Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769

While modern critics generally applaud Sheridan’s work and a modern reader may find The Critic a very amusing yet tame burlesque, its first production in 1779 caused a minor controversy in the London press. The play’s unnamed first reviewer (in a review collected in Sheridan: Comedies (1986) edited by Peter Davison) admired the first act’s wit and satire but complained that the second and third were ‘‘heavy and tiresome.’’ He also scolded Sheridan for not attempting the ‘‘least originality’’ and called the play ‘‘an act of angry retaliation’’ rather than ‘‘a dramatic satire, founded on general principles.’’ This same reviewer even wrote that Sheridan’s satire on false advertisements for charity ‘‘may deprive some worthy objects of that relief which their distresses might otherwise receive from the benevolent.’’ (He further complained that Puff and Sneer both mention the word ‘‘God’’ onstage ‘‘without censure.’’) Other eighteenth-century reviews were equally dismissive: in 1783, another unnamed reviewer (also collected in Sheridan: Comedies) called The Critic ‘‘the offspring of a pen that had in vain attempted to write a tragedy’’ and said that Sheridan ‘‘felt a malicious pleasure in decrying a species of composition which has been deemed superior’’ to Sheridan’s own. Finally, the playwright Charles Dibdin, writing in his 1788 collection, The Musical Tour of Mr. Dibdin, challenged Sheridan to ‘‘write a tragedy so as to steer clear of his own lash’’—something he felt Sheridan would find an impossible task.

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Audiences, however, loved the play, which has become a favorite of actors, producers, and even critics since its premiere. Many twentieth-century readers echo the sentiments of Lord Byron as quoted in James Morwood’s The Life and Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who called it the ‘‘best farce’’ he had ever seen. In his 1970 study ‘‘Sheridan: The Last of the Great Theatrical Satirists,’’ Samuel L. Macey discusses the twilight of dramatic burlesque in the eighteenth century: while the ‘‘restrictions imposed by the temper of the times’’ stifled some writers’ will to satire, Macey praises Sheridan for allowing theatrical satire to exit the Enlightenment stage ‘‘with a bang rather than a whimper.’’ In Philip K. Jason’s 1974 essay, ‘‘A Twentieth Century Response to The Critic,’’ he compares Sheridan’s play to what he sees as its modern counterpart: Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Like Macey, he praises how Sheridan balances the ‘‘multiple perspectives’’ that accompany any play while consciously calling attention to the actors within it performing their roles.

Some modern critics, however, praise Sheridan’s craft while discounting his talents as a true artist. In his introductory essay to the Modern Library’s Eighteenth Century Plays (1952), Ricardo Quintana argues that the work of Sheridan and his three chief contemporaries (Goldsmith, Fielding, and Gay) have ‘‘a depth generally lacking elsewhere’’ in Restoration drama. However, Quintana further remarks that Sheridan’s ‘‘spectacular career’’ can ‘‘blind us to the fact that his wit and his remarkable sense of theater are not balanced by the insight and intuition of drama at its greatest.’’ Similarly, in his book Sheridan’s Comedies: Their Contexts and Achievements (1977), Mark S. Auburn calls The Critic ‘‘the most complete satiric play about the theater yet created’’ yet not up to the artistic level of Sheridan’s previous (and more widely known) play, The School for Scandal:

Beside the greater comedy, The Critic seems a remnant of his youth, a brilliant utilization of his experiences as a practical dramatist perhaps, but more nearly the product of an exuberance and an adolescent cynicism which the perfection of The School for Scandal seems to deny.

Of course, critical evaluations are often as varied as the opinions of Puff and Sneer. In his 1997 work A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sheridan’s most recent biographer and critic, Fintan O’Toole, writes that The Critic allowed Sheridan to vent all the anxieties and frustrations he had amassed during his time as the manager of the Drury Lane Theatre: ‘‘Into it he poured all the vexations of the previous season, alchemically transformed into pure hilarity.’’ O’Toole notes that of the twelve most often staged plays in England between 1776 and 1800, four were by Shakespeare and two (The Duenna and The School for Scandal) were by Sheridan. ‘‘With The Critic holding its place as one of the most frequently performed afterpieces,’’ O’Toole concludes, ‘‘Sheridan the playwright continued to occupy a central place in British cultural life.’’ The fact that The Critic is still performed across North America and Europe attests to the fact that Sheridan still occupies, if not a central, at least a prominent place in twentiethcentury theater.

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