Parody of Tragedy

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In 1763, sixteen years before the premiere of The Critic, James Boswell co-authored a pamphlet in which he jeered at David Mallet’s Elvira, a tragedy acted at the Drury Lane Theatre. Confessing to his friend Samuel Johnson that he felt somewhat guilty about the pamphlet, since he himself could not write a tragedy ‘‘near so good,’’ Boswell received another impromptu lesson from his mentor that found its way into The Life of Samuel Johnson.

Why no, Sir; this is not just reasoning. You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.

Boswell’s conscience may have been bothering him because of a trend of thought sometimes found among those faced with the critical evaluation of tragedy: the genre is so revered and taken so seriously that mocking it is sometimes regarded as aesthetically sacrilegious, like finding fault with Michelangelo’s Pieta. Comedy never tries to elicit the ‘‘pity or terror’’ (in Aristotelian terms) of tragedy, and its faults are therefore regarded as less damaging to the work as a whole. Along these same lines, the benchmark for a quality tragedy is often a higher one than comedy, since laughter is supposedly easier to elicit than catharsis. This is why the most improbable plot devices in comedies are accepted as part of the game, whereas the same improbabilities in tragedies are either glossed over or dismissed as unimportant in terms of the work’s total effect on a viewer. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for example, Viola disguises herself as a man and in doing so becomes completely indistinguishable from her twin brother—so much so that she excites the mourning Olivia into thunderous passion and never once causes her new master, Orsino, to question her gender. No viewer of this play would rail against this seemingly impossible device, yet if the same kind of incident occurred in King Lear, for example, audiences would have a much more diffi- cult time ‘‘believing’’ it (to the extent that they suspend their disbelief and accept the action of any play as ‘‘real’’). Yet even the greatest tragedies have a number of events in them that are wholly implausible yet infrequently questioned by awestruck viewers and readers. As Puff explains to Dangle and Sneer, ‘‘a play is not to show occurrences that happen every day, but things just so strange, that tho’ they never did, they "happen.’’ That ‘‘might’’ is where plots become farcical (in the case of comedy) or awkward (in the case of tragedy).

Sheridan, of course, knew all of this from his years spent reading, attending, writing, and managing plays, and it is this central idea—that tragedies belong to a genre so exulted that anyone criticizing their creators (like Boswell) can actually feel guilty— that fuels The Critic. Sheridan made Puff’s The Spanish Armada a tragedy instead of a comedy because he knew that the humor would arise in direct proportion to the earnestness and seriousness of its performance. Had he made Puff’s play a comedy, everyone in the audience would be laughing with the characters rather than at them, and making his audience laugh at writers like Puff is crucial to Sheridan’s vision. Once the members of Sheridan’s audience start laughing at the portentousness of Puff’s tragedy, however, they can begin to consider just how silly (and worthy of any number of pamphlets) the plots and conventions of even the greatest tragedies can be. As a viewer watches The Critic

(This entire section contains 1987 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The Critic, therefore, he or she is invited to share in Sheridan’s laughter at tragic conventions and, ultimately, better appreciate those playwrights who are able to deal with these conventions in a way less laughable than Puff. ‘‘I improve upon established modes,’’ Puff boasts, and a careful reading of The Spanish Armada reveals Sheridan’s joy in parodying the established mode of tragedy and its conventions. Unlike Boswell, Sheridan never feels the slightest compunctions about mocking the genre or its less-than-talented disciples.

The Spanish Armada can be read as a catalogue of theatrical conventions, each of which is hilariously presented but each of which also provokes a reader into recalling where similar devices occur in other, ‘‘real’’ tragedies. The differences are merely ones of degree. For example, the opening scene of Puff’s play features two sentinels asleep at their post. When Sneer remarks that this is odd, considering the ‘‘alarming crisis’’ of a possible Spanish attack, Puff explains that the guards must be asleep, for Raleigh and Hatton would not speak if they knew the guards were watching them. This is a joke for the audience, but consider the death of Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: after she awakens from her drugged sleep in the Capulet tomb and learns that Romeo is dead, Friar Lawrence advises her to ‘‘Come, come away’’ and live among ‘‘a sisterhood of holy nuns.’’ When Juliet refuses, Friar Lawrence leaves the tomb, ostensibly because ‘‘the watch is coming’’ but really because had he stayed, Juliet would have been denied her opportunity to commit suicide. Moments later, the conveniently absent Friar returns with the lovers’ parents and confesses his role in their attempted elopement. Like Puff’s sleeping sentinels, Shakespeare’s Friar had to engage in an inexplicable action for the sake of dramatic expediency. This is similar to Hamlet’s dragging the body of Polonius into ‘‘the neighbor room’’ after he kills him; Hamlet may be doing so to spare his mother the horrible sight, but Shakespeare also knew that the actor playing Polonius had to get off the stage and having the actor jump up and exit after such an intense scene might break the spell of the moment.

Another theatrical convention skewered by Sheridan is the manner in which many playwrights struggle with the problem of exposition. After Hatton asks Raleigh why there is a ‘‘general muster’’ and ‘‘throng of chiefs’’ at Tilbury (although he plainly knows the answer), Dangle rightly asks Puff why, if Hatton ‘‘knows all this,’’ Raleigh continues telling it to him; Puff explains that Hatton and Raleigh speak for the audience’s sake. Information necessary to the plot is therefore presented but in such a way that its very presentation is laughably awkward. Jane Austen recognized the same problem and similarly parodied it in a play she wrote as a young girl, collected in her book Love and Friendship:

Pistoletta: Pray papa how far is it to London?

Popgun: My Girl, my Darling, my favourite of all my children, who art the picture of thy poor mother who died two months ago, with whom I am going to town to marry to Strephon, and to whom I mean to bequeath my whole Estate, it wants seven miles.

All playwrights face this challenge and meet it with varying degrees of success: to return to Shakespeare, consider the opening of King Lear, in which Shakespeare masterfully opens the play with the meeting where Lear divides his kingdom while simultaneously revealing his attitudes toward his daughters. Conversely, consider the opening of Hamlet, where Marcellus asks Horatio, who has returned to Denmark only two months ago, why Denmark is preparing ‘‘implements of war’’ in ‘‘sweaty haste.’’ Why Marcellus, a royal guard, would not know anything about this and need to ask a civilian student is not explained, or even considered by many viewers. Even Shakespeare nods.

Once the exposition is out of the way, a playwright still faces the problem of information: a character needs to learn some fact or secret but must learn it in such a way that seems dramatically plausible. Eavesdropping, therefore, is the dramatist’s friend; consider the number of plays in which a character learns something he or she is not supposed to by virtue of a good hiding place. In Othello, for example, the title character conceals himself so well that he can overhear Iago speak to Cassio of Bianca yet remain wholly unnoticed by Cassio, who speaks as freely as if he and Iago were on a deserted island. Similarly, Hamlet abounds in overheard conversations: Polonius and Claudius listen to Hamlet’s ‘‘Get thee to a nunnery’’ tirade against Ophelia, and Polonius is killed while hiding behind a tapestry in Gertrude’s room. As Puff proclaims, ‘‘If people who want to listen, or overhear, were not always conniv’d at in a Tragedy, there would be no carrying on any plot in the world.’’ Sheridan knew this to be true: his own The School for Scandal relies heavily on eavesdropping to propel its plot. Here, however, he takes great delight in laying bare the clumsy machinations of those who attempt to (in Hamlet’s words) ‘‘hold a mirror up to nature’’ but fail.

The list of conventions thus parodied continues. Tilburnia’s first speech mocks overdone pseudo- poetic language: she takes twenty lines to say, ‘‘It is morning and I am unhappy.’’ The tendency for playwrights to imbue their characters with (in Puff’s words) the ability ‘‘to hear and see a number of things that are not’’ is mocked by Tilburnia’s description of the approaching armada; again, this is a ludicrous moment in Puff’s play, but anyone who rereads Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet is faced with the same problem: from where did Gertrude get this information, and why did the person telling it not attempt to rescue Ophelia as she drowned? The playwright’s necessary manipulation of props is mocked when Don Whiskerandos and the Beefeater happen to discover two swords dropped by Hatton and Raleigh; while humorous here, the same kind of manipulation occurs at the end of Hamlet when Hamlet and Laertes unknowingly switch swords during their final duel, thus allowing Shakespeare to kill them both with the same poisoned tip. Another tragic convention—madness—is often used by playwrights to solicit the pathos of the audience; such ‘‘mad scenes,’’ however, often feature a character speaking in a way that cleverly reveals significant aspects of their personalities in a way that seems unlike ‘‘real’’ madness. (Lady Macbeth, for example, manifests her madness in sleepwalking while attempting to symbolically wash her hands of the guilt that plagues her.) This convention is ridiculed by Sheridan when he makes the mad Tilburnia babble such nonsense as:

Is this a grasshopper!—Ha! no, it is my Whiskerandos—you shall not keep him—I know you have him in your pocket—An oyster may be cross’d in love!—Who says A whale’s a bird?—

The more tragedies one has seen, the funnier Puff’s play becomes. It is important to remember, however, that Sheridan does not do all this in an effort to mock the genre of tragedy as a whole; rather, he expresses his amusement with those writers who struggle with these conventions when composing their work and can only meet these challenges in the most dramatically clumsy ways. As a playwright himself, Sheridan knew of these struggles firsthand, and it is by presenting The Spanish Armada, a play where all of these struggles prove too great for Puff, that Sheridan invites his audience both to laugh at those who cannot meet the challenges of composition and to applaud those (like himself) who do. Puff’s play, therefore, is a guide to Sheridan’s aesthetics, albeit a guide that shows its user what not to do rather than what he or she should do. Great skill is needed to depict the work of an unskillful playwright, and, by examining the tragic conventions parodied in The Spanish Armada, a viewer can better appreciate the skills of tragedians who handle these conventions more adroitly than Puff.

Source: Daniel Moran, Critical Essay on The Critic, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Moran is a secondary school teacher of English and American literature.

History and Status

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Critic, which was first presented on 30 October 1779, is perhaps the most complete play about the theater ever written. It was both occasional entertainment and burlesque, topically oriented and aimed at posterity, a local development and an echo of an eternal form. From Aristophanes’s The Acharnians to Shakespeare’s ‘‘Pyramus and Thisbe,’’ to Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle, to Buckingham’s Rehearsal, to Fielding’s Tragedy of Tragedies or Pasquin, the comic dramatic urge at self-reflection has surfaced brilliantly. But the examples from the 1770s which influenced Sheridan failed to achieve lasting fame largely because they are too local, too tied to contemporary situations and personalities; only Garrick’s A Peep behind the Curtain approaches the proper balance between timeliness and timelessness, yet it lacks the wit, satire, and brilliance to endure. What is surprising about The Critic, a greater play which adopted a similar form, is that it too is very local.

Consider the raw materials of The Critic: an absurd, thin-skinned playwright, a silly romantic tragedy on the subject of the Spanish Armada, a theatrical entrepreneur entranced not with literary worth but dramatic stage effects, newspapers filled with gossip and concealed advertisements, critical debates about the uses and meaning of dramatic entertainment, a theatrical world populated by actors who are selfish and managers who themselves are playwrights. Stripped of contemporary associations, these subjects will be of interest as long as artistic impulses are channeled through the medium of the stage; but in Sheridan’s play, each has purely local satiric applications which to a great extent determined the original success of The Critic, but which, it seems, would also prevent lasting fame. Both playwrights were recognized as specific individuals; the subject of Puff’s tragedy held immense contemporary concern; and the critical themes were the stuff of the day.

Parsons, who portrayed Sir Fretful Plagiary, openly imitated the dress and mannerisms of Richard Cumberland, author of The West Indian and more recently The Battle of Hastings, a historical tragedy produced by Sheridan at Drury Lane 24 January 1778. On 20 March 1779 Cumberland had given a prelude to his musical piece, Calypso, for its Covent Garden production: that prelude was commonly known as The Critic. No one failed to recognize Parson’s impersonation, and the Lady’s Magazine for October 1779 went so far as to say that Sir Fretful Plagiary ‘‘exhibits one of the most harsh and severe caricatures that have been attempted since the days of Aristophanes, of which a celebrated sentimental writer is evidently the object: a great part of what is said by his representative being literally taken from his usual conversation, but with pointed and keen additions.’’ Cumberland so felt the imputation that in his Memoirs (1807) he avoids mentioning the character’s name completely, but casts oblique aspersions on Sheridan by citing a conversation between himself and Garrick following the introduction of The West Indian in which Garrick supposedly counterfeited the reading of a bad review of the comedy, then revealed his joke. The implication is clear: in staging Sneer’s attack on Sir Fretful, Sheridan was merely retelling a wornout story, Cumberland would have us believe, plagiarizing it in fact from life.

The other playwright of The Critic, Puff, was also from real life. Consider his thoughts on the subjects of drama:

What Shakespeare says of Actors may be better applied to the purpose of Plays; they ought to be ‘‘the abstract and brief Chronicles of the times.’’ Therefore when history, and particularly the history of our own country, furnishes any thing like a case in point, to the time in which an author writes, if he knows his own interest, he will take advantage of it; so, Sir, I call my tragedy The Spanish Armada; and have laid the scene before Tilbury Fort.

On 18 June 1779, Spain declared war on England; on 16 August 1779 the war came home to London in the form of reports that the French and Spanish fleets had evaded a British squadron and were in the Channel. Volunteer companies were formed, the militia mobilized, and not until mid- September did invasion fever die down. In the Public Advertiser and the Lady’s Magazine, Queen Elizabeth’s speech to the army at Tilbury before the arrival of the Spanish Armada was reprinted; theatrical entertainments were given on the subject; poems were printed in the newspapers; correspondents employing Roman pseudonyms offered copious advice; and Covent Garden produced a topical musical farce on the war preparations titled Plymouth in an Uproar.

One of the theatrical entertainments on the subject is particularly interesting. During the summer of 1779 there was produced at the theater at Sadler’s Wells a pantomime-pastiche, advertised as

A new favourite Musical Piece consisting of Airs serious and comic, Recitatives, Choruses, &c., called The Prophecy: or, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury. In the course of which will be introduced a variety of Machinery and Decorations, particularly an emblematical Frontispiece, at the top of which, in a small Transparency, will be represented the Destruction of the famous Spanish Armada, and the view through the said Frontispiece will be closed by a Moving Perspective, representing the present Grand Fleet. The Recitatives and Choruses by Mr. Olive, the Airs selected from the best Masters, and the Paintings by Mr. Greenwood. Rope-dancing by Signora Mariana and Mr. Ferzi.

Pastiches of this sort almost always were mainly the creations of theatrical managers (Sheridan, of course, was behind The Camp, a similar topical exploitation piece), so we may assume that the author-director of The Prophecy was the manager of Sadler’s Wells, who happened to be Thomas King, the great Drury Lane actor. King, veteran of Bayes in The Rehearsal and The Meeting of the Company, creator of Glib in A Peep behind the Curtain, created Puff, author of The Spanish Armada.

These local references seem by themselves enough to doom The Critic to mere topicality. But there is more in the way of local and domestic jokes. The manager who writes was Sheridan himself, and Mrs. Dangle is bothered by foreign singers because that same manager had recently assumed ownership of the opera house, as Sheridan had done in real life. Dangle was recognized by many as Thomas Vaughan, author of a farce produced under Sheridan’s direction called The Hotel (DL, 20 Nov. 1776) and a theatrical amateur and ‘‘dangler’’ about the Green Room. Miss Pope’s portrayal of Tilburina was a take-off of Mrs. Crawford’s tragic acting, while the younger Bannister’s acting of Don Ferolo Whiskerandos mimicked William Smith’s portrayal of Richard III. Sheridan was known for writing ‘‘puffs’’ for Drury Lane, and the ‘‘puff direct’’ of which Puff gives an example was most likely a ‘‘puff preliminary’’ for Elizabeth Griffith’s The Times, a comedy to be produced little more than a month after the introduction of Sheridan’s afterpiece.

Such topicality might assure a successful, fi- nancially rewarding run. In the previous season, Sheridan’s slight pastiche, The Camp (15 Oct. 1778), had run for fifty-seven performances as an afterpiece and brought in an average of £228 a night for its first ten performances, an amazing achievement in a season for which non-benefit performances averaged only £183. The literary features of The Camp are hardly significant: a little characteristic and a little witty dialogue, a pair of national characters (Irish and French), some avaricious countrymen and their self-interested exciseman, some fine ladies, a briefly presented fop, and two minor, subordinated lines of action (one of a clever wit duped, the other the familiar boy-gets-girl sort) coexist merely to provide a theatrical visit to the military camp at Coxheath, then actually populated with soldiers and the focus of a great deal of contemporary interest. There were a few songs, some marching and dancing, and most important, splendid perspective views executed by De Loutherbourgh ‘‘which exceeds every Thing in Scenery we have ever seen.’’ It should not be surprising that when audiences would pay to see such drivel, Sheridan would give them more—and he did, in another pastiche, The Wonders of Derbyshire, later the same season. The Critic, in a similar fashion, has topical subjects, local and domestic jokes, songs which were popular enough to warrant separate publication, and De Loutherbourgh scenery which ‘‘seems to bring nature to our view, instead of painting views after nature.’’

And yet, The Critic is obviously a great deal more than just a topical burlesque. ‘‘Whoever, delighting in its gaiety and wit, remembers that The Critic was written in one of the darkest hours of English history’’ when invasion seemed imminent? We may no longer view Sir Fretful Plagiary as a caricature of Cumberland, or know that Puff is Thomas King, veteran actor and theater manager; but who fails to be delighted by timelessness encased in timeliness? The very brilliance of The Critic arises because its informing design is not topical, because its ridicule is not specific satire but general comic criticism. The Critic is clearly burlesque in its widest sense, rarely parody, the most topical form of burlesque.

Parody is a subspecies of satire, the direct mockery by imitation of a given, specific, external object. In one of the precursors of The Critic , The Rehearsal, numerous speeches, lines, and situations echo and ridicule speeches and situations from contemporary Restoration heroic plays. The viewer of that play today, or even the mid-eighteenthcentury auditor, is unlikely to derive the pleasure contemporary audiences felt; even the reader of a good annotated edition will probably fail to enjoy all the literary satire Buckingham intended. The Rehearsal lasted on stage because its timeless frame permitted massive changes in its parodied content. Cibber and Garrick injected contemporary commentary, mimicked the behavior of contemporary actors, in essence made the play of their time in spite of its origins. They, and modern producers, must do so because true parody—specific satire of a specific object—is lost when the object it mocks is lost: Shamela without Pamela is not very amusing and even the early chapters of Joseph Andrews seem misleading to many who do not know Richardson’s novel. Burlesque, however, is not parody—not specific satire—but general ridicule of classes of objects. Parody takes the characteristics of specific objects, redefines them to expose their absurdity, and moves toward damnation of the whole class through damnation of the objects; burlesque creates the characteristics of the whole class by granting characteristics to an absurd imaginary individual example which in and by itself has no direct resemblance to any individual member of the whole class. Parody is particular, burlesque is general; parody is almost always highly topical; burlesque may have some topical features, but as a whole, is barely topical in itself.

The burlesque of The Critic has lasted longer than that of The Rehearsal or The Tragedy of Tragedies because The Critic chose as its objects those of a larger, less definable, less topical class. Buckingham’s play mocks a rather local group of objects, heroic plays; Fielding’s play attacks nearly the same set of rather local phenomena. But Sheridan’s play mocks a large, amorphous class: The Spanish Armada is absurd not just as heroic drama, historical drama, domestic tragedy, or romantic tragedy, but as poorly conducted serious drama of any time. Unprepared discoveries, clumsy exposition, wild coincidences, pretentious dialogue, excessive spectacle are faults not of any single genre but of any kind of wretched play. Obviously, both The Rehearsal and The Tragedy of Tragedies burlesque the general as well as parody the particular; but insofar as they ridicule the particular they remain local. The Critic, even encased in topical references, has more endurance precisely because it ridicules the general more consistently.

This is one reason why, for instance, searching for passages from other eighteenth-century plays parodied in The Critic is such a fruitless business: there are very few if any because Sheridan was not attacking specific plays. This is one reason why Puff, and not Sir Fretful Plagiary, is the author of The Spanish Armada: Sir Fretful’s association with Cumberland was too strong, and to ridicule Cumberland’s Battle of Hastings was to tie The Critic to a merely local event; the association of Puff as the author of the tragedy with King as the author of an entertainment on a similar topic is convenient, but not necessary to make the satire against bad drama effective.

Moreover, The Critic is not just an attack on bad drama, but a comic castigation of sloppy theatrical practices in general. Literature is not Sheridan’s target, as it was largely for Buckingham and Fielding; instead, his aim is to ridicule the excesses of professional, practical theater, and not just theater in production but theater in all its aspects. Dangle is every theatrical hanger-on—the amateur of dubious influence, the critic of unsure tastes, the hypocrite of uncertain loyalties. Sneer is every dramatic critic— self-interested for the two plays he brings to Dangle, but cynical concerning anyone else’s efforts. Sir Fretful is every thin-skinned author, and he became Cumberland not so much because Sheridan’s text called for it as because Parsons chose to emphasize it: later actors have played the role successfully without reference to the sentimental playwright. Puff is beyond correction, a hackneyed playwright and a spectacle-monger. The Italian visitors come unprepared, ignorant of language, naïvely trusting in their own talents—a perfect reflection of many theatrical hopefuls. The self-interested managers, the upstaging actors and actresses, the practical designers and prompters are theatrical characters of all time. The aim of The Critic is clear, and the barb hits and sticks to the theatrical target.

Yet, as in The Rivals or The School for Scandal where sentimentality seems approved of as well as damned, many have doubted the aesthetic integrity of The Critic. The tacking together of the manners scenes of the first act with the more highly artificial burlesque rehearsal of the second and third acts seems a cynical attempt to utilize materials on hand, not to create a unified work capable of achieving the aesthetic integrity Sheridan sought (and failed) to give The Relapse or successfully lent to his other comic masterpieces. Early reviews remarked that Sheridan would have done better to play the first act as a prelude, or to integrate it with the second and third. It is, of course, a kind of prelude already. Yet its duration is such that it overshadows much of the rehearsal: it might have been integrated, but only at the possible expense of vitiating the effects of the rehearsal. Moreover, the attacks on newspaper puffery, on the selection of plays, on the influence of amateurs, and on the vanity and hypocrisy of authors and critics that constitute the satire of act one seem in many ways irrelevant to the attack on theater in production that constitutes the satire of acts two and three. Of course, Sheridan was attacking theater in all its aspects; his failure, if there was one, was to separate the various aspects of his target so completely that in acts two and three we lose sight of theater as a whole while we focus only on theater in production.

The serious use of spectacle might be considered a flaw; De Loutherbourgh’s scenes and effects were lavishly praised for their verisimilitude, not their mockery of theatrical effect: The Critic was in part successful for many of the same reasons The Camp was—for its magnificence, battle, noise, and procession. Clearly, the representation of the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English fleet, chorused with the popular and rousing song, ‘‘Britons Strike Home,’’ evoked surprise, delight, and patriotic sentiment; and the procession that followed of ‘‘all the English rivers and their tributaries’’ was a theatrical extravaganza matching Garrick’s Jubilee. Puff’s final ‘‘Well, pretty well—but not quite perfect—so ladies and gentlemen, if you please, we’ll rehearse this piece again to-morrow’’ would be hard pressed to bring things into burlesque perspective. But I suspect Sheridan was laughing at his audience and their desires, that he was saying in effect ‘‘Here you have it, and you have nobody to blame but yourselves if you fail to see the selfsatisfied stupidity of your tastes.’’ In his time the line was his joke; in our time the joke is ours, for no modern production of The Critic fails to burlesque the final flourish with scenery and props falling and colliding. Moreover, Sheridan’s ridicule of the theater in all its aspects would be complete only if the audience, the most important constituent, received its corrective lash, too. They did, and that is yet another reason why The Critic is the most complete satiric play about the theater yet created.

The informing principle of The Critic, then, is broad burlesque of theater in all its aspects. Such a work should not be judged by standards of unity induced from works not designed according to the same principle. Students of the play would be wrongheaded to attack The Critic because some characters are drawn inconsistently or because some characters disappear from the representation or because the ‘‘plot’’ lacks unity of tone, just as readers would be wrong to criticize The Dunciad for ridiculing nonliterary targets like education or to fault Tristram Shandy for its failure to bring all aspects of its narrative to a probable conclusion. Pope’s work, designed to ridicule intellectual dullness in all its aspects, had neither to fulfill the demands of an allegorical satire on learning like The Battle of the Books by focusing specifically on literary matters nor to satisfy the principles of narrative coherence and characterization of an allegorical and personal satire like MacFlecknoe. Sterne’s work, designed as a uniquely personal expression employing a fictive ‘‘I’’ narrator burlesquing a wide variety of literary forms including the periodic essay, the novel, and the confession while telling a ‘‘story,’’ had neither to achieve a principle of narrative coherence similar to that of Clarissa or Tom Jones nor to create a sense of closure arising from the resolution of the instabilities in the relationships among characters similar to the sense of closure created in Richardson’s or Fielding’s novels. Just as we value Tristam Shandy though it is not a novel, or The Dunciad though it is not strictly a satire on literature, so we should value The Critic though it is not just a burlesque of theatrical literature, as are The Rehearsal or The Tragedy of Tragedies.

For what should we praise The Critic? How can we explain the unique pleasures derived from its reading or representation? The answers lie largely, I think, in the succession of comic ‘‘moments,’’ into which Sheridan packed all the comic techniques he had developed in his earlier works. In a manner characteristic of his indolent genius, he chose only the loosest of informing principles—that of burlesque of all aspects of theater—to bring them together.

As we have seen elsewhere in this study, Sheridan’s greatest skills lay in the creation of comic moments. He could unify them around and through action and character as in The Rivals, The Duenna, A Trip to Scarborough, or The School for Scandal, but even in those works problems remain. The two most unified by plot—The Duenna and A Trip to Scarborough—fail to reach the heights of great comic literature; The Rivals, though a great work of comic art, nevertheless has aesthetic problems, largely of unity; The School for Scandal is great unified comic art, but fails as ‘‘morally serious comedy.’’ The maker of moments could only barely bring his moments together. In a sense, Sheridan was always making parts—sketching scenes but not plots, writing dialogues to ideas, not to characters in conflict; and the sheer mass of short uncompleted fragments he left, if not the works into which he molded some of these moments, confirm that this was his method of creation. The moments of The Critic show particularly his great skill as a maker of comic dialogue. Sheridan’s comic dialogue, indeed the dialogue of all great creators of dramatic comedy, is amusing for one of four principal approaches used either separately or in combination: character, situation, manifest absurdity, or wit.

In amusing dialogue based on character, the faults or foibles of the character are displayed in a comic way, so that we smile not at what the character says but at the fact that he says it. Verbal tics, dialect oddities, and comically repetitive or predictable assertions of belief all fall into this category. To utilize a stage Jew or Irishman, to display an irascible father, a disappointed old bachelor, or a ridiculous fop is to employ dialogue based on character.

Nearly as frequently encountered among comic kinds is dialogue based on situation. We laugh through our superior knowledge of the circumstances and enjoy the dramatic irony of the concealed facts which we, and perhaps some of the other characters, share. The reiteration of belief in an adulterer manqué while the partner in his sin is to our knowledge concealed on the scene, or the imposition by means of disguise of a clever person on a stupid one, are good situational techniques which may lead to the development of amusing, ironic dialogue.

Manifest verbal absurdity is the basis for a third kind of comic dialogue. Puns, intentional or otherwise, mistakes of grammar, excessive, inappropriate or badly designed comparisons are the most commonly encountered comic verbal absurdities. Here the character need not himself be amusing— though most frequently he is—for he can be so briefly displayed as not to develop any character, he can report the words of others, or he can make mistakes which are not truly an aspect of his character as we perceive it.

Historically the most valued of amusing comic dialogue is that based on wit. Wit, that intellectual excellence which we can admire apart from character (hence our admiration for the witty speech of even those characters by whom we are not amused), employs unusual or apt comparisons and irony in obvious or subtle manners. Like manifest absurdity, wit can be an aspect of characterization; and like amusing dialogue based on character, wit can be made an aspect of situation, as when a speaker who is witty ironically comments to a butt who fails to recognize the irony. (Note that manifest absurdity is not the same thing as false wit; false wit amuses largely as an aspect of character, for it is intentional, i.e., intended as wit.)

Of these four kinds of comic dialogue, those based on character and situation are the most commonly employed, that based on manifest absurdity the least attempted, and that founded on wit the least frequently achieved. As a general principle we can say that the great and memorable scenes of comic dramatic literature employ at least three and often all four kinds of comic dialogue in concert. Indeed, the failed attempts of a good many third-rate dramatists of Sheridan’s day as well as the successes of many comic dramatists of genius in all times suggest a corollary, quantitative principle: the more aspects or different representatives of amusing character, the more ironic levels of comic situation, the more manifest absurdity, and the more striking and original wit all used in concert, the more probable the creation of memorable, amusing comic dialogue. Two scenes I have touched on frequently in this study—Jack’s imposition on Mrs. Malaprop, and the screen scene of The School for Scandal— demonstrate both the concert and the quantitative principles admirably, for both scenes depend upon widely different and striking characters, several levels of situational irony, manifest absurdity (to a lesser extent), and wit all used together. Both principles underlie the success of the dialogue in the moments of The Critic.

Take the famous roasting scene of Sir Fretful Plagiary. The scene begins with an immediate situational irony, prepared for by witty characterization, so that we await with pleasure the arrival of ‘‘the sorest man alive . . . [who] shrinks like scorch’d parchment from the fiery ordeal of true criticism.’’ Dangle’s attempt to second Sneer’s remarks on Sir Fretful are stopped by the playwright’s entrance.

Dangle. Ah, my dear friend!—Egad, we were just
speaking of your Tragedy—Admirable, Sir
Fretful, admirable!

Sneer. You never did anything beyond it, Sir Fretful—
never in your life.

Sir Fretful. You make me extremely happy;—for
without a compliment, my dear Sneer, there
isn’t a man in the world whose judgment I
value as I do yours.

Sneer’s cynical double entendre is answered by Sir Fretful’s so that we are led to expect a battle of wits. Mrs. Dangle’s immediate complication of the scene’s irony—‘‘They are only laughing at you, Sir Fretful’’—sparks the first of a series of amusing asides in which Sir Fretful reveals his character by revealing his irritation—‘‘A damn’d double-faced fellow!’’—and we quickly see that Sir Fretful is not capable of matching Sneer’s wit by insinuation, innuendo, and double entendre. As the scene continues, Dangle’s lack of wit contrasts with Sneer’s witty remarks. Both men are willing to discomfit Sir Fretful, and increasingly situation becomes less important than character and wit. At first Sneer’s wit is chiefly in subtle ironic one-liners or occasionally, in neatly prepared jokes. Despite the fact that the subject matter of the conversation is directed outside the immediate situation, Sneer is able to turn it back on Sir Fretful, as in this exchange: Sir Fretful fears that the manager (i.e., Sheridan) might steal something from his tragedy were he allowed to read it.

Sir Fretful. And then, if such a person gives you the
least hint or assistance, he is devilish apt to
take the merit of the whole.—

Dangle. If it succeeds.

Sir Fretful. Aye,—but with regard to this piece, I think
I can hit that gentleman, for I can safely swear
he never read it.

Sneer. I’ll tell you how you may hurt him more—

Sir Fretful. How?—

Sneer. Swear he wrote it.

Situational irony is added to wit and character as the basis for the amusing dialogue which develops as Sneer quotes the imaginary review to an increasingly discomfited Sir Fretful:

Sneer. Why, [the critic] roundly asserts that you have
not the slightest invention, or original genius
whatever; tho’ you are the greatest traducer of
all other authors living.

Sir Fretful. Ha! ha! ha!—very good!

Sneer. That as to Comedy, you have not one idea of
your own, he believes, even in your common
place-book—where stray jokes, and pilfered
witticisms are kept with as much method as the
ledger of the Lost-and-Stolen-office.

Sir Fretful.—Ha! ha! ha!—very pleasant!

Sneer. Nay, that you are so unlucky as not to have the
skill even to steal with taste.—But that you
gleen from the refuse of obscure volumes,
where more judicious plagiarists have been
before you; so that the body of your work is a
composition of dregs and sediments—like a
bad tavern’s worst wine. Sir Fretful. Ha! ha!

Sneer. In your more serious efforts, he says, your
bombast would be less intolerable, if the
thoughts were ever suited to the expression;
but the homeliness of the sentiment stares thro’
the fantastic encumbrance of its fine language,
like a clown in one of the new uniforms!

Sir Fretful. Ha! ha!

Sneer. That your occasional tropes and flowers suit
the general coarseness of your stile, as tambour
sprigs would a ground of linsey-wolsey; while
your imitations of Shakespeare resemble the
mimicry of Falstaff’s Page, and are about as
near the standard of the original.

Sir Fretful. Ha!—

Sneer.—In short, that even the finest passages you
steal are of no service to you; for the poverty of
your own language prevents their assimilating;
so that they lie on the surface like lumps of
marl on a barren moor, encumbering what it is
not in their power to fertilize!—

Sir Fretful. [after great agitation.]—Now another
person would be vex’d at this.

Of course, we value this scene most for the wit; but the dialogue, amusing by virtue of situational irony and character as well as wit, explains why we find the scene more pleasureable than the subsequent witty exchange among Sneer, Dangle, and Puff on the art of puffery. Pleasant as this later scene is, witty and absurd as Puff’s explanations of his art are, scathing as the continued indictment of newspapers and the theater becomes, the scene does not achieve the levels of comic enjoyment possible in the roasting of Sir Fretful. It is too much like those virtuoso recitations continually attempted by the characters of Samuel Foote. Sheridan could outdo Foote in this regard, but as the juxtaposition of these two scenes shows, he could also do more in blending character, situation, and wit.

The moments of the first act of The Critic—Mr. and Mrs. Dangle’s daily jangle, Sir Fretful’s roasting, the Italian singers, and Puff’s art of puffery—are all bound together by their burlesque of the theater in all its aspects. Character largely informs the first scene between the Dangles; character, situation, and wit melds in the dialogue of the second; character to a very small extent, manifest absurdity, and situation make amusing the display of the Italian singers and their French-speaking interpreter; wit, and to a lesser extent, characterization make effective the satiric dialogue of the fourth scene. Any of these scenes could be removed from the burlesque; any could be exchanged with another and not disturb seriously the connections among them, for there is no significant development of character or action. Each is amusing basically for itself; each could have been, and I suspect was, written at a different time; and they were brought together here only by means of the loosest of informing devices.

The two rehearsal acts are moments in that the particular sections of the satirical target under attack at any given time could have been attacked earlier or later in the presentation; there is no principle of development underlying the satire. But the continuity of the unfolding play within the play provides a unity not to be found in the first act, and this, together with Sheridan’s employment of amusing dialogue constantly based on a rich interaction of character, situation, absurdity, and wit gives to acts two and three of The Critic a sustained power not to be found in act one. Puff is oblivious to the quality of his play and speaks of its absurdities as if they were excellencies; his character is further revealed by his comically unjustifiable pique at the actors’ cuts. We are amused too by the irony of the situation. Our own critical standards and the efforts of raisonneur Sneer reveal the concealed truth of the intellectual and creative aesthetic poverty of The Spanish Armada which Puff cannot recognize, Dangle only occasionally seems to notice, and Sneer sarcastically exposes. The manifest absurdities of the dialogue of the play within the play—metaphors piled upon one another with no regard to their aesthetic appropriateness, bathos where there should be pathos—are joined by the manifest absurdities of Puff’s explanations. Sneer’s ironic commentary adds a dimension of wit—wit of an obvious but nonetheless pleasurable sort.

Demonstration of this interaction in any of the various moments of acts two and three threatens to overwhelm even the heavy-handed irony of this section of The Critic. So rather than explicate a scene or two, let me point to Sheridan’s use of three other comic devices of dialogue—repetition, diminution, and what I will call accidental wit. All reinforce the complex interplay of the dialogue. In act one Sheridan had used repetition to good effect with Dangle’s tag lines, ‘‘tho’ he’s my friend!’’ In act two it becomes the principle upon which we find the agreement of all those present on stage in The Spanish Armada to pray to Mars amusing: ‘‘And me!’’ ‘‘And me!’’ ‘‘And me!’’ ‘‘And me!’’ Diminution— a kind of repetition for the specific effect of reduction—adds to character in act one as Sir Fretful’s responses to the imagined criticism gradually change from ‘‘Ha! ha! ha!—very good!’’ to a half-hearted ‘‘Ha!—’’; it serves both purposes of characterization and absurdity in this stichomythic exchange between two characters of The Spanish Armada:

‘‘A retreat in Spain!
‘‘Outlawry here!
‘‘Your daughter’s prayer!
‘‘Your father’s oath!
‘‘My lover!
‘‘My country!
‘‘A title!
‘‘A pension!

The crescendo of economic concerns completely deflates the repetition:

‘‘A thousand pounds!
‘‘Hah! thou hast touch’d me nearly!

But perhaps the funniest lines are built on accidental wit—a combination of character, situation, manifest absurdity, and the approximation of wit. Consider just two examples, both of them Puff’s explanations for problems in his play. Sneer criticizes the decorum of the dialogue:

Sneer. But, Mr. Puff, I think not only the Justice, but
the clown seems to talk in as high a style as the
first hero among them.

Puff. Heaven forbid they should not in a free country!—
Sir, I am not for making slavish distinctions,
and giving all the fine language to the
upper sort of people.

Or perhaps the funniest lines of the play:

Enter A Beefeater.
‘‘Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee.

Sneer. Haven’t I heard that line before?

Puff. No, I fancy not—Where pray?

Dangle. Yes, I think there is something like it in Othello.

Puff. Gad! now you put me in mind on’t, I believe there is—but that’s of no consequence—all that can be said is, that two people happened to hit on the same thought—And Shakespeare made use of it first, that’s all.

Sneer. Very true.

Such effects make the moments of the rehearsal scenes particularly amusing. And even if the informing principle—to burlesque the theater in all its aspects—seems loose, we can be happy that Sheridan was able to cast upon it here and sorry that never again would he bring his ‘‘moments’’ together.

With The Critic we come to the end of Sheridan’s achievement as comic dramatist. There would be another year or two of active work in the theater, but no more literary achievement. On 12 September 1780 Sheridan was elected Member of Parliament for Stafford, and though he remained associated with Drury Lane for more than thirty years, only one major theatrical effort was to come, the pompous and absurd Pizzaro. He kept his hand in, however, and not just in the till; he participated in correcting and revising other dramatists’ work, in coaching and advising actors, and in organizing a few spectacular entertainments; he continually promised de- finitive editions of his own works and continually projected another play, especially when money was short. But never again would he produce a comedy. Perhaps Sheridan knew his powers were going or had gone; perhaps he felt he never would be able to focus the energy necessary to create another masterpiece.

Why have so many great English comic dramatists stopped writing for the stage at relatively young ages? Congreve had produced all his comedies by the time he was thirty; Etherege saw his last play on stage when he was barely forty, Wycherley when he was in his mid-thirties; Wilde’s best play comes from his fortieth year, Synge’s from his thirty-sixth, Jonson’s four or five best from his late thirties and early forties, Coward’s three or four from his early thirties, Vanbrugh’s from his early thirties, Sheridan’s and Farquhar’s from their late twenties. Of course, one cannot give a single answer, unless one wants to invoke so vague a term as ‘‘comic spirit’’ or attribute to youth an exuberance many have displayed in maturer years. Congreve was disgusted with developments in popular taste; Farquhar and Synge died young; Wilde was forbidden a public forum for his wit; and Sheridan entered Parliament to embark on a new and brilliant career. Beyond these few reasons, we can only speculate. In Sheridan’s case, particularly when a new comedy would have meant so much to his always precarious financial position, why did he fail to employ his obvious talents as a comic dramatist? Michael Kelly, a talented musician and performer, relates an anecdote that reveals much:

One evening (probably in the late 1780’s or early 1790’s) that their late Majesties honoured Drury Lane Theatre with their presence, the play, by royal command, was the ‘‘School for Scandal.’’ When Mr. Sheridan was in attendance to light their Majesties to their carriage, the King said to him, ‘‘I am much pleased with your comedy of the ‘School for Scandal;’ but I am still more so, with your play of the ‘Rivals;’—that is my favourite, and I will never give it up.’’

Her Majesty, at the same time said, ‘‘When, Mr. Sheridan, shall we have another play from your masterly pen?’’ He replied, that ‘‘he was writing a comedy, which he expected very shortly to finish.’’

I was told of this; and the next day, walking with him along Piccadilly, I asked him if he had told the Queen, that he was writing a play? He said he had, and that he actually was about one.

‘‘Not you,’’ said I to him; ‘‘you will never write again; you are afraid to write.’’

He fixed his penetrating eye on me, and said, ‘‘Of whom am I afraid?’’

I said, ‘‘You are afraid of the author of the ‘School for Scandal.’’’

I believe, at the time I made the remark, he thought my conjecture right.

However contrived his anecdote sounds, Kelly was correct, of course: Sheridan did not finish another dramatic comedy, though he lived on for thirty-seven years after The Critic. And Kelly was correct in another way, for though today we may value all of Sheridan’s dramatic works, he is still largely remembered as the author of 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. Still, The Critic is a more stageworthy work than either of its major competitors in its time and in ours, The Rehearsal and The Tragedy of Tragedies; for even Sheridan’s burlesque achieves, however artificially, a fusion of wit which only Wilde and Coward have since reached. What a pity that the greatest Georgian playwright would henceforth produce only Pizarro.

Source: Mark S. Auburn, ‘‘The Critic,’’ in Sheridan’s Comedies, University of Nebraska Press, 1977, pp. 157–75.


Critical Overview