First performed at London’s famous Drury Lane theater in 1777, The School for Scandal was staged a total of 261 times before the end of the eighteenth century and has been revived hundreds of times since, making it one of the most enduringly popular comedies in the English language. Accounting for the play’s popularity is not difficult: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who had succeeded the great David Garrick as manager of the Drury Lane theater in 1776, was blessed with a keenly theatrical imagination and an instinctive sense of how best to please an audience. These talents are nowhere more evident than in The School for Scandal, which is, above all else, first-rate theater—a play graced by sparkling dialogue, a cast of memorable characters, and a complex plot that combines elements of high comedy, intrigue, and genuine feeling.
The ingredients that guarantee success on the stage, however, do not always guarantee critical esteem. Although critics have over the years had a great deal to say about William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602, pb. 1623) and Ben Jonson’s Volpone (pr. 1605), they have had relatively little to say about The School for Scandal. Most discussions of the play, in fact, have focused less on literary analysis than on the question of Sheridan’s success in rebelling against the sentimental comedies of his day and in recovering the spirit of such earlier Restoration comedies as William Congreve’s The Way of the World (pr., pb. 1700). Unfortunately, when measured against these earlier plays, The School for Scandal has usually been found inferior—a comedy, as one critic trenchantly put it, in which the Restoration is unrestored.
It might be best to begin study of the play with the general disclaimer that The School for Scandal is not simply a Restoration comedy, it is another kind of comedy altogether—moral rather than satiric, basically humane and optimistic rather than hard edged and cynical. It is a comedy written for an audience whose basic assumptions about art, theater, and human nature made it radically different from the audience of Congreve’s day.
The School for Scandal has been called a middle-class morality play, and in a sense that description is accurate. At play’s end, good characters are rewarded and bad characters (“evil” is really too strong a word) are routed, thus providing the audience with two useful object lessons: Honesty and benevolence will, in the end, win out over duplicity and selfishness, and, as the surname of the brothers Charles and Joseph suggests, surface appearances are not always trustworthy indicators of inner character. It would be wrong, however, to assume that Sheridan was a moralist using comedy merely to sugarcoat his message. His primary goal in The School for Scandal was, without doubt, comic delight rather than moral instruction.
Although Sheridan’s dialogue in The School for Scandal has often been celebrated, language in the play is less important as a source of its comedy than are plot and character. Creating interesting characters and placing them in situations that compel them to respond in particularly telling ways allows Sheridan to examine what writers of social comedy from Aristophanes to Woody Allen have never tired of examining: the abiding, perhaps even necessary, inconsistency in human society between surface and substance, appearance and reality, truth and fiction.
Lady Sneerwell and the members of her scandalous school are masters of social illusion. As a former victim of scandal herself, Lady Sneerwell understands only too well how fragile a thing reputation is. More to the point, perhaps, she has achieved an even more profound intuition: She has come to understand how all reputation—good or bad—is, from a purely social (rather than moral) perspective, a fiction, a contrivance of opinion. This understanding enables her to fashion the scheming hypocrite Joseph Surface into an admired man of sentiment and his good-hearted, although slightly profligate, brother Charles into a notorious libertine. That Joseph is by nature selfish and mercenary and Charles humane and generous is largely irrelevant within the sophisticated world of London high society, where surface is all that matters.
If The School for Scandal were another kind of comedy, Lady Sneerwell and her scandalmongering friends Mrs. Candour, Crabtree, and Sir Benjamin Backbite might be allowed to hold the stage. Their antics, as amply demonstrated in act 2, scene 1, amount to little more than niggling gossip. The Widow Ochre may use too much makeup and Miss Sallow may try “to pass for a girl at six-and-thirty,” but these are relatively minor instances of affectation, and the point remains amusement rather than pain. Even the somewhat more serious matter of Lady Teazle’s corruption by the school is played largely for laughs, and the prevailing tone throughout these scenes is one of childish naughtiness rather than true wickedness. A more concrete check on the goings-on is provided by the presence of Sir Peter and his young ward, Maria, both of whom display comically exasperated (but morally legitimate) dismay at the behavior of the scandalous characters.
Sheridan knew his audience, and he understood that moral comedy can flirt with sin but must never embrace it. Thus when the various schemes of Lady Sneerwell and Joseph proceed beyond the realm of detached amusement and begin to threaten the happiness of morally superior characters, the plot quickens toward resolution. This resolution comes about through the introduction of an outsider, Sir Oliver Surface, whose ability to penetrate social facades enables him to function as a kind of moral catalyst, and through two expertly crafted scenes in the fourth act. In the auction scene, Charles is shown to be a kind and generous man whose worst fault seems to be a fondness for cards and good company; in the famous screen scene that follows, Joseph is fully revealed as a smooth-tongued hypocrite. When the screen, that conventional yet effective stage device that both symbolizes and comments on the discrepancy between social fiction and moral truth, comes tumbling down, revealing a thoroughly abashed Lady Teazle, the audience can only respond with applause. Lady Teazle will soon resign her place in Lady Sneerwell’s school, and Sir Peter will soon accept Charles as a proper husband for Maria, leaving Lady Sneerwell and Joseph with only each other—which seems perfectly appropriate punishment for them both.