Viewing a Production of School for Scandal: Merits and Cultural Problems

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1481

I often tell my students that a play needs to be seen and heard to be properly appreciated. Reading a play requires an ability to visualize, and it is very difficult to manage this visualization without a careful scrutiny of the stage directions and some experience reading drama. This notion is especially true for Richard Brinsley Sheridan's School for Scandal, which makes the reader wish for a fine production to view.

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In the fourth act when Lady Teazle and Sir Peter are each peeking out of their respective hiding places, and Joseph is cautioning each to retreat, the reader can only imagine the fun occurring on stage. But when the screen falls later in that same act and Lady Teazle is exposed, this bit of slapstick demands to be seen. Mark S. Auburn related in Sheridan Studies that anyone passing by the theatre during that scene would have heard the riotous laughter of the audience that erupted from the theatre. This type of comedy was an early inspiration for the silly situation comedies that are a staple of television viewing; but if this play is so funny, why is it so infrequently staged?

Some critics suggest that the language is stilted or the subject matter not topical. When Peter Wood was interviewed about his 1990 production of School for Scandal, he expressed the opinion that the public might be developing a new appreciation for the rhythm and tone of language such as Sheridan's. And while it is true that the comedy of manners motif might be of less interest to twentieth-century audiences, it is certain that with tabloid journalism an especially hot topic on television and in mainstream newspapers, the public's interest in gossip, or in a play that satirizes gossip, should be apparent.

But if language and topic do not limit the play's reception, what other reasons might? One possibility is offered by Richard Taylor, who suggested in Sheridan Studies that the play's anti-Semitism may present a problem for audiences. Taylor asserted that "the anti-Semitism that runs through School for Scandal produces palpable discomfort in contemporary audiences, and no amount of directorial cutting easily eliminates it."

Anti-Semitism was a part of eighteenth-century English life. An act that would have permitted Jews to become naturalized citizens was repealed immediately when anti-Semitic street mobs loudly protested the law. When Moses is introduced in Act III of School for Scandal, his name is prefaced with the character descriptor "Honest." Since it was Moses who led the Jews from Egypt to their salvation during the Biblical Exodus, the audience should expect that this Moses will help Charles to his reward. But as important as his name is the qualifier that comes before it. Sheridan places great emphasis on "honest," using the word many times to describe Moses. The obvious inference is that Moses is an exception: moneylenders are stereotyped as dishonest.

The same is true for the overly used "friend" or "friendly." If descriptions of Moses must note his friendliness, then the point is made that most moneylenders are not their client's friends. Historically Jews have been identified with usury or moneylending, and in School for Scandal, Sheridan also identifies Jews as dishonest and unfriendly—proven by the fact that Moses's honesty and friendship are repeatedly inferred as anomalous to both his race and occupation.

In School for Scandal, to be a moneylender is to be a cheat. Sir Oliver is told that to be successful in his disguise, he must demand 50% interest. And if the subject seems especially desperate, then 100% interest would be appropriate. Thus, to be a successful moneylender, one must also be greedy, unfeeling, and unsympathetic. In Sheridan's play, Jews must even look different from other men. Sir Oliver asks if he shall be able to pass for a Jew. The response is that this moneylender is a broker—a step up socially, and since he is also a Christian, Sir Oliver's appearance will be satisfactory.

The text never explains what a Jew should look like, but Sir Oliver's "smart dress" is in keeping for a broker though not a moneylender. Sir Oliver is even told that moneylenders talk differently than other men. All of these points create an image of Jews that sets them apart from other businessmen. The implication is that Jewish businessmen are different—in clothing, in speech, and in morality. While this depiction would have raised little concern in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, twentieth-century audiences have the example of the Holocaust. The realization that anti-Semitism is never harmless and never acceptable intrudes on the otherwise light-themed School for Scandal. It cannot and should not be forgotten, and since the scenes with Moses and the disguised Sir Oliver form an important section of the text, their deletion would be nearly impossible.

If its portrayal of moneylenders detracts from School for Scandal, Sheridan's glimpse at the morals and social manners of the period do offer much for an audience to appreciate. As Louis Kronenberger observed, this is a play with a "sense of naughtiness"; this "play is concerned with the imputation of sinning; of sin itself there is absolutely nothing. No one ever actually commits a sin. The actors only talk about sin."

Of course, it could be argued that slander and gossip is in itself a sin, and Sheridan might have agreed; but for the audience, gossip is the subject of satire, and satire's result is laughter. All this talk about sin, accompanied by its absence, is a departure from Restoration theatre. The comedy of manners of the earlier century emphasized sexuality and sexual situations, and the writers relied on the titillation of the audience as a necessary component of comedy. But Sheridan's play offered a fresh voice. There is a mystery associated with what is hidden by shadow.

As Kronenberger noted, "sin now seems far more wicked and important than it used to." All of this absence of sex might be as equally refreshing to modern audiences who have become jaded by the explicit sexuality portrayed in film and drama. When Kronenberger stated that with School for Scandal, "we are back in an age when sex has become glamorous through being illicit," I am reminded of the popularity of Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. The audience could anticipate a happy resolution. Romance ended in weddings, but only after one of the stars had resisted illicit temptation. This is also the happy ending of School for Scandal.

Although romance provides the play's happy ending, very little of the play is actually concerned with the romance that ends the play. Maria has a very small part, and there is little interaction on stage between her and Charles, little to exemplify the devotion they profess for one another. The romance between Lady Teazle and Sir Peter is given greater emphasis. And although they are married, it is their discovery of romance that offers much entertainment for the audience.

Auburn related that Sheridan rejected the stock depiction of May-December romance. How to recreate a new approach to a familiar story was a challenge, and Auburn said that "in an early version [Sheridan] toyed with a harsh cuckolding story like Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" andWycherley's Country Wife (1675), but in the final version he sought and achieved the amiable tone of Georgian comedy." The couple's happy resolution is based on an awareness of their love for one another. Lady Teazle's country origins, which led her to believe that Lady Sneerwell represented fashion, help remind the young bride of why she chose to marry. And Sir Peter, who had too often focused on his age, recognized that although he might be old enough to be Lady Teazle's father, he was, instead, her husband.

Sheridan's decision to soften the relationship between Lady Teazle and her husband was also noted by Rose Snider, who compared Sheridan's handling of May-December romance to that of Wycherely and Congreve. Snider stated that Sir Peter "reacts in a more gentlemanly fashion" than Wycherely or Congreve's similarly challenged husbands. Accordingly, "Sir Peter Teazle is a far pleasanter person than the earlier prototypes." Snider pointed out that the Teazles introduce some sentiment into the comedy; thus, Sheridan's play is more pleasant for the audience, as well.

Lady Teazle and Sir Peter are, as Aubrey de Selincourt noted, stock characters. The task for Sheridan was to make these familiar characters interesting. Sheridan does succeed, says de Selincourt, "with unsurpassed brilliance and precision." In School for Scandal, Sheridan creates a genuinely comic moment with the falling screen; it is sincerely funny because the audience likes these two characters. A cuckold husband and an unfaithful wife do not invite the audience's loyalty, but Sheridan creates two characters the audience can like. Their discovery of one another's value provides a more genuine appreciation of romance than the too brief framing of Maria and Charles's courtship.

Source: Sheri Metzger for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

Review of The School for Scandal

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056

As conceived by Robin Phillips, The School for Scandal displays a harsh and glittering world of exquisite beauty and viciousness, where sentimental sobriety—when genuine—is the only refuge from the savagery that lies in wait for vitality and virtue. Phillips has read the play as a piece of serious social criticism, with decidedly mixed results: his version of this classic comedy of manners is thought-provoking, visually stunning, but finally a failure.

Sheridan wittily exhibits the machinations of the hypocritical Joseph Surface, who joins with the malicious Lady Sneerwell in a campaign of slander originally designed to obtain his uncle Oliver's fortune and the hand of the wealthy Maria by the destruction of his brother Charles's reputation, but which eventually expands to threaten the marriage of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle. In his program note, Phillips emphasizes the importance of reputation in a mercantile society, where to lose respectability is literally to lose "credit." In such an environment, the power of Lady Sneerwell and her "scandalous college" of gossips is no laughing matter, and Phillips's production takes its tone from the seriousness of their crime. The characterizations are subdued, the comedy is underplayed: the audience is never allowed to forget that the events it is witnessing could end as easily in suffering as in happiness.

Flamboyant performances are therefore the rare exception in this School. As that victim of a May-September marriage, Sir Peter Teazle, William Hutt is a sober, tender husband, whose very irascibility is restrained. He is seen at his most characteristic in his Act III scene with his young wife, where his childlike delight in her affection succumbs with reluctance to her attacks, to be replaced by deeply felt hurt, rather than rage, when her wounding remarks struck home. His violent emotions are reserved for his ward Maria, whom he reduces to tears with his attempt to bully her into accepting Joseph as her husband. Douglas Campbell's excellent Sir Oliver is almost equally grave, although he is captivatingly comic during the debt-ridden Charles's private auction of the family portraits and in his encounter with the slanderers who gather at Sir Peter's door to gloat over Lady Teazle's apparent indiscretion with Joseph. Susan Wright's Mrs. Candour typifies the treatment of Sheridan's wit in this production, delivering her catalogue of scandal in a matter-of-fact tone that underlines the speech's audacity while it almost eradicates its humor. Only Richard Curnock and Keith Dinicol, as the arriviste gossips Crabtree and Sir Benjamin Backbite, are allowed to fully exploit the comedy of their roles, to the considerable delight of the audience.

Sheila McCarthy combines these two approaches to delineate this production's central action: the maturation of Lady Teazle. In her first scene McCarthy emphasizes the broad comedy of her role, playing a squeaky-voiced caricature of an empty-headed flirt as she tantalizes and torments her hapless spouse with her childlike longings for fashionable extravagancies. But in the course of her trials at the hands of Colm Feore's lascivious Joseph and the chorus of scandalmongers, she gradually adopts the subdued style of the more experienced characters, as the enthusiastic girl dwindles into the sedate—but safe—wife. The diminished Lady Teazle of the last act is the poignant symbol of the price to be paid for social security in Phillip's London.

This autumnal drama is played out most clearly in the visual aspect of the production. Michael Eagan's set is a vision of geometric opulence: a long, narrow thrust covered in white tile with a metallic border, terminated upstage by an enormous moveable three-tiered cage, in white and silver, that perfectly balances the proportions of the playing area. The spare luxury of the set is matched by an enormous silver rocking horse that appears, surrounded by a chorus of dancers and a fireworks display, in a spectacular entr'acte representing the temptations of fashionable London. Anne Curtis's equally lavish costumes provide an emblematic commentary on the action through a general movement from white and beige in the early scenes, punctuated dramatically by Lady Teazle's orange hair and gown and the complete blackness of Snake's costume, toward more sombre colors, as the circumstances of Charles and the Teazles became more precarious. Matters are at their darkest when the vultures descend on the house of the supposedly cuckolded Sir Peter dressed in deep brown and carrying black umbrellas. The arrival of Sir Oliver in fawn and Sir Peter in an oatmeal-colored coat prepared the way for the denouement, in which the blacks and dark browns of the evil characters are ranged against the sensibly muted buffs and beiges of the virtuous. Maria arrives for her happy ending dressed in realistic beige and brown stripes, while the chastened Lady Teazle appears in very pale peach.

The emblematic quality of the costuming is echoed in Phillips's use of tableaux. The prologue is set against a spectacle of voyeurism: while Sir Peter describes the evils of slanderous newspaper paragraphs, upstage, inside the cage, Lady Teazle exhibits herself in a state of undress to a crowd of scandalized gawkers. Once again surrounded by an attendant crowd, she delivers the epilogue from the back of the silver rocking horse amid darkness and dry ice, the spotlit image of her wistful lament for her lost pleasures. The prologue tableau is preceded by a mysterious sound effect—a prop-driven airplane—but the use of sound is generally more straightforward, indeed, prosaic: music underlines moment of turmoil and sentiment; Snake is accompanied by a synthesized rattle and hiss. Even the lighting design functions symbolically, reinforcing the theme of relentless social scrutiny by the frequent use of spotlights.

By taking Sheridan seriously, Phillips discovers in The School for Scandal a critique of urban consumerist culture that has unexpected resonance, but his approach is finally self-defeating. His reliance on schematic visual effects betrays the conflict between his interpretation and the text, which promulgates its ethics by means of blatantly theatrical comedy. In the service of his solemn interpretation, Phillips attacks the play's comic structure, retarding its rhythms, evading its comic builds, and eschewing its invitations to physical comedy and broad characterizations. Drained of comic energy, Phillips Scandal is ultimately a lackluster performance, despite its considerable intelligence and beauty, and, as such, a misrepresentation of Sheridan's work.

Source: Nancy Copeland, review of The School for Scandal, in Theatre Journal, Volume 40, no. 3, October, 1988, pp. 420-21.

Review of The School for Scandal

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

To a writer a theatre like the Royal Lyceum is a magic box full of enticing possibilities—to all of which, almost invariably, you are denied access. To an Artistic Director, on the other hand, such a place must more often feel like a black hole—with row after row of empty seats that somehow, night after night, have got to be filled.

The theatre's understandable response to this has been to mount two classic comedies in repertory—a revival of their immensely successful production of Tartuffe in tandem with a new production of Sheridan's School for Scandal.

This opened recently to an almost uniformly hostile press, which the production did not really deserve. The Lyceum tends to open with a cheerful free preview and follow it with a press night that almost always falls flat; a strongly self-destructive process to which this in many respects perfectly acceptable show has also fallen victim.

Colin MacNeil's set is an elegant and serviceable rectangular box, fronted by a row of footlights, that neatly and effectively conjures up a feeling of the period; the cast are splendidly bewigged and crinolined; the show looks good, and by the end had enough basic buoyancy to it to ensure that the very special magic exerted by so beautifully structured a comedy would work on its audience.

The basic groundwork was all in place; the show's problems arose because somehow hardly anyone seemed to be working quite as hard or quite as sharply as they could.

One soon began to long, for instance, for a more elegant and imaginative solution to the problems of scene changing than the inevitably shame-faced lackeys embarassedly shoving bits of false bookshelf off and on the stage, or collapsing and re-erecting chinese screens; and particularly in the first half, when so much of the comedy depends on the words, one could often not stop longing for a cast more totally and incisively in command of the language. In fact it was hard, sometimes, to escape the feeling that most of them, given the chance, would probably have been happier doing something else.

The much stronger theatrical possibilities of the second half seemed to bring out much stronger and more lively performances. The cast's timing picked up, as did their capacity for inventiveness, and they began to approach the whole play with a delightfully infectious relish.

Garry Stewart, for instance, who had been looking wretchedly uncomfortable in wig and rouge as the foppish Benjamin Backbite, approached the part of the dissolute but good-hearted Charles with exactly the right kind of swagger; and Andrew Dallmeyer, who had produced a rather somnabulistically grotesque Crabtree, came into his own as the nameless but wonderfully malevolent lackey to Billy McElhaney's haplessly hypocritical Surface.

Sarah Collier's splendidly piratical Lady Sneerwell—complete with eye-patch—David McKail's pop-eyed and genial Sir Oliver, Gerda Stevenson's bubbly and charming Lady Teazle, all turned out consistent and skilful performances which were a pleasure to watch. It all added up to a pleasant, entertaining, undemanding sort of evening, which did not quite do justice to the skills and talents of everyone concerned. With stronger direction, a greater sense of commitment and purposefulness, it could easily have added up to a very great deal more.

Source: John Clifford, review of The School for Scandal, in Plays and Players, Number 407, August, 1987, pp. 33-34.

Elegantly on the Harpsichord

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is a kind of dramatic harpsichord. It has surface vivacity rather than inner strength. It has elegance of style rather than profundity of substance. Thumped by realism's heavy hand, it would jangle and go mute; stroked with exquisite artifice, it enchants and amuses. The present import from Britain, top-starring Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, is iridescently enchanting, contagiously amusing.

Gielgud is Joseph Surface, the hypocrite as moral snob, a kind of holier-than-thou heel. Richardson is Sir Peter Teazle, a crusty, crestfallen bridegroom in his 50s, loving, but not loved by, young Lady Teazle (Geraldine McEwan), a predatory country kitten so sure of her city ways that her voice seems to be crunching canary-brittle. The ostensible question is: Will Lady Teazle cuckold Sir Peter with Joseph? But Sheridan is less concerned with virtue in peril than with vice masquerading as virtue. In the famously comic screen scene, when Lady Teazle is finally discovered by Sir Peter in Joseph's library, it is not her folly that is impugned and exposed but Joseph's bad character. All high comedy is a deliberately moral unmasking of moral pretense, the ultimate poseur being Society itself.

What Gielgud the director brings to The School for Scandal is a sense of how the play traps constancy of man's frivolity in its high-polish comic veneer. Gielgud the actor evokes an entire social structure with the delicate flourish of a snuffbox. Richardson et al. are similarly and superlatively good. The cast is sumptuously costumed, but its kingliest array is English speech, heard with the ringing clarity of fine crystal on a U.S. stage too long debased by caveman playwrights and actors who are masters of the grunt, the mumble and the slur.

Source: "Elegantly on the Harpsichord," in Time, Volume LXXXI, no. 5, February 1,1963, p. 65.
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Critical Overview