First performed at London’s famous Drury Lane theater in 1777, The School for Scandal was staged a total of 261 times before the end of the eighteenth century and has been revived hundreds of times since, making it one of the most enduringly popular comedies in the English language. Accounting for the play’s popularity is not difficult: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who had succeeded the great David Garrick as manager of the Drury Lane theater in 1776, was blessed with a keenly theatrical imagination and an instinctive sense of how best to please an audience. These talents are nowhere more evident than in The School for Scandal, which is, above all else, first-rate theater—a play graced by sparkling dialogue, a cast of memorable characters, and a complex plot that combines elements of high comedy, intrigue, and genuine feeling.
The ingredients that guarantee success on the stage, however, do not always guarantee critical esteem. Although critics have over the years had a great deal to say about William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602, pb. 1623) and Ben Jonson’s Volpone (pr. 1605), they have had relatively little to say about The School for Scandal. Most discussions of the play, in fact, have focused less on literary analysis than on the question of Sheridan’s success in rebelling against the sentimental comedies of his day and in recovering the spirit of such earlier Restoration comedies as William Congreve’s The Way of the World (pr., pb. 1700). Unfortunately, when measured against these earlier plays, The School for Scandal has usually been found inferior—a comedy, as one critic trenchantly put it, in which the Restoration is unrestored.
It might be best to begin study of the play with the general disclaimer that The School for Scandal is not simply a Restoration comedy, it is another kind of comedy altogether—moral rather than satiric, basically humane and optimistic rather than hard edged and cynical. It is a comedy written for an audience whose basic assumptions about art, theater, and human nature made it radically different from the audience of Congreve’s day.
The School for Scandal has been called a middle-class morality play, and in a sense that description is accurate. At play’s end, good characters are rewarded and bad characters (“evil” is really too strong a word) are routed, thus providing the audience with two useful object lessons: Honesty and benevolence will, in the end, win out over...
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