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Richard Brinsley Sheridan 1751-1816

(Born Thomas Brinsley Sheridan) Irish playwright, librettist, and poet. The following entry presents recent criticism of Sheridan's works. For additional discussion of Sheridan's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 5.

During his brief career as a playwright, Sheridan helped revive the English Restoration comedy of manners,...

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Richard Brinsley Sheridan 1751-1816

(Born Thomas Brinsley Sheridan) Irish playwright, librettist, and poet. The following entry presents recent criticism of Sheridan's works. For additional discussion of Sheridan's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 5.

During his brief career as a playwright, Sheridan helped revive the English Restoration comedy of manners, which depicts the amorous intrigues of wealthy society. His best-known comedies, The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777), display Sheridan's talent for sparkling dialogue and farce. Like his Restoration predecessors William Congreve and William Wycherley, Sheridan satirized society, but, unlike them, he softened his humor with gentle morality and sentimentality. While his plays are frequently noted for a lack of incisiveness and psychological depth, they are considered by most commentators to be the work of an outstanding theatrical craftsman. Drawing from earlier dramatic conventions, Sheridan created entertaining and well-wrought comedies that have endured in their popular and critical acclaim.

Biographical Information

Sheridan was born in Dublin in 1751. His father was a prominent actor and his mother a writer. The family moved to London when Sheridan was still a boy. There, Sheridan disliked his schooling, but proved to be an excellent student and began writing poetry at an early age. After composing dramatic sketches with friends, he considered becoming a playwright. His father, however, intended him to study law. When the Sheridans moved to Bath in 1770, Richard met Elizabeth Linley, a singer and famed beauty. Though she had many suitors, Linley eloped with Sheridan in 1773. Shortly after their marriage, Sheridan abandoned his legal studies in order to devote himself to writing. The initial performance of his first play, The Rivals, failed because of miscasting and the play's excessive length. Undaunted by the poor reception, Sheridan recast several roles, abbreviated sections of the play, and reopened it ten days later to a unanimously positive response. With the success of his opera The Duenna; or, the Double Elopement and the comedy St. Patrick's Day; or, The Scheming Lieutenant in 1775, Sheridan established himself as a prominent dramatist. Meanwhile, Sheridan purchased the Drury Lane Theatre and became its manager. In the next two years, he revived a number of Restoration comedies and wrote and staged his most well-known play, The School for Scandal. By the end of the decade, Sheridan had produced his last successful stage work, The Critic; or, Tragedy Rehearsed (1779). In 1780 Sheridan was elected to the House of Commons. His excellence as an orator was duly noted by his contemporaries; however, Sheridan's interest in politics kept him from his theatrical endeavors and his management of the theater became haphazard. He wrote only one more play, Pizarro—an adaptation of August von Kotzebue's drama Die Spanier in Peru oder Rollas Tod—which appeared in 1799. Somewhat later, in an attempt to beautify the aging theater at Drury Lane, Sheridan had the interior completely rebuilt. The structure burned to the ground shortly thereafter, and left without resources, Sheridan was unable to finance another Parliamentary campaign. Most of Sheridan's last years were spent in poverty and disgrace; however, shortly before his death, Sheridan managed to regain his reputation as a distinguished statesman and dramatist. When he died in 1816, he was mourned widely and was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Major Works

In his comic drama The Rivals Sheridan satirizes manners using humor that is pointed but never cruel. Essentially an ironic play about character, The Rivals presents a number of absurd individuals and then proceeds to ridicule their flaws and idiosyncrasies. Among its range of characters, the play introduces the infamous figure of Mrs. Malaprop, from whose humorously inappropriate word usage the term “malapropism” is derived. Sheridan's libretto for the light opera The Duenna features characters and incidents drawn from Roman New Comedy and ends with a double marriage happily realized despite the opposition of Don Jerome—the play's stodgy father figure. Another of Sheridan's minor works, the farcical St. Patrick's Day; or, The Scheming Lieutenant exists very much in the mode of The Rivals and endeavors to amuse audiences with its affable, if preposterous, characters. The School for Scandal is both the most popular of Sheridan's comedies and the most strongly reminiscent of the Restoration period. This attack on a gossip-loving society demonstrates Sheridan's brilliant display of wit in its sharp indictment of manners that departs considerably from the gentle tone and approach of The Rivals. The story follows a double plot as it portrays the manipulative Lady Sneerwell, the hypocritical Joseph Surface, the naïve socialite Lady Teazle, the irascible Sir Peter Teazle, and the reformed libertine Charles Surface, among many other comic figures. Heavily influenced by the Duke of Buckingham's The Rehearsal, Sheridan's The Critic; or, Tragedy Rehearsed provides a satirical look at the theatrical world and is a burlesque of the vanity of artists and critics.

Critical Reception

Although The Rivals and The School for Scandal have been popular since their inception—the former principally for its fine characterization and the latter for its superb use of language and technical refinement—some recent critics have claimed that Sheridan was neither responsible for an English revival of comedy nor particularly innovative. Others have faulted his refusal to develop emotional subtleties in his characters, and have found his dialogue superficially witty, but lacking depth. Some have contended that the deliberate staginess of Sheridan's works detracts from their artistic value. Others have acknowledged that Sheridan chose to exaggerate and vary the traditional comedy of manners in order to heighten the theatricality of his plays and thereby intensify the audience's enjoyment. Contemporary criticism has continued to focus on Sheridan's skilled use of dialogue and manipulation of character in his major dramas, while a number of scholars have also begun to analyze Sheridan's lesser works of drama and poetry, and to study his political career.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 97

The Duenna; or, The Double Elopement (libretto) 1775

The Rivals (play) 1775

St. Patrick's Day; or, The Scheming Lieutenant (play) 1775

The School for Scandal (play) 1777

A Trip to Scarborough [adapter; from the play The Relapse by John Vanbrugh] (play) 1777

The Critic; or, Tragedy Rehearsed (play) 1779

Pizarro [adapter; from the play Die Spanier in Peru oder Rollas Tod by August von Kotzebue] (play) 1799

The Works of the Late Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan (plays) 1821

The Plays and Poems of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (plays and poetry) 1928

The Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (letters) 1966

The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (plays) 1973

Jack D. Durant (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: “Poet,” in Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 47-64.

[In the following excerpt, Durant surveys Sheridan's work as a poet.]

Whether penning a sweet love lyric to Eliza, or dashing off a song for performance at the theater, or acknowledging some special occasion, great or small, Sheridan always displayed a bright flair for versifying. Excluding the songs in his major plays, his poetic canon includes at least sixty titles; and these poems embrace an immense variety of forms and subjects and obviously constitute a substantial segment of Sheridan's literary achievement.


Quite possibly he broke into print as a poet on May 9, 1771, with the publication in The Bath Chronicle of “Hymen and Hirco: A Vision,” a rather bland “Juvenalian” satire attacking Walter Long, the aging Wiltshire squire who for a time was contracted to marry Elizabeth Linley, Sheridan's own future bride. But a poem quite definitely Sheridan's appeared in The Bath Chronicle on October 10, 1771: “The Ridotto of Bath, a Panegyrick, Being an Epistle from Timothy Screw, Under Server to Messrs. Kuhf and Fitzwater, to his brother Henry, Waiter at Almack's.” The little poem satirizes the opening ball at the New Assembly Rooms of Bath—an occasion gloriously celebrated just ten days earlier on September 30—and, in doing so, it cleverly imitates the eleventh and thirteenth letters of Christopher Anstey's roistering verse novel, the New Bath Guide (1766). Executed in the anapestic couplets popularized for satire by Anstey, it also features, as one critic notes, “the same chit-chat, the same mild, laughing satire upon modish follies, the same snobbishness about social risers, and even the same ‘character’ naming” typical of the Guide—e.g., Tom Handleflask, Miss Churchface, Madame Crib’em, Peg Runt.1 Young Sheridan obviously hoped to use the credit of Anstey's popularity, but his imitation reflects an appropriate artistic tact; for by 1771 the Guide widely symbolized the reckless mood of Bath gaiety.

The chief merit of the “Ridotto of Bath” appears in its structure. After two brief preliminary sections, events proceed chronologically from seven in the evening, when the gala begins, to one in the morning, when everyone goes home; but, within the framework of this simple structure, the poet generates a system of delightful dramatic tensions and leads through them to a final, rowdy climax. Tensions take hold even at the outset where the narrator, a veteran waiter, declares this ridotto to be the grandest of his long experience. A mock ominousness compounds these tensions when in his second brief prefatory comment the narrator tells how the Mayor of Bath, on hearing that the new entertainment parlors will house a “Red Otter,” threatens to cancel the grand opening. And the sense of foreboding generated by this threat takes emphasis, in turn, from the earliest description of the guests attending the ridotto, many of whom have ignored the regulations for dress specified by the master of ceremonies. Thus tensions inherent in the grandness of the affair are immediately heightened by the threat of cancellation and by signs of social anarchy within the company.

The climax toward which these tensions build is the assault upon the sideboard, which takes place in the long penultimate section of the poem. It is a climax prepared by a descriptive passage confirming in close detail the reader's worst fears about the company assembled: an undisciplined mob, highlighted by the glitter of cheap paste jewelry, mixing low and polite society, dancing grotesquely to the lilting jigs of oboe and fiddle. To elevate his climax even above this chaos of merriment, Sheridan introduces a dramatic pause into the narrative: the din subsides; the music stops; order presides. But out of this disconcerting silence soon rumbles a crushing stampede. Dinner is served:

Our outworks they storm’d with prowess most
And jellies and cakes carried off by the handful;
While some our lines enter’d, with courage undaunted,
Nor quitted the trench till they’d got what they 
          wanted. (122)(2)

Although the closing section of the poem covers a sizable segment of time—from the dinner hour to one o’clock in the morning—it is itself quite brief, a foreshortened denouement to the little narrative. In it, the narrator mentions the continuing “folly, confusion, and pathos” of the ridotto; but he describes no action and generates no tension. He does nothing to dissipate the impact of the chaotic dining room scene. From beginning to end, Sheridan sustains the structural integrity of his poem, always supplying detail and controlling tensions in careful support of a single, riotous climax.

Unfortunately, very little within the poem supports its effective structure. The narrative persona, Timothy Screw, assumes no clear identity, though he postures after a studied comic diffidence. The young poet's ventures into dialect humor (“Red Otter” for “ridotto,” “Hogstyegon” for “octagon,” “purdigiously” for “prodigiously,” “suffocking” for “suffocating”) fare feebly at best; and his anapests stumble badly at times, e.g., “In sympathy beat the balcony above” (121). The mere thought of a grand Bath ball, says Anstey's Simkin Bernard, “Gives life to my numbers, and strength to my verse.” Sheridan's Timothy Screw professes a comparable enthusiasm, but his numbers and verse fail to reflect it.

Despite its failings, however, “The Ridotto of Bath” earned popularity sufficient to enshrine it in the New Foundling Hospital for Wit (1771), a widely circulated anthology of current verse; and, by virtue of Sheridan's fine sense of drama and form, the little poem clearly elevates itself above mere “trifle” and “commonplace.”3 In being satire, of course, it ranks low on Sheridan's own scale of theoretical values—the values he suggests in his later poems “Clio's Protest” (1771) and “A Familiar Epistle” (1774). But, even while warning in these poems against the dangers of satire, he demonstrates in them as lively a satiric turn of mind as he demonstrates in “The Ridotto of Bath.” Certainly “Clio's Protest” shows a mastery of Hudibrastic techniques—the driving pace, the extravagant rhymes, the casual tone, the sporadic asides, the studied digressions—and “A Familiar Epistle” sees these same techniques sharpened and intensified after the manner of Charles Churchill: the feminine endings dramatically reduced, the tone perceptibly darkened, the sense of order more systematically asserted. In these two poems, as in “The Ridotto,” the young poet has major problems with the syntax, which is loose and sometimes contrived, and in the phrasal excesses which drain many lines of their rhetorical energy and graphic interest. At the same time, however, all three poems reflect his metrical and dictional versatility and his keen ear for parody and imitation. Despite his theoretical distaste for satire, Sheridan was an effective verse satirist from the start.


Long ago Ernest Rhys concluded that “no song or lyric can hope to reach the ear of the common people which cannot draw, as the old folksongs did, on the congenial living rhythms of its own day.”4 Sheridan's essential poetic embraces this concept, and his sharp ear for the congenial living rhythms of his day gave rise to many an easy occasional poem. Shaping his taste for lyric verse, according to Sichel, was Sheridan's schoolboy experience with Horace, Theocritus, and Anacreon; but chiefly he immersed himself in the seventeenth-century love songs of Jonson and his school. “He stood on a lower plane than most of the Cavalier lyrists,” writes Sichel, “but none the less on a plane distinguished of its kind. And he moved there with rambling footsteps.”5

These footsteps ranged widely among lyric metrical reaches, traversing puckish anacreontics, lambent dactyls, lilting anapests, close-cropped iambs, a splendid variety of song-book measures, often used in intricate combinations, always fashioned to “read themselves into harmony,” after Sheridan's characteristic manner. Taken all-in-all (Rhodes collects thirty-seven in his edition), they meet virtually every specification prescribed for good occasional poetry by Frederick Locker-Lampson, the acknowledged master of vers de société. For the most part, they are “graceful, refined, and fanciful, not seldom distinguished by chastened sentiment, and often playful.” Their rhyme is “frequent and never forced.” They are marked by “tasteful moderation, high finish and completeness”; and they project a wide spectrum of attitudes and tones: “whimsically sad,” “gay and gallant,” “playfully malicious,” “tenderly ironical,” “satirically facetious.” They are rarely “flat, or ponderous, or commonplace”; and they are often graced with important “qualities of brevity and buoyancy.”6

Sheridan's love lyrics, most of them products of his courtship with Elizabeth Linley, not only represent the largest corpus of his occasional verse but also exemplify his best lyric craftsmanship. Although many of them spring from autobiographical roots, they carefully employ the conventional generic idiom, masking personal identities behind such pastoral names as Delia, Sylvio, Eliza, and Damon. And, while Sheridan certainly lived his personal love intensely, he remains artist enough to perceive the nicest dramatic potential of a love experience and to exercise over his poems a controlled emotional detachment. The psychological ironies of love obviously fascinate him: that in the blush of youth lovers should contemplate death, that the most intense affection is liable to transiency, that the most innocent and well-intentioned love-counsel can provoke rebuff, and that a “dear delight” companions love-depair. Sheridan seeks no logical resolution to such ironies; instead, he contrives a miniature play, a sensitive little melodrama, in which the speaker tells someone (or something) about the curious awareness love has sparked in him. The distance separating the speaker from his audience varies from poem to poem, for sometimes, as in “We Two, Each Other's Only Pride” (240), the auditor seems close at hand, ready to reply. At other times, as in “To the Recording Angel” (231), he seems far removed but spiritually accessible. At yet other times, as in “On the Death of Elizabeth Linley” (251), the tiny drama unfolds in solemn soliloquy, not self-indulgent but affecting, the pastoral names tactfully put aside.

Just as the love poems are more often experiential than argumentative, they are often more declarative than pictorial. In “The Grotto,” for example, where the despairing speaker addresses first the “grotto of moss cover’d stone” then the “willow with leaves dripping dew” (232), the physical details function less as images than as agents of dialogue. Much the same concept governs the physical detail in “To Elizabeth Linley” in which the earnest Sylvio threatens to “hate flowers, elms, sweet bird, and grove” unless Eliza now sings to him the songs she has sung earlier to the woods and trees. The charming lyric “To Laura”—which vacillates irregularly between four- and five-line ballad stanzas, concluding in a stanzaic couplet—again finds a pensive speaker addressing the Nature he sees and feels; yet here the dramatic setting assumes a clarity unusual for Sheridan, picturing “a willow of no vulgar size,” with shady boughs and roots providing a “moss-grown seat,” the tree's bark “shatter’d” (as the poet puts it) by the inscription of Laura's name. Fretted further with emphatic images of an “azure” sky, “rosy-ting’d” sunbeams, and the “roseate wings” of May, the poem offers the most highly particularized imagery in Sheridan's love verse (possibly excepting “On the Death of Elizabeth Linley”); and it suggests at the same time how small a role pictorial details play in the total effect of his lyricism. With comparable generality he celebrates in other love lyrics his lady's “eye of heav’nly blue” and her “cheek of roseate hue.” Obviously embarrassed by such formulaic descriptions, he succeeds best at lampooning them, as he does in an anacreontic beginning “I ne’er could any lustre see / In eyes that would not look on me” (225), a poem rivaling convention in the spirit of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130.

Most of the best qualities of Sheridan's love-lyricism appear in a sensitive three-stanza lyric “Dry Be That Tear,” probably dating to the courtship period 1770-72. According to Moore, this poem smacks of a French madrigal by Gibert de Montreuil, who probably had it from an Italian song by Gilles de Ménage; but Sheridan likely took the sentiment from David Hume's essay “The Epicurean,” Hume having got it from Continental sources.7 The first stanza runs as follows:

Dry be that tear, my gentlest love,
                    Be hush’d that struggling sigh,
Nor seasons, day, nor fate shall prove
                    More fix’d, more true than I.
Hush’d be that sigh, be dry that tear,
Cease boding doubt, cease anxious fear.—
                    Dry be that tear.

These lines suggest again that Sheridan's lyric imagination is aural, not visual; that it is declarative, not argumentative. As Sichel suggests, the poem “sets itself to music by the rise and fall of its melody.”8 Through patterns of repetition, it seems to savor its own sounds; its medial pauses and parallel phrases govern the tempo and sustain soft overtones even to the final muted echo: “Dry be that tear.” The remaining two stanzas evince the same closely disciplined rhetoric, the same balanced phrasal patterns (modulated as here by varying accentual meters), the same six-line ballad scheme (ababcc) with the bobbed tail-rhyme redolent of Sir Thomas Wyatt's “My Lute Awake!” Perhaps it bears saying here that the opening lines of this lyric were borrowed from a “Dwarf Elegy on a Lady of Middle Age” by Nathaniel Brassey Halhed.9 They so struck Sheridan's fancy that he repeated them in 1795 at the outset of an “Elegy on the Death of a British Officer,” a poem printed with “Clio's Protest” in 1819 under the title “Verses Addressed to Laura” and beginning “Scarce hush’d the sigh, scarce dried the [lingering] tear.”

Fugitive poems not treating of love turn like the love lyrics upon subtly ironic situations, but they do so quite whimsically and often quite satirically. Again the concepts are largely declarative, not closely analyzed, not logically resolved nor imaged forth. And again many a light irony tickles the poet's fancy: an urbane lady complains that the birds in Hyde Park trouble her with country sounds (241); the founder of Brooks's Club, a great moneylender, pays at last his own moral mortgage in heaven (248); Lady Anne Hamilton, indulged in every luxury, laments her “sad” human lot (253); two eminent speakers of the House of Commons lie together dead as they had “lied” living. By technical devices Sheridan touches such ironies as these with just the right twinkling of an eye, just the right hint of a smile. Thus he lets the super-urbanized Hyde Park lady speak for herself, ingenuously, in sweeping anapests (his second use of Anstey's measure), gaily effusing the innocent vacuity of bon ton taste. In the “Epitaph on Brooks,” he mixes lugubrious tones with irreverent jingle measures. He uses separated anapestic couplets to catalogue the bright good fortunes of Lady Anne Hamilton, ending each second line with the playful phrase “——poor Anne.” And, in mock incantation, as though a hymn were parodied, he eulogizes the two dead speakers of the House of Commons: “Mourn, mourn, St. Stephen's Choirs with ceaseless grieving / Two kindred spirits from the senate fled” (249).

The nice perception enabling Sheridan to define subtle social ironies also sharpens his delight in trivia—a delight inspiring, for example, a gentle mock elegy on the death of his wife's avadavat. “Each bird that is born of an egg has its date,” the little poem soulfully admits. But so special a bird as this one, schooled to its song by Elizabeth's own sweet voice, will surely outsing every Muse in heaven (249). Other poems celebrating great conflicts born of trivial things include “Lines By a Lady on the Loss of Her Trunk,” an Anstey's measure in which each terminal word rhymes with “trunk” until the poem exhausts itself for want of available rhymes (254), and “The Walse,” which coolly attributes the waltz step, introduced into England in 1812, to the craftiness of the devil who had contrived that a gentleman's hand should rest upon a lady's hip, even in public (257).

In other fugitive poems, Sheridan displays a fine flair for patriotic verse and a gift for lively political caricature. As a patriotic versifier, for example, he composed on a moment's notice two rousing songs for an interlude to Harlequin Fortunatus, a pantomime produced at Drury Lane on January 3, 1780. Both these songs develop the dulce et decorum theme: one heartens the lonely midnight watch to thoughts of glory; the other braces the soldiers at the ramparts and rings the resolute chorus “Britons, strike home revenge your country's wrong” (239). This instinct for patriotic bravura also gives rise to a much-celebrated stanza written impromptu and appended to the National Anthem to be sung at Drury Lane in special tribute to the King, who that very evening (in 1800) had narrowly escaped assassination at the theater.

As political caricaturist, Sheridan dabbled “at various dates” in a few pasquinades, impaling on the point of a rusty doggerel those political figures whose names fell naturally into swinging anapests or amphibracs: “Johnny W—-lks, Johnny W—-lks;” “Jack Ch—-ch—-ll, Jack Ch—-ch—-ll;” “Captain K—-th, Captain K—-th,” etc. (259-60). According to Crompton Rhodes, the rough-hewn, eight-line stanzas, a discrete scattering of them found among Sheridan's papers, fit the melody of a popular air beginning “Mistress Arne, Mistress Arne / It gives me concarn.”10 And while, as Moore long ago remarked, time has “removed their venom, and with it, in a great degree, their wit,”11 the faded caricatures still suggest the writer's true eye for his subjects' foibles and his true aim in striking them down. Sheridan's real merit as a character poet, however, endures in “A Portrait for Amoret,” a splendid panegyric upon Mrs. Frances Crewe.


“A Portrait for Amoret” was written as a prefatory compliment to be bound with a handsome manuscript copy of The School for Scandal presented by Sheridan to Mrs. Crewe soon after the play was introduced on May 8, 1777. Correspondence between Lord Camden and David Garrick indicates that the poem was in circulation within four months after the first performance of the play,12 but it did not appear in print until much later, and then surreptitiously, causing Sheridan, when he saw it, to remark in a letter to his second wife that Nature had made him in his youth “an ardent romantic Blockhead.”13

By all contemporary accounts, the incomparable Frances Crewe, only daughter of Fulke Greville, readily fired the ardor of many a fawning macaroni; but Sheridan's poem is really quite restrained and is perhaps the more ardent for its restraint. It develops in four parts: (1) an invocation to the Daughters of Calumny, promising to portray for them a lady unassailable by slander; (2) invocations to Mrs. Crewe herself (“Amoret”) and to the Muse who must portray her; (3) the portrait of Amoret, which treats in turn of her splendid bearing, her captivating manner, her arresting modesty, her intriguing lips, her tactfully “irresolute” eyes, her killing smile, her ready wit, her diffident manner (“female doubt”), her spritely heart, her taste for mirth, her refined raillery, her “scorn of folly,” and her high respect for talent; and (4) a grudging concession by the Daughters of Calumny that the lady portrayed, finally identified as Mrs. Crewe, does indeed defy all slander and envy.

Certainly Crompton Rhodes is right in complaining that the practice of printing Mrs. Crewe's name immediately beneath the title of the poem, a practice apparently customary in editions earlier than his own,14 destroys the rhetorical conceit intended by Sheridan. Rhodes is right, too, in maintaining that the poem does not, as Sichel and others have held,15 credit Mrs. Crewe with inspiring The School for Scandal, although the “adepts at Scandal's School” in the poem suggest the Scandal College of the play, especially as to types and varieties of scandalmongering. Quite irrespective of the play, it is Mrs. Crewe alone who has “cast a fatal gloom o’er Scandal's reign” (205). Sheridan specifies this emphasis not only by omitting from the poem all direct reference to The School for Scandal but also, and most importantly, by building the poem around an extended suspense conceit. Throughout all four structural segments, he withholds the true identity of his celebrated subject, heightening interest through the cumulative details of the picture. Only with the last word of the poem, spoken after an emphatic pause, does he cast aside her fictive name: “Thee my inspirer; and my model—Crewe!” And thus emphatically does he complete the portrait.

It is important to bear in mind, of course, that his device is for suspense, not for surprise. The terminal word satisfies expectation; it does not shock or outrage it. Once “A Portrait for Amoret” is completed, the reader delights that he has played the game of rhetorical suspense, and he then returns to the poem—as to any completed portrait—to delight further in its textures and lineaments. In view of Sheridan's liberal theories of prosody, “A Portrait” is the more interesting for its closely disciplined meter. It is written in heroic couplets of a highly restrictive sort. Caesuras fall customarily after the fourth, fifth, or sixth syllables. Most of the rhyming terms are “action words,” either verbs or verbals, long in pronunciation. Although many shades of verbal coloring suggest themselves, Sheridan does not allow music to smother sense. Each narrow cell of sense takes interest from its own distinctive rhetoric, contributing to a rich variety of balanced constructions—sometimes with antithesis, sometimes by echo, sometimes between equal parts, showing two stressed accents on each side a medial pause, sometimes between unequal parts, showing two stressed accents on one side the pause and three on the other. Variety derives, too, from phrasal sequences, from intricate systems of repetition, from the echo of initial terms. But, amidst all this variety, the formal identity of the heroic couplet remains strong: there is virtually no enjambment between couplets.

If Sheridan still felt in 1777, as he had felt in 1771, that versification should closely complement the subject versified, it perhaps seems curious that so formal a meter should serve the subject of this poem. But since, as Wallace Cable Brown remarks, the heroic couplet is the most rigid poetic form, it is also the form in which “the greatest variations are possible without destroying the basic pattern.”16 As Sheridan pictures Mrs. Crewe, then, the strict heroic couplet is an ideal metrical form. Within the tight framework of its basic pattern—both stanzaically and structurally—the exciting variety of Mrs. Crewe's character scintillates in the rhetorical variety of the verse.

The closing couplets of the poem mention color and outline: “And lo! each pallid hag, with blister’d tongue … Owns all the colours just; the outline true” (11. 121, 123), but apart from rhetorical and verbal effects, few colors or outlines really appear. What does appear is a careful modulation of tones, starting with the brusque and irritable apostrophe to the Daughters of Calumny (with the sharp imperative “Attend!” repeated at the outset of four couplets). Following, then, is tonal modulation to the quiet invocation of Amoret “Come, gentle Amoret … Come” (11. 25, 27). Afterward the portrait itself takes form, not in sensory detail, but in verbal tones and rhetorical schemes, helping to delineate the personal qualities of the lady portrayed. Here is a representative passage:

Adorning Fashion, unadorn’d by dress,
Simple from taste, and not from carelessness;
Discreet in gesture, in deportment mild
Not stiff with prudence, nor uncouthly wild;
No state has Amoret! no studied mien;
She frowns no goddess, and she moves no 
          queen. (202)

It is the simplex munditiis convention again, managed here much more successfully than in the translations. In the first two of the couplets, the balanced four-stress lines, joined in each case by an unaccented syllable or by a monosyllabic “low” word (as Tillotson labels the device),17 point in their rhetoric a simple elegance complimenting Amoret's bearing. The third couplet, which shifts to a negative emphasis, properly accents the negative terms in its scansion, most strongly stressing in each line the single iterative term “no,” and thus really accenting only two syllables a line.

The shift in rhetoric, then, accompanies the shift in descriptive emphasis. In other words, rhetorical and verbal coloring help to delineate personal quality. And it is worth reiterating that Sheridan favors throughout the poem qualities of character over physical detail. The blush in Amoret's cheek betokens her modesty; her lips and eyelids move at the bidding of love; her taste for mirth bespeaks a contemplative mind. These and other high qualities receive form and vitality through apt tonal and rhetorical variations; and, in this tonal and rhetorical sense, the reader, like the Daughters of Calumny, must “Own the colours just; the outline true.”


A second of Sheridan's major poems—his “Verses to the Memory of Garrick” (1779)—also features tight heroic couplets; and again the poem achieves remarkable variety within the limitations of its medium. This time, however, Sheridan calls more deliberately upon a subtle principle of metrical tensions—one serving to heighten the dramatic effects of oral presentation. In his study of English prosody in the eighteenth century, Paul Fussell sees this principle as originating in 1745 with Samuel Say's Poems on Several Occasions. It recognizes two levels of scansion in the poetic line—one based on actual sense stress, the other on theoretical or artificial stress—and holds that prosodic pleasures derive from a continuing conflict between the two levels. Where they coincide, no prosodic tensions develop; but, where they pull apart, tensions, and the consequent prosodic pleasures, result.18 Sheridan seems to suggest this concept in his unfinished treatise on prosody, in which he insists that “A verse should read itself into harmony,” asserting its own “actual rithm,” but adds that “we may vary the accent as we please and the propriety is in doing so melodiously.”19 Writing in 1775, Thomas Sheridan states the concept in yet another way by declaring that “to render numbers for any time pleasing to the ear, variety is as essential as uniformity”; and he adds that “the highest ornament of versification arises from disparity in the members, equality in the whole.”20 Both the Sheridans echo Say's call for “a proper Mixture of Uniformity and Variety” to effect prosodic tension.21

Although written in eleven stanzas of varying lengths, the monody on Garrick falls into four distinct organizational segments; and their content suggests the discrete portions of a Classical oration. In the first, an exordium (11.1-20), the speaker points the aptness of this tribute to Garrick, a tribute properly paid here in the great actor's own theater. The second, a kind of narratio (11. 21-62), considers acting in relation to painting, sculpture, and poetry; and it concludes that of all these arts only acting stands vulnerable to time. The third, a confirmatio (11. 63-78), defines in sequence the qualities of the actor's art and proves the ephemerality of these qualities. The fourth, a peroratio (11. 79-112), urges Garrick's admirers to immortalize his artistry in their memories, since of itself it lacks enduring substance. Contemporary periodical sources indicate that “airs of a solemn nature” twice interrupt the theatrical reading of the poem.22 The first, a setting of lines nine and ten, embellishes the exordium; the second, following line seventy-eight, introduces the peroratio (perhaps covering lines 79 through 83 as set off stanzaically in the text). The elder Thomas Linley scored these interludes, introducing into them a variety of choruses, airs, and vocal ensembles. He also composed special instrumental pieces to precede and follow the recitation. Printed in four quarto pages, the music was probably sold at the theater; but it had not the distribution, certainly, that the text of the monody had.

As published by T. Evans and others late in March, 1779, the text of the monody provides several clear signals to metrical emphasis—reduced capitals, contractions, marked caesuras, exclamation points, expletives—devices showing where the poem's theoretical scansion must be observed and where it must not. The exordium, for example, features a close marriage of spoken and theoretical scansions, contractions often cementing the marriage, as in line four: “For fabled Suffe’rers, and delusive Woe.”23 Those portions of the narratio treating of painting and sculpture also cling to prosodic wedlock, though a capitalized “His Works” in line twenty-eight offers to shatter the bond: “With undiminish’d Awe His Works are view’d.” In the third part of the narratio (the discourse on poetry), however, a prosodic tension takes hold, signaled by pronounced caesuras and trochaic substitutions as well as by reduced capitals: “The Pride of Glory—Pity's Sigh sincere—” (1. 53); “Such is Their Meed, Their Honors thus secure” (1.55). And this tension heralds the emotive climax of the piece: the confirmatio and the early portions of the peroratio (11. 63-78; 83-92).

Since the poem seeks throughout to be logically persuasive, it is nowhere passionate or irrational. In the confirmatio, however, it engages a pathos commensurate with the irony of the actor's lot. It defines in turn the qualities of his art—grace of action, adopted mien, expressive glance, gesture, harmonious speech—at last bringing the catalogue to this effective conclusion (11. 73-78).

Passion's wild break,—and Frown that awes the
And every Charm of gentler Eloquence—
All perishable!—like the ’Electric Fire
But strike the Frame—and as they strike expire;
Incense too pure a bodied Flame to bear,
It’s Fragrance charms the Sense, and blends with Air.

Moore writes that certain of Sheridan's friends urged him to alter line seventy-five, causing the emphatic phrase “All perishable!” to read “All doomed to perish.”24 And, in refusing to make the change, Sheridan suggests the deliberate care with which he blends uniformity and variety not only here but at apt places throughout the poem. A wealth of metrical variety suggests itself even in these few lines quoted.

The trochaic patterns enforced by the initial terms “Passion's” and “Incense,” for example, precisely recall the fundamental technique of “variety in uniformity” as urged in Thomas Sheridan's lectures on reading. So do the hovering medial pauses, marked typographically by the dash, and the “demicaesuras” synchronized with them to introduce “a diversity of proportion in the measurement of the pauses” (cf. 11. 73. and 76).25 The celebrated seventy-fifth line, moreover, demonstrates in the opening phrase (“All perishable!”) the intermixture of spondees and pyrrhics, a device for variety much admired by the elder Sheridan; and, in its closing phrase (“—like the ’Electric Fire”), the line engages a medial trochee calculated, as Thomas Sheridan would interpret it, to shatter melody while heightening expression.26

In short, appropriate variety characterizes the entire poem. The more coolly rational passages show least prosodic tension; the more emotionally excited ones place proper oral scansion at odds with regular iambic cadence. Verbal coloring everywhere supports prosodic effects—cf, “the Meed of mournful Verse” (1. 11); “Pity's sigh sincere” (1. 53) “with Force and Feeling fraught” (1. 67)—but here, as in the “Portrait for Amoret,” the figurism remains much more rhetorical than sensuous. The poem always asserts its own integrity, its “actual rithm.” At appropriate times, however, it signals the reader to “vary the accent,” to violate the prosodic surface, to cooperate with the poetry—but not to overwhelm it—in evoking apt dramatic response.

In staging the monody as introduced at Drury Lane on March 11, 1779, Sheridan probably imitated the production ten years earlier of Garrick's own Ode Upon Dedicating a Building and Erecting a Statue to Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, for just as the ode featured choristers banked behind a statue of Shakespeare, with the reader (Garrick) and several soloists stationed in the foreground, so the monody featured a choir arranged “as at oratorios,”27 with the tragic actress Mary Ann Yates standing center-forward to read the poem beside a portrait of Garrick. Except for these superficial details of production, however, the two poems are vastly unlike; for while Garrick constantly shifted the metrical pace of his poem, following the tradition of the cantata ode, Sheridan patiently plied his heroic couplets, finding metrical variety and dramatic tension in the prosodic resources of the verse.

The monody held the boards for ten performances28—certainly a creditable record for a funeral oration, especially in that Garrick's jubilee ode could manage only eight. And when in 1816 Lord Byron's monody on Sheridan was read at Drury Lane, its close metrical imitation of Sheridan's poem clearly attested to Byron's view that the monody on Garrick was the best “address” in the language.29


Considering Sheridan's prologues and epilogues among thousands of others, Mary Etta Knapp leaves no question that he closely embraced presiding convention in them. According with convention, he generally thought of prologues and epilogues as being dramatic presentations separate and distinct from the plays they preceded or followed. In composing them, he shamelessly pilfered weary conventional conceits. He warmed over many a stale and moldy theme, apparently always ready (despite the merit of the case he pleaded) to curry favor from an audience usually innocent of clear judgment and often jaded of taste. In short, Sheridan nowhere belies Miss Knapp's comfortable generalization that “the prologues and epilogues of the eighteenth century are characteristic of their own time, reflecting the minutiae of daily life, presenting the difficulties and triumphs of the theatre, obeying changes in taste, recording in a lively manner social and dramatic history.”30

At the same time, however, Sheridan's pieces engage the Classic paradox of prologue writing. As Miss Knapp herself notes, and as she quotes Henry Fielding as noting in his day, the work of individual prologue-epilogue writers often asserts a striking distinctiveness, even though the general conceptual detail of their work may be largely conventional.31 Such, certainly, is Sheridan's case. His prologues and epilogues—only twelve in sum—add little leaven to the lump; but they clearly outline his assessment of the genre itself, suggesting his views (1) that prologues and epilogues must acknowledge the privileged position of the audience; (2) that their rhetoric is usually persuasive; (3) that their office is usually instructive; and (4) that they thrive upon formal and thematic convention.

In acknowledging the privileged position of the audience, Sheridan's prologues and epilogues see the playgoers as critics in spite of themselves. They have come to the theater to be entertained; but they seem, from the poet's point of view, to have no clear idea what constitutes good entertainment. The amorphous, corporate judgment they assert needs definition; so the prologues and epilogues define the judgment. In effect, they tell the audience what it likes and why it likes what it likes, thus to contrive a union of interests (more or less specific) between the playgoers and the play they are about to see or have just seen. Actually, then, the poet maintains authority over his audience, even as he acknowledges the audience's privileged position as critic malgré lui. Sheridan naturally delights in this sort of psychological situation; and (at least after the success of his first play) he exploits it delightfully by quite coolly manipulating the distance between his audience and the speaker of his piece.

His earliest fully extant prologue, for example (that for the second night of The Rivals, January 28, 1775), is an acting piece spoken between a sergeant-at-law and an attorney.32 Its scenic point of view and its rather formal concluding set speech, in which the sergeant pleads the young poet's brief, hold the audience at a respectful distance and seek favor through cautious and tentative flattery, as befits the precarious position of a beginner whose first play owes its second performance wholly to the extraordinary indulgence of a sympathetic first-night jury. Even in this tentativeness, however, the poet (through his solicitor) declares the audience (jury) his friend, promises that he seeks only to please, insists that he values good criticism, and utterly disarms hostility by placing the playgoers in a constructive critical position. In effect, he invites the playgoers to co-authorship with him in the play, thus subtly sharing with them responsibility for its success and its failure. They are therefore much inclined to admire its merits and to minimize its weaknesses, especially since this second performance (given eleven days after the first and revised in response to first-night criticism) reflects the young poet's sincerity in seeking their friendly aid.

His case at last favorably decided, he greets his tenth-night audience with a new and warmly intimate prologue33 spoken by Mrs. Bulkley, who plays Julia Melville in the production; and in it she directly solicits the playgoer's indulgences not for the playwright but for the Muse. Again, however, he acknowledges the privileged position of the audience by having his speaker encourage between playgoers and playwrights a cooperative effort against the usurping bastard, sentimental comedy. He does not dictate taste; he rather defines among friends a cogent detail of good judgment. Such a covert but persistent tact characterizes even the most insolent of his prologues and epilogues.

Thus if the epilogue to Edward and Eleanora (1775) assails at the outset the marital indifference of every wife in the audience, it finally rights matters by identifying them all with the martyred heroine of the play and thereby cleverly translates insult into compliment. If the epilogue to Semiramis (1776) attacks the demands of taste by offering a serious epilogue after tragedy, rather than the conventional comic one,34 it disarms criticism by applauding at last the expansive “feeling heart” of the audience. If the epilogue to The Fatal Falsehood (1779) fiercely offers to damn the mediocrity of bluestocking scribblers, it finally yields to a proper chivalry and ends with compliments “vastly civil to Female Talent,” as Sheridan puts it in a letter to Garrick.35 Although psychic distance may vary from piece to piece, the controlling decorum is always the same: while honoring the audience's privilege as critic and customer, the poet asserts his own professional authority, subtly shaping the playgoer's judgment after his own.

The rhetoric of such a decorum is perforce persuasive, and the thematic aim is an instructive one. Topics for instruction in Sheridan's prologues and epilogues include not only esthetic matters but also moral and theatrical ones. For example, his prologue to The Miniature Picture (1780) points out the difficulties of meeting anticipated production schedules and then deplores the persisting popular taste for imported entertainments.36 His managerial disgust for foreign art (especially the ballet and the opera) again erupts in the epilogue to The Fair Circassian (1781), where he openly laments the high salaries paid foreign performers. Quite conventional in theme, both these pieces instruct the audience to an awareness that imported art poisons the lifeblood of the English theater. On grounds both patriotic and artistic, they champion allegiance to the native stage.

Another theatrical topic, this one treated in an epilogue for a benefit play (undated), teaches the audience that an actor's lot is not a happy one—that for him the verdant springtime, which keeps playgoers out-of-doors and away from benefit performances, is often a bitter winter of the soul. Since each item of instruction implies a consequent obligation, all the prologues and epilogues treating of theatrical matters assert a moral emphasis, a clearly defined implication of oughtness. In effect, they say that playgoers ought to support the native stage, that they ought to sympathize with the manager's scheduling problems, that they ought to attend benefit performances, despite the inviting freshness of the spring. Similarly, the esthetic pieces tell the playgoers what they ought to admire and how they ought to let art—at least some forms of it—enrich their lives.

Sheridan's understanding of the prologue-epilogue genre, his sense of its integrity, apparently presupposes extensive use of formal conventions—the acting piece,37 the plaintiff-jury metaphor,38 the practice of having the speaker address each level of the house in turn39—but, if convention dominates his work, he personalizes it, as Garrick had done, by topical involvement in it. His own political interests, for example, add substance and vitality to his several uses of the parliamentary metaphor, a structural figure used much like the plaintiff-jury convention in pointing out the judicial and legislative privilege of the audience. Similarly, his career as theater manager enlivens each topical reference to actor and stage; and his career as playwright adds natural vigor to his acting prologues and epilogues.

The persistent liveliness of his work suggests, furthermore, that he embraced convention not for want of imagination but for support of the genre itself. Since he apparently saw thematic and formal convention as nourishing the prologue and epilogue as a poetic type, he sometimes emphasized convention by deliberately departing from it. On the tenth night of The Rivals, therefore, he deliberately violates the settled practice of awarding the prologue to a man, underscoring his deliberateness by causing Mrs. Bulkley to declare herself “A female counsel in a female's cause.”40 Consequently, he appeals to convention—the very convention he violates—to emphasize the significance of his theme. He achieves thematic emphasis through a similarly inverse process in the epilogue to Semiramis where his self-conscious and openly confessed departure from the conventional comic epilogue (after tragedy) strengthens the high seriousness of his discourse on tragic pathos.

Sheridan moved comfortably, then, within the framework of convention, sometimes personalizing it by involving himself topically in it, sometimes enlarging upon its effects by deliberately departing from it. In at least one detail, moreover, he increased the body of convention itself, adapting to the genre, through his epilogue to Hannah More's The Fatal Falsehood (1779), the tradition of the Theophrastian character.41 This same epilogue, incidentally, offers insight into Sheridan's poetic craftsmanship. His papers yield up a draft of the poem described by Sichel as “no less than one hundred and forty-five unrhymed, unrhythmical lines,” a “disjointed farrago” (I, 543). Most of these hobbled measures Sheridan discarded; others he hammered into a Theophrastian portrait cryptically typifying the domestic and artistic ambivalence of the dedicated bluestocking. It is a portrait properly said by Rhodes to be “as consummate in its finish as the neatest raillery of Pope”;42 and, while the poet's conceptual process might well be thought an “uncouth and bewildering way of shaping verse,” it is for him an incontestably successful process, as a few representative lines from the poem indicate. They are lines spoken by an indignant male poetaster who is urgently intent on driving “female scribblers” from the stage:

Unfinish’d here an epigram is laid,
And there, a mantua-maker's bill unpaid;
Here new-born plays fore-taste the town's applause,
There, dormant patterns pine for future gauze;
A moral essay now is all her care,
A satire next, and then a bill of fare:
A scene she now projects, and now a dish
Here's Act the First—and here—Remove with
          Fish. (276)

Unlike other playwright-prologuists, Sheridan made no gesture to abolish the prologue-epilogue tradition. That the poems bear little relevance to the plays sandwiched between them nowhere distressed his sense of theater. If the genre took roots in the audience's desire for a brief moment of intimacy with the stage, the clearly cooperated in that interest, finding its idiom all but natural to him. Apparently, he honored the tradition as a respectable mode of entertainment, one asserting its own integrity through distinctive and settled conventions and one meriting, by testimony of his achievement in it, a creative effort by no means casual and cheap but everywhere tightly imagined and artistically honest.


  1. Martin S. Day, “Anstey and Anapestic Satire in the Late Eighteenth Century,” English Literary History, XV (1948), 128. Cecil Price attributes “Hymen and Hirco” to Sheridan in the Times Literary Supplement for July 11, 1958, p. 396.

  2. Except where otherwise noted, page references to Sheridan's poetry cite Volume III of Plays and Poems.

  3. These are Sichel's judgments (I, 314).

  4. Ernest Rhys, Lyric Poetry (London, 1913), p. 370.

  5. Sichel, I, 272.

  6. As quoted in A Vers de Société Anthology, ed. Carolyn Wells (New York, 1907), p. xxiii.

  7. Moore, I, 40-41.

  8. Sichel, I, 273.

  9. Ibid., 274; Plays and Poems, III, 229.

  10. Plays and Poems, III, 259.

  11. Moore, II, 90.

  12. Plays and Poems, III, 197.

  13. [15 Oct., 1814?], Letters, III, 202.

  14. Plays and Poems, III, 198.

  15. Sichel, I, 551.

  16. Wallace Cable Brown, The Triumph of Form (Chapel Hill, 1948), p. 5.

  17. Geoffrey Tillotson, On the Poetry of Pope (Oxford, 1950), p. 150.

  18. Paul Fussell, Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England, (New London, Conn., 1954), pp. 113-15.

  19. See the beginning of Chapter 2 above. For a much fuller discussion of Sheridan's prosody in relation to the theory of tensions see Jack D. Durant, “R. B. Sheridan's ‘Verses to the Memory of Garrick’: Poetic Reading as Formal Theatre,” Southern Speech Journal, XXXV (1969), 120-31.

  20. Thomas Sheridan, Lectures on the Art of Reading (London, 1775), II, 75.

  21. As quoted by Fussell, p. 113.

  22. MS W. b. 479 (p. 133) in the Folger Shakespeare Library, a newspaper clipping not identified as to source (but bearing the handwritten date May 12, 1779), specifies the points at which musical interludes occur.

  23. Quoting the second issue of the poem (one of several copies in the Folger collection), identical to the first except for a correction in the dedicatory epistle. A definitive text is now readily available in The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, ed. Cecil Price (Oxford, 1973), II, 457-62.

  24. Moore, I, 176.

  25. Thomas Sheridan, Art of Reading, II, 145.

  26. Ibid., 84.

  27. Town and Country Magazine, XI (1779), 117.

  28. The London Stage, Pt. 5, Vol. 1, records performances at Drury Lane as follows: March 11, 13, 18, 20, 25; April 10, 21, 26; May 24; June 3.

  29. George Gordon, Lord Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (London, 1898), II, 377. For an expanded version of this discussion of the monody, see Jack D. Durant, “R. B. Sheridan's ‘Verses to the Memory of Garrick’: Poetic Reading as Formal Theatre,” Southern Speech Journal, xxxv (1969), 120-31.

  30. Knapp, p. 8.

  31. Ibid., p. 28.

  32. Cecil Price, in “The First Prologue to The Rivals,Review of English Studies, new series, XX (1969), 192-95, prints the fragmentary first-night prologue as recently found at Somerville College, Oxford.

  33. Such changes were not unusual. See Knapp, p. 2.

  34. See Knapp, pp. 278-79.

  35. January 10 [1778], Letters, I, 122.

  36. For comment on this persistent theme see Knapp, pp. 178; 185.

  37. Second-night prologue to The Rivals (Plays and Poems, I, 25, 26); epilogue to The Fatal Falsehood (Plays and Poems, III, 275-77). See Knapp, p. 25; 96-97.

  38. Second-night prologue to The Rivals; cf. Knapp, p. 108 for precedents.

  39. Epilogue to Edward and Eleanora; cf. Knapp, p. 136 for precedents.

  40. Plays and Poems, I, 27.

  41. See Knapp, pp. 307-308.

  42. Plays and Poems, III, 277.

Jack D. Durant (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5920

SOURCE: “Sheridan's Grotesques,” in The Theatre Annual, Vol. XXXVIII, 1983, pp. 13-30.

[In the following essay, Durant discusses Sheridan's juxtaposition of the comic and the terrifying in his dramas.]

From the beginning of his career as a writer, Richard Brinsley Sheridan demonstrated a distinct flair for the grotesque. His first published poem, “The Ridotto of Bath” (1771), pictures gaudily dressed people crowding into the new Assembly Rooms at Bath and gorging themselves in a disgustingly comic way. They disfigure themselves with chewing and swallowing; they spill food all over their clothes and trample it messily into the carpeting.1 Another poem of the same year, actually a loose translation from the Greek poetaster Aristaenetus, presents two deformed prudes, one with a hunched back and the other with a single eye, who earn the speaker's contempt by daring to make judgments against his ladylove while suppressing torrid passions of their own. They can pretend to virtue only because they find in “blest Deformity” an “antidote to Love's attack.”2 The effects here, and in “The Ridotto of Bath,” qualify as “grotesque” because they assert “the co-presence of the laughable and something which is incompatible with the laughable.” Displaying a “strong affinity with the physically abnormal,” they achieve “a mixture in some way or other of both the comic and the terrifying (or the disgusting, repulsive, etc.) in a problematical (i.e., not readily resolvable) way.”3 Sheridan sought such effects early, and he evoked them so persistently that they deserve notice as a major feature of his comic.

To give them the notice they deserve, however, is to commit oneself to a complicated exposition, for the subject is at once dramaturgical and historical. That is, it explores one of Sheridan's favorite means of controlling audience response while also demonstrating his evolving application of this means. The latter of these concerns, the historical arm of the exposition, calls for examining the grotesque element, its forms and functions, in each of his comedies in turn. The former of them requires that an apparent assumption of his be explained at the outset and in the clearest possible terms.

It holds that beauty and ugliness in the human form generate their own auras of expectation. To look upon beauty is to know comfort, delight, and repose. Affection flows effortlessly to it. It commands freedom and prerogative and reflects order, propriety, and harmony. To look upon ugliness, however, is to experience recoil. Affection retreats from it. It aggravates distress and scatters composure. It opposes order and nature. Neither beauty nor ugliness allows passive response; each asserts its own dynamic. But to cross, mix, and confuse the expectations attaching to the two of them is to open complex comic possibilities, and from these possibilities comes the grotesque comedy of Sheridan. By requiring his characters to confront ugliness in terms of beauty, or to pretend, in ugliness, to the prerogatives of beauty, or to blind themselves to their own ugliness while deploring the ugliness of others, or to dispense affection to ugliness and decay, he generates in his audiences internal crises as troubling as they are hilarious.

In the second act of The Rivals, for example, Jack Absolute communicates such a crisis to us when he contemplates the match his father has made for him. His heart, he says, is engaged to “an Angel” (Lydia Languish); he cannot countenance just any “mass of ugliness” his father might name for him. But his father, Sir Anthony, confronts him with a troubling prospect:

Z———ds! sirrah! the lady shall be as ugly as I choose: she shall have a hump on each shoulder; she shall be as crooked as the Crescent; her one eye shall roll like the Bull's in Cox's musaeum—she shall be all this, sirrah!—yet I’ll make you ogle her all day, and sit up all night to write sonnets on her beauty.


The effect here derives from diverse elements. Not only must Jack see his angel supplanted by a monstrous form; he must imagine himself embracing this form. He must proffer to ugliness the rites of beauty, and from his plight arises for us a most anxious merriment, a genuinely grotesque commingling of the laughable and the terrifying.

Nor does the matter end here. When, in act three, Jack knows the angelic Lydia to be the girl intended for him, he can feign a dutiful acquiescence in his father's wishes without risking anything. He would prefer, he says, that his wife have “the usual number of limbs, and a limited quantity of back: and tho’ one eye may be very agreeable, yet as the prejudice has always run in favour of two,” he would “not wish to affect a singularity in that article” (III.i.79-82). But his principal wish is to follow his father's choice, and in doing so he is prepared to disregard all the received expectations of beauty and ugliness. To identify with Sir Anthony now is to experience with him the shock of seeing human nature go into cold suspension, an unsettling prospect even in jest, shadowed as it is by a hideous physical form. The grotesque, the co-presence of the comic and the disturbing, again afflicts the laughter.

Grotesquerie in The Rivals also colors the Julia—Faukland action. In practicing his bizarre psychological cruelties against Julia, Faukland seeks to assure himself that not the slightest human taint touches her affection for him. Any show from her of the joy, exhilaration, and sheer good luck of being in love brings her motives under suspicion and subjects them to subtle, narrow, and hair-splitting analyses. “For what quality must I love you?” she finally asks desperately, and his response probes the very sources of her affection. To love him for mind or understanding, he whines, were but to esteem him. “And for person—I have often wish’d myself deformed, to be convinced that I owed no obligation there for any part of your affection” (III.iii.55-59). Earnestly, but imprudently, Julia informs him that he is not the handsomest man she has ever seen. But, she says, “my heart has never asked my eyes if it were so or not.” Yet even so loving an assurance as this fails to comfort him. Love, he says, must do more than simply soften defects; it must somehow transform the forbidding into the beautiful. Were he monstrous in appearance, she should, if she truly loved him, “think none so fair.” Again Sheridan generates a situation requiring that the expectations attaching to beauty and ugliness be defeated. Through grotesque effects he perfectly internizes in his audience poor Julia's dilemma, the dilemma of one expected to surrender to some kind of extra-human devotion all the accustomed tendencies of human nature.

Certainly the most pervasive grotesque effect in The Rivals is the malapropism, which qualifies as a grotesque effect through its character as an unresolved comic device. What often astonishes people about the malapropism is that it is not a device for innuendo. When Mrs. Malaprop says that she would not wish a daughter of hers to be a “progeny” of learning but that girls need only a “supercilious” knowledge of accounts and should have enough “geometry” to know something of the “contagious” countries, the comedy derives not from innuendo but from confusion. Unintended meanings do not supplant intended ones. Mrs. Malaprop does not, like Smollett's Win Jenkins in Humphry Clinker, unwittingly talk dirty or ensnare herself in semantic traps. If she did so, the comic device would resolve itself in a new domain of meaning, a result which Sheridan's revisions, all of which level innuendoes, seem designed to frustrate.5 What happens instead is that the misspoken word insists upon its own meaning quite irrespective of the intended word, and the listener struggles to construct a relationship of meaning between what is said and what is meant, between “progeny” and “prodigy,” for example, or “contiguous” and “contagious.” Since the actual relationship is aural and not semantic, the malapropism allows no resolution of meaning. It converts meaning into nonsense, an effect the more keenly felt because the pronunciation is studied and precise (words “ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced,” as Julia Melville puts it in the play [I.ii.130-31]). Like a framed grotesque drawing, the malapropism confines chaos within a boundary of order and provokes puzzled and anxious laughter.

Its way of dragging together incongruous verbal elements is, in the phrase of one commentator on grotesque literature, “a major feature of the grotesque,”6 and its commitment to nonsense relates it to neologism, a tested grotesque stratagem, which scatters composure by shattering meaning. In observing that grotesque language characteristically creates a void where moments before had been solid ground, Neil Rhodes describes the malapropism exactly.7 It snatches solid ground from under us. If it does not challenge the conventions of beauty and ugliness in a visual way, it certainly does so in an affective one. That is, the internal crises it aggravates are closely similar to those aggravated by grotesque visual effects, and it complements perfectly the physical appearance of Mrs. Malaprop, an “old weather-beaten she-dragon” whose vanity “makes her dress up her coarse features” and disavow her failing eyesight (III.iii.54;59-60). She is a physical grotesque who speaks grotesquely.

A final grotesque moment in The Rivals comes in the fourth act when Jack Absolute answers Faukland's questions about Lydia's capricious conduct. “What can you mean?” asks Faukland; “Has Lydia chang’d her mind?—I should have thought her duty and inclination would now have pointed to the same object.” And Jack gives him this remarkable answer:

Aye, just as the eyes do of a person who squints:—when her love eye was fix’d on me—t’other—her eye of duty, was finely obliqued:—but when duty bid her point that the same way—off t’other turn’d on a swivel, and secured its retreat with a frown!


Jack's grotesque simile endows Lydia's conduct with complex emotional resonances. What was before romantic and whimsical is now mixed with formidable and disturbing associations; it is comic still but no longer free-spirited. A main dynamic of the play, Lydia's caprice, thus assumes a deeper shading, one governed by the familiar conventions of beauty and ugliness, and through this extraordinary associational device, Sheridan colors the whole comic ambience of his second comedy, St. Patrick's Day.

Among the grotesque moments in St. Patrick's Day is a colloquy between Lieutenant O’Connor, the hero, and his lugubrious friend, Dr. Rosy, about the tendency among fashionable women to render themselves into monstrous forms by abusing cosmetic and dress. In hoops, whalebone breastplates, and turreted headgear, they fashion themselves into lumbering amazons, and they rouge their cheeks so thickly that they could not display a blush of modesty even if their midnight dissipations left them blood enough to raise one (I.I.89-96). They defeat beauty in the name of beauty. Other grotesque moments in this play—the most characteristic ones—draw upon associations of disease, decay, and dismemberment: Justice Credulous, the father of the heroine, swears that “he had rather see his Daughter in a scarlet Fever, than in the arms of a Soldier” (I.i.77-78); Lauretta, the heroine, romances about serving as the crutch of a soldier whose leg has been shot off in battle (I.ii.19). And the comic distresses aroused by these sentiments hardly touch the scope and persistence of Dr. Rosy's lamentations for his dead wife Dolly. In them, Sheridan reaches for grotesque effects a great deal more intense than anything he had tried in The Rivals, for here he manipulates expectations not just as they relate to beauty and ugliness but also as they relate to disease and health. Dr. Rosy is a disease lover. The fever of love had come upon him while he was treating poor Dolly for daily colics, and in her prevailing unhealth had lain his greatest joy:

Ah! poor Dolly!—I never shall see her like again!—such an arm for a Bandage—Veins that seem’d to invite the Lancet—then her Skin—smooth and white as a Gallypot—her Mouth round, and not larger than the mouth of a penny Phial!—Her lips!—Conserve of Roses!—then her Teeth!—none of your sturdy Fixtures—ach[e], as they would—’twas but a Pull, and out they came—I beleive [sic] I’ve drawn half a score of her poor dear Pearls—[weeps]—but what avails her Beauty,—Death has no Consideration—one must die as well as another.


Throughout the play Dr. Rosy grieves for this inverted Petrarchan disaster, cursing fate for carrying her beyond surgery and dosage, for cutting short her privilege of rotting and wasting above ground. Her toothless, cadaverous form broods over the play like a vulture, and it hovers round even after the play has ended, for in the closing lines Dr. Rosy superimposes the image of his Dolly upon the bright young form of Lauretta. Earlier in the play he had remarked of Lauretta “Ah! I never see her, but she reminds me of my poor dear Wife” (I.i.105), and at the end, in anticipating her marriage to O’Connor, he says to her “And I wish you may make just such a Wife, as my poor Dear Dolly—” (II.ii.217-18). Like Jack Absolute's simile of the squint-eyed person in The Rivals, this speech carries strong associational force, and the effect here is yet more comprehensive than it is in The Rivals, for it embraces the entire play. Sheridan gives the last word not to Lauretta but to Dolly, not to nuptial merriment but to grotesque of disease. He therefore robs the ending of its comfortable resolution and imbues with grotesque associations the entire recollected action of the play.

A remarkable feature of the grotesque in The Rivals and St. Patrick's Day is that very little of it actually appears upon the stage. Hints dropped in the dialogue of The Rivals suggest that Mrs. Malaprop is grotesque in appearance; and in the disguise of Humphrey Hum, the greasy one-eyed lummox, Lieutenant O’Connor assumes a grotesque form for one portion of St. Patrick's Day. But the grotesque effects in these two plays derive mainly from figurative and descriptive language. In The Duenna, however, Sheridan came round to objectifying his grotesques. Perhaps a moment in St. Patrick's Day, the one in which Humphrey Hum ardently mumbles the beautiful Lauretta (II.ii.26-32), opened to Sheridan the comic possibilities of the objective grotesque. Already resident in his mind, too, was the crone with whom Sir Anthony had threatened Jack in The Rivals, the one with “skin like a mummy, and the beard of a Jew” (II.i.364). From this one imaginary horror might well have sprung the two shocking forms of Margaret and Isaac, the full-fledged stage grotesques of The Duenna.

It ought to be emphasized that a grotesque is not simply a caricature. Caricature implies superficial distortion; it “alters the outline of a given original and gains its effect by exaggerating a part with respect to the whole,” but the grotesque “is rather a distortion that penetrates to the bases of our perception of reality.” It interferes in a radical and aggressive way with “the stability and constancy of the human form.”8 Caricature applies, then, to Bob Acres and Sir Lucius O’Trigger of The Rivals. Sheridan gives comic exaggeration to their types as cowardly bumpkin and bellicose Irishman respectively. Dr. Rosy, the lugubrious quack of St. Patrick's Day, also emerges as caricature, for all that his maunderings give us the grotesque Dolly. But, in Margaret and Isaac, Sheridan goes much further than exaggerating a part for the whole; he assails the human form in a radical and aggressive way. In the words of Don Jerome, the tyrannical father of The Duenna, old Margaret, the title character, is a “scare-crow” with “impenetrable features,” a “hag” with a “dragon's front” (I.iii.122;129;130-31) down whose “deal cheeks” can only flow “tears of turpentine” (I.iii.164). Her fellow grotesque, Isaac Mendoza, sees her as having skin of “nankeen”; “for her eyes,” he continues, “their utmost merit is in not squinting—

for her teeth, where there is one of ivory, its neighbor is pure ebony, black and white alternately, just like the keys of an harpsicord. Then as to her singing, and heavenly voice—by this hand, she has a shrill crack’d pipe, that sounds for all the world like a child's trumpet.


In addition to these graces she sports a downy beard: “the razor wou’d’nt be amiss for either of us,” says Isaac (II.ii.62). But Isaac himself has nothing to boast; nor is Margaret backward in turning tables on him:

Dares such a thing as you pretend to talk of beauty—a walking rouleau—a body that seems to owe all its consequence to the dropsy—a pair of eyes like two dead beetles in a wad of brown dough. A beard like an artichoke, with dry shrivell’d jaws that wou’d disgrace the mummy of a monkey.


By actually parading upon the stage the grotesque forms of Margaret and Isaac, Sheridan manipulates with new flexibility the expectations attaching to beauty and ugliness. In one instance he draws comedy from Isaac's utter blindness to his own unloveliness: “Why, what’s the matter with the face? I think it is a very engaging face; and I am sure a lady must have very little taste who could dislike my beard” (I.v.84-86). Later the comedy turns upon Isaac's misdirected hopes as he waits to meet old Margaret, whom he thinks to be the beautiful young Louisa and whose picture has been drawn for him in terms of Louisa's beauty. In the next scene the comedy rises from Isaac's disappointment and confusion as he actually meets Margaret and must confront her ugliness as though it were Louisa's beauty. Out of this meeting grows a colloquy in which Margaret presumes to the prerogatives of beauty by affecting a coy reserve; and Isaac, searching desperately for a compliment to give her, compares her to a woman very dear to him, his mother. The comedy generated here then reaches into a scene in which Isaac encounters Don Jerome and must try to determine his reasons for calling “Louisa” beautiful. When Jerome insists that her beauty combines all the best features of the family (her father's eyes, her Aunt Ursula's nose, her grandmother's forehead [II.iii.45-58]), Isaac sees these features not in the abstract, as Jerome would have him do, but in the concrete, as though transplanted from the ancient countenances who first wore them. The songs, too, assist grotesque effects in the play. Before meeting Margaret, Isaac sings a song (II.i) explaining that his standards of beauty are not high; he asks only that a woman not have a beard (a condition only old Margaret, of all women, cannot honor). And after Isaac and Margaret have met, Don Carlos (a friend to everyone in the play) constructs in song a stunning incongruity (II.ii). With the two grotesques standing beside him, he sings “Ah! sure a pair was never seen, / So justly form’d to meet by nature. / The youth excelling so in mien, / The maid in every grace of feature.” In the second stanza he congratulates the children of such a pair, who stand to inherit sense, beauty, grace, and spirit. The contrast between what is seen and what is heard sharply intensifies the grotesque effect.

The antics of Margaret and Isaac thus open to Sheridan a complex repertoire of comic possibilities: ugliness confronted in terms of beauty, ugliness pretending to beauty, ugliness blind to itself, beauty promised and ugliness delivered, the received expectations of beauty and ugliness twisted through an elaborate, sometimes even ironic, system of intricate permutations. Nor is grotesquerie in The Duenna limited to the antics of Margaret and Isaac. Through the fat friar, Father Paul, a sleek epicure bloated by self-indulgence (but pleading flatulence from starvation), Sheridan generates a moral revulsion as dark and concentrated as any in his comedies, and again his medium is the stage grotesque, the grotesque form actually seen upon the stage.

In his book about Sheridan, Mark Auburn remarks that to move, as Sheridan did in 1776, from Covent Garden to Drury Lane was to move “from the home of ‘low’ comedy and comic opera to the house of ‘high’ and ‘wit’ comedy.”9 Perhaps such a sense of new surroundings motivated Sheridan to expunge every hint of grotesquerie from A Trip to Scarborough, his adaptation of Vanbrugh's The Relapse. Even so merry a grotesque moment as that in which Vanbrugh's nurse remembers the infant Hoyden at her breast—“how it used to hang at this poor tett, and suck and squeeze, and kick and sprawl it would, till the belly on’t was so full it would drop off like a leech” (IV.i.108-110)10—fell victim to Sheridan's ax, his “little wholesome pruning” as he has one of the characters in his adaptation put it (II.i.23). But with his second major creative effort at Drury Lane, The School for Scandal, his flair for the grotesque emerged again and in an idiom well suited to the high and witty comedy demanded of him. It is not the broad and boisterous grotesquerie of The Duenna; nor does it actually appear upon the stage, but it achieves subtle and far-reaching effects.

Emerging in the dialogue of the scandal cabal in Act II, it takes the form of an accretive wit sequence in which the interlocutors build upon one another's ideas or attempt to outdo one another in formulating grotesque images. In this manner Lady Sneerwell and Sir Benjamin Backbite construct the image of the Widow Ocre. To Lady Sneerwell's derogations on the way the widow “caulks her wrinkles,” Sir Benjamin adds “it is not that she paints so ill—but when she has finish’d her Face she joins it so badly to her Neck that she looks like a mended Statue in which the Connoisseur sees at once that the Head's modern tho’ the Trunk's antique (II.ii.54-57). A similar sequence of associations leads to Lady Teazle's description of Mrs. Prim, who, in concealing her loss of teeth in front, “draws her mouth ’till it positively resembles the aperture of a Poor's-Box, and all her words appear to slide out edgeways” (II.ii.67-69). And, in the most elaborate sequence of all, Sir Benjamin and Crabtree portray Cousin Ogle, a relative of Mrs. Candour's:

Crabtree. O to be sure she has herself the oddest countenance that ever was seen—’tis a collection of Features from all the different Countries of the Globe.

Sir Benj. So she has indeed.—An Irish front.

Crabtree. Caledonian Locks—

Sir Benj. Dutch nose—

Crabtree. Austrian lip—

Sir Benj. Complexion of a Spaniard—

Crabtree. And Teeth a la Chinoise—

Sir Benj. In short her Face resembles a Table d’hote at Spaw where no two guests are of a nation—

Crabtree. Or a Congress at the close of a general War—wherein all the members even to her eyes appear to have a different interest and her Nose and Chin are the only parties like to join issue.

Mrs. Candour. Ha! ha! ha! (II.ii.115-29)

The grotesquerie generated here, and in the other such wit sequences, assists Sheridan to remarkably complex effects. It excites laughter at the expense not only of the people described and of those who describe them, the malicious scandal cabal, but also of the audience itself, whose laughter is the same as that laughed by Mrs. Candour. Through their brilliant grotesque inventions the scandal cabal display an irresistible sportiveness, the kind of sportiveness said by John Ruskin to characterize much grotesque art,11 and through this sportiveness they woo the audience and Mrs. Candour (in spite of themselves) to their party. It is a stratagem whereby Sheridan requires everyone to share in the blame, not just the cabal and its victims, not just Mrs. Candour, but everyone delighted by a game well played, however malicious, and it demonstrates that the grotesque has a secure place in high and witty comedy.

If the grotesque moments in Sheridan's last two finished comedies are brief and few, they are certainly striking. The opening lines of The Camp give report of a road accident in which an old woman, a brace of chickens, and a one-eyed colt have tumbled together headlong into a ditch, a picture at once comic and formidable (I.i.1-10). Among his con games in The Critic, Puff includes such agonizing and disfiguring physical disorders as dropsy, for which he reports himself twice tapped, consumption, and total paralysis (I.ii.20-24;128-29). And had Sheridan finished his long-expected comedy Affectation, it would clearly have been the most strikingly and persistently grotesque of them all.

Textual editors differ in dating the fragments of Affectation. On the basis of handwriting, Cecil Price dates some parts of them to as early as 1772; Crompton Rhodes places them after The School for Scandal, and rumor had it that Sheridan intended after 1777 to form them into a finished play.12 Since they suggest the language and spirit of all his comedies, they offer few internal clues for dating; but their value here turns less upon when they were written than upon their character as fragments. In representing the first stirrings of Sheridan's creative mind, they show the grotesque to be an acute and spontaneous tendency of his comic imagination.

Basically they take three forms. Some of them describe characters who might actually appear upon the stage; others seem to be rough segments of dialogue. A third, which combines properties of the first two, suggests dialogue lapsing into character or character shading into dialogue.

Representing the first of these forms is a grotesque fat woman:

A fat woman trundling into a Room on Castors—her sitting was a leaning—rises like a Bowl on the wrong Bias—rings on her Fingers—and her fat arms strangled with Bracelet—which belted them like corded Brawn—rolling and heaving when she laugh’d with the rattles in her Throat and a most apoplectic ogle—you wish to draw her out like opera-glass (p. 813).13

Other figures apparently visualized as appearing on the stage include “A long lean Man, with all his Limbs rambling,” who “appears roll’d out or run up against a wall” and whose standing cross-legged makes him “look like a caduceus.” His obese wife (“one's a mast, and the other all Hulk”) forms with him an astonishing grotesque contrast.

Dialogue carrying grotesque associations reads as follows:

I hate to see a prettying woman studying—Looks and endeavouring to recollect an ogle, like Lady—who … oblig(e)s her ogle in all degrees—having le(a)rned to play eyelids like a venetian Blind. Then I hate to see an old woman putting herself Back to a girl (pp. 812-13).


Shall I be ill to Day—? shall I be nervous—your Ladyship was nervous yesterday—was I? then I’ll have a cold—I haven’t had a cold this Fortnight—a cold is becoming—ahem—no I’ll not have a cough—that’s fatiguing—no—no this Bow is very clumsy—psha!—it isn’t becoming—here take it away—I’ll be quite well—you become sickness—your La’ship always looks vastly well—when you’re ill (p. 816)


“Shall you be at Lady———'s—I’m told the Bramin is to be there, and the new French philosopher.”—No—it will be pleasanter at Lady———'s conversazione—the cow with two heads will be there.”14

Passages of indeterminate form include the following:

her Features so unfortunately formed that she could never dissemble or put on Sweetness enough to induce anyone to give her occasion to shew her bitterness (p. 814).


The Lodestone of true Beauty draws the hardest substances—not like the warm Dowager—who prate(s) herself into heat to get the notice of a few Papier mache Fops as you rub dutch sealing wax to draw Paper (p. 815).

In these fragments emerge many of the grotesque strategies apparent in Sheridan's finished comedies—grotesque forms seen and juxtaposed on the stage, speeches carrying grotesque associations, grotesque effects based upon disease, natural and artificial forms mixed in grotesque ways. The grotesque excites even the first stirrings of Sheridan's comic thought just as it permeates his finished work. While always holding it well within the domain of comedy, never letting it shade into horror or debilitating distress (as it might legitimately do),15 he found himself always a ready agent of its impulses and an eager student of its possibilities. It is a basic ingredient of his comic.

We have seen that it generates in his work specific effects as various and intricate as the forms it takes. Each comedy constructs new instances of it, and each instance invites analysis in local contexts. For impressions of what it achieves generally, as part of a broad and tenacious tradition, we can turn to Philip Thomson's book on the grotesque. One general effect of the grotesque, writes Thomson, is that it tends to “bewilder and disorient, to bring the reader (or viewer) up short, jolt him out of accustomed ways of perceiving the world and confront him with a radically different, disturbing perspective.”16 It therefore generates a sense of alienation, a sense of removal from the familiar and trusted. A second general effect is that it aggravates ambivalence. It both disarms anxiety and creates it. To support this point, Thomson quotes another commentator, Thomas Cramer (in a translation by Michael Steig) as observing that ‘the grotesque is the feeling of anxiety aroused by means of the comic pushed to an extreme,’ but conversely that it ‘is the defeat, by means of the comic, of anxiety in the face of the inexplicable.’17 It imposes a comic perspective on the troubling aspects of experience and thus renders them less formidable to consciousness than they might otherwise be, but it never wholly neutralizes the threat they offer. Consequently the laughter it excites is never “free.” In laughing at the grotesque, we experience liberation and inhibition at one and the same time, irresolubly.18 A third general effect, then, is that the grotesque asserts the irresoluble ambiguity of life. It rejects the fiction that tragedy and comedy happen by turns and insists, as Thomson puts it, “that the vale of tears and the circus are one, that tragedy is in some ways comic and all comedy in some way tragic and pathetic.”19 Ironically, this complex vision of life gives rise to a fourth general effect of the grotesque, the effect of playfulness. To assert ambiguity and aggravate ambivalence and shatter complacency and reconstruct reality is to explore and analyze and constantly invent the means of doing so. An irrepressible sense of play thus surrounds the grotesque.20

In generating such effects as these, the grotesque in Sheridan's comedies provides an index to what is really most evocative about his art: its way of speaking not so much to the mind as to the visceral experience. If it is thematically thin, it is experientially very dense. If its situations and ideas flirt with shallow certitudes, its complex local effects, especially its grotesque moments, disallow all facile complacency. By frustrating expectations and dispersing internal comforts and provoking unpleasant confrontations, they send to nerve endings and emotional awarenesses the alarming message that life is not as simple as one might wish, that even playfulness and high spirit project the shadow of some desolate reality. In his book The Ludicrous Demon, Lee Byron Jennings makes an observation possibly applicable to Sheridan. “The grotesque,” writes Jennings, “thrives in an atmosphere of disorder and is inhibited in any period characterized by a pronounced sense of dignity, an emphasis on harmony and order of life, an affinity for the typical and normal, and a prosaically realistic approach to the arts.” Then he adds a point pertinent to Sheridan and his times: “If a considerable degree of grotesqueness nevertheless appears in the art of such a period, we might be justified in suspecting that it is a reaction against the prevailing standards and a symptom of their decay, that—as is often the case—the stress on prosaic and plausible things and the wish to embrace an ordered reality conceal a fascination with disorder and a yearning for unfettered exercise of the imagination.”21 It might well be true of Sheridan that his disenchantments with prevailing artistic, moral, and social standards, the frustrations and nagging apprehensions leading eventually to his burlesque play The Critic and his long career in opposition government, found expression too in his grotesques. His grotesques testify, in any case, to a complex comic view, one sensitive to the contradictions blighting human experience and determined to present them boldly. No drama asserts more significance to the art of Sheridan than the internal one based upon conflicts of feeling, and no such conflicts achieve greater vigor and depth in his work than the ones deriving from his grotesques.


  1. See Sheridan's Plays and Poems, ed. R. Crompton Rhodes (1928; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), III, 122.

  2. Sheridan's Plays and Poems, III, 156, 158.

  3. Philip Thomson, The Grotesque (London: Methuen, 1972), pp. 3, 9, 21.

  4. References to the plays of Sheridan cite Sheridan's Plays, ed. Cecil Price (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).

  5. For example, Mrs. Malaprop's “O he will perforate my Mistery” becomes in revision “O, he will desolve my mystery” (V.iii.193). See The Rivals … Edited from the Larpent MS, ed. Richard L. Purdy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1935), p. 115.

  6. Neil Rhodes, Elizabethan Grotesque (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 25.

  7. Elizabethan Grotesque, p. 26.

  8. Lee Byron Jennings, The Ludicrous Demon. Aspects of the Grotesque in German Post-Romantic Prose (Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 9.

  9. Mark S. Aubum, Sheridan's Comedies: Their Contexts and Achievements (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977), p. 80.

  10. As printed in English Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan, 2nd ed., ed. G. H. Nettleton, A. E. Case, and G. W. Stone, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), p. 285.

  11. “The Stones of Venice,” in The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1904), XI, 151: [T]he grotesque falls into two branches, sportive grotesque and terrible grotesque; but … we cannot legitimately consider it under these two aspects, because … there are few grotesques so utterly playful as to be overcast with no shade of fearfulness, and few so fearful as absolutely to exclude all ideas of jest.”

  12. See Cecil Price, ed. The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Oxford: Clarendon, 1973), pp. 808-10; Rhodes, Plays and Poems, III, 295-97. Price (p. 809) notes references made to Affectation in The Morning Chronicle for 16 October 1780 and The Morning Post for 6 November 1781.

  13. Except in one instance (see note 14 below) the fragments of Affectation are quoted from Cecil Price's edition of Sheridan's Dramatic Works.

  14. Rhodes, Plays and Poems, III, 302. A portion of this speech is omitted from the Price edition.

  15. In “The Stones of Venice,” Works, XI, 151, Ruskin indicates that the ludicrous and fearful elements may prevail in the grotesque to varying degrees. In the “terrible grotesque” fearful elements prevail; in the “sportive grotesque” ludicrous elements prevail.

  16. Thomson, p. 58.

  17. Thomson, p. 60, quoting Thomas Cramer's Das Groteske bei E. T. A. Hoffman (1966) as translated by Michael Steig in “Defining the Grotesque: An Attempt at Synthesis,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 29 (Summer 1970), 256.

  18. Thomson, p. 59.

  19. Thomson, p. 63.

  20. Thomson, p. 64.

  21. Jennings, pp. 26-27.

Anne Parker (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “‘Absolute Sense’ in Sheridan's The Rivals,” in Ball State University Forum, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 10-19.

[In the following essay, Parker considers Sheridan's balance of wit and sentimentality in The Rivals.]

Sheridan has frequently been accused of trying to revive a moribund dramatic tradition, namely Restoration comedy. In these terms, he becomes a kind of second-hand Congreve, and not a very good one at that. Other critics, pointing to the sentiment in his plays, accuse him of being the very thing he supposedly ridicules, a sentimentalist.1 Neither of these accusations, which in effect try to put Sheridan's comedies snugly into one of two camps, takes into account what is now starting to become a critical commonplace: the Georgian period had its own view of comedy and, in its own way, developed the laughing tradition.2 Sheridan is no exception. At his best, he adapted the conventions of the past to his own comic ends.

Unlike what the Scotchman (in Sheridan's fragment of the same name) calls “Grave Comedy” (804), which strives to inculcate a serious moral, Sheridan's plays reflect folly and seek to mend it. More than that, like the Restoration comedies of the past, his plays deal with artifice, though in Sheridan's case the artifice is the sentimental pose. Comedy for Sheridan has a corrective function, directed not just at folly, which takes many forms, but also at sentimental excess. Those “things that shadow and conceal” man's true nature (Etherege III, i. 24) can, in Sheridan's terms, as easily be “witty” as they can be “sentimental.”3

What Sheridan attempts to do in his plays is to create a balance between mirth and sentiment; he is at once benevolent and critical. What to the Restoration dramatist is a tension between the private and the public self, between appearance and reality, becomes to the sentimental dramatist an identification (Krutch 254). Eighteenth-century dramatists like Sheridan once again show the discrepancy between what is shown and what is concealed, but Sheridan does so by writing what Loftis calls “benign comedies with a satirical bite” (9).

Sheridan achieves this balance by his introduction of “absolute sense,” common sense tempered by mirth and softened by good nature.4 In this, he is very much a part of the eighteenth-century tradition. Auburn, in his study of Sheridan's comedies, mentions the importance of common sense to Georgian comic writers in general (125). Shirley Strum Kenny also argues convincingly that “the Charles Surfaces and Captain Absolutes of later eighteenth-century drama” owe much to the good sense of earlier heroes (62-63).

Therefore, freed from both salaciousness and sententiousness, Sheridan's best comedies reflect “flesh and blood” (Prologue, The Rivals, 1. 29). In this respect, his “mix’d character,” as Congreve calls such characters in his Amendments, is a visible mixture of faults and virtues (453). Sheridan thereby seeks to show man's undefaced side as well as his more knavish one. His doing so places him firmly within existing dramatic traditions and not within just one camp or another. His doing so also confirms his own stature as a comic dramatist.

In his earliest play, The Rivals (1775), Sheridan develops his comic theme of “absolute sense” and adapts the modes of the past to his own ends.5 Restoration playwrights dramatize the corrupting influence of the “way of the world” and frequently offer ambiguous resolutions to the struggle of the individual to survive the world and its ways. Sheridan offers the “better way” of sense at the same time that he dramatizes the excesses of the sentimental way. He mocks the absurdities of sentimental distress and delicacy of feeling. To do so, he reconciles the earlier themes of artifice and “plain-dealing” with his own treatment of virtue and sense. He reveals the folly of a world where a Puff's cant can dupe others and where a sentimental pose leads to absurdity (The Critic, I.ii.514).

Faulkland is one such example of absurdity,6 and Sheridan mocks the delicate lover in the scene where Faulkland hears of Julia's social activities in the country. Here, Faulkland claims to prize the “sympathetic heart” (II.i.94) and the sentimental union of “delicate and feeling souls” (90). To be absent from his beloved is to endure an agony of mind. So, in Faulkland's terms, Julia's “violent, robust, unfeeling health” argues a happiness in his absence (92). She should be “temperately healthy” and “plaintively gay” (94). Such paradoxical statements point to Faulkland's own sentimental absurdity. He wishes Julia to be a pining heroine whose only true joy comes from her soulful union with him and whose absence from him should subdue her whole being.

But Faulkland fails to see the paradox of both his language and his demands. By wishing her to be temperate and plaintive, he in effect wishes her to be unhealthy and sad. But he does not stop there. A “truly modest and delicate woman,” Faulkland says, would engage in a lively country dance only with her sentimental counterpart (94). Only then, he argues, can she preserve the sanctity of her delicate soul:

If there be but one vicious mind in the Set, ’twill spread like a contagion—the action of their pulse beats to the lascivious movement of the jigg—their quivering, warm-breath’d sighs impregnate the very air—the atmosphere becomes electrical to love, and each amorous spark darts thro’ every link of the chain! (94)

Faulkland's sexually charged speech comically undermines his role as the delicate lover.

The object of his “sentimental” ardor, Julia, refuses to play a similar role. Not only is her health robust, but she also seems to enjoy the “electrical” atmosphere of the country dance. Once branded as the “unequivocal tribute to the sentimental formula” (Kaul 141), Julia does possess a lively spirit which, at times, is critical of the over-refined temper.7 Faulkland's jealousy receives a check from Julia, who reminds him: “If I wear a countenance of content, it is to shew that my mind holds no doubt of my Faulkland's truth” (III.ii.107). Unlike Lydia, Julia will not create an artificial sentimental distress.

In contrast, Lydia enjoys scenes of distress. To her, wealth is “that burthen on the wings of love,” so she must create for herself an “undeserved persecution” (III.iii.112). She delights in the “dear delicious shifts” her lover must withstand for her sake (V.i.135). Describing one such romantic encounter with him, she uses homely, inappropriate language. Her lover is reduced to “a dripping statue,” sneezing and coughing “so pathetically” as he tries to win her heart (135). They must exchange vows while the “freezing blast” numbs their joints (135).8 Such a scene, told in such language, merely accentuates the falsity and the folly of her pretensions.

In The Rivals, then, Sheridan does indeed mock the aspects of sentimentalism that lead to folly. To expose these absurdities, Sheridan effectively exploits both the witty and the sentimental modes. In contrast to the artifice practised by Lydia, and the distress experienced by Julia and Faulkland, traces of the witty comic mode appear in characters like Acres, the country fop, and Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute, examples of “crabbed age.”9 Acres, like many a fop before him, slavishly attempts to imitate the city gentleman, but captures only the trappings of true gentility and true wit. He, too, becomes a subject for diversion (e.g., II.i.91). And like the aging matrons of earlier comedy, Mrs. Malaprop fancies herself to be attractive and desirable, so much so that she is easily duped. The character of Sir Anthony Absolute, who attempts to bully his son into obedience, resembles another conventional character of the past, the obstinate father. At one point, he threatens to disown a son who refuses to capitulate to his wishes (99).

Foolish pretensions, like Bob Acres's “sentimental swearing” (96), represent a comic “echo to the sense” (95), a hollow imitation of the verbal and social mastery that Captain Absolute more truly embodies. In effect, Acres foppishly distorts both sense and sound, and applies Pope's injunction with respect to sound to a comic delivery of oaths.10 His swearing is also a parody of the sentiment. What should exhort others to a moral truth Acres uses to bolster his courage.

Similarly, Lydia's romantic notions lead to falsity and absurdity, mere “echoes” of the sensibility and sentimental distress that Julia more truly represents.11 So, too, with Faulkland. His refusal to forgo what he calls his “exquisite nicety” (IV.iii.131) and to follow the more sensible tactics of Captain Absolute also exemplifies an “echo to the sense,” for his nicety is soon found to be caprice. Therefore, both wit and sentiment fall into excess and affectation, a “Voluntary Disguise” which cloaks genuine feeling and genuine wit.12

Nearly every character in the play indulges in such excess: Mrs. Malaprop13 with her “oracular tongue” (III.iii.110), Sir Lucius O’Trigger with his distorted view of honor, Bob Acres with his gentlemanly pretensions, Julia with her excessive good nature, Lydia with her absurd romanticism, Faulkland with his captiousness, Sir Anthony Absolute with his penchant to be “hasty in every thing” (I.i.77). These excesses are nonetheless intertwined, and their interrelationship is evident in the play's title. Contrary to the views expressed by Sen and Sherbo, the play's dual lines of action are not anomalous, but thematically linked. Here, in his first play, Sheridan does, as Auburn notes in Sheridan's Comedies, show himself to be a “master of comic technique.”14

Wit and sentiment are “rival” modes, and the rivalry is established as early as the prologue, where the figure of comedy stands in opposition to the sentimental muse.15 Julia's sweet-tempered nature, often regarded as sentimental, can be viewed only in its relation both to her lover's “captious, unsatisfied temper” (III.ii.106) and to her cousin's romantic caprice. As Rose Snider suggests, Julia's sobriety cannot be treated seriously in the context of her own absurdity.16 Julia's fundamental good nature “rivals,” as it were, the more pronounced excess of the other characters.

By pairing these characters, Sheridan strikes a balance between them. Lydia's romantic indulgences lead to imagined distresses that stand in marked contrast to Julia's own trials. While Julia's “gentle nature” will “sympathize” with her cousin's fanciful torments, her prudence will offer only chastisement (I.ii.81). Lydia realizes, too, that “one lecture from [her] grave Cousin” will persuade her to recall her banished lover (V.i.134). Later, Julia says: “If I were in spirits, Lydia, I should chide you only by laughing heartily at you” (135).

Faulkland's fretfulness also taxes Julia's good nature and, for the most part, she allows her “teasing, captious, incorrigible lover” (II.i.90) to subdue her: “but I have learn’d to think myself his debtor, for those imperfections which arise from the ardour of his attachment” (I.ii.83). In this manner, Julia herself becomes the victim of excess. Her exaggerated sense of duty to her morose lover and her belabored justifications of his treatment of her are found to be immoderate.17

Even though she would, no doubt, crave just such an incident to befall her, Lydia points out the absurdity of Julia's own romantic obligation to the man who rescued her from drowning. She tells Julia: “Obligation!—Why a water-spaniel would have done as much.—Well, I should never think of giving my heart to a man because he could swim!” (83) Once again, Lydia's homely comparison makes the incident more comic than sentimental.

Here, Lydia's clear-sightedness puts Julia's sentimental expostulations into perspective. By indulging Faulkland's every whim and by submitting to his sentimental notions of love, Julia tolerates his fretfulness and fosters her own excess. When Julia introduces the notions of gratitude and filial duty, for example, Faulkland tells her: “Again, Julia, you raise ideas that feed and justify my doubts” (III.ii.107). He yearns to be assured that she does in fact love him for himself alone; here she raises doubts even as she tries to remove his fears.

Finally, Julia must bear the consequences. Her indulgence eventually leads Faulkland into mistaking her sincerity for coquetry and hypocrisy. Intent on using the impending duel as “the touch-stone of Julia's sincerity and disinterestedness” (IV.iii.131), Faulkland wrongly judges Julia's love. When she hears of the duel, Julia first responds in sentimental fashion. In terms of Sheridan's theme of rivalry, the contrast between this scene of tender self-abnegation (V.i) and the scene in which Captain Absolute plays the self-sacrificing lover (III.iii) is worthy of note.

As Ensign Beverley, the captain makes use of Lydia's favorite sentimental notions. He will rescue her from her “undeserved persecution,” and he pretends to revel in their anticipated poverty. He comically rhapsodizes: “Love shall be our idol and support! We will worship him with a monastic strictness; abjuring all worldly toys, to center every thought and action there” (III.iii.112). His “licensed warmth,” which will “plead” for his “reward” (112), echoes Julia's pledge to her fretful lover. She willingly promises to receive “a legal claim to be the partner of [his] sorrows and tenderest comforter” (V.i.132). Jack vows to Lydia that, “proud of calamity, we will enjoy the wreck of wealth; while the surrounding gloom of adversity shall make the flame of our pure love show doubly bright” (III.iii.112). Similarly, Julia promises to Faulkland: “Then on the bosom of your wedded Julia, you may lull your keen regret to slumbering; while virtuous love, with a Cherub's hand, shall smooth the brow of upbraiding thought, and pluck the thorn from compunction” (V.i.132).

Both Jack and Julia indicate their willingness to endure hardship for the sake of love. But Julia's sentiments, prompted by Faulkland's feigned distress, follow Jack's, and his scene with Lydia is highly comic. In him, artifice clearly predominates over sensibility. The captain is trying to trick Lydia into matrimony and, after his impassioned speech, he quips in an aside: “If she holds out now the devil is in it!” (III.iii.112). His sentiments are feigned—merely to utter oaths of devotion does not ensure a disinterested heart. Julia's sentiments are more sincere and yet, because they do follow Jack's comic ones, Sheridan here inverts the conventional technique of introducing a comic scene to parody a serious one. In The Rivals, the serious scene “imitates” the comic one, and Sheridan thereby undermines Julia's sentiments. Faulkland likewise would trick Julia into a confession of love, unqualified by either gratitude or filial duty. Structurally and thematically, Sheridan in this way suggests the kinship between sensibility and artifice.

Soon, Julia's sensibility itself changes. Once she learns of Faulkland's deception, she resembles earlier heroines who, in the proviso scene, defend their individuality. Her language retains the syntax of the sentiment, but the content does not deal with a moral truth. Rather, she renounces him and soundly condemns his artifice (V.i.133). Delicate feelings aside, she refuses to bring further distress upon herself. To make his comic point, Sheridan prolongs Julia's diatribe, which, in its anger, recalls the tirades of the castoff mistress. Nor can Faulkland interrupt the flow of her reproach.

At last, Faulkland's excess is checked, but not by Julia's language or her finer feelings. Although in the end he pays tribute to the reforming power of her “gentleness” and “candour” (V.iii.145), here the threat of forever losing her stirs his remorse. Julia, in witnessing the extremes to which her lover will go, also comes to realize the dangers of indulgence. Like Honeywood's in The Good Natur’d Man, Julia's indiscriminate good nature must be checked and restrained.

The character of Captain Absolute illustrates Sheridan's comic standard of moderation, the lesson that both Julia and Faulkland must learn. Durant remarks: “[Jack] is a sensible and practical young man; and the main thrust of the comedy comes of this practical young man's efforts to achieve sensible aims in an utterly illogical world” (27). Auburn in Sheridan's Comedies writes that Jack is mildly clever, motivated by honest, not entirely selfish desires, and he is “warmly human” (50). Unlike the other characters, who are “absolute” in their self-indulgent excess, the captain is “absolute” only in his sense. To Faulkland's suggestion that he immediately run away with Lydia and thus fulfill her romantic desire for a sentimental elopement, Captain Absolute retorts: “What, and lose two thirds of her fortune?” (II.i.89). Like the Restoration hero, he is willing enough to woo a lady with a substantial inheritance, but he is equally unwilling to sacrifice himself to a life of poverty. As he tells Lydia: “Come, come, we must lay aside some of our romance—a little wealth and comfort may be endur’d after all” (IV.ii.125). To live in an impoverished state may be romantic, but it is also needlessly foolish.

On another level, his moderation offsets Faulkland's sensibility. At one point, the captain urges Faulkland to “love like a man” (II.i.90), and, at another, he chides his friend even more severely: “but a captious sceptic in love—a slave to fretfulness and whim—who has no difficulties but of his own creating—is a subject more fit for ridicule than compassion!” (IV.iii.131). Like the balance achieved through the relationship of Lydia and Julia, the Captain's good sense also balances Faulkland's excess.

Like Faulkland's, Lydia's folly must be mended, and by the captain. After Lydia discovers that Captain Absolute and Ensign Beverley are one and the same person, he initially appeals to her sensibility. Meeting with no success, he must then challenge her very pretensions to sensibility. He points out to Lydia how her reputation will suffer in a world where sentiment thrives only in the lending libraries or in whimsical imaginations. It is a point which, although critical of the sentimental mode, also modifies the earlier theme of artifice. Now, sentiment becomes just another form of affectation. Later, of course, in Joseph Surface, Sheridan will personify this kind of sentimental sham. Here, Sheridan indicates that the stage of the world and the world of the stage do not mutually influence each other.18 Captain Absolute brings into comic focus the illusory and ultimately absurd nature of Lydia's attempt to transfer the fictional realm of sentimentalism into her own life.19

Yet, he is also a lover, “aye, and a romantic one too” (II.i.90), and this aspect of his character exemplifies Sheridan's use of convention. After his breach with Lydia, the captain agrees to a duel. Indeed, this prospect proves more successful in winning him the hand of Lydia than all his tricks, a reversal of the Restoration practice and an apparent concession to pathos.20 But it must be stressed that, unlike Steele's treatment of the duel in The Lying Lover, in The Rivals the duel becomes an effective comic device. For both Captain Absolute and Faulkland, the duel is a gesture of despair, and Sheridan has clearly indicated the absurdity of it by juxtaposing their motives with those of O’Trigger, who would fight “genteelly” and like a Christian over some imagined insult (IV.iii.128-29).21 The captain here momentarily forsakes sense, and he almost meets a romantic end.22 In a final comic twist, Lydia's romantic desires are almost realized, and art does indeed almost become life. It is enough to shock all the characters into sense, and pathos is thereby averted.

Therefore, the duel exemplifies the basic rivalry between the sentimental and the witty modes, and the dangers to which both are subject. Lucy capably wears a “mask of silliness” and yet, like the witty servants of the past, she possesses “a pair of sharp eyes for [her] own interest under it” (I.ii.87). It is her self-interest that has led to such serious misunderstandings. The fop, too, has contributed. Seeking to master the art of “sentimental swearing” (II.i.96), Acres hopes to prove his courage. A blustering oath, delivered with “propriety” (95), would then achieve an effect which the cowardly “fighting Bob” could not do otherwise. But the duel shows his courage to be as suspect as his “sentimental swearing.”

More important is the dual character of Ensign Beverley/Captain Absolute. His disguise also leads to misunderstandings, but he plays the key role of the man of sense. The comic excesses of the rival modes have been checked, largely through him. The rivalry between the various suitors for Lydia's hand reaches its climax at King's-Mead-Field, and the concomitant rivalry between wit and sentiment, represented by the combatants, finally ends. Out of rivalry, balance finally reigns.

The balance is reflected in Julia's concluding speech. Earlier, the actress who has played the part of Julia has delivered a prologue critical of the sentimental muse.23 Now, at the end of the play, she delivers a word of caution: “and while Hope pictures to us a flattering scene of future Bliss, let us deny its pencil those colours which are too bright to be lasting” (V.iii.146).24 Julia's caution highlights the folly of trusting to appearances, at the same time serving to warn against risible excess. Though couched in sentimental language, this final speech hints at the true nature of things. “Flesh and blood” (Prologue, 1.29) as mankind is, he indulges himself in the extremes of hope or despair, wit or sentiment. The “squinting eye” of excess swivels either one way or the other (IV.iii.129).

Julia's speech, then, is less a testament to a sentimental reconciliation than a plea for moderation. Sheridan has at last shown that only “absolute sense,” freed from excessive wit and sentiment, will ultimately triumph.


  1. Some critics who criticize Sheridan for his sentimentalism, which in their view weakens the plays' Restoration characteristics, are the following: Ernest Bernbaum, The Drama of Sensibility (Boston and London: Ginn, 1915) 253; Allardyce Nicoll, British Drama: An Historical Survey from the Beginnings to the Present Time, 5th ed., rev. (1925; London: George G. Harrap, 1964) 194; Andrew Schiller, “The School for Scandal: The Restoration Unrestored,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of America] 71 (March, 1956): 694-704; Marvin Mudrick, “Restoration Comedy and Later,” in English Stage Comedy, English Institute Essays, ed. W. K. Wimsatt (New York: AMS Press, 1964), 115; Kenneth Muir, The Comedy of Manners (London: Hutcheson University Library, 1970), 157; A. N. Kaul, “A Note on Sheridan,” in The Action of English Comedy (New Haven: Yale U P, 1970) 131, 136; Samuel L. Macey, “Sheridan: The Last of the Great Theatrical Satirists,” Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 9 (November, 1970): 37; Leonard J. Leff, “Sheridan and Sentimentalism,” Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 12 (May, 1973): 36-37, 46; Madeline Bingham, Sheridan: The Track of a Comet (London: Allen and Unwin, 1973) 223; Mark S. Auburn, “The Pleasures of Sheridan's The Rivals: A Critical Study in the Light of Stage History,” MP [Modern Philology: A Journal Devoted to Research in Medieval and Modern Literature] 72 (February, 1975): 256, 264.

  2. For example, recent studies argue this point convincingly: Robert D. Hume, “Goldsmith and Sheridan and the Supposed Revolution of ‘Laughing’ Against ‘Sentimental’ Comedy,” in Studies in Change and Revolution: Aspects of English Intellectual History, 1640-1800, ed. Paul J. Korshin (Berkeley, Calif.: Scolar Press, 1972) 237-76; Robert D. Hume, The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976); John Loftis, Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1977); Richard W. Bevis, The Laughing Tradition: Stage Comedy in Garrick's Day (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1980).

  3. In The Critic, Puff affirms that plays “ought to be the ‘abstract and brief Chronicles of the times’” (II.i.519) but, if the drama is indeed “the Mirror of Nature” (I.i.499), then the “prudery” of the time may soon yield yet another affectation. As Sneer declares: “our prudery in this respect is just on a par with the artificial bashfulness of a courtezan, who encreases the blush upon her cheek in an exact proportion to the diminution of her modesty” (501). Here, Sheridan comically exposes sentimental comedy's “bungling” efforts to reform the stage as well as the cant that goes with it. All further references will be to this edition and will be documented parenthetically.

  4. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Rivals, in Dramatic Works, 1, ed. Cecil Price, III.i.104. All further references will be to this edition and will be documented parenthetically. Ashley Thorndike, in English Comedy (New York: MacMillan, 1929) 435, remarks on the importance of “good sense” in The Rivals, and Jack D. Durant, in “Sheridan's ‘Royal Sanctuary’: A Key to The Rivals,Ball State University Forum 14 (Winter, 1973): 30, concludes that only good sense, which corrects folly and whimsy, will ultimately yield a social harmony.

  5. Scattered throughout the play are references to “absolute.” For example, Mrs. Malaprop has “fallen absolutely in love with a tall Irish baronet” (I.ii.81), and Acres swears “absolutely” to polish like the gentleman (II.i.95). So, too, is the captain renowned for his “absolute” sense (III.i.104). Ironically, through, to be absolute is to risk immoderation. Seldom is a character, even the captain, able to sustain a fixed mode of behavior. But he alone possesses a restraining judgment that consistently checks him at times when he could fall into excess.

  6. Some critics see Faulkland as undoubtedly sentimental. See Leff, “Sheridan and Sentimentalism,” 37. However, Allan Rodway, in “Goldsmith and Sheridan: Satirists of Sentiment,” in Renaissance and Modern Essays, ed. G. R. Hibbard (London: Routledge, 1966), 71, and later Durant in “Sheridan's ‘Royal Sanctuary,’” find Faulkland's presence a puzzle (28). Others, like Muir in Comedy of Manners, regard Faulkland as a caricature of the man of sentiment (161). Auburn, in Sheridan's Comedies, considers Faulkland to be Lydia's male counterpart (55), but he also explores the psychological depth of the jealous character (55-57).

  7. Discussions on Sheridan's treatment of Julia vary in their emphasis. Earlier, Bernbaum, in Drama of Sensibility, had spoken of Faulkland's “unhappy temper,” reformed by Julia's correspondingly gentle temper (253). Kaul, in “Note on Sheridan,” points to Julia as “the epitome of goodness, patience, sense, sensibility” (141). And Durant, in “Sheridan's ‘Royal Sanctuary,’” likewise extols her as “an authentic portrait of Sheridan's ideal woman,” one who is to be “open, honest, above pretense, above caprice” (28). Rose Snider, in Satire in the Comedies of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, and Coward (1973; rpt. New York; Phaeton, 1972), 48-49, echoes Paul E. Parnell's view in “The Sentimental Mask,” PMLA, 78 (December 1963), 529-35: the sentimental figure smugly extols his own virtue and moral superiority. Sheridan, in this view, caricatures the sentimental heroine, and treats her in a “mock-serious” manner (47). For Leff, in “Sheridan and Sentimentalism,” Julia is the golden mean (41) and for Auburn, in “Pleasures of Sheridan's The Rivals,” the scenes between Julia and Faulkland are as sentimental as they are comic (264-65). In Sheridan's Comedies, Auburn calls her “passive” (48), “sensible” and “sentimental” (58). Later, James S. Malek, in “Julia as a Comic Character in The Rivals,Studies in the Humanities, 7:1 (1978): 10-13, argues that Sheridan's treatment of her is decidedly comic.

  8. As Loftis writes in Sheridan, the language of Sheridan's characters achieves its witty effects “by common images used in unexpected ways” (90).

  9. The phrase is Elisabeth Mignon's in Crabbed Age and Youth: The Old Man and Woman in the Restoration Comedy of Manners (Durham: Duke U P, 1947).

  10. Pope's lines read: “‘Tis not enough no Harshness give Offence, / The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.” See Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, in Eighteenth-Century English Literature, eds. Geoffrey Tillotson, Paul Russell, Jr., and Marshall Waingrow (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969), 559, ll. 364-65.

  11. In the eighteenth century, foolishly romantic heroines are, in many ways, traditional. Biddy in Garrick's Miss in Her Teens, Miss Fuz in Garrick's A Peep Behind the Curtain, and Biddy in Steele's The Tender Husband are only three examples. For a discussion of other possible sources, see Coleman O. Parsons, “Smollett's Influence on Sheridan's ‘The Rivals,’” Notes and Queries, 164 (January, 1933): 39-41; Miriam Gabriel and Paul Mueschke, “Two Contemporary Sources of Sheridan's The Rivals,PMLA, 43 (March, 1928): 237-50. Auburn in Sheridan's Comedies points to Lydia's uniqueness (55). However, Lauretta in Sheridan's own St. Patrick's Day and Louisa in The Duenna also help to illuminate Lydia's romantic inclinations and Faulkland's romantic desire to be sentimentally beloved. See St. Patrick's Day, in Dramatic Works, 1, ed. Price, I.ii.170 and II.ii.180, and The Duenna, in Dramatic Works, 1, ed. Price, I.iii.236. See also Sheridan's fragment, The Vicar of Wakefield, in Dramatic Works, 2, ed. Price, where the heroine delights in “filling her head [with] novels” (803).

  12. William Congreve, “Concerning Humour in Comedy,” in The Idea of Comedy: Essays in Prose and Verse, Ben Jonson to George Meredith, ed. W. K. Wimsatt (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969) 79.

  13. For a discussion of Mrs. Malaprop's conventional character, see Kaul, “Note on Sheridan” 141; Hume, “Supposed Revolution” 262. Other critics stress both her conventional attributes and her uniqueness. See Sailendra Kumar Sen, “Sheridan's Literary Debt: The Rivals and Humphrey Clinker,MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly] 21 (December, 1960): 292, 293; Auburn, “Pleasures of Sheridan's The Rivals” 266-67; Durant, “Sheridan's ‘Royal Sanctuary’” 24, 26; Auburn, Sheridan's Comedies, 37.

  14. Sen, “Sheridan's Literary Debt” 299-300; Arthur Sherbo, English Sentimental Drama (Michigan State U P, 1957), 102; Auburn, Sheridan's Comedies, 58.

  15. In Development of English Drama, Hume speaks of “exemplary comedy” as an emerging “rival” mode in the 1680s (377).

  16. Satire 48-49. See also Hume, “Supposed Revolution,” 268; Leff, “Sheridan and Sentimentalism,” 38; Kaul, “A Note on Sheridan,” 148; Durant, “Sheridan's ‘Royal Sanctuary,’” 29.

  17. Malek argues, in his article “Julia as a Comic Character,” that Julia is comic because there is a “disparity between what she says and what she does” (10). However, he does not think either Julia or Faulkland is reformed at the end of the play (11).

  18. Contrary to the Restoration view that the stage of the theatre is a mirror that reflects the stage of the world, the eighteenth-century sentimental dramatist argues, as Steele does, that manners and customs are “transfused from the Stage to the World, which reciprocally imitate each other.” For one Restoration view, see Sir John Vanbrugh, “A Short Vindication of The Relapse and The Provok’d Wife from Immorality and Profaneness,” in The Complete Works of Sir John Vanbrugh, 1, ed. Bonamy Dobrée (Bloomsbury: Nonesuch Press, 1927), 206. For Steele's view, see Sir Richard Steele, “The Spectator,” 370, 5 May 1772, in The Spectator, 3, ed. Donald F. Bond (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), 393. Later, Wilde will dramatize the transfer of art into life and life into art. For this view, see Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (London: W. H. Allen, 1970). In particular, see The Decay of Lying and The Truth of Masks.

  19. Lydia's hiding her sentimental novels in closets and under toilets comments on the essential comedy of her attempt to live the life of a sentimental heroine. As a “female Quixote,” Lydia fails to distinguish “romance from real life,” as Kaul puts it in “Note on Sheridan” (147). Sir Anthony Absolute also offers a glimpse into the effect he thinks fiction, exemplified by the notorious lending libraries, can have on real life: “Madam, a circulating library in a town is, as an ever-green tree, a diabolical knowledge!—It blossoms through the year!—And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last” (I.ii.85). But his understanding is shown to be suspect. See also Durant, “Sheridan's ‘Royal Sanctuary,’” 26.

  20. While in Sheridan Loftis notes that Sheridan avoids “pathetic situations” in his comedies (10), he does not account for the duel and the distress it causes.

  21. In Act III, scene iv, Sir Lucius confides to Acres that a “gay captain” has affronted him and his country (117) and yet, here, Sir Lucius mentions the “affront” only after he has successfully provoked the captain to “quarrel genteelly” (VI.iii.128).

  22. For a discussion of the duel and its relation to Jack's sense, see Sen, “Sheridan's Literary Debt,” 297 n. 9; Durant, “Sheridan's ‘Royal Sanctuary,’” 27.

  23. Leff, in “Sheridan and Sentimentalism,” argues that this second prologue does not change the sentimental tone of the comedy (41). Malek, in “Julia as a Comic Character,” considers both the prologue and its speaker to be appropriate, given Sheridan's portrayal of Julia (12).

  24. Leff, in “Sheridan and Sentimentalism,” also considers this speech to be sentimental simply because Julia utters it (41). Auburn in Sheridan's Comedies calls it a “moral tag” (135).

Works Cited

Auburn, Mark S. Sheridan's Comedies: Their Contexts and Achievements. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1977.

Congreve, William. “Amendments of Mr. Collier's False and Imperfect Citations &c,” in The Mourning Bride: Poems, and Miscellanies, ed. Bonamy Dobrée (Oxford U P, 1928).

Durant, Jack D. “Sheridan's ‘Royal Sanctuary’: A Key to The Rivals.Ball State University Forum 14 (Winter 1973): 23-30.

Etherege, George. The Man of Mode, ed. W. B. Carnochan. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966.

Kenny, Shirley Strum. “Farquhar, Wilks, and Wildair; or, The Metamorphosis of the ‘Fine Gentleman.’” Philological Quarterly 57 (1978): 46-65.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. Comedy and Conscience After the Restoration. 1924. New York: Columbia U P, 1949.

Loftis, John. Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1977.

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. A Scotchman, in The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. 2 vols. Cecil Price, ed. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1973.

Robert Hogan (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Plot, Character, and Comic Language in Sheridan,” in Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan: Change and Continuity in the English and European Dramatic Tradition, edited by A. R. Braunmuller and J. C. Bulman, Associated University Presses, 1986, pp. 274-85.

[In the following essay, Hogan views the plotting and characterization of Sheridan's dramas as in some ways lacking, but acknowledges the brilliance of his comic language in The Rivals, The School for Scandal, and The Critic.]

Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan—these two Irishmen are inevitably considered the preeminent comic talents of the English-speaking theater in the eighteenth century. Indeed, many literary historians have said that from the retirement of Congreve and the death of Farquhar early in the eighteenth century, until the appearance of Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, and W. B. Yeats late in the nineteenth century, there were no dramatists who even approached the quality of Goldsmith and Sheridan.

Like all generalizations, this one is a bit too general. This long period hardly saw the profusion of masterpieces that appeared during the reign of Elizabeth I or of Charles II, and an overwhelming number of the plays produced between 1700 and 1890 now strike us as too full of high fustian and low theatrics, and too evocative of easy tears and brainless belly laughs. Still, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera has outlasted Sheridan's The Duenna, and Henry Fielding's Tom Thumb stands up nicely to Sheridan's The Critic, while some of the straight comic work of Macklin, Murphy, Garrick, Colman the Elder, and Sheridan's own mother Frances did not in the eighteenth century fall that far short of the best of Goldsmith and Sheridan themselves. And even from the more arid nineteenth century, Dion Boucicault's Old Heads and Young Hearts and T. W. Robertson's Caste might be revived with pleasure, while the airy operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan have never been out of favor.

Still, when all of the qualifications have been made, Goldsmith and Sheridan remain unlikely to be challenged in their historical preeminence, just as their best works remain unlikely to lose their popularity on the stage.

When Sheridan's first play, The Rivals, was initially produced at Covent Garden in 1775, it failed. It was too long, insufficiently rehearsed, and in one instance badly cast. Sheridan quickly cut the play and replaced the offending actor with a better, and in less than two weeks, The Rivals had become a solid success. The play has never lost its popularity. It is one of those plays that takes a perverse genius to do badly. It is almost actor-proof and director-proof, and mediocre or even distinctly bad productions can still arouse delight. It has, nonetheless, been generally considered a lesser work than The School for Scandal. Yet, if there is to be any revision in the critical opinion about Sheridan, it can only be in the upgrading of The Rivals, and a convincing case can be made that The Rivals in many ways equals and in some surpasses the worth of The School for Scandal.

Neither play is what one would call well made, and, indeed, construction was never Sheridan's strong point.1 However, a tidy plot construction is probably an overrated quality in comedy, and even in tragedy the English-speaking theater has preferred Elizabethan sprawl to neoclassical trimness. Sheridan's faults in plotting The Rivals have been no better isolated than by the perceptive Tom Moore, who noted that

For our insight into [the] characters, we are indebted rather to their confessions than their actions. Lydia Languish, in proclaiming the extravagance of her own romantic notions, prepares us for events much more ludicrous and eccentric, than those in which the plot allows her to be concerned; and the young lady herself is scarcely more disappointed than we are, at the tameness with which her amour concludes … and the wayward, captious jealousy of Faulkland, though so highly coloured in his own representation of it, is productive of no incident answerable to such an announcement.2

This point can be applied to the relations of other characters in the play. Bob Acres and Lydia are never brought together for a confrontation; little is made of the “love affair” of Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Lucius. Despite his usefulness to the “real” plot, Acres might just as well be cut out of the play. It would have been dramaturgically tidier for the Jack-Lydia-Mrs. Malaprop-Sir Lucius imbroglio if Jack confronted Sir Lucius without the distraction of Acres. Acres's cowardice is, however, so delicious that one would no more sacrifice it than one would the windmill episode in Don Quixote. Such academic strictures are sometimes just theatrically beside the point. Despite, then, the omission of several “obligatory scenes,” an audience does not miss or even note what Sheridan might or should have done, because what he has done is totally absorbing and increasingly delightful: he has written a series of irresistible scenes, based either on ludicrous situations or characterizations. As each droll scene is succeeded by another of equal or greater interest, the audience remains so caught by the pleasure of the moment that the static or erratic quality of the plot is simply not noticed. Nevertheless, the plot must at least seem to move, and in The Rivals Sheridan's plot does lurch on toward the aborted duel. A difficulty of The School for Scandal is that for the first two acts the plot seems static.

Tom Moore sets up a persuasive but wrong-headed comparison between the language and characterization of the two plays:

With much less wit, it [The Rivals] exhibits perhaps more humour than The School for Scandal, and the dialogue, though by no means so pointed or sparkling, is, in this respect more natural, as coming nearer the current coin of ordinary conversation; whereas, the circulating medium of The School for Scandal is diamonds. The characters of The Rivals, on the contrary, are not such as occur very commonly in the world; and, instead of producing striking effects with natural and obvious materials, which is the great art and difficulty of a painter of human life, he has here overcharged most of his persons with whims and absurdities.3

This view—that the dialogue is natural but the characters are exaggerated—strikes me as only half true. Sheridan was dealing with “humours,” types, exaggerations, but the characters were not extravagant exaggerations, and so, for instance, the stage-Irishness of Sir Lucius was played down when Sheridan revised the play. The excellence of Sheridan's comic characterizations is that his types are handled with such a verve, freshness, and panache that they reinvigorate their stockness. Sir Anthony is basically the tyrannical father; Mrs. Malaprop, the superannuated dame; Sir Lucius, the Stage Irishman; and Bob Acres is a combination of rustic booby, false beau, and braggart soldier. Among the comic characters (as opposed to the straight characters of Jack and Julia), Lydia and Faulkland are the most touched with originality. Both possess the dull youth and handsomeness of innumerable young heroes and ingenues, but in Sheridan's treatment they become comic rather than straight characters because their admirable qualities are exaggerated until they become faults. In Lydia, romance becomes exaggerated to absurdity; in Faulkland, love becomes exaggerated to neurosis. Even the stock servant—a figure that has a centuries-old provenance and is little different in Wodehouse, Wilde, Vanbrugh, Machiavelli, or Terence—is made original in Sheridan. What he adds to the character of the pert servant is a charming falsity of language that the audience finds both refreshing and novel, and this addition revivifies most of Sheridan's otherwise stock characterization.

The individuality of Lydia, Faulkland, and all the less original characters, then, is established largely by their language. Rather than the natural dialogue that Tom Moore saw, the play contains a dazzling degree of unnatural and absurd dialogue. Sheridan took great pains with the writing of The Rivals, and it has throughout a graceful fluency that gives the impression of naturalness. It is, however, the unimportant parts of the play that are the most easy, natural, and realistic. The strongest parts, with the biggest laughs, are those in which a character uses language in a finely foolish fashion.

To take the most obvious example: the great comic lines of Mrs. Malaprop spring from an inspired misuse of words that is far too outlandish to be thought realistic or natural. Set in a surrounding dialogue of fluent naturalness, her marvelous mistakes of diction appear in bold relief. Mrs. Malaprop is funny because she is doubly pretentious: she is an aging woman who regards herself as still young and beautiful enough to be the object of a romantic love affair, and she is a stupid and vain woman who regards herself as a bluestocking. Her first pretension is deflated by the plot and by how the other characters regard her; her second pretension is deflated by her own language and by how the audience regards it. A character using the wrong word has long been a source of theatrical and fictional comedy.4 The laughter has traditionally come from the character using a wrong word that sounds like the right one. Mrs. Malaprop's best mistakes improve on this device, for the word that she chooses not only sounds like the word she meant, but it also contains a meaning that either reduces her thought to inspired nonsense or makes her say the opposite of what she intended. In her great speech about the education of young women (act 1, scene 2), she desires Lydia to know “something of the contagious countries,” and her choice of “contagious” for “contiguous” contains a brilliant bit of nonsense that, of course, indicates her own ignorance and delights the audience.

If Mrs. Malaprop's language deflates her claims to learning, Sir Anthony's deflates his own false reasoning. In his attempts to persuade Jack to be married, Sir Anthony is thwarted, and, instead of becoming more cogent and reasonable, he becomes more incoherent and emotional. So far Sheridan follows tradition: a stock father who would be the repository of wisdom, reason, and tolerance is shown to be dense, irrational, and splenetic. Sheridan again goes beyond tradition, however, for Sir Anthony's language does not merely become incoherent with anger; at its climactic and funniest it actually becomes a parody of reasoning. His brilliant exit speech of act 2, scene 1, uses the trappings of reason but winds up in the depths of infantilism.

The success of these scenes requires two characters: the faulty speaker and the clear-eyed critic. The critic is a straight character who helps the audience see what is wrong with the comic character's language and, therefore, with his character. Thus, after Sir Anthony's great outburst, Jack acts the role of critic with his ironic remark:

Mild, gentle, considerate father—I kiss your hands—What a tender method of giving his opinion in these matters Sir Anthony has!5

Or, in Mrs. Malaprop's great scene in act 1, it is Sir Anthony, elsewhere himself a faulty speaker, who acts the role of critic and says:

I must confess, that you are a truly moderate and politic arguer, for almost every third word you say is on my side of the question.6

In the Faulkland-Julia scenes, Julia acts as the critic, and so her language needs to contrast sharply with Faulkland's. In contrast to his circuitous, emotional floridness, she must be direct, simple, and reasonable. To emphasize what is wrong with his language and character, her language and character must set the rhetorical and the moral norm. Early in their first meeting (act 3, scene 2), Sheridan controls her language well, and she makes direct and terse remarks: “I had not hoped to see you again so soon,” for example, or, “Nay then, I see you have taken something ill. You must not conceal from me what it is.” Such sentences contrast effectively with Faulkland's purple effusions:

For such is my temper, Julia, that I should regard every mirthful moment in your absence as a treason to constancy:—The mutual tear that steals down the cheek of parting lovers. …7

Although the young Sheridan was already a master of comic language and here effectively mocks the language of sentiment, he was far from a master of serious language used to convey emotional intensity.8 Consequently, Julia's later, more intense speeches become as stiff, florid, and false as Faulkland's, and we find her saying in act 5, scene 1:

Then on the bosom of your wedded Julia, you may lull your keen regret to slumbering; while virtuous love, with a Cherub's hand, shall smooth the brow of upbraiding thought and pluck the thorn from compunction.9

Aside from the failure of serious language, the play is the performance of a virtuoso of dialogue fit to be ranked with Wilde and Shaw. The play may have a rather untidy plot, but the plot does provide a multitude of effective comic situations. The play may use stock types, but it also works original variations on these types. Finally, the play does provide a variety of false language hardly seen in English drama since the comedies of Congreve and Ben Jonson. The language of The Rivals has secured the play its high position in the English theater. It is a language that civilizes by involving its audience. It is a language that makes its audience become active critics of false language and, therefore, of false behavior.

The two main kinds of comic language are the language of humor and the language of wit. The language of humor predominates in The Rivals, and the language of wit in The School for Scandal. The language of humor misuses grammar and sentence structure and rhetorical devices to produce speech that amusingly and ignorantly diverges from a norm of commonly accepted good speech and writing. The language of wit uses grammar and sentence structure and rhetorical devices with such uncommon fluency that its speech diverges from a norm of good speech and writing by its more considerable excellence. In other words, the language of humor is purposely bad writing, and the nature of its badness is a symptom of what is wrong with the speaker. The language of wit, on the other hand, is purposely superb writing, and the nature of its excellence is a symptom of what is right with the speaker. Using the language of humor, the speaker may fail to attain a civilized norm by innate stupidity such as Dogberry's, or by lack of education such as Sam Weller's, or by provincial ignorance such as the quaint dialect flaws of the stage Irishman and Scotsman or Frenchman. Using the language of wit, as Shakespeare's Benedick and Beatrice do poorly, or as Congreve's Millamant and Mirabell do well, or as Shaw's Don Juan and Devil do consummately, the speaker exceeds the civilized norm and makes us admire his urbanity, insight, and wisdom. In the language of humor, the audience perceives a misuse of words that stems from a character fault, and the resultant laughter is critical. In the language of wit, the audience perceives a consummate use of words that stems from excellences of character, and the resultant laughter is admiring. More simply, the language of humor occasions critical laughter at stupidity, and the language of wit occasions admiring smiles at brilliance.

As the appreciation of wit is of higher worth than the perception of stupidity, so the language of wit is thought of greater worth than the language of humor. Thus a play like The School for Scandal is more highly regarded than a play like The Rivals. Yet this attitude may be suspect, for both comic languages actively engage the judgment of their auditors, and both comic languages use quite complex techniques. If there is an innate difference of value between the two comic languages, it must lie in the content. The language of wit has occasionally been used, notably in some plays by Shaw, to discuss more complex themes than the drama usually handles.

The School for Scandal, largely because of its witty language, has been Sheridan's most admired play. The play was first produced at Drury Lane on 8 May 1777 and has held the boards ever since. The scandal scenes in particular have been considered a triumph of witty language, and they will only work, indeed, because they are witty. The danger of these scenes, particularly in a poor production, is that they are static. Nothing happens in them. The plot does not advance, and one of the viewers at the play's brilliant premiere was even heard to grumble that he wondered when the author was going to get on with the story.

But, of course, the stories themselves are not well structured. To take only one example, the heroine, Maria, has quite a small part. She is off the stage through most of the crucial acts and, amazingly, is not even confronted with the hero until the very denouement in act 5. As with The Rivals, one could pile up a dozen instances of what Sheridan had to do with his plot and did not do. But, also as with The Rivals, one must admit that what he did do instead is so delightful and absorbing that his audience is thoroughly satisfied.

Sheridan makes some use of more individualized characterization in this play. There are well-defined stock types such as Mrs. Candour and Sir Benjamin Backbite, but Sir Peter and Lady Teazle are rather fuller than types, and in Charles and particularly in Joseph, Sheridan cuts beneath the surface and finds contradictions and something approaching complexity. Joseph, the apparently good but actually hypocritical brother, was regarded by Sheridan's sisters as a sketch of their own older brother, Charles. In any event, Joseph is a meaty acting role, even if not quite a fully fleshed-out one. He is, however, closer to reality than the great comic monsters of a Volpone or a Tartuffe. In Charles, it may not be stretching a point to see some of Richard Sheridan's own carelessness and casual mismanagement. But, like everyone, Sheridan had a good deal of tolerance for his own foibles, and so does his audience have a good deal of tolerance for the erring but basically good-hearted Charles. From this crucial attitude, much of the sunniness of the play can be traced.

The rhetorical showpieces of the play are the great scandal-mongering scenes of acts 1 and 2, in which the chorus of gossips, with bubbling spirits and brilliant technique, rends and shreds reputations. It is curious that the strength of these scenes arises from exquisitely phrased malice. Lady Sneerwell says in explanation that “there’s no possibility of being witty without a little ill nature: the malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick.”

Certainly it is true that Maria and Sir Peter, the unmalicious characters in the scandal scenes, are able to counter the witty malice with no more than direct statement, which is ineffective, and with honest dignity, which appears stuffy. Yet, while neither Maria nor Sir Peter is a match for witty malice, that does not mean that a match could not be found. A well-equipped Shavian wit, such as Sidney Trefusis or Don Juan, could have more than upheld the side of sense and worth with equal rhetorical cleverness and by substituting gaiety for malice.

It seems generally taken for granted that Sheridan's scandalmongers are deplorable, but it has not been much noticed that their critiques are correct. An audience would not laugh at their jokes unless their victims deserved laughter. Mrs. Evergreen, discussed in act 2, is mutton trying to pass as lamb; Miss Simper and Miss Prim are foolishly vain; Mrs. Pursy, although too fat, attempts to appear slim; Lady Stucco, although too old, attempts to appear beautiful. All of these victims deserve the lash of satire, and the audience laughs at popular pretensions deservedly deflated. The scandalmongers, then, are joke makers and, like all joke makers, are necessarily moralists. Why, then, are they themselves funny?

The reason, of course, is that they live in glass houses. The delight they take in other people's failings is wedded to their perfect ignorance of their own. Once again Sheridan worked a new twist upon old material and conveyed his truths by the vehicles of folly.

In the language of humor, which Sheridan basically used in The Rivals, the audience laughs at language faultily used and so becomes, en masse, a literary critic. In the language of wit, which Sheridan frequently used in The School for Scandal, the audience laughs at language cleverly used and becomes a literary appreciator. The point might be proved by taking any of The School for Scandal's well-turned jokes and rephrasing them. Almost invariably the rephrasing lessens—if not, indeed, destroys—the strength of the joke. For instance, in act 1, the poetaster Sir Benjamin Backbite unknowingly makes a joke against his own vapid verses when he describes the appearance of his forthcoming slim volume: “a beautiful quarto page, where a neat rivulet of text shall meander through a meadow of margin.” The delight of the joke comes from two sources, one obvious and one rather subliminal. The obvious point is the originality of the metaphor; the subtler point is the reinforcement of sound, first in the t's of “neat Rivulet of text,” and next in the m's of “meander through a meadow of margin.” To rephrase the remark in unmetaphorical and unalliterative statement is to arrive at something like: “a beautiful quarto page, where a few lines are set off by a wide margin.”

We catch Sheridan's neatly conceived and deftly turned statement on the wing, and our appreciative laughter is instantaneous. It is, therefore, unnecessary as well as uncivilized to spend more space in reducing clearly successful jokes to baldly tedious statements. However, it might be noted that Sheridan pushes his audience to appreciate wit in another way, and he does so by smoothly inserting some literary criteria. Several times he actually ensures that his audience will laugh by telling them what and even how to appreciate.

For instance, in the play's opening dialogue, Snake and Lady Sneerwell almost immediately launch into a rhetorical consideration of Lady Clackitt's gossip:

Lady Sneerwell: She certainly has Talents, but her manner is gross.

Snake: Tis very true—she generally designs well—has a free tongue and a bold invention—but her colouring is too dark and her outline often extravagant. She wants that delicacy of Hint—and mellowness of sneer which distinguish your ladyship's Scandal.10

In a similar manner, Sheridan sets up the rhetorical techniques of Crabtree and Mrs. Candour.

But perhaps to say more about the high quality and the manifold techniques of Sheridan's comic language would be tedious. A good joke does not need to be explained. It startlingly explodes into perfect and unexpected obviousness, and our instantaneous laughter results from our perfect but unexpected perception. Let it merely be asserted, then, that Sheridan's command of the widest variety of rhetorical techniques is consummate. When one thinks of the flabby badinage that passes for wit between Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick, one can only turn with relief and delight to a Congreve, a Wilde, a Shaw—or a Sheridan.

But perhaps the greatest quality of Sheridan's comic writing is one that he shares with Goldsmith—a sunny good nature deriving from a benevolent tolerance. Neither Sheridan nor Goldsmith says much in his plays, but in their one shared, pervasive quality they imply an attitude that imparts to their work something often lacking in the work of even their greatest colleagues. That attitude is charm. Charm is usually an underrated quality, assigned to minor writers such as Charles Lamb or Kenneth Grahame. Perhaps it is easier to allow them a trivial excellence than to analyze their excellence seriously. But is charm so trivial? In Sheridan, are we not charmed because we are reminded of the vital fact that it is awfully nice to be alive? This humanity as Virginia Woolf noted, “was part of his charm” and “still warms his writing.”11

It is too arbitrary to limit comic language to two kinds only, the language of humor and the language of wit. There is at least one other, albeit minor, kind. What of the language of imitation, the language of parody that satirizes presumptive excellence by exaggerating its faults? This is a rarer use of comic language, limited mainly to the criticism of literary forms, but it certainly does appear in plays.

The three great examples of parody or burlesque in English drama are Buckingham's The Rehearsal (1671), Fielding's Tom Thumb (1731), and Sheridan's The Critic (1779).12The Critic pushed The Rehearsal off the stage, and Fielding's delightful play presents such problems of staging that it has always been more popular in the study than on the boards. Only The Critic is still occasionally performed today, even though the stage style it lampooned is two centuries out of date.

Sheridan's second and third acts in The Critic have some brilliantly bad writing, although not nearly the profusion found in Fielding. Sheridan compensates, however, by satirizing the complete theatrical experience. Thus, he has many more visual and aural gags than does Fielding. Indeed, if we are to consider the play solely as literature, it tails off disappointingly because Sheridan does not rely on words at the conclusion but, rather, on a parody of excessive stage spectacle. In the original staging at Drury Lane, the spectacular visual conclusion satisfyingly topped everything that had gone before. On paper, little of this effect can be apparent; on the modern stage, all of this effect can be a problem.

The purely literary content, however, is so fine that the play has always been admired as the third of Sheridan's masterpieces. Indeed, he himself regarded the first act as the most finished piece of dramatic writing he had done. The act is a brilliant piece of work, and a chief excellence is that it gets its laughs while actually establishing the rules for laughing. Some of the generalizations established in act 1 are also aids for judging the ineptitudes of the play-within-the-play of acts 2 and 3.

Act 1 falls into three major scenes: the dialogue between Mr. Dangle and Sneer, the baiting of Sir Fretful Plagiary, and the rhetorical exhibition of Mr. Puff. In the Dangle-Sneer dialogue, some criticisms are made about the incompatibility of comedy and overt moralizing, which had been joined in popular sentimental comedies of Richard Steele and others. There is briefly even some criticism of the bad writing of sentimental comedy. It has too much nicety: “No double entendre, no smart innuendo admitted; even Vanburgh [sic] and Congreve obliged to undergo a bungling reformation!”13 The Sir Fretful scene is a humorous criticism of a poor but egotistical playwright, à la Buckingham's Bayes, and the character is something of a cartoon of Richard Cumberland.14 But even in this scene a number of axioms about false and inflated language are insinuated. For example:

In your more serious efforts … 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!15

Later, in the play-within-the-play, this fault is illustrated abundantly and with delightful inanity. Then, after the broad interlude of non-English and broken English in the little scene of the Italian singers and the French interpreter, comes the great scene in which Mr. Puff analyzes the varieties of false language that composed contemporary advertising. The passage is too long to quote in full, but in it Sheridan bombards his audience with false fluency and, in effect, forces each member to see that it is false and to become a literary critic. For instance, part of Mr. Puff's illustration of the Puff Direct reads:

Characters strongly drawn—highly coloured—hand of a master—fund of genuine humour—mine of invention—neat dialogue—attic salt! Then for the performance—Mr. Dodd was astonishingly great in the character of Sir Harry! That universal and judicious actor Mr. Palmer, perhaps never appeared to more advantage than in the Colonel;—but it is not in the power of language to do justice to Mr. King!—Indeed he more than merited those repeated bursts of applause which he drew from a most brilliant and judicious audience! As to the scenery—The miraculous power of Mr. De Loutherbourg's pencil are universally acknowledged!—In short, we are at a loss which to admire most,—the unrivalled genius of the author, the great attention and liberality of the managers—the wonderful abilities of the painter, or the incredible exertions of all the performers!16

Sheridan has set up Mr. Puff's lecture on Puffing so that the audience is primed to look closely at language that Puff asserts will be effective and seem sincere in any instance. Hence, all of the descriptive phrases and all of the admiring epithets stand out in bold relief as indications of insincerity and gush. This is a considerable achievement and a healthy one.

To test Sheridan's feat, I took down from my shelves the first four volumes of contemporary dramatic criticism I put my hands on; books by Kenneth Tynan, Robert Brustein, Stanley Kauffmann, and Martin Gottfried. Still seeing with a Brinsleyan clarity, I opened each volume at random and was astonished to see that certain phrases now leapt off the page. From Mr. Tynan: “admirable, transfigured, one of the noblest performances I have ever seen, marvelously characterized, I shall never forget the skill with which. …”17 From Mr. Brustein: “a spirited performance, the season's triumph, and a triumph for the American theatre. Though superlatives have a habit of sticking in my throat, I must not temporize here: this was the finest production of a Shakespeare comedy I have ever seen.”18 From Mr. Kauffmann: “production is outstandingly happy, setting is almost miraculous, vitality of the born actor and the fine control of the skillful one, we will be allowed to watch an extraordinary career develop.”19 From Mr. Gottfried: “wonderfully fluid use of stage possibilities, genuinely poetic, apt and funny, hilarious, brilliant. He is part of our theater's great tomorrow.”20

We have seemingly wandered far afield here, but the difference between the muddy fustian of the critics and the piercing clarity of the dramatist may indicate not only how pertinent Sheridan's strictures still are but also how valid his excellence still is. It may also suggest that the clearest, shortest way to truth is not through criticism but through the work of art itself.

The language of the remaining two acts of The Critic illustrates, by broad parody, various kinds of bad dramatic writing. Particularly droll is the flat and intentional inadequacy of the blank verse in the “butler-maid” scene of exposition between Raleigh and Hatton. Here, of course, Sneer's axiom about homely sentiment and fine language is illustrated. Such a prosaic lameness of thought couched in words of pseudo-Shakespearian grandeur is not far-fetched. Many worthless tragedies with scarcely less awful language have succeeded for the moment on the stage: see much, if not quite all, of the work of Sheridan's young kinsman, James Sheridan Knowles.

An equally fine parody is Tilburnia's lyric purple passage that begins with the superbly stale

Now has the whispering breath of gentle morn,
Bad Nature's voice, and Nature's beauty rise;
While orient Phoebus, with unborrow’d hues,
Cloaths the wak’d loveliness which all night slept
In heav’nly drapery! Darkness is fled.(21)

The speech ends with a lengthy catalogue of birds and flowers. Ophelia has a lot to answer for.

A chief symptom of Sheridan's parodic success is that quoting it is so irresistible. Here, then, is one final, fine, brief parody, this time of the language of rant and fustian:

Whiskerandos: Thou liest—base
Beefeater: Ha! Hell! the lie! 
By heav’n thou’st rous’d the lion in
my heart! 
Off, yeoman's habit!—base disguise!—off! off!(22)

By precept and example, Sheridan has established what bad theatrical language is. One does not need to be a scholar to appreciate his fun, but he has joked and punned so well that he has momentarily created an audience of laughing pundits. The Critic is not about life or human nature. It is about good and bad literary form; it is about taste. That fact must make it a work of lesser import than The Rivals or The School for Scandal, but it is not a work of lesser pleasure.

Three conclusions and a concluding generalization sum up Sheridan's accomplishments in his three great plays.

The plotting, although academically slovenly, is so continuously absorbing in its successive incidents that it is theatrically irresistible.

The characterization contains no original elements and scarcely ever diverges from the stereotypes worked over by Congreve, Molière, Shakespeare and Jonson, Goldoni and Plautus; upon these stock figures, however, Sheridan has mixed such new combinations and insinuated such fresh fancies of detail that they have not lost the illusion of bloom for the last two hundred years.

The comic writing, similarly, contains no original elements; and indeed, I suspect that no writer in the last two thousand years—with the dubious exception of Beckett—has discovered a new way of making a joke. What Sheridan's comic writing does is to utilize each of the comic modes—humor, wit, and parody—and to invest these traditional manners with such fresh inventiveness of detail as to make the three great plays a perennial source of linguistic delight and even of civilized apprehension.

Sheridan wrote in one of the most constricting, simplistic, and naive forms of art, the drama. Unlike Ibsen or Strindberg or Chekhov or Granville-Barker, he did not attempt to expand the form either in technique or in content. He was a traditionalist, albeit a consummate one. A greater comic artist who did attempt to expand the form but who also thoroughly understood its traditionalism, was Bernard Shaw who remarked—not with entire truth—that dramaturgically he himself merely appropriated the characterization of Dickens and the plotting of Molière. But what Shaw further said of himself is an appropriate final generalization about Brinsley Sheridan: “He touches nothing that he does not dust and polish and put back in its place much more carefully than the last man who handled it.”23


  1. In comedy, tidy construction has given us the mechanical plots of a Feydeau or a Labiche farce, as intricate and insanely logical as clockwork and just about as inhuman. And in our own day, tidy construction in comedy has given us the rigid formula of television's half-hour “sit-com.” If we recollect the glories of comic writing in the English theater, however, we might well conclude that the greatest comedy is that which diverges from or even destroys the form. Shakespeare's comedies are more often than not hopelessly slapdash in construction. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the plot is concluded by the end of act 4, and nothing remains to do in act 5 except get on with the funniest part of the play, the amateur dramatic company of Bully Bottom, which really has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot. Aside from Volpone, the great comedies of Ben Jonson are little more than illustrative incidents effectively jumbled together; yet the warmth, vigor, and vitality of Bartholomew Fair, The Alchemist, and Epicoene are inordinately more comfortable than the cold logic of Volpone. The plot of Congreve's The Way of the World is so convoluted that no one pays much attention to it; the joy is in the glittering wit. Even the consummate comic artist Molière hastily winds up Tartuffe by the limpest deus ex machina. And in our own time the masterpieces of Chaplin are composed of little more than a succession of unrelated comic situations. It might almost be thought that the best made comic plots have little room for the other major elements of character and language, while the best comedies have little room for plot.

  2. Thomas Moore, Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1825), p. 104.

  3. Ibid., pp. 103-4.

  4. In her character as in some of her funniest lines, Mrs. Malaprop owes much to Mrs. Tryfort in Sheridan's mother's play, A Journey to Bath. See The Plays of Frances Sheridan (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984). As Sheridan's sister, when she was also borrowing some of Mrs. Tryfort's language and character in her novel Strathallan, remarked, however, “I am of the opinion of Charles, in The School for Scandal, that it is very hard if one may not make free with one's relations.”

  5. Cecil Price, ed., The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 99.

  6. Ibid., p. 86.

  7. Ibid., p. 106.

  8. This is not an unusual fault in masters of comic language. Thus, we find Dickens's handling of Sam Weller brilliant and of Little Nell mawkish. Or we find the language of Captain Boyle and Joxer Daly consummately comic in Juno and the Paycock; and yet in the same play we find a serious but maudlin line like, “Ah God, Mary, have you fallen as low as that?”

  9. Price, ed., Dramatic Works, p. 132.

  10. Ibid., p. 360.

  11. Virginia Woolf, Books and Portraits (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), p. 49.

  12. One modern play might possibly be added—the first (not the revised) version of Elmer Rice's forgotten but delightful Not for Children.

  13. Price, ed., Dramatic Works, p. 501. In part, Sheridan is here poking fun at his own bad practice, for in 1777 he himself had made a bungling reformation of Vanbrugh's The Relapse, which he staged as A Trip to Scarborough.

  14. In this edition of Sheridan's Works (1874; reprint, London: Chatto & Windus, 1913), p. 630, F. Stainforth relates the following story:

    Cumberland's children induced their father to take them to see The School for Scandal. Every time the delighted youngsters laughed at what was going on on the stage, he pinched them, and said, “What are you laughing at, my dear little folks? you should not laugh, my angels; there is nothing to laugh at”; and then, in an undertone, “Keep still, you little dunces.”—Sheridan, having been told this, said, “It was very ungrateful in Cumberland to have been displeased with his poor children for laughing at my comedy, for I went the other night to see his tragedy, and laughed at it from beginning to end.”

  15. Price, ed., Dramatic Works, p. 507.

  16. Ibid., pp. 514-15.

  17. Kenneth Tynan, Curtains (New York: Atheneum, 1961), pp. 272-73.

  18. Robert Brustein, Seasons of Discontent (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), p. 276.

  19. Stanley Kauffmann, Persons of the Drama (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), p. 175.

  20. Martin Gottfried, Opening Nights (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1969), pp. 203-4.

  21. Price, ed., Dramatic Works, p. 529.

  22. Ibid., pp. 545-46.

  23. Bernard Shaw, Sixteen Self Sketches (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1949), p. 183.

Christine S. Wiesenthal (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8225

SOURCE: “Representation and Experimentation in the Major Comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan,” in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3, Spring, 1992, pp. 309-30.

[In the following essay, Wiesenthal studies Sheridan's concern with modes of artistic representation in The Critic, The School for Scandal, and The Rivals.]

In his 1825 biography of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Thomas Moore pauses briefly to consider a “ludicrous little drama” entitled Ixion, the incomplete product of a juvenile collaboration between the nineteen-year-old Sheridan and a school chum. Insignificant in itself, the fragment, as Moore suggests, is yet “highly curious as an anticipation of The Critic,” for not only is it a burletta written in the form of a rehearsal, but it also features an embryonic precursor of Sheridan's famous Mr. Puff in its main character, a playwright-critic named Simile. “It is amusing,” Moore reflects by way of conclusion, “to observe how long this subject was played with by the current of Sheridan's fancy.”1

More than merely “amusing,” the fragment from Sheridan's juvenilia suggests an early, conscious fascination with the very nature of the dramatic form of representation itself. Perhaps the most manifold of the sister arts, the drama, as a type of “story unfolding through a visible enactment,”2 offered the young Sheridan a uniquely composite narrative and pictorial medium with which to work—or perhaps more precisely, to play. For indeed, as the germinal precursor of his renowned burlesque, The Critic, Ixion attests to Sheridan's innately playful disposition towards the modes of representation involved in his chosen medium. It is such an element of “playfulness” that, as Edward Galligan has argued, constitutes the central feature of “the comic vision” in literature.3 But most critical discussions of Sheridan's use of language, gesture, and image, limiting themselves to general considerations of his “comic dialogue” or his “comedy of situation,” have failed to appreciate adequately the great extent to which Sheridan's personal “comic vision” is shaped by his play with both the themes and the actual stuff of representation. Yet one need only glance at the three major comedies, The Rivals (1775), The School for Scandal (1777), and The Critic (1779),4 to observe not only his characteristic delight in experimenting with narrative, pictorial, and dramatic forms of representation, but his pervasive focus upon a wide range of linguistic and pictorial objects: from letters, manuscripts, and newspapers, to maps, pictures, screens, and stage props, a vast plethora of signs and symbols proliferate in Sheridan's great comedies.

Sheridan's interest in mediums of artistic representation can yield a great deal of insight into both the nature and relative merits of the individual plays, as well as to the general direction of his dramatic career as a whole. Indeed, although in one sense it may be quite rightly argued that The Critic, as a burlesque, cannot be evaluated alongside Sheridan's two great “neo-Restoration” comedies of manners,5 in another, his last major work may be usefully regarded as a type of coda, which traces retrospectively the stages by which he brought his “career in comedy full circle” from that first aborted burletta.6 In particular, The Critic brings to logical culmination themes about language and art, that, throughout the major works, reflect a progressively more daring and experimental play with the modes and means of representation. Words, images and gestures become increasingly less reliable, less “safe” and less effective as means of representing reality or conveying artistic intent. Sheridan's increasingly searching and sophisticated exploration of the possibilities inherent in literary and dramatic representation also provides a means of understanding The Critic as the logical formal culmination of his development as a comic dramatist, even if this last major work postdates the epitome of his dramatic achievement with the superbly crafted The School for Scandal. Ultimately, to trace a trajectory from The Rivals to The Critic, from his first serio-comedy to his last parodic burlesque, is to trace the genesis not only of a truly three-dimensional artistic genius, but of a more quintessentially “comic” sensibility as well.

The importance of both language and gesture in Sheridan's first comedy is subtly indicated even before the play begins, in the unusual dialogue form of the first night's prologue, a form which calls attention to the arena of discourse, an arena where words and gestures meet. Indeed, one way The Rivals can be read is as a play which explores dimensions of discourse, and especially that of comic language. Aptly described as a “theatrical coat of many colors … sometimes ridiculing sentimental comedy, sometimes echoing it,”7The Rivals also illustrates what happens when, in the inexperienced hands of an exuberant, young comic playwright, two essentially antagonistic discourses begin to compete against one another. Most critics of the play agree, in particular, that Sheridan's sentimental portrayal of the tempestuous love relationship between Julia and Faulkland in the so-called “high plot,” and his simultaneous satirization of the anti-heroine, Lydia Languish, in the main plot, reveal his divided allegiances to the opposed contemporary camps of “Laughing” and “Weeping Sentimental” comedy.8 And from early reviewers of the play to modern critics, a number of writers have noted that “the brilliant language” of The Rivals seems to contribute somehow to this formal ambivalence—that it has “divisive effects” or “exact[s] a price in ‘significant unity.’”9 Beyond observing the highly stylized and peculiarly obtrusive quality of the language, however, no one has looked closely at the specific techniques and larger ramifications of Sheridan's play with comic language in The Rivals—some, in fact, dismissing the idea of such an exercise as tedious.”10

The general observation that the dialogue of Sheridan's comedy is highly contrived and palpably obtrusive is actually quite unhelpful in attempting to determine the difficult matter of what is “comical” about it. For as Thomas Moore long since pointed out, both Sheridan's “witty and serious styles” are equally characterized by “false finery” and marked “effort,” which, “tho’ ingenious, is far too labored.”11 Moreover, not only do such “non-transparent” diction and style mark both the serious interchanges of Julia and Faulkland as well as the comic sequences of The Rivals, but they are also qualities intrinsic to literary or poetic language as a whole, which, as Murray Krieger observes,

rivet[s] our attention upon its playful aesthetic presence instead of allowing us to pass through it (as we are accustomed to pass through other discourse) to the more important things it is supposed to point us toward.12

It is, indeed, only when one begins to consider the specific ways in which language “playfully” arrests our attention upon its “aesthetic presence” that the comic essence of Sheridan's language begins to manifest itself.

Certainly the most obvious starting point for any such discussion lies with the character of Mrs. Malaprop, merely “the duenna” of The Rivals' foolishly romantic Lydia Languish, in terms of the play's plot, perhaps, but the absolutely un-rivalled “queen of the dictionary” in Sheridan's comedy too (2.2). Indeed, when considering language calling attention to itself as language in an especially comical, literal way, one need look no further than this “mistress of orthodoxy” (1.2), whose malapropisms sometimes consist in an ironic confusion of the actual names of grammatical “parts of speech” for the words she intends. As she at one point confides to the hero of the play, Jack Absolute, for example, she has laid her “positive conjunctions” on Lydia never to think of Jack's “rival,” Ensign Beverley, again. And, furthermore, “I have since laid Sir Anthony's preposition before her;—but I’m sorry to say she seems resolved to decline every particle that I enjoin her” (3.3). “Particles” of grammar are, in fact, also apt to surface in many of Mrs. Malaprop's own “prepositions.” Hence, the punctilious “Delia” coyly confesses to her clandestine correspondent, Sir Lucius O’Trigger, after a glowing review of his charms: “Female punctuation forbids me to say more” (2.2).

Despite their undisputed prominence in this respect, however, Mrs. Malaprop's “hard words” (3.3) are not the only ones to foist their sharp verbal surfaces upon the reader's notice in humorous ways. Word games such as verbal puns, for instance, abound in The Rivals: French dance “lingo,” such as the word “pas,” is phonetically juxtaposed to the clumsy “antigallican” “Paws” of the rustic fop, Bob Acres (3.4), and the names of characters furnish similar bon mots. Mrs. Malaprop, for example, outdoes Sir Lucious O’Trigger's pun on the “dirty acres” destined to “slip through [his] fingers” (3.4) when she blithely puns on both Sir Anthony Absolute's Christian and surnames, calling him an “absolute misanthropy” (1.2). And Sir Anthony himself similarly rechristens his newly “repentant” son from “Puppy” to “Jack” again, when he pretends to “talk sense—absolute sense” about his prospective bride (3.1).

An amusing selection of tasty tidbits, a modern Dangle and Sneer might yawn, but so what? Seemingly insubstantial in themselves, puny puns, long dismissed as “the lowest form of wit,” are presently garnering a new respect in literary studies. Jonathan Culler, for one, views the pun as no less than a “paradigm for the play of language” itself, a “disquieting spectacle” of inherently unstable linguistic dynamics wherein “boundaries—between sounds, between sound and letter, between meanings,” between “essence and accident … meaningful relations and coincidence”—“count for less than one might imagine.” “[R]esponding to the call of the phoneme,” the pun, Culler contends, “tell[s] of wild realms beyond the code” of our conscious, rational linguistic behavior.13 No mere insignificant particles, puns—the quarks, not the quirks of comedy—show Sheridan working to playfully reveal the structures of language, and constitute a major aspect of the comic language of his plays.

The animated comic language of The Rivals not only flags itself directly as improper idiom and proper names, but it is also indirectly portrayed as an amusingly tactile realm: when Lydia not very languidly jams The Innocent Adultery between the chaste covers of The Whole Duty of Man, for example, she imparts an entirely new dimension of physicality to the notion of literary subtexts (1.2). Words are consistently personified by Sheridan as animated entities in their own right. Like a little platoon of hapless military conscripts, “a great many poor words … that would get their habeas corpus from any court in Christendom” are thus mercilessly “pressed into the service” of Mrs. Malaprop's billet-doux (2.2). When not “pressed’ into action unwillingly, words can themselves function as the agents of active, heroic valor. “Your words,” as the temporarily inspired Acres puts it to Sir Lucius, “are a grenadier's march to my heart!” (3.4). Words, in other words, like the “en-signs” of a “marching regiment” (3.1) come to town on a mission to “recruit” (2.1), effectively caricature the actions of Ensign Beverley/Captain Absolute in the main plot, even as he “mimic[s]” the language of other military characters in the play (4.3). This sort of metaphorical mimicry at the level of language itself represents an extremely subtle way, indeed, of tapping a comic resource which Freud considered as amongst the most “extraordinary” “sources of comic pleasure.”14

Signaling its “playful aesthetic presence” through puns and personification, it becomes increasingly difficult to take the language of the play “straight.” The words “pressed” into the “service” of Sheridan's comedy, that is to say, clamor so loudly and forcefully as comical actors in and of themselves that they resonate throughout the play, creating a type of unintentional, parodic “echo to the sense” (2.1) of the serious dialogues between Julia and Faulkland. To some extent, a mocking, undermining residue of humor enters into this couple's passionately intense verbal exchanges through their unhappy reliance on some of the same (or very similar) words that Mrs. Malaprop mangles in memorable lines. When Julia rightfully reproaches her neurotic lover for casting “hard aspersions on [her] fame” (5.1), for example, one is apt to hear an echo of Mrs. Malaprop's equally indignant reaction to the “brute” who dared to cast a cruel “aspersion upon [her] parts of speech!” (3.3). And as one remembers Mrs. Malaprop for her “positive conjunctions,” so the gloomy and asocial Faulkland is pointedly associated with negative conjunctions such as “but—but.” As Jack says to him in exasperation at one point, “Confound your buts.—You never hear anything that would make another man bless himself, but you must immediately d—n it with a but” (4.3). Many other comic registers come to play upon the lovers' tender scenes as a similar sort of linguistic overlay: Faulkland promises to “expiate” his “past folly” (5.1), while Lydia is warned not to attempt to “extirpate” herself from hers (1.2), and Faulkland's admission to the strange wish of having been “deformed” in order to convince himself of the integrity of Julia's affection (3.2) comes dangerously close upon the heels of Jack's reversion to the hump-backed, one-eyed bride with whom his father has earlier threatened him (3.1). A substantial measure of the “divisive effect” of language which critics have noted in The Rivals, then, may be seen to arise from the ironic undertow created by a comic language so exuberant that it drags upon the rhetoric of sublimity, interfering with the reader's wholly sympathetic response to Julia and Faulkland.

If Sheridan's play with language in The Rivals illustrates some of the drawbacks as well as the strengths of his first major work, however, it also serves to establish the central comic axis upon which his play with forms of representation will continue to hinge throughout his career. In the language of Mrs. Malaprop and Bob Acres, that is, Sheridan plays with obverse extremes of linguistic distortion which satirize the antipodes of eighteenth-century semantic theory—and he does so through a principle of comic incongruity, recognized as an essential source of laughter from the time of Aristotle.15

As critics have noted, it is incongruity that generates the comic force of Mrs. Malaprop's “oracular tongue, and … nice derangement of epitaph” (3.3), for her ingenious mis-application of “mal-a-propos” words “outrage[s]” her audience's expectations, “thrusting [them] into a wildly inept frame of reference.”16 As Sir Lucius remarks, words dare not “refuse coming” at the “call” of this “great mistress of language” even “tho’ one would think [they were] quite out of hearing” (2.2). Based on a radical disparity or contrariety between words and the connotative and denotative dimensions of words, the effect of Mrs. Malaprop's comic language—as her most famous simile, “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile” (3.3), perhaps best illustrates—is to give a whole new figurative life to figures of speech. The laughable incongruity between what Mrs. Malaprop says and what she really means is in this respect very much like the ludicrous literary style of The Critic's Sir Fretful Plagiary, whose “poverty” of “thought,” ever unsuited to the overly ornamental style of his poetic “expression,” provokes Sneer to sniff that “the homeliness of [his] sentiment states thro’ the encumberance of its fine language like a clown in one of the new uniforms” (1.1).

While Mrs. Malaprop's clownish words have received a great deal of attention by virtue of their sheer, outlandish obviousness, little heed has been paid to the “referential” swearing of Bob Acres, which actually represents the parodic obverse of Mrs. Malaprop's incongruous language. In his desire to remedy the semantic poverty of “common oaths”—which, as he feels, have “no meaning”—Acres swears by swearing only “according to” the precise “sentiment” motivating the epithet. Bob thus champions a linguistic extreme which would press for a strictly representational relation or equivalency between words and their semantic content: “the oath should be an echo to the sense,” as he informs Jack, “and this we call the oath referential or sentimental swearing—ha! ha! ha! ’tis genteel isn’t it?” (2.1). Acres' declared aim to drain “figures of imprecation” (2.1) of all of their figurative force, to perfect the art of literal cursing, reflects a conscious ideal of language as an absolutely transparent medium—a sort of saran wrap around thought, as it were—which contrasts directly with Mrs. Malaprop's unwitting misuse of words. Thus just as Mrs. Malaprop may be regarded as a devastating satire of the figurative ideal of language, or “affective aesthetics of taste and sentiment” in vogue during the late-eighteenth century, so Bob Acres, with his “Odds jigs and tabors” (3.4) or “Odds bullets and blades” (4.1), may be seen as a similar travesty on an old-fashioned linguistic ideal of “Lockean literalism.”17

The theme of incongruous figurative language and “plainspeaking” literalism begun in The Rivals is brought to its most dramatic development in The Critic, wherein Sheridan plays extensively with the concept of metaphoric or poetic speech as a type of ornamental embroidery on a literal sackcloth of language, “like tambour sprigs” on “a ground of linsey-wolsey” (1.1). Puff, the genial author of “The Spanish Armada”—the “tragedy” burlesqued within Sheridan's comedy—is relentlessly satirized for the flowery heights and ludicrous lows between which his verse vacillates. Although often “obliged” to be “plain and intelligible” when his drama must convey “matter of fact,” Puff's real penchant is for the “better language” of “trope, figure and metaphor,” which he assiduously attempts to intersperse, “as plenty as noun substantives” (2.2). And truly, his “panegyrical superlatives” and “variegated chips of exotic metaphor” (1.2) can be every whit as exotic as Mrs. Malaprop's Egyptian “allegories” or “contagious Countries” (1.2).

More importantly, though, in The Critic Sheridan plays with extremes of language in a way that pushes the funny but subtly unsettling conceptual dislocations inherent in Mrs. Malaprop's linguistic aberrations to a yet more unintelligible extreme, working steadily to undermine any complaisant faith in the simple referentiality of words. For in his satire of the theatrical convention of the tragic heroine's “mad scene,” Sheridan in effect knocks back the incongruities of Mrs. Malaprop's idiosyncratic language one final remove, into the realm of utter nonsense. Hence the following indisputably “mad” speech from Puff's raving heroine, Tilburina:

The Wind whistles—the moon rises—see
They have kill’d my squirrel in his cage!
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?—Ha! did you call, my love?
—He’s here! He’s there!—He’s everywhere!
Ah me! He’s no where! (3.1)

As Ellen E. Martin has observed with respect to Jane Austen's juvenilia, such “mad” language, based on a principle of rushed metonymic associations, invites the reader to make connections or see relations between highly unlikely objects, and so reflects an essentially “non-representational aesthetic.”18 The difference between Mrs. Malaprop's “deranged epitaphs” of “allegories” on the Nile or “pineapple[s] of politeness” (The Rivals, 3.3) and Tilburina's nonsensical “whales” and “birds” in The Critic, then, is purely quantitative, not qualitative: a difference only of a degree of deferred meaning. For while one can usually, after a moment or two at most, identify the cliche or conceit behind Mrs. Malaprop's bruised and abused metaphorical “conjunctions,” the significance of Tilburina's more radically disjointed words—like those of a long line of “mad” tragedy queens, including Otway's Belvidera in Venice Preserved—remains obscure no matter how long one puzzles over them.

A similar movement toward a progressively “non-representational aesthetic” may also be traced briefly in Sheridan's play with non-verbal forms of communication, with the gestures, “attitudes,” and poses that in the drama complement language and even replace it at critical moments. In both The Rivals and The School for Scandal, Sheridan's scenes, like Puff's in “The Spanish Armada,” often go “entirely for what we call Situation and Stage Effect, by which the greatest applause may be obtained, without the assistance of language, sentiment, or character: pray mark!” (The Critic, 3.1). Sheridan's dramaturgical excellence in this capacity is generally acknowledged, with critics typically pointing to the famous “screen scene” in The School for Scandal as the principal example. But although the dramatic tableau which ensues the discovery of Lady Teazle in that play is undoubtedly the most perfect instance of Sheridan's ability to crystallize a climactic narrative moment in the form of a symbolic pictorial configuration, his playful use of dramatic gesture and posture is evident throughout his major comedies. In The Rivals, for example, “backsides” (3.3), “side-fronts” (4.2) and “attitudes” are of the utmost importance, especially, as Bob Acres learns, when dueling. For when it is crucial to make oneself as “small” as possible, an “edge-ways” stance is infinitely preferable to the “full-front” posture advocated by Sir Lucius (5.3).

The most relentless fun with the non-verbal techniques relied upon by the drama, though, comes once again in The Critic. Indeed, Puff's farcical “deadlock” scene, in which six characters remain suspended, daggers pointed at each others' breasts, and all afraid “to let go first” until ordered to quit their “situation” in the name of the Queen (3.1), appears to be quite clearly intended as a parody of precisely the type of dramatic tableau Sheridan himself had utilized to such grand “Stage Effect” in The School for Scandal. Similarly, the idea of a gestural language or “pantomic” means of communication, a concept stressed by both popular contemporary linguistic theories, such as Condillac's “langage d’action19 and the “new” school of pictorial dramaturgy which emerged in the 1770s,20 is also caricatured by Sheridan in Puff's production. Spectators of Puff's tragedy, that is, are likely to want the same sort of “poetical second sight” with which Tilburina is happily endowed (2.2) when the character of Lord Burleigh enters upon the stage, “comes forward, shakes his head, and exit[s]”: a “dumbshew” the complicated purport of which Puff must spend several minutes explicating for his confused rehearsal audience (3.1). Although language, then, is fraught with its own difficulties, the dangers of lapsing into absurdity through “dumbshew” appear yet greater.

As the dialogue format of the prologue to The Rivals indicates the importance of words and gestures in that play, so the dedicatory preface to The School for Scandal, significantly entitled “A Portrait,” suggests the more distinctly pictorial nature of Sheridan's most accomplished theatrical work. Although in this comedy Sheridan's love of the verbal contours of comic language is still readily apparent, his attention here shifts quite literally to the “Surfaces” of the painter's canvas. Moreover, while the comedy of this play may also be seen to hinge upon a principle of incongruity similar to that of The Rivals, The School for Scandal evinces a far more sophisticated and impressive awareness of the spatial as well as the narrative or temporal planes of the dramatic form. Indeed, just as comic language in The Rivals provides insight to that play's structural tensions, so the painterly elements of The School for Scandal provide a key for appreciating the consummate craftsmanship of this play, helping to unlock an intricacy of aesthetic design which belies the common critical charge of the play's “unsubtlety.”

Most critics accede to the dramaturgical excellence of The School for Scandal's use of pictorial effect, especially in its climactic “screen-scene” tableau; “as penetrating and coherent literature, however, the play claims few champions.”21 The “scandal plot,” as Andrew Schiller chides, “is an awkward thing” which “fails to function,” for although Lady Sneerwell and Snake open the play, “the ensuing action” does not immediately “advance” the scandal plot. “On the contrary,” the matter seems to be “all but forgotten” until it is “reintroduced at the end of the play”:

The scandal group—Lady Sneerwell, Snake, Mrs. Candour, Sir Benjamin Backbite, et al.—are perilously close to being entirely separable from the main structure of the action. The screen scene, indeed, is the only real jointure. As a matter of fact, Sheridan originally drafted two plays, “The Slanderers,’ and ‘The Teazles,’ and the evidence of the carpentry by which he joined them is clear enough. The most obvious evidence is that the scandal group is, in effect, a ‘frame.’22

Although it is true that Sheridan's play does embody minor structural blemishes in the problematic role of its heroine, Maria, and her precipitous fifth-act union with the hero, Charles Surface, Schiller's argument of an “awkward” jointure of two original fragments represents an inadequate approach to the play: for one thing, it fails completely to take into account the central action of the comedy, the moral testing of the Surface brothers, Charles and Joseph, by their uncle, Sir Oliver.

Conversely, if one conceives of the “frame” of the scandal plot, not negatively, as evidence of clumsy carpentry, but, rather, positively, as the intentional structural principle upon which Sheridan's play is shaped, then The School for Scandal can be read as both a clever, extended play upon the notion of “framing,” and as a uniquely three-dimensional comic drama which explores its own spatial performance as a literary text. In this sense, the concept of “literary space”23 operating in the text may be likened to a series of coaxial Chinese boxes. In essence, Sheridan seems to take the three plots of the scandal school, the Surface family, and the Teazles—all of which revolve around a similar theme of the “art” of misrepresentation, or “framing”—and develop each one according to a different dimensional medium of representation: the first unfolds in pictorial terms, as a type of “portrait” frame; the second, in narrative terms, as a plot which unfolds sequentially over time within that former frame; and the last, in dramatic terms, as a climactic gestural or dramatic moment which occurs at the very apex of the Surface plot.

The scandal school, a school of “modish art,” as the prologue has it, is thus associated with painterly images and “picture language” from the very outset. In the opening scene, Snake compares Lady Sneerwell's “paragraphs” of scandal to those of another of her school as though they are artistic illustrations, like the portraits which often did, in fact, accompany the gossip in the “scandal rags” of the day:24

’Tis very true, she generally designs well … but her colouring is too dark and her outline often extravagant. She wants that delicacy of Hint—and mellowness of Sneer which distinguishes your Ladyship's Scandal. (1.1)

As Lady Sneerwell “frames” her victims in blocks and columns of print, so another prominent member of the infernal scandal “crew” (2.1), Sir Benjamin Backbite, speaks of his literary productions in the language of “ut pictura poesis”: “Yes Madam I think you will like them—when you shall see them on a beautiful Quarto page where a neat rivulet of Text shall murmur thro’ a meadow of Margin” (1.1). One can only hope that the “margins” of Sir Benjamin's pastoral landscape are absorbent enough to contain the dribble and trickle of his vapid, tepid verse. Even the scandal sessions of Sneerwell's clique turn upon extended analogies drawn from the world of art. Women who “paint” themselves cosmetically, for instance, are themselves likened to paintings and art objects: Miss Vermillion's “color” is too “fresh put on”; the “ravages of time” are evident in the mature face of Mrs. Evergreen; and the Widow Ocre, who manages to restore herself quite well by “caulk[ing] her wrinkles,” nevertheless “joins” her face to her neck “so badly” that “she looks like a mended statue in which the connoisseur sees at once that the Head's modern tho’ the Trunk's antique” (2.2). [Now there’s a good example of clumsy carpentry for you.]

As instruction in an “art” form which thrives on “run[ning] down” or “sinking” people's reputations (2.2) by confabulating fictions which take on a life of their own, the Sneerwell school of “modish art” is travestied by Sheridan as a bitterly ironic perversion of the highest aim of legitimate art, which, as in “the Works of your Modern Raphael [Sir Joshua Reynolds], … gives you the strongest resemblance yet contrives to make your own portrait independent of you—so that you may Sink the Original and not hurt the Picture” (4.1). The main point, however, is that as members of a school that quite literally “kill[s] time” (2.3) with an art of “framing,” the characters in the scandal plot have little to do with the typical narrative requirements of (linear) plot and character development that traditional literary critics such as Schiller once looked for.

The Surface family plot, on the other hand, has everything to do with chronological narrative time; indeed, Sir Oliver's trials of Charles and Joseph are critically dependent upon the fact of his sixteen-year absence from England. And if students of scandal tend to perceive texts as images and images as aesthetic objects, then characters in the Surface plot evince an obverse propensity to apprehend images and art objects as narratives. Just as Mrs. Malaprop remarks upon the “grammatical” “physiognomy” of Jack Absolute in The Rivals, for example, so Sir Oliver, a man who has remained true to his own anti-matrimonial “Text” (2.1), is able to “read husband” in the “married look” of Sir Peter's face (2.3). Sir Oliver's nephew, Charles, similarly views a room full of pictures not as a gallery of individual artistic images, but primarily as a narrative sequence documenting historical and genealogical time: “Walk in Gentlemen, pray walk in!—Here they are, the Family of Surfaces up to the Conquest” (4.1). For Charles, then, the gallery of the “Family Canvass [sic]” (5.3) is as much a record of temporal legacy like the parchment of the “Family Tree” (4.1) as it is an art collection of perhaps dubious but nevertheless distinct aesthetic value.

In the Surface plot, unlike the scandal plot, the theme of the “art of misrepresentation” also takes on a markedly narrative rather than pictorial form. Most obviously, perhaps, Joseph, the hypocritical “Man of Sentiment” (5.3), misrepresents himself verbally, through a type of internalized “script” or “catalogue” of empty aphorisms and platitudes (5.1). And Sir Peter's contention, early in the play, that “there needs no art to discover” the true “merits” of the Surface brothers (1.2), is also proven wrong, for Sir Oliver, too, deliberately uses the art of dissimulation when he assumes the false characters of, first, “Little Premium” and then “Mr. Stanley” (3.1) in order to “make a trial” of his nephews' “Hearts” (2.3). Like Joseph's misrepresentations, Sir Oliver's impersonations mainly take the form of a verbal charade, for, significantly, he never attempts to disguise himself physically.

As the link between the predominately pictorial and narrative worlds of the scandal group, on the one hand, and the Surface family, on the other, the Teazle plot provides the means of a brilliant dramatic synthesis of representational dimensions at the very nucleus of Sheridan's play. Sir Peter discovers his wife hiding in Joseph's library, that is, not just behind any old screen, but behind one plastered with maps. Since maps are pictorial symbols that are yet “read” or deciphered like texts, they are the perfect representational form to suggest a meeting of spatial and temporal realms. In the shocked stasis which ensues Charles's dramatic “unveil[ing]” of Lady Teazle behind the screen (4.3), Sheridan's play realizes the perfect moment of the “speaking picture,” a moment poised in the very midst of the incessant dialectic between word and image and act. And not only does it come as a moment of complete aesthetic equilibrium or balance, but the screen scene, as Jean Dulck first noted, also represents the very epicenter of the play in another respect as well: for beginning with Lady Teazles' entrance to the library and concluding with her confession and Joseph's disgrace, the scene constitutes a miniature five-act play within itself.25

In both the metadramatic form implicitly embedded within the screen scene and its manifold play with “frames,” then, The School for Scandal clearly anticipates the overt “rehearsal” framework of The Critic, that modest little three-act “afterpiece,” which, though it comes as something of an anticlimax after its elegantly and elaborately crafted predecessor, finally brings Sheridan's play with “frames” and planes of dramatic representation to the “surface” of a self-conscious examination. For as a parody of the illusion-making processes of theatrical—and literary—art, and a satire of the notion of the stage as “the Mirror of Nature” (1.1), The Critic works (hilariously) to undo and expose all the clanking contrivance that The School for Scandal for the most part gracefully conceals within itself, thus consistently subverting the aesthetic “gratification” of theatrical artifice by revealing it as “gratifiction.”26

Significantly, Sheridan's play with the motif of pictorial art from The Rivals to The School for Scandal charts a movement that follows in the wake of the direction taken by his experimentation with linguistic and non-discursive mediums of expression, toward an ever more slippery and unstable “non-representational aesthetic.” The integrity of the heroes of both The Rivals and The School for Scandal, for example, is tested by their willingness, or non-willingness, to relinquish the image or “copy” of an “original” who has a legitimate moral claim upon their “Hearts.” Happily, both Jack Absolute and Charles Surface pass their “tests.” But in the earlier play, although Jack's miniature “copy” of Lydia “is not equal” to its “original” “in beauty,” it has a reassuring “merit” in “being still the same,” and it is upon this basis of resemblance that Jack “cannot find it in [his] heart to part with it” (4.2). In The School for Scandal, on the other hand, Charles Surface cannot rely upon such a faithful correspondence between image and referent to guide his actions: indeed, it is precisely because he does trust unquestioningly to the referential “merit” of his pictures as “Inveterate likeness[es]—all stiff and Aukward [sic] as the Originals” that he comes perilously close to committing an unforgivable “ex post facto Parricide” in the eyes of his uncle (4.1). For in this play, of course, the all-important portrait of “the ill-looking little fellow over the settee” (4.1) bears not the slightest resemblance (any more) to its “original,” who, unbeknownst to Charles, stands before his very eyes, highly amused at the ironical truth of his nephew's observation that his “Uncle Noll” is “so much changed lately that his nearest Relations don’t know him” (3.3).

Once again, it is in The Critic that representational veracity becomes most tenuous, albeit in this play, Sheridan focuses his parody specifically upon the status of “original” dramatic works of art and their “copies.” And rather than pressing the idea of radical incongruities or gaps between art and life, The Critic plays raucously, instead, with the notion of an infinitely referential ripple of intertextual echoes amongst works within a common cultural body of art. From its satire of Richard Cumberland in the figure of Sir Fretful Plagiary, and its comic exploitation of Sheridan's own reputation as the occasionally plagiarizing hack of the “Drury Lane Theatre” (1.1), to its farcical exposure of the casual “coincidences” between Puff's “Spanish Armada” and some of Shakespeare's gems, The Critic—itself a sort of rehearsal of Villiers's The Rehearsal—evinces a trenchant and wry awareness of the essential derivativeness of all literary works, itself included, as forms of “play-giarisms” of earlier works of art.27 Freely and frankly, Sheridan's last major comedy plays with those nasty “starts of recollection” or “appearances of plagiary” which the author of The Rivals sought so hard to avoid.28 As Puff puts it, succinctly: “[Y]ou see I don’t attempt to strike out any thing new—but I take it I improve on the established modes” (2.2).

Louis Kronenberger has rightfully contended that, unlike the pre-eminent Restoration “original” whose dramas he “copied” and adapted for his own late-eighteenth-century audience, Sheridan, the “modern Congreve,” was not at liberty to “attack appearances” in his comedies, but rather, “had himself some to keep up.”29 And yet as a final barometer of Sheridan's disposition toward his medium, The Critic clearly illustrates the great extent to which, over the course of his career, his need to maintain “appearances”—like “gratifications” of “newness” and “originality”—had lessened. Indeed, not only does The Critic, in its playful poke at the subject of plagiarism, denote a far more casual and unillusioned authorial attitude toward the status of art in general, but it also indicates a corollary conception of the status of comic art in particular: for just as the play suggests that “art” need not pretend to be “original,” so it also unequivocally endorses the idea that the art of comedy need not pretend to teach. Indeed, the early satire in Ixion of Simile's belief that “the stage should be a place of rational entertainment,” of “grave comedy” formed “so that it is no laughing, giggling piece of work,”30 finds its most mature and mordant expression in The Critic, in Sheridan's sneer at Sneer's advocacy of “The Reformed Housebreaker”: a “new type” of “truly moral” comedy which proposes to “dramatize the penal laws and make the Stage a court of ease to the Old Bailey” (1.1).

Sheridan's gay parody of the comic stage as a “court of ease” to a burdened and groaning Old Bailey—a type of laxative to “ease” the cramped channels of a “constirpated” judicial system (to echo one of Mrs. Malaprop's more memorable gaffes)—provides an apt indication of just how far he has come toward eliminating, so to speak, from The Critic those “didactic excrescences” which critics object to in The Rivals.31 For although the famous tenth-night prologue to that play clearly implies that “comedy” is not “form’d to teach” (and although Lydia Languish certainly serves the comic cause in this respect, by using the pages of Fordyce's Sermons to curl her hair [1.2]), the drama itself also plainly reflects the obligation Sheridan felt to “coax some Moral from his Play,” as the epilogue puts it. It is such “coaxing,” all too evident in Julia's somewhat strained final speech, which mars the ending of The Rivals. Even if one takes into account its serio-comic nature, the play's perfunctory nod at didactic convention is problematic, for it ultimately leads Sheridan to request that his audience believe the unbelievable: namely, that the “unhappy temper” of Faulkland, which has clearly disclosed itself by this time as a species of compulsive neurosis, is really a character flaw amenable to “reform[ation]” (5.3).

The School for Scandal, on the other hand, evinces Sheridan's increasing unwillingness to oblige his characters to undergo precisely such a “bungling reformation” (The Critic, 1.1). Interestingly, this play has often been criticized upon the very ground that it does not thrust home its moral vigorously enough, that Sheridan relies lamely upon emphasizing benevolence and virtue rewarded at the expense of properly thrashing vice. According to one such critic, the play “clicks its heels before conventional morality”; intended primarily as a “box-office success,” it “no where boldly challenges fashionable opinion or assaults fashionable complacency.”32 And yet the fact that Sheridan allows Joseph Surface to exit, ways unmended, still blithering protestations that are “moral to the last drop,” and the fact that he has only one “licentiate” of the “Scandalous College” opt out of the “Diploma” program for good (5.3), can also be considered in terms of Robert Heilman's theory of “comic acceptance.” According to Heilman, comedy, as an essentially “unillusioned” and “jesting awareness” of the “habitual and indeed incurable ironies of life in the world,” “rarely proposes amendment, alternatives, or avoidance” of the world.33 It accepts as inevitable any defects in society which “a sensed norm” or “common sense” perceives that “it would be foolish or perverse not to accept.”34

It is perhaps not in the generic disposition of comedy, then, to go about “boldly challenging” or “assaulting” inevitable and incurable human weaknesses such as hypocrisy and slander. As an avid gossip and hypocrite herself, Mrs. Candour, of course, has a vested interest in “accepting” such vices as “inevitable” “Ways of the World,” but in a very real sense, she is the voice of this comic truth in Sheridan's play. As she replies to Maria's rather pious protestations about “impertinent” tongues: “Very true Child but what’s to be done? People will talk—there’s no preventing it—Why it was but yesterday, I was told …” (1.1). Ultimately, if in its portrayal of Charles Surface and the “good” characters The School for Scandal posits a roseate, sentimental faith in the essential goodness of humanity, then it is a view nicely balanced—not by satire, but by a truly comical, “jesting awareness”—that slick “surfaces” such as Joseph and sour slanderers such as Lady Sneerwell, the “Oil and Vinegar” of society (5.3), will always exist, and that to call for their sudden “reformation” at the end of the play would merely be to “bungle” another ending.

After the commendable restraint exercised in The School for Scandal, The Critic comes as a final, ringing affirmation of Sheridan's ultimate adherence to the Johnsonian dictum that “the great end to comedy” is neither corrective nor didactic, but simply, to entertain and divert by “making an audience merry.”35 And despite the views of centuries of critics on The Critic who insist that Sheridan's burlesque is primarily a bitter and vindictive work—a real “snarler,” as one put it36—it is by far his most playful and unillusioned work. Neither straining, like The Rivals, to extract an elusive kernel of didactic value from within itself, nor striving, artfully, for the superbly crafted form of The School for Scandal, The Critic acknowledges and revels in a sense of its own exuberant chaos and slipshod imperfection. It is a play that reflects the irrepressible spirit and enthusiasm of that endearing “Practitioner of Panegyrick” (1.2), Puff, a playwright who knows he is “luxuriant” (2.1) and cares not to restrain himself: “Now then for my magnificence!” he thunders, “—my battle!—my noise!—my procession!” (3.1). As Puff watches his grand finale, the pomp and pageantry of his “fete Brittania [sic]” (3.1), of his drums, trumpets, cannonry, and his splendid parade of rivers, he “applauds everything” even as he cheerfully accedes that there are some rough edges to be worked out: “Well, pretty well—but not quite Perfect—So ladies and gentlemen, if you please, we’ll rehearse this piece again tomorrow” (3.1). It is a closure which captures especially well that affirmative spirit of comic willingness for compromise, for acceptance of the less-than-perfect, which theorists such as Heilman hail as the definitive feature of the comic genre.

Ultimately, one way to view Sheridan's abiding penchant for experimentation with the composite dimensions of dramatic representation is as a type of progressive education or induction into the comic truth or “jesting awareness” of the desires and dangers simultaneously inherent in framing things: words within margins, images within picture frames, bodies within stage sets, ideas within conceptual frameworks. In this respect, his major works chart the progress of a playwright learning how to cope creatively with the maddening fact of the irrevocable clash between the artist's compulsive need to shape and contain, frame feelings and thoughts in images and words, on the one hand, and the representational and referential liabilities of attempting to do so, on the other. If the critic may indulge in a “gratifiction” of her own for a moment, Sheridan's career in comedy might be said to begin by being touched by a thin Faulklandish note of anxious insecurity and reserve, but ends with a happy blare and bang when, with the effervescent Puff, Sheridan finally indulges the creative process for the unalloyed glee and fun of it.

In a more general sense, Sheridan's manifold experimentation with forms of comic drama, and his play with forms of representation within those forms, stand as a testimony to the essentially fluid and protean nature of his comedy, which manifests itself, finally, as a spirit or an attitude, more than a literary or dramatic “form” with definable contours shaped by rigid generic laws. Indeed, unlike “the art of puffing” in The Critic, the art of Sheridan's comedy cannot be “scientifically treated, nor reduced to rule” (1.2). The varying textures of his major plays, each with its own unique blend of the sentimental and the satirical, point to only a few of the thoroughly composite and ever-malleable “forms” within which his comic spirit resides.

One thing is certain. From the time he prefaced The Rivals by bringing forth upon the stage “the Figure of Comedy,” with the injunction to his audience to “Look on this form,” to the time the cannon dust settled after the final curtain drop of The Critic, the creator of “Puff” knew all about the beauty and the elusiveness of the “forms” of both his dramatic medium and his comic mode.


  1. Thomas Moore, Memoirs of the Life of the Rt. Hon. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, vol. I (1858; New York: Greenwood, 1968), pp. 19, 24.

  2. Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 3.

  3. Edward L. Galligan, The Comic Vision in Literature (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984). Galligan uses the word in the sense of “play” as a recurring motif in comic literature, intending it as “a label that is part noun, part adjective, and part verb,” to denote “both the activity, play, the manner, playful,” and “the injunction, play!” (p. 36).

  4. Most critics agree upon Sheridan's “major” works as these three, which have never been out of the theatrical repertoire since they were first presented. While most of Sheridan's other works are minor, “occasional” pieces, such as the two-act farce, St. Patrick's Day, or adaptations, such as A Trip to Scarborough or the much later Pizarro, The Duenna, a comic opera, was a huge success during its time. Now deemed an operatic “museum piece” by John Loftis (Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977], p. 73), The Duenna, although it falls beyond the scope of the present essay, merits closer study as another of Sheridan's self-consciously multidimensional productions.

  5. See, for example, Mark Auburn, Sheridan's Comedies: Their Contexts and Achievements (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977), pp. 165ff.

  6. Jack Durant, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Boston: Twayne, 1975), p. 108. In an interesting way, The Critic provides a broad overview of all the dramatic forms Sheridan experimented with along the way, including glances at the comic opera, the military farce, and adaptations, as well as at his comedies of manners.

  7. Louis Kronenberger, “The Polished Surface,” in Sheridan: Comedies, ed. Peter Davison (London: MacMillan Education, 1986), p. 176.

  8. The most compelling arguments to suggest that Sheridan intended Julia and Faulkland as a serious, non-satiric portrayal of sentimental love are advanced by Leonard L. Leff, “Sheridan and Sentimentalism,” Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 12 (1973): 36-48, and Auburn, pp. 31-60.

  9. Durant, p. 72; and Otto Reinert, as cited by Durant, p. 71. Most early reviewers objected to the “defective” language of Mrs. Malaprop on the grounds of its “shameful” departure from the speech of “common life and common manners,” anon. rev. of The Rivals, The Public Ledger 18 January 1775, reprinted in Davison, pp. 82 and 81-95 passim.

  10. Robert Hogan, “Plot, Character, and Comic Language in Sheridan,” in Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan: Change and Continuity in the English and European Dramatic Tradition, ed. & intro. A. R. Braunmiller and J. C. Bulman (Newark: University of Delaware; London: Associated University Press, 1986), pp. 274-285.

  11. Moore I, p. 97. On the highly artificial nature of all dramatic dialogue, even “naturalistic,” see Robert Cohen, “Spoken Dialogue in Written Drama,” Essays in Theater 4 (1986): 85-97.

  12. Murray Krieger, Words about Words about Words: Theory, Criticism, and the Literary Text (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), p. 231.

  13. Jonathan Culler, ed., On Puns: The Foundation of Letters (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), pp. 3-5.

  14. Sigmund Freud, “Jokes and the Comic,” in Comedy: Meaning and Form, ed. Robert W. Corrigan, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper, 1981), p. 169.

  15. As Stuart Tave has shown, it was primarily the principle of incongruity—or the “mixture of relation and contrariety in things”—upon which the prevailing late-eighteenth-century theory of “joyful and kindly” laughter was based. See The Amiable Humorist: A Study in the Comic Theory and Criticism of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).

  16. Durant, p. 70.

  17. See Murray Cohen, Sensible Words: Linguistic Practise in England, 1640-1785 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 45. It is interesting to note here that Sheridan's father, Thomas Sheridan, was a leading exponent of the new “language of emotion” that signaled the eighteenth-century departure from the simple representationism it inherited from the previous century (pp. 108-109). Another incisive overview of contemporary linguistic and aesthetic theory is presented by Stephen Land, From Signs to Propositions: The Concept of Form in Eighteenth-Century Semantic Theory (London: Longman, 1974), esp. pp. 21-74.

  18. Ellen E. Martin, “The Madness of Jane Austen: Metonymic Style and Literature's Resistance to Interpretation,” Persuasions 9 (1987): 76-84.

  19. Land, pp. 90-92.

  20. Meisel, pp. 40-41.

  21. Durant, p. 100.

  22. Andrew Schiller, “The School for Scandal: The Restoration Unrestored,” in Sheridan: Comedies, ed. Davison, op. cit., p. 162.

  23. W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 96.

  24. See Cecil Price, ed., Sheridan: Plays (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 227, n. 3.

  25. Jean Dulck, Les Comedies de Sheridan (Paris: Didier, 1962), as cited by Durant, p. 105. According to Dulck and Durant, the servants' interruptions to announce Sir Peter, Charles, and finally Lady Sneerwell break the first three “acts”; the fourth concludes with the fall of the screen, and the last, “a serio-comic resolution to the whole scene,” presents the “aftermath” of the collapse (pp. 105-106).

  26. Krieger, p. 256. For a good but by no means exhaustive discussion of The Critic as a metadrama, see Philip K. Jason, “A Twentieth-Century Response to The Critic,Theatre Survey: The American Journal of Theater History (1974), rpt, in Davison, pp. 204-209.

  27. On this subject, see Raymond Federman's excellent essay, “Imagination as Plagiarism: [An Unfinished Paper …],” New Literary History 7 (1976): 563-578.

  28. Sheridan, Dramatic Works, in Price, p. 6.

  29. Kronenberger, p. 176.

  30. Quoted in Moore I, p. 3.

  31. Auburn, p. 26.

  32. Kronenberger, pp. 179-180.

  33. Robert B. Heilman, The Ways of the World: Comedy and Society (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978), pp. 236, 41.

  34. Ibid., p. 179.

  35. James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 525.

  36. W. C. Oulton, The History of the Theatres of London … 1771 to 1795 (1796), as cited in Cecil Price, ed., The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 484.

Richard C. Taylor (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4405

SOURCE: “‘Future Retrospection’: Rereading Sheridan's Reviewers,” in Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 47-57.

[In the following essay, Taylor examines early critical reaction to Sheridan's satirical drama The Rivals.]

The withdrawal of The Rivals after a disastrous opening performance at Covent Garden on 17 January 1775 is a well-established part of theatrical lore: a combination of sloppy acting and miscasting doomed the initial staging, and eleven days and some quick rewriting and recasting later, the play was successfully remounted, and it held the stage for fifteen nights. Since then it has become a mainstay of theatrical repertories, one of a handful of works representing the sprawling and diverse field of eighteenth-century theatre.

The responses of London newspaper critics to the first production suggest another possible reason for the initial failure of The Rivals: Sheridan had written a self-consciously novel play, one that set tradition and contemporaneity in conflict and satirized both. This theme is delightfully expressed by Mrs Malaprop in her muddled announcement: ‘our retrospection will now be all to the future’ (IV. ii. 136-7). Theatrical and social convention run up against the romantic sentimentalism in vogue and the patriarchal challenges of the novel and its readers. To some extent, because of the novelty of the play in its setting, characterization, language and ideology, convention-bound critics and audience members essentially missed the point. Withdrawing it from production, ostensibly for revision, served another purpose: to let the novelty of the experience sink in, to allow a second reading by an audience not so stunned by its originality.

Mark Auburn argues that the play's ‘pleasure derives from individual effects and not from a sophisticated overall informing aesthetic design’.1 Yet it is this purposefully confused double gaze, forward and backward, that unifies the play—that informs its language, its characterizations, its plot conflict—and also helps explain the difficulties it presented to its first audience and reviewers. Critics and producers who conflate The Rivals with The Man of Mode, or The Way of the World, or The Beaux’ Stratagem are also missing the point: Sheridan did not write Restoration comedies. The play itself inscribes a theatrical tradition for satiric purposes, but its newness is its raison d’être, its structure, its language, its thematic centre. It is a rivalry of a triumphant present over a ridiculous past. John Loftis argues that Sheridan ‘took promising dramatic materials’ from Restoration comedy, ‘reworking them in his own idiom’.2 This new idiom—and not the well-rehearsed plot conventions that critics denounced—is the central dramatic vehicle, established in the opening dialogue between the Coachman and Fag:

Fag … none of the London whips of any degree of Ton wear wigs now.

Coach More's the pity! more's the pity, I say.—Odd's life! when I heard how the lawyers and doctors had took to their own hair, I thought how ’twould go next … believe me, Mr Fag: and look’ee, I’ll never gi’ up mine—the lawyers and doctors may do as they will. (I.i.71-8)

It is a new age to which all the characters respond: the enlightened have discarded their wigs; Bath, not London, is the centre of fashion and intrigue; young women pillage circulating libraries rather than plundering reputations at cabalistic card parties; the female protagonist conspires to lose her inheritance and marry a poor man—we are in a world turned upside down. Sheridan writes for an audience of novel readers, an audience familiar with Smollett and Mackenzie, the scandalous romances of mid-century, the idea of female quixotism. His audience must have been well aware, also, of the persistent Tory attacks against the novel as a threat to patriarchal control—attacks that are pilloried as mindless and dictatorial, just as the new ‘romanticism’ of the young is lampooned. The real rivalry is between those struggling awkwardly and pretentiously for novelty and those who would squelch it.

Two years later, audiences were ready to applaud, and critics to accept, Sheridan's novelty. The School for Scandal was ‘admirably suited to the present aera’ (Gazetteer, 10 May 1777). The reviewer for the London Evening Post announced: ‘Under this poetical St George, we may expect to see the Dragon of mere sentimental drama entirely subdued, and the standard of real comedy once more unfurled’ (8-10 May 1777). The propaganda war passed from Goldsmith to Sheridan had been won: while somehow becoming the new Congreve, as the Gazetteer proclaimed, Sheridan apparently captained the triumph of the new laughing comedy over sentimentalism. The reviewer for the Morning Chronicle suggests that with some revision the new play might have been titled The Man of Sentiment (24 May 1777). Sentiment, though, was not a dragon to be slain, but the conceptual embodiment of modernity. It was the vortex around which swirled ideological confusion, hypocrisy, and misjudgement—a rivalry of competing definitions and sensibilities. Sheridan's triumph, here, lies not in his savaging the reigning genres of sentimentalism, but in offering a clarifying corrective: dropping the screen of ambiguity that veiled contemporary treatments of the sentimental ideal and offering his own comic vision.

Is The School for Scandal somehow a better play than The Rivals? Did Sheridan's dramatic abilities mature to such an extent that in less than two years he could develop from a clumsy hack to the greatest dramatist of his generation—as his reviewers would seem to have it? Attempts to explain the difference between the two plays have, by and large, followed a critical line established by Thomas Moore in his Memoirs of Sheridan: ‘With much less wit, it [The Rivals] exhibits perhaps more humour than The School for Scandal.3 Such impressionistic analysis is almost completely unhelpful in revealing why one play succeeded and one failed upon their initial appearances. Perhaps the two plays are much more of a piece than critics have been willing to accept: both topical and colloquial, both structured around ideological rivalries, both offering linguistic inventiveness and new character types, rather than original ‘fables’, for comic effect.

The Rivals was the only new comic mainpiece mounted at Covent Garden in the 1774-5 season. Four days before its opening, the company revived She Stoops to Conquer, which had begun its initial run on 15 March 1773.4 The revival might have been an attempt to prepare audiences for the new comedy—with the implicit message: The Rivals is the same sort of comedy as Goldsmith's hit. The character of Acres was easily recognizable as ‘a second Tony Lumpkin’ (Public Ledger, 18 January 1775). Jane Green, who had played Mrs Hardcastle, was cast as Mrs Malaprop. As a veteran performer of ‘conspiratorial chambermaids, eccentric maiden ladies, and silly hostesses’, Green appeared to be the perfect choice to create Mrs Malaprop.5 Edward Shuter, a veteran of three decades on the stage and Goldsmith's first Hardcastle, seemed an equally apt choice for Sir Anthony Absolute.6 Both casting choices reinforced the idea of The Rivals as the new She Stoops, a new ‘laughing comedy’ antidote for the ills of sentimental comedy.

Critics of the opening performance enumerated a series of damning flaws. ‘This Comedy was acted so imperfectly, either from the Timidity of the Actors on a first Night's Performance, or from an improper Distribution of Parts, that it was generally disapproved’ (St James Chronicle, 17-19 January 1775); ‘Shuter was … shamefully imperfect’ (Morning Chronicle, 18 January 1775). Reviewers barely noticed Jane Green's Mrs Malaprop until the play was returned. How is it that veteran cast members, many of whom had appeared in apparently similar roles, by all accounts botched the opening performance? In her study of experimental language in Sheridan's plays, Christine Wiesenthal provides a partial answer: ‘in the inexperienced hands of an exuberant, young comic playwright, two essentially antagonistic discourses begin to compete against one another’.7 What critics have identified as a structural ambivalence, reflected in the play's awkward diction, further reinforces the central conflict in the play: both the romantic excesses of novelty and the eccentricities and irrationality of the old order are exposed and placed in conflict—a confusion embodied in Mrs Malaprop's infectious verbal chaos. Incredibly, critics seemed to miss the Malaprop game so central to the play's comic inventiveness: ‘The diction is an odd mixture of the elegant and the absurd. Some of the scenes are written in a very masterly stile; others in a low, farcical kind of dialogue’ (St James Chronicle, 17-19 January 1775); ‘in language it is defective to an extreme’ (Public Ledger, 18 January 1775). Such is the result of the clashing cultural assumptions that Sheridan is recording, but for reviewers characters such as Malaprop were not ‘copied from nature’ and her language was a ‘defect’ in the playwright's skill (Morning Chronicle, 18 January 1775). The Public Ledger condemned the ‘shameful absurdities in language’ apparently without recognizing the source and satiric intention of these ‘absurdities’ (18 January 1775). While it is possible that the acting difficulties were a product of laziness on the part of Shuter and others, it is equally plausible that the performers were unprepared for the complex play of language and the demands of creating new character types.

For at least one observer, the language of the play was strikingly realistic, ‘more natural, as coming nearer the current coin of ordinary conversation’ than The School for Scandal.8 The younger characters employ a contemporary jargon replete with allusions to the social milieu of the mid-1770s. Such a commitment to contemporaneity was another breach of decorum.

Also singled out for critical condemnation was John Lee's Sir Lucius O’Trigger. Irish stereotypes and social prejudice against the Irish generally were so commonplace that the sanctimonious objections to Lee's O’Trigger are somewhat surprising. Lee was another well-established performer who had acted in Ireland in the early 1770s and who had also managed at Bath, ideal credentials, one might assume, for the role.9 And yet response to his character was universally hostile: ‘What the Devil Business can he have with the Part of a mere Irishman?’ (St James Chronicle, 17-19 January 1775); ‘This representation of Sir Lucius is indeed an affront to the common sense of an audience, and is so far from giving the manners of our brave and worthy neighbours, that it scarce equals the picture of a respectable Hotentot’ (Morning Chronicle, 18 January 1775); ‘the casting Mr Lee for the part of Lucius O’Trigger, is a blunder of the first brogue’ (Morning Chronicle, 20 January 1775). This latter review pointed to inconsistencies in dialect and the fact that Lee was not ‘Irish enough’ to pull off the role. A correspondent to the Morning Post claimed never to have seen ‘a portrait of an Irish Gentleman, permitted so openly to insult the country upon the boards of an English theatre’ (Morning Post, 21 January 1775). The revised and recast O’Trigger is largely stripped of ethnic identity: he is an old fool, whose function is to articulate antiquated ideas about honour and courtship—most notably realized in his promoting the ludicrous duel between Acres and Absolute. His interference, like that of the other old fools in the play, invites the possibility of a murderous outcome to the various romantic intrigues.

The objections to the original O’Trigger anticipate a serious problem in producing Sheridan: the racist and anti-Semitic epithets mouthed by fools and heroes alike. ‘I hated your poor dear uncle before marriage as if he’d been a black-a-moor,’ proclaims Mrs Malaprop (I.ii.174-5); ‘the lady shall be as ugly as I choose … she shall have a skin like a mummy, and the beard of a Jew’ (II.i.361-4); ‘though I were an æthiop, you’d think none so fair’ (III.ii.65-6). The anti-Semitism that runs throughout The School for Scandal produces palpable discomfort in contemporary audiences, and no amount of directorial cutting easily eliminates it. Ironically, London audiences now seem less sensitive—or perhaps more accustomed—to Irish stereotypes than to these other forms of bigotry.

Another moral objection to the play was to its ‘numberless oaths’ (Morning Chronicle, 27 January 1775). For Sheridan, though, cursing is more than an isolated technique for character development or a means of achieving shock value; it is a means of underscoring his theme: new-fangled cursing versus ludicrously outdated cursing, both of which add to a delightful bewilderment that interferes with communication and causes further generational separation. For reviewers, though, cursing was a violation of decorum and delicacy, and ‘One of the Pit’, writing to the Morning Chronicle, threatens the author on this subject: ‘the English are not sudden, but strong in their resentments, and if he persists in such scandalous negligence of his duty, he may one day experience it’ (27 January 1775). Absolute remarks that Acres' ‘Odds whips and wheels’ and ‘Odd's Blushes and Blooms’ and ‘Odds Crickets’ represent ‘an odd kind of a new method of swearing’ (II.i.258-9). Acres blunders, as do his cohorts in foolishness, in trying to modernize himself. His efforts are foiled by a comic duality: he opposes the modern system of ‘Sentimental swearing’ (II.i.268) and is tradition-bound. Of oaths he declares that ‘nothing but their antiquity makes them respectable … the “oath should be an echo to the sense”’ (II.i.263-7). He is a perverse upholder of the ‘old learning’, of the Augustan aesthetic, and so his own attempts at novelty are hopelessly outmoded, another instance of ‘future retrospection’.

Reviewers also complained about the excessive length of the play: ‘insufferably tedious’ (Morning Chronicle, 18 January 1775); ‘lulled several of the middle gallery spectators into a profound Sleep’ (Public Ledger, 18 January 1775); ‘a full hour longer in the representation than any piece on the stage’ (Morning Chronicle, 20 January 1775). This response is most puzzling given the almost invariable sprightliness of Sheridan's plays in performance. Was his first audience asleep? Some of those attending the first revival apparently hissed when they noticed that a comic scene involving Lydia had been cut (Morning Post, 30 January 1775). Audiences had, indeed, been accustomed to shorter pieces designed to accommodate the double-billing that was typical at both Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

Another possible solution concerns the novelty of the plot. Novel-readers in the audience might have recognized a structural looseness and digressiveness typical in the fiction of the period. In the plot and language of The Rivals and in its patterns of allusion, Sheridan inscribes a rivalry between the drama and the novel. The relationship between late-eighteenth-century theatre and the novel was roughly analogous to the current one between the novel and television: one medium overtaken in popularity and influence by another; a form of entertainment struggling for currency and relevance while acutely aware of the cultural ascendancy of another form. Much like the self-reflexive concern with novel-reading and readers in the novels themselves, Sheridan's play, in another act of ‘future retrospection’, lampoons the theatrical tradition while pillorying the influence of the novel on custom and language.

If the opening conversation about wiglessness signifies a struggle between the old and new in fashion, the dialogue that opens Scene ii between Lucy and Lydia establishes the female protagonist as a woman of the moment, a devourer of novels and a denizen of circulating libraries. The items on her latest novelistic menu were all recent publications, two, The Fatal Connection (1773) and The Tears of Sensibility (1773), published only a year before the play was written. Like Charlotte Lennox's Arabella, Sheridan's Lydia had been nursed on the romance; but unlike Arabella, who had educated herself on bad translations of old French romances, Lydia's preferences were strictly modern. She is the embodiment of a Tory nightmare: a young woman scorning paternal authority, hell-bent on an improper alliance, devoid of common sense. Arcane and serious tomes such as The Whole Duty of Man (1659) are useful only for hair-pressing—a moribund ideology impressed into the service of modishness.

At the same time, Lydia functions to mock the outmoded manner of courtship preferred by her aunt, Mrs Malaprop, who assumes the hackneyed pastoral pseudonym ‘Delia’, and who has chosen as her object of affection a ‘tall Irish baronet’—presumably an equal affront to fashion (I.ii.49). When her aunt and Sir Anthony Absolute approach, the trappings of modernity must be hidden and the furnishings of propriety displayed: James Fordyce's sermons and Lord Chesterfield's Letters conceal Smollett and Mackenzie and Lydia's volumes of scandalous memoirs (I.ii.137-46). Sir Anthony then harangues against ‘teaching girls to read’ (I.ii.186), while his rhetorical partner Mrs Malaprop insists that Lydia ‘illiterate’ her lover from her memory (I.ii.154). By the time Mrs Malaprop speaks out against serious education for women, Sheridan's audience should have learned to read her ironically. Clearly, Mrs Malaprop's charm-school view is as empty a system as Lydia's education-by-novel.

Another obvious influence of the novel in The Rivals is its ‘sentimentalism’, evidenced by its characterizations, by overt textual treatment of the idea, and by the critical reaction to the play. The principals are novelistic protagonists to the extent that they conceive of romance and of themselves as lovers. Even the relatively pragmatic Julia describes her lover Faulkland as a typical romantic hero: ‘being unhackney’d in the passion, his affection is ardent and sincere; and as it engrosses his whole soul, he expects every thought and emotion of his mistress to move in unison with his’ (I.ii.103-6). Captain Absolute, too, is a self-described sentimentalist. Like Malaprop's diction, Lydia's romanticism is contagious, and her lover admits: ‘Am not I a lover; aye, and a romantic one, too? Yet do I carry every where with me such a confounded farago of doubts, fears, hopes, wishes, and all the flimsy furniture of a country Miss's brain!’ (II.i.74-6). Like Lydia, the Captain sees duty and obedience as a dusty veneer concealing passion and independence. The idea of arranged marriage is an anachronistic fraud—his father, after all, ‘married himself for love’ (II.i.397)—to be defeated by ingenuity. Yet when his scheming goes awry, he blames his lover's sentimental inclinations: ‘Lydia is romantic—dev’lish romantic, and very absurd of course’ (V.ii.49-50). Sentimentalism, as a code-word for modishness, is a satiric target—‘sentimental swearing’ or the ‘sentimental elopement’ Lydia had planned—and the antithesis of a ‘Smithfield bargain’ view of courtship that is equally ridiculous.

Reviewers of The Rivals did not know what to make of this theme: ‘the characters of Faulkland and Julia are even beyond the pitch of sentimental comedy, and may be not improperly stiled metaphysical’ (Morning Chronicle, 18 January 1775). Clearly, if the play had indeed been marketed as a successor to She Stoops to Conquer, Sheridan had been positioning his work in opposition to sentimental comedy. In ‘An Essay on the Theatre’ for Westminster Magazine (January 1773), Goldsmith advocated ‘laughing comedy’, in which category theatre historians have subsequently placed Sheridan's works, as a sort of antidote to sentimentalism. However, Sheridan's reviewers almost unanimously accused him of outré sentimentalism, without recognizing his satiric aim.

Among critics, however, the word sentimental was not entirely pejorative. Responding to the revised production, the Morning Chronicle extols ‘some of the most affecting sentimental scenes I ever remember to have met with’ (Morning Chronicle, 27 January 1775). On the other hand, the tenor of the Morning Post reviewer's comments of 31 January 1775 more or less reflects the play's subsequent reputation: ‘sentimental blockheads, so much admired by the gaping multitude of our century, were not a little disappointed at the success of Mr Sheridan’. The play, then, lives as a triumph over sentimentalism. Sheridan's comedy survives, and rival offerings such as Isaac Bickerstaff's Love in a Village, Ambrose Phillips' The Distress’d Mother and Thomas Francklin's Matilda are forgotten.

John Loftis casts Sheridan as a social conservative: ‘His authorial judgments … reveal a reverence for English social institutions as marked as that of Henry Fielding.’10 Yet The Rivals was in many ways a risky undertaking, an attack levelled on both the ancients and moderns. There is no Alworthy among Sheridan's aristocrats: they have hollow notions of honour, their authority is suspect, their language gibberish, their education vapid. If, as reviewers complained, the plot conflicts and resolution of The Rivals are wildly implausible, and its structure loose and digressive, Sheridan is responding satirically to the influence of a fashionable sentimentalism inscribed in the novel. The important rivalry, here, is not between suitors but between the foolishness of the old and the absurdities of the young. The result is miscommunication, malapropism, a purposeful clash of styles which critics, bound by absolute notions of decorum, could only describe as the flaws of an inexperienced playwright. Loftis describes the world of The Rivals as one ‘of social and financial practicality familiar in Restoration and eighteenth-century comedy, in which a rich and repulsive suitor such as Bob Acres might be rejected in favour of a rich and attractive suitor such as Jack Absolute, but in which misalliances do not occur except as a form of punishment, outside the absurd fantasies of a girl whose head has been turned by reading novels’.11 What separates the play from its comic predecessors and situates it in mid-1770s London is its novelty, its idiomatic contemporaneity, its confusion of language and cultural identity. Mackenzie has met Lord Chesterfield; Smollett is duelling with ‘the learned and pious author of The Whole Duty of Man’; the ‘deep play’ has moved from London to Bath and—more ominously—from the theatre to the novel.

By 1777, when Drury Lane introduced The School for Scandal, critics were prepared to overlook the playwright's derivative plotting and linguistic ‘awkwardness’. They recognized the topicality of Sheridan's moral concern and that Sheridan was targeting hypocrisy, one of the ‘prevailing vices of the times’ through which many ‘assume the appearance of men of virtue and sentiment’ (Morning Chronicle, 9 May 1777). Beyond its titular concern with gossip and its archaic Wycherley-like plot, the play is an arena for competing visions of modernity—specifically, for defining a moral ideal, the idea of sentiment that dominated late-eighteenth-century discourse. Hypocrites and debauchees, young and old—all appropriate and misappropriate the term in their efforts to make moral judgements. The rivalry in this play is not so much a generational one, but a semantic one between competing visions of the sentimental ideal.

Sheridan's first scene establishes the social problem or challenge that unifies the play: distinguishing the ‘man of Sentiment’ from the ‘Sentimental Knave’. The audience must recognize that the scandal school has corrupted the virtues of ‘sensibility’ and ‘sentiment’: Surface speaks of Mr Snake's ‘sensibility and discernment’; and Surface is ‘moral’ because he is ‘a man of Sentiment’; he mistrusts Snake because he ‘hasn’t Virtue enough to be faithful even to his own Villainy’ (I.i.73-122). Scandal is the machinery that has circulated this ethical perversion.

In the National Theatre's 1990 production at the Olivier, Peter Wood's visual metaphor for this process was newsprint, which covered the flat surfaces of the set; even the furniture was papered over by scandal. If the ‘country wife’ plot has recognizable seventeenth-century roots, the implicit attack on the ascendant print culture is distinctly late Georgian, when the threat, as Sir Peter puts it, of being ‘paragraph’d—in the news-Papers' is a prevailing trope for loss of reputation (I.ii.13-14).

Like The Rivals, The School for Scandal has its ‘old fools’: Mrs Candour, a variation of the Mrs Malaprop character, asks Lady Sneerwell, ‘how have you been this Century’ (I.i.165-6); Sir Peter is essentially a ‘Pinchwife’. Their principal fault, though, is in either distorting or failing to comprehend the modern idea of sentiment. Sir Peter mistakes Joseph Surface as ‘a man of Sentiment’ (I.ii.51). For Lady Sneerwell, sentiment is merely an affectation to ‘study’ (I.i.351-2). For Joseph, ‘sentimental’ is little more than the characteristic of his favourite French plate (V.ii.106-7). The young lovers Maria and Charles represent true sentiment, Maria for her discernment, Charles for his generosity and honesty. The importance of this theme lies not only in Sheridan's verbal insistence upon it throughout the play but also in the climactic comic moment. When Charles throws down the screen—arguably one of the most sublimely funny moments in all of comedy—hypocrisy is unveiled, and virtue revealed. The punchline, here, is Charles's mocking echo of Sir Peter: ‘there’s nothing in the world so noble as a man of Sentiment!’ (IV.iii.385-6). The stage directions then suggest a long silence: the point has been made; nothing further remains to be said.

If Goldsmith had established a self-serving critical rivalry between laughing comedy and sentimental comedy, Sheridan weaves this rivalry into the fabric of his two best-known plays. Sentimentalism becomes a comic theme, a pivotal issue that separates generations and divides the virtuous and the fraudulent. Further confusing the rivalry between an antiquated and paternalistic older generation and an absurdly ‘romantic’ younger one is the obscuring medium of gossip—private conflict made public. Newsprint becomes the metaphor for ‘future retrospection’: language used to distort and deceive, past values and current fashions jumbled. Clarity of vision and expression become heroic acts.

While bad acting probably contributed to sabotaging the initial performance of The Rivals, the evidence of critical response suggests that audiences and reviewers were unprepared for a new play about newness. Strategically linking the production to Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer failed because, quite obviously, Sheridan is not Goldsmith. Unlike Goldsmith's comedy, Sheridan's plays attempt to inscribe a historical present: where clear communication has become nearly impossible, where equally absurd new and old systems of thought compete, where deception is fashionable. Given the thematic and linguistic complexity of his plays, it is hardly surprising that Sheridan's work needed to ‘sink in’. Even the critical reception of The School for Scandal involved a sort of ‘future retrospection’: Sheridan captures the modern era because he is a new Congreve—The Way of the World in 1777. Needless to say, Sheridan is not Congreve either.


  1. M. S. Auburn, Sheridan's Comedies: Their Contexts and Achievements (Lincoln, NB, 1977), p. 36.

  2. J. Loftis, Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England (Oxford, 1976), p. 43.

  3. T. Moore, Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan (London, 1815), i, p. 141.

  4. C. B. Hogan, ed., The London Stage, 1660-1800, Part Five, 1776-1800 (Carbondale, IL, 1968).

  5. P. H. Highfill, Jr, K. A. Burnim, and E. A. Langhans, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, vi (Carbondale, IL, 1978), pp. 328-35.

  6. A Biographical Dictionary, xiii (1991), pp. 370-84.

  7. C. S. Wiesenthal, ‘Representation and Experimentation in the Major Comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, xxv(3) (Spring 1992), 311.

  8. Moore, Life, i, p. 141.

  9. A Biographical Dictionary, ix (1984), pp. 201-9.

  10. Loftis, Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England, p. 46.

  11. Ibid., pp. 46-7.

Christopher Clayton (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7968

SOURCE: “The Political Career of Richard Brinsley Sheridan,” in Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 131-50.

[In the following essay, Clayton recounts Sheridan's actions and reputation as a Whig politician and a member of Parliament.]

When Thomas Moore was preparing his biography of Sheridan he was told by Lord Thanet that Sheridan never liked any allusion to his being a dramatic writer.1 Outstanding success as a playwright eased, and arguably enabled, Sheridan's introduction to the society of the Westminster political world, but his theatrical work, both as writer and manager, was a potent reminder that Sheridan had to work for a living and did not spring from a background of landed wealth and aristocratic leisure. This background remained the most powerful qualification for political leadership amongst the Whig élite—far more powerful than the recommendation of talent by itself. Charles James Fox could offer both talent and aristocratic pedigree, and in that fact lies the single most important explanation of why Fox could lead the Whigs, in spite of his manifest lack of judgement on occasion, and why Sheridan could never be seen as a legitimate Whig leader. Not only did allusions to Sheridan's theatrical background carry a clear message of his status as a parvenu on the political stage, but association with the theatre carried with it a distinctly disreputable aura. As the young George Canning explained to his mother, an actress: ‘there is perhaps no subject on which public opinion decides more positively than on the respectability or disrespectability of different pursuits and occupations … the world is capricious and unjust—but it is peremptory—and to explain myself fully—need I do more than ask you—to what cause is Mr Sheridan's want of success and popularity to be attributed?’2

Had Sheridan been prepared to sacrifice his views on matters connected with the constitution, the problems of Ireland, the removal of religious disabilities and the plight of the poor and politically unenfranchised, he too, by joining his talents to those who served Pitt, might, like Canning, have achieved high office, but at the cost of sacrificing political principles and political friendship. Refusal to sacrifice either tied Sheridan's political fortunes to a set of politicians whose prejudices were aristocratic and exclusive. Sheridan's political career can thus be seen as a demonstration of the limited opportunities available to a non-aristocratic ‘man of talent’ in the Whig party of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This has wider implications concerning both the development of political parties in this period and the progress of liberal reform. In particular, the weakness of the Whig party in the first decades of the nineteenth century can be explained by the deflection of ambitious, talented non-aristocrats of liberal temperament into the Tory camp, where their liberal aspirations were frustrated, often by monarchical prejudice. Sheridan's experience in politics at the hands of the Whig leadership can help to explain why this happened. This essay seeks to show why Sheridan's political career was a failure in comparison with his brief, glittering success as a playwright in the 1770s. It is also contended that his was not a dishonourable failure; he did remain loyal to political friendships and principles.

Sheridan's political career can be divided into four, broadly distinct, chronological periods. During the first decade of his parliamentary career Sheridan rose steadily to a position of considerable prominence in the House of Commons, making his mark as a notable exponent of the Rockingham/Foxite Whig thesis that the events of these years demonstrated an alarming growth of executive power. There were occasional flashes of independence, as when he disagreed with Fox on the latter's Bill to replace the existing Marriage Act on 15 June 1781,3 and when he objected to Pitt's Irish commercial propositions in 1785 from a perspective that was specifically defensive of Irish constitutional rights rather than of British manufacturers' rights. Speaking in the debate of 30 May 1785 he declared that ‘he was the mouth of no party … nor was he the tool of any party’.4 This was perhaps to protect his arguments from the odium in which the Foxites were then held as a result of Pitt's victory in 1784. But that he was a party man was acknowledged by his sister, Betsy Sheridan, who commented ‘he acts on this occasion from his own feelings, totally independent of any wish his party may have to harass the Minister’ (my italics).5

The second period dates from 1789-90, when the impact of the French Revolution began to be felt on British politics. Sheridan acquired an unjustified reputation for dangerous radicalism and acted as a catalyst in the process which led to the break-up of the Whig party in 1794. During the 1790s Sheridan steadfastly supported Fox in his stand against the war with France and in his belief that the real danger to British liberties derived from the growth of executive power and not from popular radicalism. But from 1797, the third period of his career, Sheridan appeared to follow a much more independent line, refusing to join the Foxite secession from Parliament in 1797 and calling for a united, patriotic resistance to the danger of a French invasion. During Addington's ministry he was in open disagreement with Fox's parliamentary tactics, although after 1804 he appeared to be reconciled again with his political colleagues. The fourth period encompasses the years 1806-12. The disappointment of Sheridan's political ambitions when the Ministry of All the Talents was formed in 1806 produced the final estrangement from the Whigs, led after Fox's death by Grey and Grenville. From 1807 he owed his seat in Parliament to the Prince of Wales's patronage. From 1809 he seemed to be moving closer to George Canning, who, before serving in Pitt's ministry, had been a protégé of Sheridan. Sheridan's career ended in 1812 when he failed to win back his seat in Stafford.

In thirty-two years in Parliament Sheridan enjoyed three brief spells in government: as Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the short-lived Rockingham administration of 1782; as Joint Secretary to the Treasury in the Fox-North coalition in 1783 and finally, in January 1806, as Treasurer of the Navy in the Ministry of All the Talents. This was a post vacated by the much younger George Canning which Sheridan had been promised almost twenty years previously at the time of the first Regency Crisis.6 This was the rather feeble reward for having been ‘Thirty years a Whig Politician and six and twenty years in Parliament, and having expended full £20,000 of my own money to maintain my seat there and in all the course of political life struggling thro’ great di[f]ficulties and risking the existence of the only Property I had’.7 That Sheridan did not have more opportunities to serve in government is due to his party loyalty and the antagonism of George III to the Rockingham/Foxite Whigs. But that Sheridan did not rise higher within the party when the opportunity afforded is due in large measure to the conservative aristocratic ethos of the leaders of that party, including Fox. Why and how Sheridan became a Foxite Whig is, therefore, a central question.

The evidence concerning Sheridan's earliest political thinking indicates little common ground with the Rockingham Whigs. A letter published in the Public Advertiser on 16 October 1769, chiefly intended to criticize the style of a correspondent who signed himself ‘Novus’, contained an oblique defence of Lord Bute, who was regarded by the Newcastle/Rockingham Whigs as the tool of George III and the means of their downfall in 1762.8 A draft for an essay entitled Essay on Absentees, probably written about 1778, criticized the behaviour of Irish landlords, such as the Marquis of Rockingham and other Whig landowners, for the problems which their absenteeism caused in Ireland.9 Jottings made probably in 1776 for a reply to Johnson's Taxation No Tyranny had, however, shown sympathy for the Whig point of view on the issue of America, in that Sheridan sought to show that taxation of the American colonists could not be justified by theories of virtual representation.10

Sheridan was drawn first into metropolitan Whig social life, and then into Whig politics, for two principal reasons. First, his marriage to the beautiful singer, Elizabeth Linley, who was much sought after for private recitals in the homes of the nobility, obtained for Sheridan an entry to Devonshire House society, at the heart of the Whig élite. Subsequently, in 1780, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a member of the Spencer family, was to exert the Spencer interest in Stafford to help secure Sheridan's election to the House of Commons.11

The second factor was Sheridan's developing friendship with Charles James Fox. Thomas Moore relates that Fox was immediately impressed by Sheridan's wit on first meeting him, probably in 1776 or 1777.12 At that time Fox himself was only just moving towards political co-operation with the Rockingham Whigs under the influence of Edmund Burke.13 As a former member of North's government, and the son of Henry Fox, who loomed almost as large as Bute in the Whig demonology, Fox was hardly an orthodox Whig. Fox presided over Sheridan's election to the Literary Club on 11 March 1777 and after the success of The School for Scandal later that year was known to regard Sheridan as ‘the first Genius of these times’.14 Apart from mutual admiration there was their shared family connections with the deposed Stuart dynasty to draw them together. Fox, whose first two names were more than usually significant, could trace his ancestry back through his mother and the Dukes of Richmond to Charles II. In contrast with Sheridan, Fox could lay claim to high aristocratic pedigree, but the uncle of Sheridan's grandfather had been secretary to James II in exile and his grandfather's cousin had been knighted during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion by the Young Pretender.15

From a letter written on 4 January 1773, it is clear that Sheridan had been contemplating a career in politics. Rejecting a life of private enjoyment he asked, ‘Was it meant that we should shrink from the active Principles of Virtue, and consequent[ly] of true Happiness … ?’16 It was not surprising that Sheridan's ambition was kindled by the admiration of members of the political élite. Sheridan now saw a political life as the means to social elevation and personal satisfaction. As he put it in another letter, written on 24 February 1773,

The Track of a Comet is as regular to the eye of God as the orbit of a planet … as God very often pleases to let down great Folks from the elevated stations which they might claim as their Birthright, there can be no reason for us to suppose that He does not mean that others should ascend etc.17

Speaking in the House of Commons in June 1804 he uttered similar sentiments: ‘there is nothing of honour, emolument or wealth which is not within the reach of a man of merit … I would call on the humblest peasant to defend his son's title to the great seal of England.’18

Such views were too advanced for the Whig party to which Sheridan became attached through his connection with Fox. But Sheridan's talents were useful assets to the forces fighting Lord North's alleged incompetence and the supposed growth of executive power which threatened to unbalance the constitution. In particular, Sheridan was able to provide a link between the Whig leaders in Parliament and the sources of extra-parliamentary discontent. He contributed to a periodical, The Englishman, addressed to the ‘freeholders of England’, urging them to turn against the alleged corruption of the North ministry. Along with other Whigs, Sheridan was present at the founding meeting of the Westminster Committee of Association, established to join the pressure for parliamentary reform being exerted by Christopher Wyvill's county association movement; two months later he was present at the inaugural meeting of the Society for Constitutional Information. Under Sheridan's chairmanship a sub-committee of the Westminster Association, established to enquire into the ‘state of the Representation’, produced a report which considered that the representative system was even more unfair at representing property (assessed through regional land tax contributions) than electors. It was perhaps because of the influence of Sheridan and Fox that the Westminster Committee was diverted from more radical solutions than those being advocated by Wyvill's country gentlemen, but as popular pressure for reform began to decline, so Sheridan's attendances at committee meetings became fewer.19 When Sheridan entered the House of Commons in September 1780 he was already an established Foxite. A promising political future seemed to beckon as North's ministry tottered.

In Parliament Sheridan consolidated his position as a loyal Foxite. He was at least as vehement as Fox in his condemnation of Shelburne's behaviour during the Rockingham administration and did not hesitate to follow Fox into opposition when Shelburne succeeded Rockingham as First Lord of the Treasury. There is some doubt as to what he really thought about the wisdom of the Fox-North coalition and of introducing the East India Bill at that time,20 but Sheridan later played a prominent part in attacking Pitt's own Bill, introduced in 1784, and in the impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings, in each case with the intention of vindicating Fox's coalition government and its actions.21 In 1788 Sheridan wrote A Comparative Statement of the Two Bills for the Better Government of the British Possessions in India, which contained a systematic attack on the principles underlying Pitt's style of government. He was central to the Foxites' attempts to create a favourable impression of themselves in the newspapers and he took over the difficult, but vital, brief of opposition spokesman on financial and taxation affairs, in which Fox had no interest at all.22 He was a zealous proponent of the view that the manner in which Pitt and the King were able to overwhelm the Fox-North coalition in 1783-4 was proof of a constitutional crisis, in which the House of Commons was losing power and influence as a result of the contrivances of a wily, ambitious king and unscrupulous ministers. Although he supported parliamentary reform when the question was brought forward in Parliament, Sheridan did not offend the conservative aristocratic Whigs by unnecessarily pressing the issue. When he was asked to bring forward the question of reform of the notoriously corrupt Scottish burghs by a committee of delegates from the burghs in 1787, he brought forward his motion very late in the session. Even after 1789, when there was more political capital to be gained from supporting such a measure, as popular interest in reform revived under the impact of the French Revolution, Sheridan was cautious in his approach, prompting the historian John Cannon to comment that his campaign on behalf of the burghs had ‘the impetuosity of a slow bicycle race’.23 Parliamentary reform was never a fundamental principle of Foxite belief. Sheridan, more than most politicians of his generation, was aware of the value of courting extra-parliamentary opinion, but even he was reported to have said in November 1794 ‘in the hearing of Lord Fitzwilliam’ at Brooks's that it was ‘the present intention of the Friends of the People to abandon all thoughts of Parliamentary Reform unless called for by two-thirds of the People’.24 If this is true, Sheridan was obviously trying to conciliate those aristocrats whose fear of reform in the context of the French Revolution was driving them into alliance with Pitt.

In spite of Sheridan's manifest loyalty and usefulness, tension was generated within the party by Sheridan's equally manifest ambition. He believed his talents entitled him in due course to a position of leadership. This did not fit the Whig view that for liberty to survive in the balanced constitution established at the Glorious Revolution, the leading parts in government must be undertaken by men of wealth, property and education, who could be relied upon to be independent and were thus immune to the blandishments of ambitious kings.25 Such men could only be aristocrats and they took on governmental office as an obligation and not primarily as an object of ambition.

Particularly worrying to the other Foxites was Sheridan's closeness to the Prince of Wales. In 1786 Sheridan had been involved in trying to sort out the Prince's finances—a grave embarrassment to the Foxites who had so clearly attempted to secure the Prince's favour. It was Sheridan who managed to save the situation in 1787, after Fox had denied there was any truth in the rumour of a marriage between the Prince and Mrs Fitzherbert. This exploit enhanced Sheridan's position at Carlton House and irritated Fox. Fox was further irritated by Sheridan's assumption of a leadership role in November 1788 when the Regency Crisis developed while Fox was abroad. The Duchess of Devonshire recorded two quarrels between Fox and Sheridan at this time—on 20 December and 2 January.26 Fox was not the only one to be alarmed at Sheridan's assumption of a position of eminence. Charles Grey believed Sheridan had deliberately humiliated him in front of the Prince.27 Later in 1789 another quarrel between Grey and Sheridan nearly produced a duel.28 The Duke of Portland was reported to be offended by the close consultation between the Prince and Sheridan in November 178829 and at the end of January 1789 Portland declared his determination ‘not to act with Mr Sheridan in council’.30

More significantly for the events to come, Sheridan's relations with Burke were deteriorating. Burke was deeply irritated by the manner in which both Sheridan and Fox began to lose interest in the impeachment of Warren Hastings once it became clear that it would not undermine Pitt. To Burke, the Hastings trial was a moral issue, not a question of party politics. Sheridan's advance presented a direct challenge to Burke's own influence over Fox; the fact that Burke's advice during the Regency Crisis was ignored seemed to demonstrate the effects of Sheridan's rise. Fox's enthusiastic support for the removal of the legal penalties on the Dissenters seemed to show that Fox was being pushed in the direction of more radical and dangerous ideas and this was ascribed to Sheridan's influence. This impression was confirmed by the enthusiastic reception that Fox and Sheridan gave to the French Revolution.

Burke's resentment exploded on 9 February 1790 in the debate on the Army Estimates, when Burke and Fox clashed openly on the subject of the French Revolution. Sheridan then vehemently disagreed with Burke.31 Although Sheridan seems ‘to have expressed some contrition for his conduct on the very evening the conversation passed’,32 there was no wish for reconciliation on Burke's part. From this point on, there was an open struggle for the nature of the Whig party's beliefs. Sheridan was depicted by Burke and his son—and others alarmed at his apparent influence over Fox—as a dangerous demagogic manipulator. In Burke's opinion ‘They who cry up the French Revolution, cry down the [Whig] Party’, which was ‘an aristocratic Party … a Party, in its composition and in its principles connected with the solid permanent long possessed property of the Country.’33 Sheridan and others in the party were said to be ‘running into Democracy’.34

In reality, Sheridan, and others like Charles Grey, whose social origins were more elevated, sought a moderate parliamentary reform for conservative reasons. Moderate reform was the best means of restoring the constitutional balance framed in the Revolution Settlement of 1689 and of conciliating the extra-parliamentary reformers to the substance of that settlement. Nor were the aristocratic Whig leaders to whom Burke was appealing taken in by Burke's claim that Fox and Sheridan had become the leaders of the ‘New French Whigs’ who cared not at all for the traditional Whig approach. There was a degree of resentment at the way in which Burke seemed to polarize the situation, pushing Fox into a more determined defence of the French Revolution and benefiting Pitt's government by dividing the opposition. But Sheridan's humble origins and rapid rise to political prominence, together with his connections with the popular societies, made him ideal for fostering the aristocrats' fears. The satirical prints delighted in portraying Sheridan as a revolutionary regicide.35 Burke's claim that Sheridan intended to put himself at the head of a spirit of innovation and to gain by the resulting confusion had plausibility. This propaganda, articulated in the context of the issues raised by the French Revolution, derived from antecedent tensions and rivalries based on resentment of Sheridan as a parvenu who did not know the proper limits to set to his own political ambition.

Sheridan's radicalism in the 1790s consisted of support for a measure of parliamentary reform to reverse the growth in executive power when there was sufficient popular support for such a measure; resistance to Pitt's innovatory, repressive legislation of the 1790s; and rejection of the war against France as unnecessary and insidious, designed to extend executive power in Britain and restore despotism in France. With all this Fox could agree. Where they differed might have been in Sheridan's stated belief that Britain's constitution helped to create ‘a people among whom all that is advantageous in private acquisition, all that is honourable in public ambition [is] equally open to the efforts, the industry and the abilities of all—among whom no sullen line of demarkation (sic) separates and cuts off the several orders from each other’.36 Fox, on the other hand, told Lord Holland, just before the Whig split in 1794, ‘You know I am one who think both property and rank of great importance in this country in a party view’.37 By 1799, regarding the political situation in Britain with despair, he wrote that he could not ‘help feeling every day more and more, that in this country at least, an aristocratic party is absolutely necessary to the preservation of liberty’.38 Although Fox carried little or no ideological baggage, he recognized that the only way to power after Pitt's resignation in 1801, and then after his death in 1806, was through broadening the party to bring in those aristocratic elements whose prejudices were not compatible with Sheridan's ambition. Sheridan was to reap little reward for continuing the parliamentary fight against Pitt during the Foxite secession.

Lord Holland told James Mackintosh that Sheridan's failure to reach the highest levels of party leadership was due to his ‘peculiarities’ rather than to Whig snobbery. He claimed that if distinctions based on birth mattered ‘They were in fact less in the real and practical estimation of the Party called Whigs than of that of the Society in which they lived’.39 For a party that claimed to stand for the public interest, aristocratic exclusivity was hard to admit openly. Lady Bessborough stated that she ‘should approve of a great deal in his [Sheridan's] language and conduct … but then a great deal is quite disgusting and it is impossible to trust him for a moment’.40 Before the French Revolution Sheridan had been portrayed as Bardolph or compared with Joseph Surface.41 But behind-the-scenes intrigue, whether at Carlton House or in Grub Street, was one way in which Sheridan had made himself useful to the Whigs. And there was an argument, conceded even by Lady Holland, that Sheridan was driven to intrigue to overcome the prejudice he encountered.42 In the early nineteenth century, when the Whigs maintained their unity through the long years of opposition by developing a Foxite cult,43 there was a need to denigrate Sheridan because detailed examination of his career could expose serious shortcomings in Fox's. In 1818 Lord Byron told Thomas Moore, who was preparing his biography: ‘The Whigs abuse him; however, he never left them, and such blunderers deserve neither credit nor compassion … Don’t let yourself be led away by clamour, but compare him with the coalitioner Fox, and the pensioner Burke, as a man of principle, and with ten hundred thousand in personal views and with more in talent for he beat them all out and out.44 How justified was Whig exclusion of Sheridan on the basis of ‘peculiarity’?

Sheridan's refusal to join the secession from Parliament in 1797, his advocacy of a united patriotic resistance to the danger of a French invasion and his willingness to support the Volunteer movement set up to counteract this threat—all this irritated his colleagues.45 The apparently loyalist and aggressively anti-Napoleonist sentiments given voice in Pizarro bewildered them; Fox described it as the ‘worst thing possible’.46 More significantly, Fox was greatly exasperated by Sheridan's attempt to bolster the Addington government against the possibility of Pitt's return to office and consequently his rejection of the idea of an understanding with the Grenvilles in opposition to Addington. Sheridan was not alone in opposing an arrangement of political co-operation with the Grenvilles, however informal,47 but in opposing such a link Sheridan exposed the Foxites and the Grenvilles to the same sort of condemnation that had been so damaging to the Fox-North coalition—that an unprincipled alliance was trying to restrict the king's choice of ministers. Sheridan and other anti-Grenville Foxites believed such an alliance would damage their reputation. But a sub-text to this argument was a battle for influence over Fox and the Prince of Wales. Grey was a keen supporter of co-operation with the Grenvilles, even if it meant co-operation with Pitt.48 Fox was not in the best of health and such was his diffidence about politics that he could retire at any time. Sheridan was known to be keen to take over the prestigious constituency of Westminster in this event. Battle had been joined for the succession to Fox as leader and Sheridan had the audacity to regard himself as a realistic contender. But in the quarrel over parliamentary tactics between 1801 and 1804 Sheridan lost the battle for Fox's ear and confidence to Grey and consequently lost any hope of asserting his right to a leading position in any ministry the Foxites and their new allies might form.

Sheridan's behaviour during this quarrel provided some evidence to those who wished to prove that he lacked integrity and could not be trusted. In December, 1802, he was accused of inserting in the newspapers ‘puffs’ of himself alongside ‘the most violent abuse’ of Fox.49 Fox claimed that he remained sympathetic to Sheridan in spite of the provocations afforded by his behaviour both in and out of Parliament, and indeed he expressed willingness for Sheridan to succeed him in Westminster. Referring to Sheridan's alleged interference in the newspapers, he told Denis O’Bryen ‘that what I most feel in it is the advantages it gives to those who hate him … to justify suspicions which in my conscience I believe to be wholly unfounded’.50 Yet Fox himself described Sheridan as ‘mad with vanity and folly’51 just two days before the latter made a speech calling upon Members of Parliament to show unanimity and ‘not to waste that time and those talents in party spirit and intrigue, which might be so much more worthily employed in performing the sublime and animated duties of patriotism’.52 On hearing this, Fox considered that Sheridan had ‘outdone his usual outdoings. Folly beyond all the past’.53

Sheridan's relations with Fox reached their lowest point in early 1804, just before Pitt returned to power. Unwisely he allowed Thomas Creevey to overhear him ‘damning Fox in the midst of his enemies’.54 Creevey believed that Sheridan was ‘basely playing an under game as Fox's friend in the event of defeat to him and his Dr’.55 Although Sheridan admitted to his wife that he saw ‘Fox every day—and Addington almost every evening’,56 he had never made any secret of his goodwill towards Addington's government, once it had become clear that Addington was no mere Pittite stooge. Sheridan's conduct did possess integrity, however galling it was to his colleagues. Opposition to Pitt provided a connecting thread of consistency through his conduct. Although he had called for a spirit of patriotic unity to resist French aggression in 1798, he had at the same time stated his ‘irreconcilable’ enmity to Pitt's government as well as his ‘unaltered and unalterable’ attachment to Fox and his political principles.57 The rationale of his support for Addington was that he had made peace with the French and destroying him would only produce Pitt's return to power. Pitt was damnable in Sheridan's eyes. He practised a debased, cynical and unprincipled form of politics for the purposes of personal advancement. He had fatally weakened the cause of reform in British politics by allowing the king to defy the majority of the House of Commons in 1783, and the combined effect of the revolutionary war and the accompanying repressive legislation had been to undermine British liberties and the balanced constitution itself. Sheridan's support for Addington was only the converse of hostility to Pitt. Sheridan was scrupulous in refusing any position for himself or his son in Addington's ministry unless the Foxites came in as a body—unlike George Tierney who accepted the post of Treasurer of the Navy, but nevertheless, because of his friendship with Grey, later went on to become a leader of the Whigs in the House of Commons. Once the return of Pitt to government was assured, Sheridan could with consistency resume co-operation with Fox, even in concert with the formerly Pittite Grenvilles. Sheridan might, with justification, claim that he had remained loyal to Foxite principles, even if that had involved friction with Fox himself. He did, however, continue to differ from Fox in believing that Napoleon was motivated by a desire for territorial conquest and not for peace. He also believed it was unwise to agitate the issue of Catholic emancipation for the purpose of embarrassing Pitt while George III remained on the throne, because the only result would be to raise Catholic hopes, simply to have them dashed against the king's intransigence, with possibly disastrous consequences in Ireland. In both these judgements he was arguably more astute than Fox and Grey. When the Foxites finally took office in 1806, with the Grenvilles and the followers of Sidmouth, the Whig leaders could easily claim that Sheridan was too much of a maverick to claim the senior position in the ministry which his long service to the party and his abilities deserved. Consequently Sheridan felt no qualms about opposing his own government's plans for the country's defences in July 1806.58

Having crushed Sheridan's aspirations for high office, the Whig leaders, Grey and Grenville, made sure that Sheridan did not inherit Fox's seat in Westminster after his death in September 1806. Although Sheridan successfully insisted on his candidature in the general election held shortly after the by-election, the Whig party leaders did not over-exert themselves in Sheridan's interest, although he was elected. He was not so fortunate in the general election of May 1807, after the collapse of the Talents Ministry. Westminster's independent electors could no longer trust the Whigs or their representatives to support the cause of reform and Sheridan was only able to return to Parliament as Member of Parliament for a pocket borough in the gift of the Prince.59

Thereafter, the Whigs and Sheridan drifted further apart. Significantly, when Grey moved to the House of Lords on the death of his father in November 1807, Grenville placed an absolute veto on any aspirations Sheridan, Whitbread and Windham might have had to take over Grey's role as leader of the Whigs in the House of Commons.60 All three were non-aristocrats. In July 1808, Grey would tell Lady Holland ‘As to Sheridan's conduct in a party view that is past praying for; and in truth it is of no consequence.’61 By 1810 Sheridan had acquired an amused detachment from the squabbles over leadership among the Whigs in the Commons. He told Lady Bessborough that the struggle for pre-eminence ‘threaten’d to subdivide the subdivisions of Op[position] till they became like Atoms known to exist, but too numerous to count—and too small to be felt’.62 After Canning's resignation from the Portland ministry in 1809, Sheridan tried to establish closer relations with him. Lady Holland described Canning as one who ‘abhors titles and the aristocracy of hereditary nobility’.63 In 1810 Sheridan claimed that he would defend Canning ‘thro’ thick and thin’.64 Alliance with Canning was a means of maintaining liberal principles while at the same time challenging the exclusive, aristocratic ethos represented by Grey and Grenville.

Any remaining connection Sheridan might have had with the party led by Grey and Grenville was shattered by the events of 1810-12. With the onset of the King's terminal illness in November 1810, proceedings were set in train for the establishment of a regency. Grenville and Grey were thoroughly angered when their proposed draft for the Prince's reply to the terms of the regency offered by Perceval was altered by Sheridan. Haughtily, Grey told his wife that he had remonstrated ‘on the impropriety of having the advice which Ld. Grenville and I were called upon to give subjected in this manner to the examination of an inferior council’.65 Sheridan was accused of undermining the Prince's official advisers in the manner of Bute or Shelburne, but even Lord Holland had to admit that there was nothing official in the position of Grey and Grenville.66 Inevitably, Sheridan was blamed for the failure of the Whigs to gain office when the limited regency came to an end and George III's incapacity seemed permanent. Holland was aware, however, that Sheridan had hoped for the non-cabinet post of Chief Secretary to Ireland in a ministry headed by Grey and Grenville. This was ‘peremptorily rejected by Lord Grenville … Lord Grenville and Lord Grey showed upon that and every other occasion a repugnance to consult or to court him’.67 Grey said that sending Sheridan to Ireland would have been like sending a man with a lighted torch into a magazine of gunpowder, but if it were merely a question of ‘giving him a place, however high, with large emoluments, nobody would be more ready to consent to it than I should be’.68 This was precisely the stipulation that Fitzwilliam had made in 1792 when he had said that Sheridan ‘might have a lucrative place, but never could be admitted to one of trust and confidence’.69 Finally the Whig leaders claimed that they had been deliberately misled by Sheridan into thinking that they would not be able to have control of appointments within the Prince's Household if they came into office after the assassination of Perceval in May 1812. Acting under this impression the Whig leaders refused to form a government. Sheridan was therefore given the blame for the re-establishment of a ministry unsympathetic to Catholic emancipation, under the leadership of Lord Liverpool. Thus Sheridan's reputation for double-dealing and untrustworthiness was assured.70 But Sheridan had written to the Prince to tell him that ‘a proscription of Lord Grey in the formation of a new administration would be a proceeding equally injurious to the estimation of your personal dignity and the maintenance of the Public Interests’.71 Sheridan seems to have worked towards a coalition of groups united in their policy on the war, on the Catholic question and on Ireland; what he called ‘that extended and efficient administration which the country was desirous of having’.72 Sheridan did not want to see the continuation of an anti-Catholic administration and he refused to consider playing any part in such an administration.

In the summer of 1812 Sheridan declared his determination to work with Canning in politics from then on.73 Anxious to prove his independence from the Prince of Wales and his ministers, he offered himself once again for his old constituency of Stafford at the general election held in October. He came bottom of the poll. The Staffordshire Advertiser claimed that there had been ‘groundless reports’ spread to injure his cause by ‘vulgar and illiterate people’.74 Sheridan claimed he had been denied money he was owed by the Drury Lane Theatre trustees under Samuel Whitbread's chairmanship.75 Possibilities of a return to the House of Commons as representative for Wootton Bassett and subsequently Westminster came to nothing. Sheridan's political career, including his influence with the Prince, was at an end.

Writing to William Eden on 16 January 1789, the Archbishop of Canterbury, noticing the rivalries among the Foxite Whigs, drily observed that ‘it is thought that things are not yet ripe enough for the manager of Drury Lane to be manager of the House of Commons’.76 The anonymous writer of a political pamphlet published in 1794 perceptively pointed out that Sheridan had ‘quit a path [in the theatre] which must have led to honest fame and competence, to prostitute his talents to a faction, who, though they pretend to reject the pretensions of illustrious extraction, still are secretly so much swayed by ancient prejudice, that they will never acknowledge the son of an actor as their leader, however superior may be his capacity’.77 Making sure that his message was quite clear, the author added that it was Sheridan's fate ‘to live for ever the drudge of a party who distrust him while they employ him; who despise his obscure birth, while they avail themselves of his talents’.78

The party into which Sheridan was drawn by his friendship with Charles Fox was an aristocratic party. For those who constituted the Rockingham Whig party, known after 1782 as the Foxite Whig party, the preservation of political liberty was essentially a matter of balancing out powers within the state and particularly of preventing the development of an over-mighty executive, especially monarchical, power. The Rockinghams, descendants of the ‘Old Corps’ Whigs who had monopolized governmental office in the previous two reigns, had adopted and adapted the arguments of the opposition to their predecessors. In the Rockingham view, however, aristocrats were cast as the guardians of constitutional liberty because not only did they possess a physical stake in the country, through the ownership of land, but they possessed the independent means to guarantee their capacity to act independently, and thus to withstand the tendency inherent in a monarchy to degenerate into despotism. Fox's objection to Pitt and Addington was that they lacked the personal fortune to be anything other than royal puppets, whereas Grenville, by contrast, had the wealth and intelligence which gave him the freedom to challenge the Crown, if the need arose. Unlike Pitt, the Grenvilles were seen as capable of becoming good party men.

Sheridan could happily agree, especially after the events of 1783-4, that the overwhelmingly important question in British politics was the danger of a growth in executive power at the expense of Parliament and the country's liberties. He could support the Whigs out of conviction, not just because of personal connections. In Shelburne's machinations in 1782 Sheridan could sense the motions of an ambitious king; the installation of Pitt in power in 1783 evinced a contempt for Parliament; Pitt's reforms of the government in India and of the trading relationship with Ireland betrayed a system hostile to constitutional rights. The repressive legislation of the 1790s convinced Sheridan that there was a deep-laid plot to introduce despotism into the country.79 Even as late as February 1810 Sheridan could state his belief that the source of the downfall of the nations of Europe, under the Napoleonic flail, was ‘the want of that salutary controul (sic) upon their governments, that animating source of public spirit and national exertion’, provided by a free press.80 All this could be accepted by the most aristocratic of Whigs. What could not be accepted was Sheridan's blithe assertion that ‘it was the most amiable and valuable fruit of our happy constitution, that every path of honourable ambition was open to talents and industry, without distinction of ranks’.81 Sheridan's views on liberty went beyond the traditional Whig view to something more akin to the nineteenth-century Liberal belief in equality of opportunity. Equally unsettling to his more traditional colleagues was his recognition that politics could not be confined to the Palace of Westminster. Sheridan was assiduous and adept at cultivating a wide range of political contacts outside Parliament, particularly among the popular societies and within the journalistic field.

Professor John Cannon has shown that between 1782 and 1820 sixty-five individuals held Cabinet office of whom forty-three were peers and of the remaining twenty-two fourteen were sons of peers. By his reckoning only six were genuinely non-aristocratic.82 Of these, only William Windham could put forward any claim to having been a Rockinghamite/Foxite Whig. Significantly, two of the others on the list, Addington and George Canning, were linked politically with Sheridan. It is true that in 1806-7 the Whigs were prepared to admit Addington—a man whose origins and abilities they had previously scorned—to the Cabinet table, but on this occasion it suited their own political ambition to do so; Addington had already been raised to the peerage as Lord Sidmouth and he was from outside the party, which somehow made it more acceptable. Sheridan and Whitbread, both non-aristocratic Foxites, were excluded. Sheridan was forced to accept that cultivating the Prince of Wales and acquiring influence in the extra-parliamentary world would not be enough to overcome Whig social prejudices. By 1812 Sheridan was of the opinion that only a new party could cater for the man of talent with liberal convictions. Pittite ‘Tories’ were unwilling to force reform on unwilling, reactionary monarchs, although men of humble extraction could prosper well enough in their ranks if they possessed enough talent and were prepared to sacrifice any reforming proclivities. Whigs had the right ideas about civil, religious and political liberties, but remained wedded to traditional ideas of rank and deference.

In one of his last speeches in Parliament, Sheridan declared that he would never ‘endure that this great country must be suffered to go drooping to perdition, because there are none but those two parties competent to direct its energies’.83 But, failing to be elected in 1812, he never had the opportunity to see whether forging a political alliance with that other scion of the theatrical world, George Canning, would produce anything of substance in a party view. After his death in 1816 he was buried in Poets' Corner. Even in death the Whigs insisted on keeping him in his proper place.


  1. Memoirs, Journal and Correspondence of Thomas Moore, ed. Lord J. Russell (London, 1853-6), iii, 233.

  2. W. Hinde, George Canning (London, 1973), p. 21 (quoting from Leeds City Archives, Harewood MSS. 2: George Canning to his mother, 13 June 1791.)

  3. The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, ed. W. Cobbett (London, 1806-20), xxii, 415 (cited hereafter as PH).

  4. PH, xxv, 766.

  5. Betsy Sheridan's Journal: Letters from Sheridan's Sister 1784-86; 1788-90, ed. W. LeFanu (London, 1960), p. 58 (15-20 June 1785).

  6. British Library Add. MSS. 41579 fo. 4; The Journal of Lady Elizabeth Foster.

  7. The Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, ed. C. Price (Oxford, 1966), ii, 260: To the Duke of Bedford, 12 February 1806.

  8. Ibid. i, 6-11. Sheridan's father had been granted a pension by the Bute government and Henry Fox, the father of Charles James, led for the government in the House of Commons when Bute was First Lord of the Treasury.

  9. T. Moore, Memoirs of the Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (single volume edition, London, 1825), pp. 205-10.

  10. Ibid., pp. 110-12.

  11. Price, Letters, i, 135: to the Duchess of Devonshire, 19 September 1780.

  12. Moore, Life of Sheridan, p. 211.

  13. L. G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox (Oxford, 1992), pp. 25-45. In view of Sheridan's later difficulties with the Whigs' aristocratic ethos, and the fact that Sheridan's primary political attachment was to Fox, not the Rockinghamite leadership, it is significant that Mitchell states (p. 25) that ‘In 1782, Fox was not a Whig in the sense that he had foreclosed on all other options … The lack of firm principle, which had marked his early years, still gave him total flexibility.’

  14. The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, ed. C. Price (Oxford, 1973), i, 331, quoting from Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, Folger MS. Wb. 478 opp. p. 254.

  15. I am grateful to Professor Ian Christie for drawing my attention to the Jacobite connections in Sheridan's family; W. Sichel, Sheridan (London, 1909), i, 209-18.

  16. Price, Letters, i, 72: to Thomas Grenville, 4 January 1773. Thomas Grenville was the elder brother of William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville, who led the Whig party jointly with Grey after Fox's death. Thomas Grenville had been a pupil in Sheridan's father's school of oratory at Bath.

  17. Price, Letters, i, 77: to Thomas Grenville.

  18. The Parliamentary Debates from the year 1803 to the present time, ed. T. C. Hansard (London, 1812-20), ii, 728-38. (Hereafter PD).

  19. BL Add. MSS. 38593-5: Minutes of the Westminster Committee of Association.

  20. Memorials and Correspondence of Charles James Fox, ed. Lord J. Russell (London, 1853-7), ii, 21-5: Lord John Townshend to Lord Holland, 15 June and 23 June 1830; PH, XXIV, 490; J. Watkins, Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of the Rt Hon. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, with a particular account of his family and connections (London, 1817), i, 240-50; Moore, Journal, ii, 316; PH, xxvi, 187.

  21. PH, xxiv, 1199; xxvi, 274-302.

  22. L. T. Werkmeister, The London Daily Press 1772-92 (Nebraska, 1963), pp. 10-12, 69-70. A. Aspinall, Politics and the Press c. 1780-1850 (London, 1949), pp. 271-2; Scottish Record Office, Blair Adam MSS: W. Woodfall to W. Adam, 24 February 1784.

  23. J. A. Cannon, Parliamentary Reform 1640-1832 (Cambridge, 1972), p. 113.

  24. Political Memoranda of the 5th Duke of Leeds, ed. O. Browning (Camden Society, 1884), pp. 209-10.

  25. See E. A. Smith, Lord Grey 1764-1845 (Oxford, 1990), p. 11.

  26. Sichel, Sheridan, ii, 418, 422-3.

  27. Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, MSS. Journal of Lady Elizabeth Foster, 2 December 1788.

  28. Ibid., 5 June 1789.

  29. Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, Memoirs of the Courts and Cabinets of George III, from original family documents (London, 1853), i, 451.

  30. The Journal and Correspondence of William, Lord Auckland, ed. Bishop of Bath and Wells (London, 1861-2), ii, 279.

  31. PH, xviii, 344-72.

  32. The Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert Elliot, 1st Earl of Minto, 1750-1806, ed. Countess of Minto (London, 1874), i, 351.

  33. The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, general ed. T. Copeland (Cambridge, 1958-70), vii, 52-63: Burke to W. Weddell, 31 January 1792.

  34. Ibid., 409: R. Burke to Fitzwilliam, 16 August 1793.

  35. M. D. George, English Political Caricature: A Study of Opinion and Propaganda, 1793-1832 (Oxford, 1959), pp. 213-21.

  36. PH, xxxi, 1072.

  37. Russell, Memorials and Correspondence, iii, 67.

  38. Ibid., 149.

  39. L. G. Mitchell, Holland House (London, 1980), p. 67.

  40. The Private Correspondence of Lord Granville Leveson Gower, 1781-1821, ed. Castalia Countess Grenville (London, 1916), i, 427: Lady B to GLG, 17 August 1803.

  41. M. D. George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires preserved … in the British Museum (London, 1978), vi, nos. 6974; 7380; 7528; Morning Post, 14 August 1788.

  42. The Journal of Elizabeth, Lady Holland (1791-1811), ed. Earl of Ilchester (London, 1908), i, 221-2.

  43. Mitchell, Fox, p. 262; Mitchell, Holland House, chapters 2 and 3.

  44. Byron: A Self-Portrait. Letters and Diaries 1798 to 1824, ed. P. Quennell (Oxford, 1990), p. 432.

  45. PH, xxxvi 1698; Morning Chronicle, 9 February 1804.

  46. Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers, ed. A. Dyce (3rd edition, London, 1856), p. 97.

  47. Moore, Sheridan, pp. 607-8. Beinecke Library, Yale University, Im. Sh. 53+w825a.

  48. Smith, Grey, pp. 89-91.

  49. BL Add. MSS. 47566 fos. 134-5: Fox to D. O’Bryen, 24 December 1802.

  50. Ibid.

  51. Russell, Memorials and Correspondence, iii, 412.

  52. PH, xxxvi, 1698.

  53. Russell, Memorials and Correspondence, iv, 11.

  54. The Creevey Papers: A Selection from the Correspondence and Diaries of the late Thomas Creevey M.P. 1768-1838, ed. Sir H. Maxwell (London, 1903), i, 21: Creevey to Currie, 21 January 1804.

  55. Ibid., i, 25: Creevey to Currie, 2 April 1804. Addington was disparagingly referred to as ‘the Doctor’ because his father had been a mere physician.

  56. Price, Letters, ii, 215-6: to his wife 27 February 1804.

  57. PH, xxxiii, 1427.

  58. PD, vii, 1115.

  59. See C. A. Clayton, The Political Career of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (unpublished D. Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 1992), chapter VI.

  60. J. J. Sack, The Grenvillites, 1801-1829. Party Politics and Factionalism in the Age of Pitt and Liverpool (London, 1979), p. 135.

  61. Durham University Library, Grey MSS: Grey to Lady Holland, 2 July 1808.

  62. Granville, Private Correspondence, ii, 353: Lady B to GLG, 1810.

  63. Lady Holland's Journal, i, 217.

  64. Granville, Private Correspondence, ii, 353.

  65. Grey MSS: Grey to Lady Grey, 12 January 1811.

  66. Lord Holland, Further Memoirs of the Whig Party, ed. Lord Stavordale (London, 1905), p. 84.

  67. Ibid., p. 73.

  68. Grey MSS: Grey to Lady Grey, 29 January 1811.

  69. The Diaries and Correspondence of James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmesbury, ed. by his grandson (London, 1844), ii, 465.

  70. See Sir J. Barrington, Personal Sketches of his Own Times (London, 1827), i, 298-9.

  71. Price, Letters, iii, 158: To the Prince of Wales, 1 June 1812.

  72. PD, xxiii, 623.

  73. Granville, Private Correspondence, ii, 444: G. Canning to GLG, 18 August 1812.

  74. Staffordshire Advertiser, 17 October 1812.

  75. Price, Letters, iii, 163: to Samuel Whitbread, 1 November 1812.

  76. Auckland Correspondence, ii, 267.

  77. The Whig Club or a Sketch of the Manners of the Age (London, 1794), p. 19.

  78. Ibid., p. 24.

  79. PH, xxxii, 665.

  80. PD, xv, 341.

  81. PD, xvi, 33. Speech of 23 March 1810.

  82. J. Cannon, Aristocratic Century, The Peerage of Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1984), p. 117.

  83. PD, xxiii, 612.

Julie A. Carlson (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8959

SOURCE: “Trying Sheridan's Pizarro,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 38, Nos. 3-4, Fall-Winter, 1996, pp. 359-78.

[In the following essay, Carlson analyzes the dynamics of language, colonial oppression, and filial responsibility in Sheridan's adapted play Pizarro.]

The most popular play of the 1790s in London and the second most popular play of the entire eighteenth century is Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Pizarro, adapted from the German of August von Kotzebue. Featuring an all-star cast of John Kemble, Sarah Siddons, and Dorothy Jordan, Sheridan's Pizarro dramatizes Peruvian struggles for independence against Spain as announced by Kotzebue's title, Die Spanier in Peru oder Rollas Tod. Virtually forgotten now, the play was so popular then that to be “pizarroed out of my memory and recollection, in every company I enter” was apparently a comprehensible phrase and experience in London society during the early summer of 1799 (Simpson 90). The play ran continuously from May to July of 1799, in the process restoring the dwindling coffers of Drury Lane and “swallow[ing] up every other Competitor” for public attention on stage and off. Already by 1800 the English version of the play had seen fifteen editions and numerous extended critical commentaries.1

Today those few scholars who know the play view it as a literary embarrassment for Sheridan. The bombast of its speeches and the improbability of its actions, scenes, and outcome undermine Sheridan's reputation as playwright and his own plays' attack on sentimentalism.2 If Pizarro has any merit for these scholars, it lies in its historical interest, both in its depictions of history and the implications of this history for Sheridan's reputation as a politician. In this case, present-day critics focus not on the play's explicit setting in Peru but its allusions to England's relations with India, made perceptible by the speech that both they and commentators at the time identify as the play's most powerful passage: the speech of the Peruvian commander Rolla, in which he rallies his compatriots to resist the Spanish invaders. This speech casts into an otherwise faithful translation of Kotzebue images from Sheridan's most popular political speech ever—his famous Begums speech delivered during the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings for “high crimes and misdemeanors” conducted during his tenure as Governor General of Bengal.3 Responsible at its first hearing for bringing Hastings to trial, Sheridan's Begums speech is partially responsible for bringing the “oppressions of millions of unfortunate persons in India” to the attention of the English public.

The most “original” contribution of Sheridan's to Pizarro, Rolla's speech repeats the Begums speech which is itself a repeat performance. Sheridan first delivered it in the House of Commons on February 7, 1787, as the fourth of twenty-two charges brought by Edmund Burke against Hastings in 1786. This charge, known as the Begums Charge, accused Hastings of violating a prior agreement between the East India Company and the ruling family of Oudh that guaranteed the protection of lands and treasures to the mother and grandmother (the Begums) of the Nawab Wazir of Oudh. It claimed that in 1781, on a contrived pretext of the women's hostility to the British, Hastings compelled the Wazir to resume his mother and grandmother's lands, to seize most of their treasure, and to pay the proceeds to the company. In presenting this charge, Sheridan accentuates the criminality of Hastings's violation not of contract but of “filial piety,” a tactic which, according to one prominent historian of the trial, “recovered at a stroke” the “momentum of the prosecution, so laboriously built up during 1786” (Marshall 52). After hearing only six of the twenty-two charges, the House voted to impeach Hastings on May 10, 1787. The ensuing trial for impeachment opened in Westminster Hall on February 13, 1788 and ended with Hastings's acquittal on April 23, 1795. This time Sheridan presented the Begums Charge over a period of four days, June 3, 6, 10, and 13, 1788, in a speech still viewed as the high point of the trial and of oratorical performances throughout the eighteenth century. In Fox's reckoning, compared to this speech, all other speeches “dwindled into nothing, and vanished like vapour before the sun.”4

Gaining access to the Begums speech through Rolla's speech, contemporary scholars prize Pizarro for preserving this triumph of Sheridan's parliamentary career even as they censure Pizarro for damaging Sheridan's claims to literary achievement, originality, and sound judgment. Yet agreement on the power of Rolla's speech begins to identify the relevance of Pizarro for performance studies of (pre)romanticism and for theorists of performativity working in the area of colonial culture studies. As a member of Parliament and manager of Drury Lane, Sheridan himself embodies the lack of distinction not in but between aesthetic and political arenas that performance studies endorse. More specifically, contemporary accounts of the Begums speech stress the highly theatrical nature of the Hastings trial and foreground long-standing performative alliances among oratory, theater, and law. Descriptions of Sheridan's performance in Westminster Hall anticipate descriptions of the conditions for Rolla's debut: a four-hour wait for admission, tickets going for as much as fifty pounds, a rush for seating which “nearly proved fatal to many,” and attendance by “persons of the first distinction” (Speeches 2: 55).5 They describe him as highly theatric, especially in his concluding tableau in which he collapses into Burke's arms uttering as final words, “My Lords, I have done.”6 Public perceptions of Sheridan's theatrics identify a second cultural service performed by the trial. If its rendering India familiar to a sizable portion of the English public is important for colonial culture studies, its making social concerns good entertainment is an operating principle of performativity—and of “Old Sherry.”

The most compelling recent account of the trial of Pizarro connects the dramaturgical implications of staging the play to its negotiation of colonial relations. Sara Suleri's analysis of the “recollection” out of which English audiences were “pizarroed” stresses a crucial linkage between repression and viewing that is often overlooked by theorists of performance who promote a politics of visibility. In her account, audiences at the time were hearing at least two things in Rolla's speech: a “literal return” of the repressed, Pizarro being the only cultural artifact to “disseminate the colonial guilt surrounding a trial whose implications were too soon repressed”; and nothing at all, owing to the overwhelming nature of spectacle (68). The scenic splendor of the staging, especially the Incan Temple of the Sun and Pizarro's pavilion, is claimed to rival the strength of acting (Price 630). By representing the ascendancy of spectacle over speech, Pizarro alters dramaturgical conditions in intensifying scenic illusion throughout the century. By collapsing “colonial space into melodramatic space,” it depicts the “inefficacy of discourse to halt colonial logic” (Suleri 68). In this respect, Pizarro forecasts what even the Managers of the trial were not in a position to see: the anachronism of impeachment in the late eighteenth century and the inadequacy of dramaturgical categories like hero and victim, innocence and guilt, to comprehend the “impersonality” of colonial relations. As Pizarro makes clear, this impersonality is particularly intimate in colonial settings where “dividing lines between ‘they’ and ‘we’ bec[o]me increasingly impossible to maintain” (73).

By recognizing that Rolla's speech appeals to a nation's repressed memories, Suleri alters the sense of timing often associated with performance and reminds us that there is no time like “the present” in theater. But by posing as an opposition spectacle and speech, Suleri oversimplifies the mechanism of theater's double time and conflicting modes of identification—between the sympathetic version developing in the eighteenth century and unconscious processes articulated by psychoanalysis. Rolla's speech is a moving speech in part because it is seen and (not) heard—or heard to eschew the need for words to say what “we” all feel. Its means of gaining sympathy appeal to unconscious processes that perceive the stranger as ourselves through modes of identification that precede the solidification of our “self.” Both the trial and the tragedy depict this conflict in anchoring identity in “primal bonds” of family. In this regard, Suleri underplays the uncanny nature of theater in deeming dramaturgical categories like “hero” anachronistic. We are formed on such ideal images, even if they are fiction.

Rolla's speech is also moving because its historical referents change with the times. While present-day and contemporary commentators agree on the power of Rolla's speech, they hear in it different lessons for different times. In 1799 commentators praise the speech for its “happy allusions” to current events between England and France and hear Rolla rallying the English to resist the threatened French invasion (Britton 141). Rolla's speech is printed in every newspaper account of the play, and Sheridan is credited with performing a patriotic service to the nation. At a minimum, Rolla's speech answers to five alarms of invasion. Besides those sounding between Peru and Spain, India and England, and England and France, Rolla's speech also raises alarms over the literary invasion of England by Germany in the 1790s and the perpetually immanent invasion of Ireland by England in the same years. It answers by enlisting an us/them rhetoric that arouses patriotic sentiment in any state and by using words to deny the necessity of words to say what “we” all feel:

Rol. Yet never was the hour of peril near, when to inspire [soldiers] words were so little needed. My brave associates—partners of my toil, my feelings and my fame!—can Rolla's words add vigour to the virtuous energies which inspire your hearts?—No—You have judged as I have, … the motives, which, in a war like this, can animate their minds, and Ours.—They, by a strange frenzy driven, fight for power, for plunder, and extended rule—We, for our country, our altars, and our homes.—They follow an Adventurer whom they fear—and obey a power which they hate—We serve a Monarch whom we love—A God whom we adore. … They boast, they come but to improve our state, enlarge our thoughts, and free us from the yoke of error! … They offer us their protection—Yes, such protection as vultures give to lambs—covering and devouring them! (P 2. 2. 11-14, 17-21, 24-25, 27-28).

To such offers, the last of which repeats Sheridan's depiction of Hastings's offers of “protection” as “fraught with a similar security; like that of a Vulture to a Lamb,” Rolla asserts:

Be our plain answer this: The throne We honour is the People's Choice—the laws we reverence are our brave Fathers' legacy—the faith we follow teaches us to live in bonds of charity with all mankind, and die with hope of bliss beyond the grave. Tell your invaders this, and tell them too, we seek no change; and, least of all, such change as they would bring us (P 2. 2. 30-35).

This speech speaks volumes about the lack of identity between affect and reason that constitutes powers of persuasion in oratory, theater, and law. Analyzing its content in the context of its mobility raises important challenges to the performative mode. What were audiences hearing in a speech that rallied them to two contradictory judgments regarding England? What can it tell us about the ease with which national characters make the shift from victimizer to victim? Does cognitive dissonance produce emotional intensity? What is the relevant difference between a “subject position” and a subject who constantly changes position? In the case of Rolla's speech, its capacity to address multiple, even contradictory, situations depends on its saying nothing new. Rolla's disavowal of words is (not) rhetorical: there is no rational need to repeat what we feel, but the repetition is key to achieving conviction. Rolla specifies one psychic function of theater by allying patriotism to nonrational faculties. Both theater and national sentiment depend on a suspension of disbelief that requires audiences to remain unenlightened.

In saying nothing new, Rolla's speech is an allegory of the broader rhetorical practices that enable it: the British elocutionary movement of the eighteenth century and theories and practices of translation in Germany. Both projects pursue the same cultural challenges as the trial of Warren Hastings: to envision “humanity” as and for a particularity; to render the foreign familiar; to find a language that expresses commonalities among peoples; to intensify meaning by eschewing information. Both practices in this period also occasion alarms of invasion within England, the elocutionary movement from its location in Ireland, the “rage” for German translations culminating in an English protectionism directed against Kotzebue. To recover Pizarro, then, is to confront alarms of invasion on multiple borders—between nations, between people, within persons—and to encounter conflicting times of identification through theater's combination of text and vision. As we will see, Sheridan answers these alarms by appealing to primal bonds of family as the paradigm for rendering the foreign familiar. The conflicts that ensue are to a certain extent negotiable through taking seriously the generic point of departure for Pizarro: adaptation. Skill in adaptation as literary mode and technique of survival is what makes Sheridan of value for performance studies today.


Considering Rolla's speech in the context of the elocutionary movement in Britain establishes important preconditions for understanding Sheridan's adaptation, Pizarro. It foregrounds the visual dimensions of speech by advocating the centrality of tone, look, and gesture in oratorical training. It highlights the patriotic service of the orator by considering public speaking as the most effective means for preserving a people's liberty. Undergirding the commitment to strengthen the arts of delivery are three related assumptions that apply to performative domains generally: persuasion is best achieved by addressing the passions rather than the understanding of an audience; passion employs the language of tone, look, and gesture; this language speaks to the widest possible audience and evokes similar emotions in its receivers. All three assumptions are crucial to a broader shift in political authority from coercion to consent, the goal of which is to make sociality natural by appealing to what people share (Fliegelman 28-34).

The emphasis on delivery makes oratorical training indispensable to both houses of representation in which Sheridan performs. But for Sheridan oratorical training is also an in-house operation owing to contingencies of birth. The father—or, to accept Wilbur Howell's assessment, “second” father—of the British elocutionary movement is Thomas Sheridan, the father of the adoptive father of Pizarro (169). In his chosen occupations, Thomas Sheridan embodies the close alliance between oratory and theater, as does his lifelong plan to open a school for oratory as an annex to the theater and his occasional use of his home for the former purpose. The father's lessons condition Rolla's speech in form and content: to speak universally is to accentuate the visual dimensions of speech and to take as one's subject “filial piety.”

Thomas Sheridan initiates A Course of Lectures on Elocution with a critique of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding for the ways that its views on language have led to the deterioration of Britain's moral and political health. By restricting the mind to understanding and thus words to the representation of ideas, Locke's Essay neglects to account for the seats of passion and of fancy and the languages appropriate to them. This restriction reinforces the “extravagant idea entertained of the power of writing” in Britain, to which Sheridan attributes the “propagation of selfishness” currently eroding the nation and statemen's ability to achieve political reform (xii, 181). Cultivation of speech generally, especially the arts of delivery, is the remedy for Britain's “dissocial” condition. Acquiring skill in the language of looks and gestures, what Sheridan calls the “hand-writing of nature,” guarantees a wider and more receptive audience than that convoked by print. Artificial, divisive, ambiguous, and arbitrary: written language opposes sociality and the means of consent.

We are right to reject this opposition between speaking and writing, the mystifications of which have been deconstructed by grammatologists and critics of liberalism. But the quest for common ground need not be abandoned just because we have abandoned notions like “ground” and the binarisms that support it. The elder Sheridan provides reasons to pursue his pursuit of a more universal language, despite his antagonism toward writing. For one thing, his view of speech does not contain the terms opposed to writing as Derrida has named them. To give only two, neither self-presence nor truth are operative categories for an orator whose power stems from theater and theater's cultivation of the appearance of sincerity, the reality of which remains immaterial.7 For another, Sheridan's goal in standardizing pronunciation is mobility, both economic and geographic. Standardizing pronunciation removes the social distinctions perpetuated by designations of dialect. The site to which Sheridan imagines students from all the British colonies coming to acquire proficiency in English is Ireland, not the “court-end” of London.8

The importance Sheridan ascribes to body language also keeps the quest for a common language from supporting conformist agendas, though in a less conscious manner. As a man of theater, Sheridan has some experience with the problems of predicting how bodies are received. This awareness at times leads him to invert the logic that equates gesture with universality by arguing that body language is less capable of standardization than the language of words. However, this diversity of language becomes a virtue—even a hallmark of national character—because the “bad consequences” that follow from the “confusion of tongues at Babel” do not attend it (126). Recognizing that there is a wish behind this belief should not blind us to what Sheridan's project makes visible: the deftness with which diversity affirms the “singularity” of British character and the reasons viewing audiences do not always perceive similarity in diversity (118). The trial of Hastings and the tragedy of Pizarro dramatize what this father and son “know” only too well. Limits to sympathy begin at home. That site of natural social relations has estrangement at the heart of it.


Agreement exists on the heights represented by Sheridan's Begums speech and on the reason for its success: strength of material. Apparently there is something irresistible about charges that a man in high places plundered defenseless women, invaded their strongholds, accused them of inciting a rebellion, and employed his own son as the agent of ill against his mother. Agreement also exists on the strongest part of this strong material. The “celebrated delineation” of “filial piety” occurring on the final day of the charge is highlighted more frequently than any other part of the speech (Moore 2: 24). Part of the enduring fascination of this charge is how its irresistibility is positioned within two potentially contradictory sites of conviction: evidence and feeling. The case against Hastings appears strongest in this charge, and the persuasiveness of the case has little to do with the accuracy with which the evidence is presented.9 Conviction results from something “beyond argument” and before the law, about which it “would be superfluous to speak” were it not the Manager's “duty” to do so. It results from “filial piety,” that

gratitude founded upon a conviction of obligations, not remembered, but the more binding because not remembered,—because conferred before the tender reason could acknowledge, or the infant memory record them—a gratitude and affection, which no circumstances should subdue, and which few can strengthen10

and against which Hastings has transgressed in instigating a son to plunder his mother. The superfluity of words, besides occasioning an outpouring of words that present nothing remotely resembling evidence, articulates a lasting message regarding the interconnection between reason and feeling in achieving convictions. What links affect to evidence is self-evidence, which it is the role of the family to supply.

To accuse Hastings of crimes against the family simplifies a number of problems of evidence that have already complicated and eventually undermine the prosecution's ability to make the case against Hastings. First, the Managers experience difficulties in amassing evidence for a crime whose scene is halfway around the globe and most of whose witnesses are accomplices to the crime. A related difficulty is determining the status of the evidence emerging from this distant scene—whether legal codes are universal or particular and on what points “Hindoo custom” and English law agree. Early on in the trial Burke does what he can to circumvent both of these problems by presenting both a “Historical Detail of Local Occurrences and Observations” relative to governing in India and a “map, as it were, of the moral world” that depicts the absurdity of “geographical morality”—“as if conscience and moral feeling were the creatures of points and parallels—existences, which like certain animals, drooped beneath the line” (Trial 1: 11). A third procedural difficulty concerns the determination of under which branch of law in England, common law or the custom of parliament, evidence is to be evaluated in the case of impeachment.11 Sheridan's depiction of Hastings's crime as against the family simplifies, by suspending, all three complications. “To condemn crimes like these, we need not talk of laws or of human rules—their foulness, their deformity does not depend upon local constitutions, upon human institutes or religious creeds.” The “persons who perpetrate” these deeds are “monsters who violate the primitive condition, upon which the earth was given to man—they are guilty by the general verdict of human kind” (Moore 25).

The evidence against Hastings provided by the universal sanctity of the family extends to the family's particular function in making evident a “self.” This function resolves two opposing problems that the Managers experience in interpreting character. The first betrays a prosecutorial schizophrenia in characterizing the identity of this criminal—and determining whether he has an identity at all. Is Hastings a criminal “of the blackest dye” whose evil is unprecedented in all the records of crime (Speeches 1: 277, 287; 2: 113)? Or is he “but a petty Nucleus, involved in its Lamina, scarcely seen or thought of” because dependent on others for his crimes and successes (Speeches 2: 56; see also 2: 93)? More to the (defense's) point, to what extent is a company man accountable as an individual at all?12 To stress the enormity of his crimes keeps the lordships's “eyes” on Hastings and the validity of impeachment. It also renders self-evident the Managers' effacement of self in their function as delegates of nature speaking in the voice of “the commons of Great Britain.” So speaking mutes public outcry over the “private spleen” evident in their “harsh language” and bullying demeanor toward Hastings (Trial 2: 56).

So much evidence for and against these selves won the day on the strength of the self-evidence of the value of family. On its first hearing, Pitt specified as one of the “two great points” that “fully proved” the “criminality of Mr. Hastings” his making “the son the instrument of robbing the mother” (Speeches 1: 297). The success of its second airing proved that partisanship is suspendable when the cause is humanity while also delivering positive evidence for the speaker's self: Sheridan's strength is his feeling which makes the allegedly uncharacteristic sentimentalism of Pizarro his own.13 But both the trial and the tragedy present this evidence against the self: what is self-evident is often manifestly untrue. This point about evidence never emerges as an articulated lesson of the trial, though several perceptions hint in this direction: especially that Sheridan's heart was not in the trial and that his repetition of his father's lessons did not lessen the distance between them.14 Nor is Pizarro perceived to uncover this truth, even though the play demystifies filial piety and undermines any claims for the consistency of Sheridan's political feelings. If Pitt complains that he has heard Rolla's speech before at Hastings's trial, William Cobbett, as we will see, is outraged over the number of times and varying circumstances under which this speech is heard.15

In the case of the trial, the problem is not that the charge brings its own evidence against filial piety. We can accept Sheridan's arguments that this son could not resist the master's instructions to plunder his mother. Power differentials between countries place serious limitations on the autonomy of family relations in them. But this fact does not explain away the record provided by Sheridan of this family's history of resistance to each other, which he gives while ostensibly countering the defense's charge that the Begums were hostile to the British. Sentimental scenarios of a loving wife and self-sacrificing mother have a way of turning nasty. In one, the mother interposes her body between the “scymeter” of her husband and the son he is intent on “cutting down” (Speeches 2: 66).16 In another, enmity against the son is now transferred from father to mother. Testimony against the charge that the Begums incited the rebellion produces this set piece of evidence. “The elder Begum did express great dislike to [the Nabob, her son], but I cannot pretend to say it was on account of his connexion with the English.” “What were the marks of dissatisfaction?” “It was her practice to throw away the musnod on which he sat, as a mark of her dislike or contempt, but what her motives were for it, I cannot say.”17 Others did say. According to P. J. Marshall, hers was an “unnatural” son, whose “homosexuality, extravagance, and incompetence were notorious” (110n).

The revelation of these family secrets in the context of the Hastings trial, however, indicates how such secrets remain hidden: they get displaced. The attempt to render India familiar by focusing on what we all feel about familial attachment backfires. To English eyes, this family is less estranged than foreign, exotic.18 Records of audience response to the trial set the limits to sympathy where processes of identification frequently encounter difficulties: the site of the mother.19 Special difficulties accrue around the effort to gain sympathy for the Begums, either as elderly women or persons whose private quarters have been invaded. As a way of linking Hastings's invasion of the zenanas with rape, Sheridan emphasizes testimony regarding the sanctity with which the “sequestration” of Indian women is viewed, especially by the women themselves who elect to retire from the public eye because they view being viewed as “profanation” (Speeches 2: 64; Trial 1: 70). This was a gross miscalculation according to the court recorder who observes that “the female part of the audience did not seem to feel his distress” (Trial 1: 55). They may also have experienced the testimony as fighting words aimed at their interest in seeing and being seen at the trial.20


The audience's negative reaction to this comparison, coupled with the difficulties of ascertaining what Sheridan means by drawing it, should render more interesting the question of why the zenana is the other feature from the trial that Sheridan imports into Pizarro. The reappearance of “Rolla's” speech is less surprising, at least on the score of one great performance deserving another. What made these two moments from the trial feel of a piece when Sheridan was adapting Kotzebue's piece for the English stage—beyond the opportunism of self-borrowing, the dismissability of which is not so self-evident either? After all, self-borrowing constitutes a time-honored strategy of composition but not a principle of selection, and there were many more auspicious candidates for inclusion in the play. An initial answer comes from considering the logic that makes Rolla's speech consistent with the spectacle of women's private quarters. On the level of content, the two passages connect the inviolability of home to the borders of the motherland and the gendered division of labor necessary to protect these spheres: conquest and confinement. On the level of representation, the two affirm a sexual difference between speech and spectacle at the same time that both make their appeal by disavowing their proper spheres of representation. Rolla asserts that never were words so little needed before launching into the longest speech of the play. Elvira and Cora both affirm that visibility is woman's primary mode of influence. The exemplary Peruvian wife and mother Cora repeatedly disobeys Alonzo's and Rolla's entreaties to “hasten then to the concealment” (P 2. 1. 42). The Spanish mistress Elvira asserts that the “mould” of her mind is not “formed for tame sequestered love” (P 3. 3. 155).

These passages from the trial seem at home in Pizarro, then, because Kotzebue's play similarly foregrounds familial relations in order to place the “foreign” on familiar territory. The play's Peruvian heroes, Rolla and Alonzo, fight for their country out of the strength of their natural attachments. Indeed, thematizing the nature of attachment is what justifies otherwise extraneous characters and scenes.21 But it also generates the conflict between countries and men. Initiating the tragedy is Alonzo's transfers of allegiance from Spain and Pizarro to Peru and Father Las-Casas, transfers that validate the shift from primal to willed affiliations. To Valverde's query regarding the prior filial relation between Pizarro and Alonzo, “What could subdue attachment so begun?” the dejected Pizarro responds: Las-Casas's “canting precepts of humanity” which “raised in Alonzo's mind a new enthusiasm … to forego his country's claims for those of human nature” (P 1.1. 89-92). Similarly, what solidifies the friendship between Rolla and Alonzo is Rolla's decision to “resign his claim” to Cora upon finding that she “preferred” Alonzo (P 1. 1. 281-83).

These ringing endorsements of choice in attachment conflict with the play's depiction of the formation and effect of early attachments. Indeed, Pizarro goes out of its way to denaturalize primal bonds wherever they are depicted, so far as to characterize the child's first words as the “grateful sound of, Father, Mother!” (P 2. 1. 16-22).22 Everyone has difficulty relating to Cora's baby. Not only does the baby boy “rob” Alonzo of Cora's “caresses,” but whether he “resembles” Alonzo is a question from the start (P 2. 1. 1-6). What allows Rolla to resolve the question in his favor depends on Cora's prior performance as an “unnatural” mother (P 5. 1. 96). Her son is taken by Spanish soldiers when Cora abandons the “veiled” infant to rush into Alonzo's arms. He is placed back into her arms by a mortally wounded Rolla whose dying words proclaim, “‘Tis my blood, Cora.” Nor are European attachments less perverse. Pizarro enlists his mistress Elvira in both methods of subduing the foreigner on the grounds that she is more man than his men (P 3. 3. 18). His expectation that she will participate not in battle but in Pizarro's marriage to the Peruvian king's daughter effects her change of heart. What differentiates Elvira from other women is less that she is attached to a man who has murdered her brother and occasioned her mother's death; for, in the case of women, conjugal relations naturally destroy prior ties. Her problem is that sexual relations do not change her identifications. When Pizarro stops acting the part of the hero on which her love was formed, Elvira is drawn to the other side. This couple's attachment, moreover, is determined along gender lines demarcating spectacle from speech. Like Desdemona, Elvira first “waked to love” by tales depicting Pizarro's grandeur. Pizarro dies still captivated by his first sight of Elvira.23

In specifying the trouble that Drury Lane audiences experienced in accepting these scenes, contemporary reviews provide further evidence for the self-evidence of primal sympathy. They invert the verdict leveled against Sheridan's prior attempts to make India familiar to English audiences by objecting that depictions of the natural goodness of the Peruvians make them look too much like Europeans and that these particular Europeans do not look like “us” at all.24 Consequently, perversions of family go unremarked in both cases. With “them,” the exemplarity of their natures as heroes and mothers hides their familial derangement (Bardsley 44). With “us,” the obvious violations of marital conventions obscure the realism with which the fixation and mobility of desire are portrayed. The popularity of this tragedy, and domestic tragedy more generally, suggests that there is more to gaining visibility than becoming visible. As stage history displays, perversions of family have been in our faces a long time without making a noticeable difference in our perceptions of family. This, too, suggests a logic by which Rolla's speech and the spectacle of the zenanas are at home in Pizarro. Both depict borders in relation to which alarms of invasion prove particularly alarming. Attending to the dynamic by which alarms galvanize resistance may provide a less mystified view of familial and national attachments. On the one hand, destabilizing borders does not automatically weaken defenses but tends to intensify them. In addition, perversions in the family are always capable of being externalized, whether in objects down the block or around the globe. On the other hand, through proximity over time individuals learn to adapt. Pizarro makes this modification to Kristeva's precondition for nations without nationalism: it acknowledges the stranger that is the family who makes the individual like it (Strangers 182-88).


“Taken from the German of Kotzebue,” the title page of Pizarro already announces the “ordeal of the foreign” that all acts of translation imply (Berman vii). As a German translation in the 1790s, Pizarro enters a particularly charged field of interlingual exchange in terms of both the intensity of literary commerce between England and Germany and tensions within practices of translation coming from Germany.25 As Walter Benjamin contends, translations in Germany at this period prepare for the revelation that “languages are not strangers to one another” (72). Facilitating this recognition is the way that translation differs from other linguistic activities in exaggerating the gap between content and word. “Enveloping its content like a royal robe with ample folds,” the language of translation makes apprehensible the “pure” language toward which individual languages are heading that is occluded by the tighter fit between intent and mode in the original language (75). Translation also realigns the times of meaning, concentrating on the virtuality of composition and the afterlife of reception. These tasks of translation, even as they effect a universal language, accomplish the ends that Kristeva seeks in universalizing strangeness. Translation redefines kinship such that it has little to do with resemblance or likeness, not least because it reforms the origin in the process of becoming “foreign.” It also redefines meaning such that it has nothing to do with saying something new.

The transmission and reception of Pizarro, however, bears all the marks of what Benjamin and Antoine Berman call a “bad translation.” To the extent translation aims at transmitting information, it effects a “systematic negation of the strangeness of the foreign work” (Berman 5). Refusal to be affected by the foreign characterizes English literary reactions against Kotzebue to an extraordinary degree. The rage for Kotzebue in the 1790s unleashes rage against German language, sentiment, and feeling, occasioning a full-scale endorsement of protectionism in English letters. With Pizarro rage against German takes the form of critical enthusiasm for Sheridan's English that leaves no trace of “foreign idiom” in the language of the play.

The supremacy of English and of Sheridan's accomplishments in and as English find expression in the popular verdict regarding Pizarro that “the body may be Kotzebue's, but the Soul is Sheridan's.”26 Yet at least one commentator discerns the inadequacy of the body-soul analogy to depict the relation between Sheridan's and Kotzebue's achievements. For one thing, the analogy misconstrues the nature of Sheridan's performance, which is not a translation but an adaptation of two English translations for the stage. For another, it misrepresents a process that, in his depiction, is all body:

It has been said, by some remarkers on this play, that Kotzebue is the body, but Sheridan is the soul. … I would rather say, that Kotzebue was the naked body, and Sheridan had clothed and dressed him from his own wardrobe, with suitable paraphernalia for the present season and prevailing fashions of the times (Britton 142-43).

Not explicitly motivated by a desire to distance himself from English protectionism, Britton's formulation of the differing tasks of translation and adaptation foregrounds the efficacy of performance to resolve, by diffusing, national, interpersonal, and intrapsychic border disputes. Substituting one surface for another, adaptation makes impossible the demarcation of what separates mine from yours, native from foreign, interior from exterior, old from new.

By taking up the body language that is lost in translation, moreover, adaptation brings translation theory into contact with performance studies in ways that modify both. To considerations of the language that is exchanged in translation is added a change in the media of performance—from drama to theater, novel to film—discussions of which foreground sociological concerns regarding assumed alliances between specific artistic forms and particular groups. On the other hand, transferring translation's conception of the evolutionary unfolding of language to visual media makes the “now” of performance less a thing of the “present.” The different wardrobes ascribed to translation and adaptation measure further gains in the sociology of adaptation. The royal robe of translation does not suit the prevailing fashions of adaptation. The former addresses a future encoded in the virtuality of words, the latter adapts surfaces to the appearance of their times. This nearer miss of the present effects a corresponding change in the mode and time of reaction to invasions associated with the foreign. Unlike translation, adaptation does not seek to preempt invasion either by resisting contact or dissolving it in a “pure” language. It views invasion as having already occurred; foreign bodies are within a body without defined interiors. This perception does not make adaptation less defensive about its properties, but, in defending them, it begins from someplace other than origin.

On these grounds, Pizarro appears to be “about” what it “is” only in its English form of adaptation, though Sheridan clearly gets the message from the German title and the character who embodies the Spaniard in the Peruvian. On national, interpersonal, and intrapsychic levels, invasion has already occurred before the curtains rise. What remains is adapting to it. Pizarro extends the project of adaptation to a new ending which both eliminates Pizarro—the only character who is self-made and visibly resistant to change—and leaves the (good) Spaniards in Peru.27 The latter event would seem to contradict Rolla's speech advocating resistance to invasion, except that the concluding lines of his speech have already done so. The saying “no/yes” to words is repeated in the speech's changing reaction to change, “Tell your invaders this, and tell them too, we seek no change; and, least of all, such change as they would bring us” (P 2. 2. 34-35).

Rolla's speech also introduces the chief challenge of adaptation that must be addressed before theorists of performance adopt it for political ends. From where, let alone which side, is a speaker speaking when he moves easily from “be our plain answer this” to “tell your invaders this”? On which battlefield do your invaders differ from mine? Such questions regarding sides are leveled repeatedly at Sheridan, though never so aggressively as by Cobbett who, in 1803, devotes a series of open letters to analyzing Sheridan's “consistency” as exemplified in Rolla's speech. In September of 1803, answering to another alarm of invasion from France, Sheridan recirculates Rolla's speech as “Sheridan's Address to the People” in support of “Our King, our Country, and our God.”28 In Cobbett's view, resurrecting Rolla's speech at this moment and in this manner makes opportunity indistinguishable from opportunism. Its new objects—king, war, volunteers—overturn Sheridan's history of opposition in championing France, Napoleon, and the Prince of Wales. Worse, the shift to loyalty is itself provisional. Sheridan times Rolla's appearance to suit the “taste and fashion” of support for Napoleon.29 He retains the placeholder of revolution in specifying as the “Throne we honour” the “People's Choice.” The only consistent thing about this speech is the way that it suits Sheridan's private interests. Sheridan's sponsorship of the Vote of Thanks to the volunteers, his various visits to the corps, his “industrious circulation” of Rolla's speech: all prepare for Drury Lane's revival of Pizarro, at which “the members of all the Volunteer Corps were expected to attend!” (389).

Despite its large share of private spleen and its eventual perfect fit for him, Cobbett's attack on Sheridan's consistency raises relevant questions. In the absence of “soul” or incontrovertible principles, on what grounds are limits to adaptability set? This question cannot be settled in advance of the circumstances that occasion it, but we can prepare for it by determining the conditions under which speech-acts move. Sheridan-Rolla-Sheridan's speech provides an occasion to evaluate the mobility achieved by proper speech and the orator's preeminence in rousing a people to protect their freedom. Its enabling conditions in oratory, legal trials, and translation suggest one facet of a moving speech in the feature they share: transmission of information is not the point. Pizarro dramatizes this insight by elevating the act over the content of speaking when it speaks to the regulation of international affairs. “Tell your invaders this;” or “Tell them [the rulers of Spain], that the pursuits of avarice, conquest, and ambition, never yet made a people happy, or a nation great” (P 5. 4. 29-30). In this respect, speeches in Pizarro point up a certain wishfulness to J. L. Austin's desire to cordon off the performative from theater. On the other hand, the various occasions for Sheridan-Rolla's speech indicate that determining proper occasions for speech is not an all-or-nothing affair. Originality is not paramount, but even the most moving speech does not move all the time or every person.


The speech's initial airing in the trial of Warren Hastings underscores one limit to even the most powerful speeches: time. The “unprecedented” length of the trial is adduced as a chief reason for Hastings's acquittal in ways that specify the interconnections between identity and time. Passage of time heightened sympathy for the “victim” and weakened the appearance of evidence against him (Marshall 76-87). Moreover, it strengthened the evidence by showing how force of personality proves no match for force of events. Applied to Sheridan, this nonmatch acknowledges the minor role that not only he but speechmaking in general played in a trial, the tedium of whose procedural disputes, oral reports, and cross examinations dragged on for years. Applied to Hastings, the force of world events, particularly the French Revolution, changed his identity from chief villain to hero of Britain. Four years after Sheridan charges Hastings with destroying the British name in India, events credit Hastings with preserving “the British empire entire in India, when it had been convulsed and torn to pieces in other parts of the globe” (Trial 2: 309).

Yet this nonmatch is not a matter of alternatives, as if events negate the effects of personality, however anachronistic its conceptualization. Events make Hastings appear as a hero in his own eyes and those of others. What the nonmatch stresses is the interdependence of events and personality on differing levels of identification. Ego ideals govern in ways that complicate the identification of good government. Their power disrupts the predictability of sympathy. Stressing the “unprecedented hardship” of the trial on Hastings finally outweighs the oppression of “millions of unfortunate persons in India” (Speeches 1: 275). This has to do with Hastings's familiarity as English but also with his singularity. Sympathy needs individuals. Understanding as he does the blockage that attends the mathematical sublime, Burke fights fire with fire: “Mr. Burke replied with much heat and violence … that if Mr. Hastings had been abused, so had he too” (Trial 2: 272). Sheridan is less inclined to this line of defense, but he adapts it to Elvira: “but didst thou know my story, Rolla, thou would’st pity me” (P 4. 2. 75). In neither instance does the personalizing of pain go very far in redressing collective oppression. More often, it allows subjects to dwell on their pain and leaves collective suffering to reform itself on more transferential models.

Yet the particularizing of pain does bring us closer to what moves in speeches like Rolla's. Literally, what moves the Begums speech into Pizarro is a figure: the image of a vulture protecting a lamb. As image, it suggests adaptation's proximity to symbol but not its identity in the eternal, the universal, the one. This proximity underscores the capaciousness of images: England can resemble India on the level of generality depicted by “lamb.” The adaptability of this image points up adaptation's position in the spaces between “particular” and “universal.” It stations itself in two in-betweens: general but not abstract; generalizable but not universalizable. The latter is visible in what does not follow from Elvira's bid for sympathy. She is never given the words to tell her story and occasions no one's pity. “Lamb” is a large but not a universal category. It does not suit women who have a history of preying upon men. Nor does it apply to ruling men who prefer the sexual favors of men or to mothers who meddle in their son's affairs.

Viewed over the long run, Pizarro can adapt our thinking about histories of oppression. Its “topicality” is ongoing. Rolla's speech speaks against what Louise Fradenburg identifies as contemporary criticism's penchant to overemphasize the alterity of the past in advocating the cause of difference (“Pleasures” 375-78). Oppressive practices have a way of resembling each other across space and time. Moving speeches move because of the countless times that we have heard them before. Recognizing how a nation is moved by “veteran similes” suggests a way to modify them without denying the hold of figures on people: not by overreacting with a reaffirmation of reason, consciousness, and control but by adapting dimensions of the objects on which our earliest attachments are formed.30 Here is a value of family—at least as translation and transference conceive it. The task of the translator and the analyst is to “invite us to come back constantly to our origins in order better to transcend them”—that is, to transcend through adapting them (Kristeva, Nations 4).31 Changing what counts as “lamb,” “black sheep,” or even “wolf's clothing” moves us closer to strangers as ourselves.

Recalling the very short run of the first appearance of Pizarro on stage brings up a final promising feature of adaptation. No audience saw that performance again—not because every performance is unique but because people complained that this performance was “much, very much too long.”32 Within days, Sheridan cut the performance time by almost two hours, and this very last-minute adaptation, more than any other of his adaptations, is credited with ensuring the lengthy run of the play. Such an ability to modify mistakes and to restage events marks a clear difference between world and stage but also a point of congruence, not simply for Sheridan. Performance meets sociality at adaptation, a space-time in which moving speeches can remake social relations while allowing persons to make a living.


  1. For accounts of the success of Pizarro, see Donohue 125-28 and excerpts from newspaper accounts given in the critical remarks to the play, Price 2: 631-41.

  2. See Loftis, 125. Marshall Brown, whose chapter on Sheridan is one of the best recent treatments of him, dismisses Pizarro as a “mediocre tragedy” (232).

  3. For accounts of the differences between Kotzebue's and Sheridan's plays, see Donohue, 129-35 and Sinko, 11-20.

  4. Headnote to the speech of 7 February 1787 in Speeches of the Late Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

  5. Suleri echoes the newspaper and court-recorded accounts of the trial by drawing attention to their highly theatrical nature (57-60).

  6. Rae cites letters substantiating the outpouring of tears (“I never remember to have cried so heartily and so copiously on any public occasion”) 2: 71.

  7. See T. Sheridan, 121, 5; also Fliegelman, 2.

  8. See T. Sheridan, 28-30; also Howell, 220.

  9. See Marshall, 109, 110-29. Sheridan introduces the Presents Charge (2 April 1787) by admitting that “the present charge … was not, perhaps, of that nature which came home most effectually to the feelings of men; it could not excite those sensations of commiseration or abhorrence which a ruined prince, a royal family reduced to want and wretchedness, the desolation of kingdoms, or the sacrilegious invasion of palaces, would certainly inspire” (Trial 1: 344).

  10. Moore 2: 24; see Speeches 2: 117.

  11. See Trial 1: 23-25; Marshall, 64-70; Suleri, 49-50.

  12. Sheridan's parody of this tactic suggests his sense of its power. “Major Scott, says [Hastings], take care of my consistency;—Mr. Middleton, you have my memory in commission!—Prove me a financier, Mr. Shore.—Answer for me, Mr. Holt (all journeymen, good enough for the house of commons, though not for your lordships)” (Trial 2: 62-63).

  13. See The Daily Universal Register: “an oration, that an heart, flowing with the softest feelings of God-like humanity, could alone pour forth—and which no head, be it ever so good, would be able to supply, unless aided by a heart feelingly alive to the distresses of his fellow-creatures” (8 February 1787).

  14. Moore reprints letters from Burke to Mrs. Sheridan, encouraging her to ensure Sheridan's presence at the trial (2: 10-12). Early on the report circulated of Sheridan's wish that “Hastings would run away and Burke after him” (cited in Suleri 68). According to Rae, Sheridan “waited in vain” for a “letter of congratulation from his father,” though his sister Alicia reported that “[Thomas Sheridan] seems truly pleased that men should say, ‘There goes the father of Gaul’” (2: 64-66).

  15. See his series of open letters to Sheridan in The Political Register of 1803, modified and reissued as The Political Proteus (London: Cox, Son, and Baylis, 1804).

  16. These scenes also feature deathbed pledges of protection by Hastings to the husband of the Behu Begum (2: 65-66).

  17. London Chronicle 5-7 June; Trial 1: 125.

  18. Records report considerable amusement over the “singularity of Indian names and appellations” (Trial 1: 37, 46).

  19. See the “Turkish tale” Burke introduces as evidence of the “sanctity with which women were held” in India: starring the “mama of Demetrius Cantemar who supplied him with some hundreds” of “young virgins” whom “he received and treated kindly—just once before consigning them to the Zenana, never more to be treated thus kindly again!” (Trial 1: 70-72).

  20. Courtroom and newspaper accounts delight in dwelling on the status, wardrobe, and beauty of the women in attendance (Trial 1: 5, 16, 36, 43, 58, 73).

  21. See P 1. 1. 240-305; 2. 4. 10-13, 22-30; and Rolla's exchange with the soldier guarding the dungeon of Alonzo, from whom he gains access by awakening thoughts of the soldier's wife and children (4. 1. 55-80).

  22. Kotzebue names “Father, Mother,” but the “grateful sound” is Sheridan's.

  23. The stage directions are telling: “At this moment [as Pizarro is poised to kill Alonzo], Elvira enters, habited as when Pizarro first beheld her [in the convent].—Pizarro appalled, staggers back. Alonzo renews the Fight, and slays him.” See Bardsley, 22.

  24. See Bardsley: “Instead of a half-civilized Slave (such as the best of the Peruvians must have been) we find Rolla's character represented as a compound of the European gallantry of a former age, mixed with modern German Sentiment, and a tolerable sprinkling of English Manners.” Elvira is “an outrage against probability” (44, 28, 29).

  25. See Rault, 83-89; Simpson, 84-94.

  26. Britton ascribes this sentiment to “the elegant and learned Dr. Bisset” 131.

  27. See especially 1. 1. 45; 1. 1. 100-01; 3. 3. 142; 4. 2. 129.

  28. See Letter 4 (10 September 1803) in Cobbett's Political Register (385-97).

  29. “When [Napoleon] was ‘in a scrape,’ in 1799, he was Pizarro; when he was crowned with laurels, in 1800, he was Hannibal; when he was, as you thought, at least, in another ‘scrape’ in 1803, then he became Pizarro again. I wish, Sir, he may continue Pizarro” (397).

  30. See Tietjen-Meyer's expansion of Kristeva's concept of dissident speech (56-62, 106-15).

  31. See Fradenburg “‘Be not far from me’” for a fuller account of this process.

  32. Quoted in The Sun. See Donohue on the decreasing times of each performance (128-29).

Works Cited

Bardsley, Samuel. Critical Remarks on Pizarro, a tragedy, taken from the German drama of Kotzebue, and adapted to the English stage by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. London: T. Cadell, Junior and W. Davies, 1800.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zorn. New York: Schocken Books, 1978.

Berman, Antoine. The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany. Trans. S. Heyvaert. Albany: State U of New York P, 1992.

Britton, John. Sheridan and Kotzebue. The Enterprising Adventures of Pizarro, preceded by a Brief Sketch of the Voyages and Discoveries of Columbus and Cortez: to which are subjoined the Histories of Alonzo and Cora, on which Kotzebue founded his two celebrated Plays of the Virgin of the Sun and The Death of Rolla. Also Varieties and Oppositions of The Whole Forming a Comprehensive Account of those Plays and the grand ballads of Cora, and Rolla and Cora, at the Royal Circus, and Royal Amphitheatre. London: J. Fairburn, 1799.

Brown, Marshall. Preromanticism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.

Cobbett, William. The Political Proteus. London: Cox, Son, and Baylis, 1804.

———. The Political Register. 1803.

Donohue, Joseph. Dramatic Character in the English Romantic Age. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

Fliegelman, Jay. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993.

Fradenburg, Louise. “‘Be Not Far From Me’: Psychoanalysis, Medieval Studies and the Subject of Religion.” Exemplaria 7 (1995): 41-54.

Fradenburg, Louise, and Carla Freccero. “The Pleasures of History.” GLQ 1, 4 (1995): 371-84.

Great Britain, Parliament, House of Commons. The Trial of Warren Hastings, Esq. 2 vols. London: J. Owen, 1794.

Howell, Wilbur Samuel. Eighteenth-Century British Logic and Rhetoric. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.

Kristeva, Julia. Nations without Nationalism. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

———. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Liu, Alan. “Local Transcendence: Cultural Criticism, Postmodernism, and the Romanticism of Detail.” Representations 32 (1990): 75-113.

Loftis, John. Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976.

Marshall, P. J. The Impeachment of Warren Hastings. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965.

Meyers, Diana Tietjens. Subjection and Subjectivity: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Moral Philosophy. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.

Moore, Thomas. Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan. 2 vols. New York: W. J. Widdleton, 1826.

Rae, W. Fraser. Sheridan: A Biography. 2 vols. London: Bentley and Son, 1896.

Rault, André. “Die Spanier in Peru oder die Deutschen in England: Englisches und deutsches Theater, 1790-1810.” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Ernst-Moritz-Arndt Universität. 32.3-4 (1983): 83-89.

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. Sheridan's Plays. Ed. Cecil Price. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.

Sheridan, Thomas. A Course of Lectures on Elocution: Together with Two Dissertations on Language; and some other Tracts relative to those Subjects. London: W. Strahan, 1762; rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968.

Simpson, David. Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt against Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Sinko, Grzegorz. Sheridan and Kotzebue: A Comparative Essay. Wroclaw: Nakladem Wroclawskiego Towarzystwa Naukowego, 1949.

Speeches of the Late Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Ed. by a Constitutional Friend. 2 vols. London: Patrick Martin, 1816.

Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Further Reading

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Durant, Jack D. “Truth for Sheridan: The Biographical Dilemma.” In A Fair Day in the Affections: Literary Essays in Honor of Robert B. White, Jr., edited by Jack D. Durant and M. Thomas Hester, pp. 119-30. Raleigh, N. C.: The Winston Press, 1980.

Surveys numerous injustices done to Sheridan by biographers since his death.


Choudhury, Mita. “Sheridan, Garrick, and a Colonial Gesture: The School for Scandal on the Calcutta Stage.” In Theatrical Journal 46, No. 3 (October 1994): 303-21.

Studies the use of Sheridan's The School for Scandal, produced in Calcutta in 1782, as a means of putting an innocent face on British colonial expansion.

Durant, Jack D. “Sheridan, Burke, and Revolution.” In Eighteenth Century Life 6, Nos. 2-3 (January-May 1981): 103-13.

Summarizes Sheridan's political differences with the conservative thinker Edmund Burke.

———. “Sheridan's Picture-Auction Scene: A Study in Contexts.” In Eighteenth Century Life 11, No. 3 (November 1987): 34-47.

Probes the comic potential of the picture-auction scene (Act IV, scene i) in The School for Scandal, calling it a “theatrical tour de force.

Ellis, Frank H. “Folklore Motifs and the Plot of Comedy.” In Restoration 11, No. 2 (Fall 1987): 94-106.

Schematizes The School for Scandaland William Congreve's The Way of the Worldas these dramas present numerous characters and themes from folklore.

Hess-Lüttich, Ernest W. B. “Maxims of Maliciousness: Sheridan's School for Conversation.” In Poetics 11, Nos. 4-6 (December 1982): 419-37.

Presents an interpretation of rhetorical and conversational techniques in The School for Scandal that particularly notes the intersection between satire and sentiment in eighteenth-century drama.

McVeagh, John. “Robinson Crusoe's Stage Début: The Sheridan Pantomime of 1781.” In Journal of Popular Culture 24, No. 2 (Fall 1990): 137-52.

Reconstructs the stage pantomime for the 1781 production of Sheridan's Robinson Crusoe.

Picker, John M. “Disturbing Surfaces: Representations of the Fragment in The School for Scandal.” In ELH 65, No. 3 (Fall 1998): 637-52.

Suggests the fragmentary nature of The School for Scandal which, while pleasing, is rife with disjunction and incongruity.

Troost, Linda V. “The Characterizing Power of Song in Sheridan's The Duenna.” In Eighteenth-Century Studies 20, No. 2 (Winter 1986-87): 153-72.

Analyzes Sheridan's popular comic opera The Duenna, a work that critics have frequently dismissed as superficial, frivolous entertainment.

Wills, Jack C. “Lord Byron and ‘Poor Dear Sherry,’ Richard Brinsley Sheridan.” In Lord Byron and His Contemporaries, edited by Charles E. Robinson, pp. 85-104. East Brunswick, N. J.: Associated University Presses, 1982.

Details Sheridan and Lord Byron's friendship and mutual influence upon each other.

Wood, Peter. “On Producing Sheridan.” In Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane, pp. 178-88. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Interview with director Peter Wood, who discusses his impressions while staging The Rivals and The School for Scandal.

Additional coverage of Sheridan's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1660-1789; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 89; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-Studied Authors; Drama Criticism, Vol. 1; World Literature Criticism.

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