I often tell my students that a play needs to be seen and heard to be properly appreciated. Reading a play requires an ability to visualize, and it is very difficult to manage this visualization without a careful scrutiny of the stage directions and some experience reading drama. This notion is especially true for Richard Brinsley Sheridan's School for Scandal, which makes the reader wish for a fine production to view.
In the fourth act when Lady Teazle and Sir Peter are each peeking out of their respective hiding places, and Joseph is cautioning each to retreat, the reader can only imagine the fun occurring on stage. But when the screen falls later in that same act and Lady Teazle is exposed, this bit of slapstick demands to be seen. Mark S. Auburn related in Sheridan Studies that anyone passing by the theatre during that scene would have heard the riotous laughter of the audience that erupted from the theatre. This type of comedy was an early inspiration for the silly situation comedies that are a staple of television viewing; but if this play is so funny, why is it so infrequently staged?
Some critics suggest that the language is stilted or the subject matter not topical. When Peter Wood was interviewed about his 1990 production of School for Scandal, he expressed the opinion that the public might be developing a new appreciation for the rhythm and tone of language such as Sheridan's. And while it is true that the comedy of manners motif might be of less interest to twentieth-century audiences, it is certain that with tabloid journalism an especially hot topic on television and in mainstream newspapers, the public's interest in gossip, or in a play that satirizes gossip, should be apparent.
But if language and topic do not limit the play's reception, what other reasons might? One possibility is offered by Richard Taylor, who suggested in Sheridan Studies that the play's anti-Semitism may present a problem for audiences. Taylor asserted that "the anti-Semitism that runs through School for Scandal produces palpable discomfort in contemporary audiences, and no amount of directorial cutting easily eliminates it."
Anti-Semitism was a part of eighteenth-century English life. An act that would have permitted Jews to become naturalized citizens was repealed immediately when anti-Semitic street mobs loudly protested the law. When Moses is introduced in Act III of School for Scandal, his name is prefaced with the character descriptor "Honest." Since it was Moses who led the Jews from Egypt to their salvation during the Biblical Exodus, the audience should expect that this Moses will help Charles to his reward. But as important as his name is the qualifier that comes before it. Sheridan places great emphasis on "honest," using the word many times to describe Moses. The obvious inference is that Moses is an exception: moneylenders are stereotyped as dishonest.
The same is true for the overly used "friend" or "friendly." If descriptions of Moses must note his friendliness, then the point is made that most moneylenders are not their client's friends. Historically Jews have been identified with usury or moneylending, and in School for Scandal, Sheridan also identifies Jews as dishonest and unfriendly—proven by the fact that Moses's honesty and friendship are repeatedly inferred as anomalous to both his race and occupation.
In School for Scandal, to be a moneylender is to be a cheat. Sir Oliver is told that to be successful in his disguise, he must demand 50% interest. And if the subject seems...
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As conceived by Robin Phillips, The School for Scandal displays a harsh and glittering world of exquisite beauty and viciousness, where sentimental sobriety—when genuine—is the only refuge from the savagery that lies in wait for vitality and virtue. Phillips has read the play as a piece of serious social criticism, with decidedly mixed results: his version of this classic comedy of manners is thought-provoking, visually stunning, but finally a failure.
Sheridan wittily exhibits the machinations of the hypocritical Joseph Surface, who joins with the malicious Lady Sneerwell in a campaign of slander originally designed to obtain his uncle Oliver's fortune and the hand of the wealthy Maria by the destruction of his brother Charles's reputation, but which eventually expands to threaten the marriage of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle. In his program note, Phillips emphasizes the importance of reputation in a mercantile society, where to lose respectability is literally to lose "credit." In such an environment, the power of Lady Sneerwell and her "scandalous college" of gossips is no laughing matter, and Phillips's production takes its tone from the seriousness of their crime. The characterizations are subdued, the comedy is underplayed: the audience is never allowed to forget that the events it is witnessing could end as easily in suffering as in happiness.
Flamboyant performances are therefore the rare exception in this School. As that victim of a May-September marriage, Sir Peter Teazle, William Hutt is a sober, tender husband, whose very irascibility is restrained. He is seen at his most characteristic in his Act III scene with his young wife, where his childlike delight in her affection succumbs with reluctance to her attacks, to be replaced by deeply felt hurt, rather than rage, when her wounding remarks struck home. His violent emotions are reserved for his ward Maria, whom he reduces to tears with his attempt to bully her into accepting Joseph as her husband. Douglas Campbell's excellent Sir Oliver is almost equally grave, although he is captivatingly comic during the debt-ridden Charles's private auction of the family portraits and in his encounter with the slanderers who gather at Sir Peter's door to gloat over Lady Teazle's apparent indiscretion with Joseph. Susan Wright's Mrs. Candour typifies the treatment of Sheridan's wit in this production, delivering her catalogue of scandal in a matter-of-fact tone that underlines the speech's audacity while it almost eradicates its humor. Only Richard Curnock and Keith Dinicol, as the arriviste...
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To a writer a theatre like the Royal Lyceum is a magic box full of enticing possibilities—to all of which, almost invariably, you are denied access. To an Artistic Director, on the other hand, such a place must more often feel like a black hole—with row after row of empty seats that somehow, night after night, have got to be filled.
The theatre's understandable response to this has been to mount two classic comedies in repertory—a revival of their immensely successful production of Tartuffe in tandem with a new production of Sheridan's School for Scandal.
This opened recently to an almost uniformly hostile press, which the production did not really deserve. The Lyceum tends to open with a cheerful free preview and follow it with a press night that almost always falls flat; a strongly self-destructive process to which this in many respects perfectly acceptable show has also fallen victim.
Colin MacNeil's set is an elegant and serviceable rectangular box, fronted by a row of footlights, that neatly and effectively conjures up a feeling of the period; the cast are splendidly bewigged and crinolined; the show looks good, and by the end had enough basic buoyancy to it to ensure that the very special magic exerted by so beautifully structured a comedy would work on its audience.
The basic groundwork was all in place; the show's problems arose because somehow hardly anyone seemed to...
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The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is a kind of dramatic harpsichord. It has surface vivacity rather than inner strength. It has elegance of style rather than profundity of substance. Thumped by realism's heavy hand, it would jangle and go mute; stroked with exquisite artifice, it enchants and amuses. The present import from Britain, top-starring Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, is iridescently enchanting, contagiously amusing.
Gielgud is Joseph Surface, the hypocrite as moral snob, a kind of holier-than-thou heel. Richardson is Sir Peter Teazle, a crusty, crestfallen bridegroom in his 50s, loving, but not loved by, young Lady Teazle...
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