The School for Scandal, calling it a “theatrical tour de force.”
Ellis, Frank H. “Folklore...
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