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.
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.
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.
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.