In Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s time The Critic: Or, A Tragedy Rehearsed was probably best known for its bitingly satirical portrait of Sheridan’s fellow dramatist, Richard Cumberland, who was the model for Sir Fretful Plagiary. Today the play is most important for the light it sheds on what Sheridan thought of the drama prevalent in his own time. By showing the reader the insipidity of the tragedy rehearsed within the play, the laughable defense of trite dramatic devices by its author, and the comments by the actors, Sheridan lets the reader see what he thought of the state of drama during his age.
The principal theme of The Critic is the dynamic interplay of illusion and reality. The central focus is on the role language plays in that interplay. Mr. Dangle, Mr. Sneer, and Mr. Puff—the names prepare one for the spirit of the comedy—form the play’s comic center, where each character either ridicules or is ridiculed, sometimes both. The play’s themes derive from the portrayal of characters who pretend to be better than they are.
Act 1 begins the play’s attacks on fakery and moral blindness. Sneer characterizes the age as “luxurious and dissipated,” saying it is nevertheless hypocritical enough to produce a drama that ignores “the follies and foibles of society” in favor of dramatizing “the greater vices and blacker crimes of humanity.” With the arrival of Sir Fretful Plagiary, the play’s attention shifts to a type of individual author. On the pretext of repeating what newspaper reviewers have said, Sneer and Dangle attack Sir Fretful’s plagiarism, coarse language, and dullness. The play’s main target, however, is Puff and his production of The Spanish Armada, a tragedy that illustrates, in comic reversal, the play’s plea for elevated standards in the theater and for literary and personal honesty.
The second and third acts present a world within a world and a tragedy within a comedy. Puff’s play is a burlesque of the tragic spirit. One of the ways that Sheridan effects his burlesque is to mix the comic outer drama with the highly stylized language and actions of the actors in rehearsal. Puff’s understanding of the elevated world of tragedy is satirized by his play’s ridiculous actions and by the stilted, hackneyed dialogue of its characters, who bear such names as Whiskerandos and Tilburnia.
Act 1 has alerted the audience to the significance of language in the way people create their own reality and to the potential of language as an instrument of comic ridicule. When introducing Sneer to Mrs. Dangle, for example, Dangle draws attention to the comic resources of language: “My dear, here’s Mr. Sneer.” Sir Fretful’s crime is not only that he steals ideas from others but that he coarsens and dulls what he takes—and is unaware of the fact. Puff boasts an ability to “insinuate obsequious rivulets into visionary groves” and to live off charitable donations by exaggerating his misfortunes.
Such portrayals illustrate the inability of people in general to escape the linguistic prison they erect around themselves, or that is erected around them by others. When Sneer ironically proposes that a statue of Mercury be erected in honor of Puff, a god “of fiction,” he offers an apt symbol of Puff, whose nature is expressed in his devotion to artifice, to making a lie seem real. Making illusion seem real, the essence of drama, is one of the play’s themes, and Sheridan seems to be saying that the artifice is morally acceptable as long as the writer keeps clear the line separating truth from fiction. Sir Fretful and Puff are morally reprehensible because they...
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do not keep the line clear, and the irony is that they cannot understand their failure to do so. This failure makes them fools despite their expertise in fakery.
The play argues that people tend to see only what they wish to see—or see only what their natures allow them to see. During the rehearsal of his tragedy, Puff, blinded by vanity, is unable to see how absurd the performance of his tragedy is. When Sneer points out that “the clown seems to talk in as high a style as the first hero,” Puff declares he does not make “slavish distinctions.” He is incapable of distinguishing good language from bad language, tragedy from farce, or truth from fiction. His failure to achieve this kind of intellectual keenness is the chief lesson of the final two acts. Puff represents a tendency toward vanity and self-delusion in everyone; the play constitutes a moral indictment of human nature.
In Act 1, the duty of drama to inculcate morals is made an issue. Sheridan’s play, by implication, offers an example of the principle working as it should, helping the audience to see, through satire and comedy, that people make fools of themselves, and create bad art in the process, when they cannot distinguish fiction from reality. When Sneer says that the theater “in proper hands, might certainly be made the school of morality,” Sheridan seems to be inviting the audience to view his play as an exercise in distinguishing right from wrong.
Part of the play’s aim is to define good tragedy by showing bad tragedy. In a comic twist, Puff is the guide. Puff’s final announcement—“we’ll rehearse this piece again tomorrow”—is followed by the stage direction, “Curtain drops/finis.” By ending both plays together, Sheridan is suggesting that the worlds of the two plays are interconnected. Puff’s tragedy will recycle and so will the world outside the play. By ridiculing the vanity and blindness of Puff, and by suggesting that Puff’s world coincides with that of the audience, The Critic serves as a warning.