"An Amiable Weakness"
Context: Sheridan's contemporaries called him "The modern Congreve," after the Restoration master of the comedy of manners, William Congreve (1670-1729). Others, thinking of Tom Jones called the characters Joseph and Charles, "the Blifil and Tom Jones of the comedy." Its screen scene has been termed "the best one-act play in the English language." Many pirated editions appeared, but no authorized version was published in England during Sheridan's lifetime. The expression "an amiable weakness" can be found in Tom Jones (1749) (X, viii): "The too inordinate fondness of a father . . . must be allowed the name of an amiable weakness," and in Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), where in Chapter XIV the author speaks of "the amiable weakness of human nature." In Sheridan's play, it occurs in the last act when Sir Oliver Surface, returning after fifteen years abroad, is trying to decide which of his two nephews is the more deserving to be his heir. He visits Joseph in the guise of Mr. Stanley, a poor relative, to ask for charity. He has already made a generous present of cash to each of his nephews. The comment of his nephew, Joseph Surface, shows Sir Oliver how little gratitude the young man has, for he lies about his uncle's gifts. He also boasts falsely about his own generosity toward his brother. "Congou tea" is an excellent quality of black tea; avadavats are oriental birds of the finch family; pagodas were Indian gold coins of the period.
JOSEPH. . . Sir Oliver is a worthy man–a very worthy man; but avarice, Mr. Stanley, is the vice of age. I tell you, my good sir, in confidence, what he has done for me has been a mere nothing–though people, I know, have thought otherwise, and for my part I never chose to contradict the report.SIR OLIVERWhat! has he never transmitted you bullion–rupees–pagodas?JOSEPHO, dear sir, nothing of the kind!–No, no–a few presents now and then–china, shawls, congou tea, avadavats, and Indian crackers–little more, believe me.SIR OLIVER [aside.]Here's gratitude for twelve thousand pounds! Avadavats and Indian crackers!JOSEPHThen, my dear sir, you have heard, I doubt not, of the extravagance of my brother: There are very few who would credit what I have done for that unfortunate man.SIR OLIVER [aside.]Not I, for one!JOSEPHThe sums I have lent him!–Indeed I have been exceedingly to blame; it was an amiable weakness, however, I don't pretend to defend it,–and now I feel it doubly culpable since it has deprived me of the pleasure of serving you, Mr. Stanley, as my heart dictates.SIR OLIVER [aside.]Dissembler! . . .