Richard Brinsley Sheridan Biography
Was Richard Brinsley Sheridan a truly “sentimental” author? Sheridan’s heyday as a playwright (1775–1779) came amid changing sensibilities in both English culture and theater. The bawdy, rambunctious entertainment of the Restoration gave way to far more conservative drama in the eighteenth century. As a result, plays became concerned with morality and earned the title “sentimental comedies” because of the excessive emotion used to achieve moral lessons. Sheridan’s work arrived late in the sentimental period, when plays were shifting toward social satire. Although the bad are punished and the good rewarded in his work, the characters also take sharp jabs at the society in which Sheridan wrote his witty plays.
Facts and Trivia
- Sheridan was practically born into the theater. His father, Thomas, was an actor-manager at the Theatre Royal in Dublin.
- Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals almost did not become the classic it is regarded as today. Its first performance was disastrous, but when one of the key roles was recast, the play was a success.
- Like his father, Sheridan was also interested in the business aspect of theater (and the money that came with it). In addition to his playwriting, Sheridan was a shareholder in the Drury Lane Theatre.
- Another of Sheridan’s famous plays, The Critic, was not entirely original. It is based on The Rehearsal, a Restoration-era piece.
- Sheridan was highly active in politics. On the heels of his most famous plays, Sheridan served in Parliament for nearly three decades.
In eighteenth century Great Britain, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s lot was pretty much cast when he was born into a genteelly poor Irish theatrical family. All of these social disadvantages, however, worked to his advantage in the theater. Being Irish has given numerous British writers of comedy special insight into the vices and follies of their fellow Britons, as well as the rhetorical skills to air their observations. Being in a theatrical family was obviously an advantage for the aspiring playwright. Finally, being genteelly poor sparked his ambitions with both positive and negative charges. Combined, these factors made Sheridan acutely aware of the disparity between his personal worth and his actual place in society—always a great aid to developing a sense of comic incongruity.
Although lacking wealth and social position, Sheridan’s family was both well educated and talented. Both his father and mother were children of scholarly clergymen. On being graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, Sheridan’s father, Thomas, already a playwright, entered the theater as an actor and soon advanced to manager. Sheridan’s mother, the former Frances Chamberlaine, wrote novels and plays. After initial prosperity, the family of six (Richard was the third son) ran into hard times when a minor political indiscretion—reminiscent of an indiscreet sermon that ruined his own father—forced Thomas out of his position. He suppressed some antigovernment lines in a play, thus antagonizing the Irish public. After two years of acting in London, Thomas tried to reestablish himself in Dublin, but without success. Taking his family with him, he returned to England, where, moving from place to place, he pursued an impecunious existence as actor, author, editor, lecturer on elocution, and projector of ambitious undertakings.
After attending Sam Whyte’s Seminary for the Instruction of Youth in Dublin, Richard was entered into Harrow School, despite the family’s precarious financial situation. How precarious that situation was became evident when, to escape creditors, the rest of the family fled to France, where they lived for several years and where Frances Sheridan died. Left behind at Harrow, Sheridan, lonely and destitute, suffered the abuse heaped on him by his well-bred schoolmates and masters. The unhappy scholar later maintained that he learned little at Harrow.
When his family returned to London, Sheridan, by then a young man, rejoined them. There his education continued informally, and it was completed when, in the fall of 1770, the family moved to Bath, where the father presented entertainments and tried to establish an academy of oratory. The favorite spa of eighteenth century England, Bath gave young Sheridan a closeup study of le beau monde, the fashionable world later depicted in his comedies of manners. He managed to join this scene on the basis of few credentials except a ready wit and charm. In Bath, he also met young Elizabeth Ann Linley, a great beauty and singing member of the musical Linley family, which sometimes collaborated with the Sheridans on entertainments. Elizabeth’s public performances brought her the unwanted attentions of numerous suitors, most notably one Thomas Mathews. The boorish Mathews importuned her so closely that, to escape him, Elizabeth (already the subject of a racy play, Samuel Foote’s The Maid of Bath, 1771) ran away to France—accompanied by Richard Brinsley Sheridan as her protector. After a few weeks, the couple returned, Sheridan fought two duels with Mathews, and, on April 13, 1773, Sheridan and Elizabeth were married.
With this background, Sheridan wrote his plays. He and Elizabeth settled in London, where the need to make a living turned him, like his father, toward the theater. In 1775, he took London by storm, presenting three plays,...
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the first (The Rivals) reflecting his recent romantic past. By 1780, however, his playwriting career was over. Although he owned a managing interest in Drury Lane Theatre, he was beginning a distinguished career in Parliament, which consumed much of his efforts.
Sheridan’s long service in Parliament has no bearing on his playwriting (aside from the fact that it stopped) but much on his reputation. A liberal Whig, Sheridan sympathized with the American and French revolutions and supported such programs as Catholic emancipation. A principled politician, he could not be bribed despite his constant need for money to pay for elections and entertaining. An independent thinker, he sometimes bucked his own party. Such a man was obviously dangerous, especially when he was also such a powerful speaker. Therefore, the leaders of his party used his powers but never allowed him to become a leader. Sheridan even became an adviser and a friend to the prince of Wales, later George IV, but it was the snobbish prince who led the establishment’s strategy against the upstart Sheridan. That strategy was to depict Sheridan as an unreliable lightweight—a strategy dictated at first by Sheridan’s background and later by his drinking and debts.
When Drury Lane Theatre burned in 1809, Sheridan’s debts drained his resources so that he lacked sufficient funds to win an election in 1812, and his political and princely associates swiftly fell away. Although he died in poverty, he was honored with a lavish funeral in Westminster Abbey, attended by scores of solemn dignitaries and peers of the realm. He is buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.