Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770

School for Scandal opened in May 1777 to enthusiastic audiences. Since it appeared at the end of the London theatre season, it played only twenty performances before the season closed, but Sheridan's play reappeared the following season for an additional forty-five performances. Since few plays enjoyed runs of more than fifteen performances, School for Scandal was, by prevailing standards, a success.

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In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Mark S. Auburn noted that "the play engendered wildly enthusiastic support. Passing by the outer walls of Drury Lane just as the famous screen fell and the audience exploded in laughter and applause, a journalist of that day claimed to have run for his life in fear that the building was collapsing."

The reason for the play's success, stated Auburn, is "the witty repartee of fashionable society, the Cain-and-Abel motif, and the delightful recitation of the May-and-December theme." Richard C. Taylor, writing in Sheridan Studies, noted a different reason for the play's success. Taylor stated that critics overlooked the play' s faults because they "recognized the topicality of Sheridan's moral concern and that Sheridan was targeting hypocrisy." Still, both Auburn and Taylor felt that School for Scandal was very popular with audiences and with reviewers. The audience appreciated the plot, especially since gossip had become an important feature in newspapers of the time (a foreshadowing of the gossip-frenzy that dominates many forms of multimedia information in the twentieth century).

But besides plot, Sheridan himself had ensured the play's success by opening it after a popular revival of William Congreve's comedies at Drury Lane. Sheridan eliminated some of the more offensive sexuality, and Congreve's work, which had been unpopular in recent years, received generally good reviews. When Sheridan opened School for Scandal immediately after showcasing three of Congreve's comedies, the critics quickly drew comparisons between the two dramatists. Suddenly Sheridan was the new comedic playwright of his generation, just as Congreve had been in his era.

Several critics, who made the intended connection between Congreve and Sheridan, pronounced Sheridan's work the superior while additionally congratulating him on resurrecting Congreve's reputation. In an examination of Sheridan's ties to Congreve, Eric Rump included several of the 1777 reviews of School for Scandal in an essay for Sheridan Studies. For instance, the reviewer for The Gazetter applauded Sheridan's "manly sentiments, entirely divested of affectation, and which are conveyed to the heart through the purest channels of wit." But an even more important compliment follows when the same reviewer stated that Sheridan' s work presents a real challenge to Congreve's "royal supremacy."

The reviewer for the London Evening Post celebrated School for Scandal's "wit and fancy … decency and morals." Sheridan, stated the same reviewer, demonstrates that "the standard of real comedy is once more unfurled." Seven years later, the connection to Congreve was not forgotten; a critic for the Universal Magazine wrote that Sheridan's play "has indeed the beauties of Congreve's comedies, without their faults; its plot is deeply enough perplexed, without forcing one to labour to unravel it; its incidents sufficient without being too numerous; its wit pure; its situations truly dramatic."

School for Scandal has endured as a popular play worthy of revival. The work was produced in England in 1990, and while the language, dress, and behavior appear alien to modern audiences, the revival still found appreciative viewers. The 1990 London production's director, Peter Woods, stated in Sheridan Studies that the characters are difficult, since "nobody's fond of anybody."

The play is more difficult to stage in the contemporary dramatic era because audiences are too far removed from the issues presented in the play. The falling screen is still considered funny, but the context is not as filled with tension. Adultery and divorce are simply not as scandalous to a twentieth-century audience. Whereas a 1777 London audience would be tense with anticipation that Lady Teazle might be discovered, with the falling screen providing an explosion of laughter and release, a modern audience might only appreciate the slapstick nature of the scene. Woods described School for Scandal as "an artificial comedy about an artificial society in an artificial city."

An additional reason for the difficulty in staging the play is the anti-Semitism in its references to moneylending. Contemporary audiences are not comfortable with this, said Taylor, and the sections cannot be cut without compromising an important part of the play. Still, many of the societal malignancies that Sheridan sought to criticize are just as prevalent in modern society as they were during the playwright's lifetime. Combined with its distinction as a model comedy of manners, these touchstones to contemporary life allow School for Scandal to be appreciated by generations of audiences.

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