Richard Brinsley Sheridan Biography
Was Richard Brinsley Sheridan a truly “sentimental” author? Sheridan’s heyday as a playwright (1775–1779) came amid changing sensibilities in both English culture and theater. The bawdy, rambunctious entertainment of the Restoration gave way to far more conservative drama in the eighteenth century. As a result, plays became concerned with morality and earned the title “sentimental comedies” because of the excessive emotion used to achieve moral lessons. Sheridan’s work arrived late in the sentimental period, when plays were shifting toward social satire. Although the bad are punished and the good rewarded in his work, the characters also take sharp jabs at the society in which Sheridan wrote his witty plays.
Facts and Trivia
- Sheridan was practically born into the theater. His father, Thomas, was an actor-manager at the Theatre Royal in Dublin.
- Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals almost did not become the classic it is regarded as today. Its first performance was disastrous, but when one of the key roles was recast, the play was a success.
- Like his father, Sheridan was also interested in the business aspect of theater (and the money that came with it). In addition to his playwriting, Sheridan was a shareholder in the Drury Lane Theatre.
- Another of Sheridan’s famous plays, The Critic, was not entirely original. It is based on The Rehearsal, a Restoration-era piece.
- Sheridan was highly active in politics. On the heels of his most famous plays, Sheridan served in Parliament for nearly three decades.
In eighteenth century Great Britain, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s lot was pretty much cast when he was born into a genteelly poor Irish theatrical family. All of these social disadvantages, however, worked to his advantage in the theater. Being Irish has given numerous British writers of comedy special insight into the vices and follies of their fellow Britons, as well as the rhetorical skills to air their observations. Being in a theatrical family was obviously an advantage for the aspiring playwright. Finally, being genteelly poor sparked his ambitions with both positive and negative charges. Combined, these factors made Sheridan acutely aware of the disparity between his personal worth and his actual place in society—always a great aid to developing a sense of comic incongruity.
Although lacking wealth and social position, Sheridan’s family was both well educated and talented. Both his father and mother were children of scholarly clergymen. On being graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, Sheridan’s father, Thomas, already a playwright, entered the theater as an actor and soon advanced to manager. Sheridan’s mother, the former Frances Chamberlaine, wrote novels and plays. After initial prosperity, the family of six (Richard was the third son) ran into hard times when a minor political indiscretion—reminiscent of an indiscreet sermon that ruined his own father—forced Thomas out of his position. He suppressed some antigovernment lines in a play, thus antagonizing the Irish public. After two years of acting in London, Thomas tried to reestablish himself in Dublin, but without success. Taking his family with him, he returned to England, where, moving from place to place, he pursued an impecunious existence as actor, author, editor, lecturer on elocution, and projector of ambitious undertakings.
After attending Sam Whyte’s Seminary for the Instruction of Youth in Dublin, Richard was entered into Harrow School, despite the family’s precarious financial situation. How precarious that situation was became evident when, to escape creditors, the rest of the family fled to France, where they lived for several years and where Frances Sheridan died. Left behind at Harrow, Sheridan, lonely and destitute, suffered the abuse heaped on him by his well-bred schoolmates and masters. The unhappy scholar later maintained that he learned little at Harrow.
When his family returned to London, Sheridan, by...
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