Sheridan the Revolutionary


The first useful thing to say about Richard Brinsley Sheridan is that he did not, despite what people think, write Restoration comedies. The Restoration of the Monarchy took place in 1660, and the period of what we call Restoration drama covers the next five decades (the last play of consequence being George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem in 1707). Sheridan was born in 1751 and the three plays of his which survive in the repertoire were all written under George III: they are The Rivals (1775), The School for Scandal (1777), and The Critic (1779). This last is a rewrite of a Restoration burlesque, Buckingham’s The Rehearsal.

Throughout the history of the English theater, plays have been rewritten for a variety of reasons: changes of taste, linguistic shifts which rendered the old drama incomprehensible or bizarre, adaptations according to size of company, cuttings for reasons of length. The practice goes back to Shakespeare’s day, and thrives now, particularly in those so-called versions of foreign authors (Chekhov, Ibsen) with which contemporary playwrights supplement their incomes. In the case of The Rehearsal, it was always rewritten as soon as the topical political allusions had dated.

Another play of Sheridan’s, A Trip to Scarborough, is a rewrite of Vanbrugh’s The Relapse. Sheridan’s version contains the following passage:

Amanda. Plays, I must confess, have some small charms, and would have more, would they restrain that loose encouragement to vice, which shocks, if not the virtue of some women, at least the modesty of all.

Loveless. But, ‘till that reformation can be wholly made, ‘twould surely be a pity to exclude the productions of some of our best writers for want of a little wholesome pruning; which might be effected by any one who possessed modesty enough to believe that we should preserve all we can of our deceased authors, at least ‘till they are outdone by the living ones.1

In this exchange, Amanda’s speech is taken almost word for word from Vanbrugh (1696), while Loveless’s reply forms a defense of the program Sheridan offered in his first season running Drury Lane (1777), which began with revivals of three Congreve plays. But it was also an admission that there were problems in mounting the works of the “deceased authors”—Congreve, Dryden, George Etherege, Farquhar, John Vanbrugh, and William Wycherley—and that these problems were to do with the morals of the day.

Almost half a century later, in 1822, Charles Lamb wrote one of his Essays of Elia, “On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century,” which begins: “The artificial Comedy, or Comedy of manners, is quite extinct on our stage. Congreve and Farquhar show their heads once in seven years only, to be exploded and put down instantly. The times cannot bear them.”2 Wondering why this has happened, Lamb comes up with the answer that, whereas a previous generation went to the theater in order to escape from reality, the contemporary audience went to have its sense of reality confirmed; “instead of the fictitious half-believed personages of the stage (the phantoms of old comedy) we recognize ourselves, our brothers, aunts, kinsfolks, allies, patrons, enemies….” If you take fiction for reality, Lamb argues, then the characters in the old comedies are immoral. But Lamb tells us that he reads these works for an escape from “the diocese of the strict conscience.” After such a reading, he says,

I come back to my cage and my restraint the fresher and more healthy for it. I wear my shackles more contentedly for having respired the breath of an imaginary freedom. I do not know how it is with others, but I feel the better always for the perusal of one of Congreve’s—nay, why should I not add even of Wycherley’s—comedies. I am the gayer at least for it.

Lamb’s is not the defense we really want—it seems to seek to neuter what it is defending. Nevertheless we have here an interesting snapshot of a moment in the history of taste. Turning to Sheridan, Lamb tells us, surprisingly, of The School for Scandal that “it is impossible that it should be now acted, though it continues, at long intervals, to be announced in the bills.” He says that the play grew out of Congreve and Wycherley “but gathered some allays of the sentimental comedy which followed theirs,” and that incongruities in the work arose from Sheridan’s being forced “to join the artificial with the sentimental comedy.” He also tells us, again surprisingly, that, the way the piece used to be acted, it was Joseph Surface (the hypocritical villain) who emerged the hero. One warmed to the villain, and Lamb saw nothing wrong in this. The theater was artificial.

In 1841, Macaulay published in the Edinburgh Review an essay entitled “Leigh Hunt” but also known as “Comic Dramatists of the Restoration.” The occasion was Hunt’s edition of the plays of Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar. But the essay also forms a lengthy and reasoned reply to Lamb. Macaulay was, perhaps, something of a prude, but he was a prude with principles and a perceptive prude. He was all in favor of the republication of Restoration drama, along with obscene literature from other ages. He points out how immoral whole passages of Greek comedy are. “Plato,” he tells us,

we have little doubt, was a much better man than Sir George Etherege. But Plato has written things at which Sir George Etherege would have shuddered. Buckhurst and Sedley, even in those wild orgies at the Cock in Bow Street for which they were pelted by the rabble and fined by the Court of King’s Bench, would never have dared to hold such discourse as passed between Socrates and Phaedrus on that fine summer day under the plane-tree, while the fountain warbled at their feet, and the cicadas chirped overhead.3

Macaulay would no more censor the publication of Etherege than he would Plato’s dialogue, but he intends to call a spade a spade and insist that Restoration drama is utterly immoral (and thereby reflects the immorality of its day). Focusing on the chief weakness in Lamb’s argument, he quotes (somewhat rearranging the sentences) a passage about the characters in the comedies:

They belong to the regions of pure comedy, where no cold moral reigns. When we are among them we are among a chaotic people. We are not to judge them by our usages. No reverend institutions are insulted by their proceedings, for they have none among them. No peace of families is violated, for no family ties exist among them. There is neither right nor wrong, gratitude or its opposite, claim or duty, paternity or sonship.

On the contrary, says Macaulay, these plays are set in a world based closely upon the real world of their time:

Here the garb, the manners, the topics of conversation are those of the real town and of the passing day. The hero is in all superficial accomplishments exactly the fine gentleman whom every youth in the pit would gladly resemble. The heroine is the fine lady whom every youth in the pit would gladly marry. The scene is laid in some place which is as well known to the audience as their own houses, in St. James’s Park, or Hyde Park, or Westminster Hall. The lawyer bustles about with his bag, between the Common Pleas and the Exchequer. The Peer calls for his carriage to go to the House of Lords on a private bill. A hundred little touches are employed to make the fictitious world appear like the actual world. And the immorality is of a sort which can never be out of date, and which all the force of religion, law, and public opinion united can but imperfectly restrain.

And this passage forms the prelude to the main argument against Lamb, an argument which Macaulay was to win:

In the name of art, as well as in the name of virtue, we protest against the principle that the world of pure comedy is one into which no moral enters. If comedy be an imitation, under whatever conventions, of real life, how is it possible that it can have no reference to the great rule which directs life, and to feelings which are called forth by every incident of life?

The immorality of the old plays was so systematic, in Macaulay’s view, that what Sheridan had called “a little wholesome pruning” would not answer the case. The whole corpus of work was irredeemable. As for Sheridan himself, Macaulay elsewhere, for different reasons, puts the boot into him.4

Lamb’s and Macaulay’s essays soon took their place among the staple classics of the Victorian era. Few homes that had any books would have been without them. Every school library would have stocked them. And so the argument about Restoration drama would have been familiar, long after its comedies had almost completely dropped from the repertoire. And indeed what survived from the eighteenth century on the Victorian stage was very little—The Rivals, The School for Scandal, and Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (Goldsmith wrote another core classic of the Victorian library, The Vicar of Wakefield). Well into the twentieth century these were the trusty old warhorses of the professional and amateur stage, and for some of us they still have about them a strong whiff of the schoolroom.

The revolt against the Victorian near-suppression of the old comedies began in London in the 1920s—somewhat surprisingly early, considering that the theater was still to be censored for another four decades, but this was a rather genteel revolt. It was associated with one theater above all, the Lyric in Hammersmith under its manager Nigel Playfair. It was here that a famous revival of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera ran for three years, and here that, in 1924, Edith Evans scored a hit with Congreve’s The Way of the World. But even a friendly account of Playfair’s approach to the repertoire makes it clear that the spirit was one of escapism à la Lamb into an amusing, nonsensical otherwhere. Playfair, we read,

changed The Beggar’s Opera from a ferocious, scurrilous satire into a gay, neat, dainty entertainment. He sponged away much of the cynicism and acidity from The Way of the World and substituted a kind of jaunty playfulness. He treated both Sheridan and Goldsmith with the same decorative formality, as if he saw little difference between the two. But it is unfair to judge Playfair as if he had been attempting serious and faithful productions of the classics. His aim was, quite frankly, to make new entertainments out of old plays.5

So one was treated to bewigged orchestras, footmen running around extinguishing candles, colorful sets, formal stage groupings, lots of dancing, plenty of affectation. We know exactly how the actors of this period would have delivered their lines, for the style survives in costume dramas in black and white films. There was a period voice manufactured in drama schools, and everyone had to learn it.

And perhaps it was in those days that the general notion of Restoration comedy, the confusion that elided Congreve with Goldsmith and Sheridan, took hold. Anything that involved powdered wigs, men wearing face patches, footmen with sedan chairs was Restoration comedy. The critics might labor to make distinctions. James Agate’s reviews in the London Sunday Times during the Twenties and Thirties tried to engage with issues raised by Lamb, Hazlitt, and Macaulay. But what the actors were doing, and what the producers (they were not yet known as directors) wanted, was this non-period “period.”

Fintan O’Toole says in his generally brilliant biography that by the middle of this century, “if Sheridan the man existed at all in the American public imagination, it was almost certainly as an archetypal Regency rake,” and he mentions an American biography from 1960 whose title (taken from a cartoon by Gillray) is evocative: it was called Uncorking Old Sherry.

In England at that time there was a mild whiff of censure against “Old Sherry” for having survived Victorian taste at all, for having stayed morally acceptable. Here is one of the best theater critics of mid-century, T.C. Worsley, writing in the New Statesman in 1949:

More than seventy years divide The Way of the World, the most polished of our artificial comedies, from The School for Scandal, the most popular. In that interval Comedy dropped her bite and picked up morality; though this proposition might be emended by those who prefer the later comedy to the earlier: in the interval, they would say, Comedy dropped her coarseness and picked up a heart.6

Note here the enduring legacy of Lamb: the earlier comedies are called artificial. Note also that Worsley turns Macaulay’s objection on its head. The placid assumption is that there is no place for morality in comedy.

At the time when Worsley was writing, a profound change was beginning to take place in British theater (a tradition, by the way, which, though it likes to think of itself as continuous, is notable for its discontinuities, its recurrent Dark Ages). One might date this change somewhere between the education of Richard Burton (which involved elocution lessons to suppress his Welsh accent) and that of, say, Albert Finney, which never involved the acquisition of a cultured drama-school voice. In this new theater the modern director replaced the old-style producer. The Berliner Ensemble began to exert an influence, at first a largely aesthetic one, later also political (Brecht adapted both Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer and Gay’s Threepenny Opera). The new theater had its origins in the Royal Court, but its influence spread out into film and television.

And along with this change in the theater came a profound change in the understanding of the eighteenth century, not to mention the Restoration. Where once there had been immaculate “style” or “stylization” (sets and costumes by Cecil Beaton, with acting to match), now a value was set upon grittiness, earthiness, realism. The past became filthier and filthier. It was awash with bawdiness and yokel sexuality.

By the time I became a theater critic in 1979, that revolution was long accomplished and its consequences were all around. The Restoration comedies had been fully reinstated. Sheridan had not been banished from the stage, but he was very far from one’s thoughts. I spent half a dozen years going to the theater five or six times a week, and I can’t recall having once seen Sheridan (although in fact the National Theatre still mounts one of his works about once every six years). More significantly, I can’t recall ever having heard my contemporaries refer to a major production or memorable performance of one of his works. It is true that (stepping back in time) Sir Laurence Olivier was remembered as Mr. Puff in The Critic, but that was because he played the role in a double bill, after giving his all as Oedipus.7 The performances we remember best in Sheridan are perhaps the ones we gave ourselves. The other day, meeting one of our leading critics in the street, I asked her what she thought of Sheridan. Well, she said, it was a long time since she had thought of Sheridan. Then after a pause she added, “But I once played Captain Absolute.” To which I was able to reply, “And I once played Lady Sneerwell.”

But to the romantic critics of the early nineteenth century, Sheridan had been the playwright. O’Toole quotes Hazlitt, reviewing a production in 1815:

Why can we not always be young, and seeing The School for Scandal?… What would we not give to see it once more, as it was then acted, and with the same feelings with which we saw it then?

And Lamb, in the essay quoted earlier, says that “Amid the mortifying circumstances attendant upon growing old, it is something to have seen the School for Scandal in its glory.” Byron, on December 17 or 18, 1813, writes in his journal:

Lord Holland told me a curious piece of sentimentality in Sheridan. The other night we were all delivering our respective and various opinions on him and other hommes marquans, and mine was this. “Whatever Sheridan has done or chosen to do has been, par excellence, always the best of its kind. He has written the best comedy (School for Scandal) the best drama (in my mind, far before that St. Giles lampoon, the Beggar’s Opera), the best farce (the Critic—it is only too good for a farce), and the best Address (Monologue on Garrick), and, to crown it all, delivered the very best Oration (the famous Begum speech) ever conceived or heard in this country.” Somebody told S. this the next day, and on hearing it he burst into tears!

By “the best drama” Byron means The Duenna, a “comic opera” produced in 1775 and confected, like The Beggar’s Opera, out of traditional as well as new music. Byron was a greater poet than a literary critic, and it is hard to see much merit in The Duenna today, although O’Toole does his best.

The main joke in The Duenna is that a greedy and scheming Jew, Isaac Mendoza, is tricked by an aged, ugly, and penniless duenna into marrying her under the impression that she is an heiress. The moral of the piece is that “there is not a fairer subject for contempt and ridicule, than a knave become the dupe of his own art.” Sensing here an appearance of anti-Semitism, O’Toole tries to argue in his book that what makes Isaac contemptible is not his being a Jew but his having forsworn his Jewishness, not his racial origins but his hypocrisy. Here is the relevant passage from Act I, scene iii:

Jerome…. Isaac Mendoza will be here presently, and to-morrow you shall marry him.

Louisa. Never while I have life.

Ferd. Indeed, Sir, I wonder how you can think of such a man for a son-in-law.

Jerome. Sir, you are very kind to favour me with your sentiments—and pray, what is your objection to him.

Ferd. He is Portugueze in the first place.

Jerome. No such thing, boy, he has forsworn his country.

Louisa. He is a Jew.

Jerome. Another mistake: he has been a christian these six weeks.

Ferd. Ay, he left his old religion for an estate, and has not had time to get a new one.

Louisa. But stands like a dead wall between church and synagogue, or like the blank leaves between the Old and New Testament.

Jerome. Any thing more?

Ferd. But the most remarkable part of his character, is his passion for deceit, and tricks of cunning.

Louisa. Tho’ at the same time, the fool predominates so much over the knave, that I am told he is generally the dupe of his own art.

This last quality made the character “admirable” (that is, admirably drawn) to the critic of the London Chronicle, “and not [seen] before on the stage, though frequent in real life. A man piquing himself on cunning—content to accomplish nothing, but by tricking; yet for ever the dupe of his own art.” Isaac was played by John Quick, who had achieved fame as Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer and was the original Bob Acres in The Rivals—a popular actor, who would have had the sympathy of the audience. Here is William Smyth, who tutored Sheridan’s son, writing years later:

When I first began life, the world was thinking and talking of nothing but the Duenna and the School for Scandal. With what enjoyment, with what glistening eyes and eagerness of delight, did I listen at the theatre of Liverpool, to Quick in the character of little Isaac, the tones of his voice, that were so irresistibly comic, conveying in the most perfect manner all the wit and humour of his sarcasms on the antiquated Duenna.

So one laughed along with little Isaac against the ugly old duenna, but that does not mean that his character (including his renunciation of his religion for self-advancement) was drawn from anything other than the stock materials of anti-Semitism. Here is how the duenna describes him in the last scene:

Dares such a thing as you pretend to talk of beauty—a walking rouleau—a body that seems to owe all its consequence to the dropsy—a pair of eyes like two dead beetles in a wad of brown dough. A beard like an artichoke, with dry shrivell’d jaws that wou’d disgrace the mummy of a monkey.

One would not want to see The Duenna played today, and its lyrics (supplied by various authors) are entirely undistinguished, save for one drinking song written by Thomas Linley, Sheridan’s father-in-law:

This bottle’s the sun of our Table,
His beams are rosy wine;
We, Planets that are not able,
Without his help to shine,
Let mirth and glee abound,
You’ll soon grow bright,
With borrow’d light;
And shine as he goes round.

Although this song is given to a group of drunken Spanish friars, its imagery reminds us at once of Joseph Wright of Derby’s Philosopher giving a lecture on the Orrery, painted a decade before and exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1766. (The lamp at the center of the orrery demonstrates the way the sun lends light to the planets.) It is a drinking song as written by an enlightened, scientific mind.

The Critic remains eminently performable, although it has one of the most complicated single stage directions in the history of theater:

Scene changes to the sea—the fleets engage—the musick plays “Britons strike home.”—Spanish fleet destroyed by fire-ships, &c.—English fleet advances—musick plays “Rule Britannia.”—The procession of all the English rivers and their tributaries with their emblems, &c. begins with Handels water musick—ends with a chorus, to the march in Judas Maccabaeus.

Sheridan is here sending up, in part, the kind of theater that his father, an actor-manager from Dublin, was in the practice of mounting, with complicated scenic effects by Philip de Loutherberg. But his satire is broad. Here is a mad scene, sending up Richard Steele. Tilburina enters and declaims:

The wind whistles—the moon rises—see
They have kill’d my squirrel in his cage!
Is this a grasshopper!—Ha! no, it is my
Whiskerandos—you shall not keep him—
I know you have him in your pocket—
An oyster may be cross’d in love!—Who says
A whale’s a bird?—Ha! did you call, my love?
—He’s here! He’s there!—He’s everywhere!
Ah me! He’s no where! [Exit Tilburina.]

Sheridan was a connoisseur of bad tragedy, and much offended Coleridge by mocking some lines from his play, Osorio. This is what Coleridge had written:

Drip! drip! drip! drip!—in such a place as this
It has nothing else to do but drip! drip! drip!
I wish it had not dripp’d upon my torch.

Sheridan remembered the passage as “Drip! Drip! Drip! There’s nothing here but dripping.”


If we ask to what age Sheridan himself belonged, the answer Fintan O’Toole wishes to impress upon us is the Enlightenment, and not the tail end of the Restoration. He wishes to stress Sheridan’s political character as a supporter of both the American and the French Revolution. Emphasizing Sheridan’s connection with the modern world, his presence, as it were, at the birth of modern life, he begins the preface to the American edition of his invigorating biography with the recollection that it was only around fifteen years after Sheridan’s death that the twelve-year-old slave, Frederick Douglass, acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a school anthology in which he

met with one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest…. What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery and a powerful vindication of human rights.

By beginning in this way, with what Sheridan meant as a political writer to a young slave in the nineteenth century, O’Toole superbly changes all the usual terms of reference for his subject. We begin by examining Sheridan in an American context, as a known friend of the Revolution and as (so it turns out) a founding father not only of antislavery rhetoric (Sheridan was in favor both of the abolition of the slave trade and of the emancipation of the West Indies slaves), but also as a kind of father of American theater itself. “When we think of George Washington laughing his way through a performance of The School for Scandal,” says O’Toole, “Sheridan’s life makes far more sense than when we mistakenly imagine him a contemporary of the Restoration wits.”

The taste for Sheridan’s plays was shared both by the British army under General John Burgoyne and by those Americans who were breaking free from Puritan distrust of the theater. O’Toole tells us of a production of The School for Scandal which took place in Philadelphia in 1787. Since theatrical performances were illegal, it was advertised as a concert: “Between the Parts of the Concert will be introduced a comic LECTURE in five parts on the PERNICIOUS VICE OF SCANDAL. By particular desire—The original prologue to the SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, written by R.B. Sheridan, esquire….”

In the same year, a Bostonian former American staff officer, Royall Tyler, having seen The School for Scandal in New York, wrote the first comedy by an American author to be performed on the New York professional stage. This was The Contrast, a reworking of Sheridan in which the honest Charles Surface is turned into a Yankee hero, while the hypocritical Joseph stands for English-style decadence. O’Toole tells us that The Contrast had fun with the illicit nature of American theater at the time. An innocent American, Jonathan, “is seduced into a playhouse on the promise that he is emphatically not about to witness one of those devilish plays that the preachers had warned against. He is sitting in his seat when, as he says, ‘they lifted up a great green cloth and let us look right into the next neighbour’s house.”’ What Jonathan witnesses, without knowing it, is a performance of The School for Scandal. (This comic trick of presenting a familiar experience from a completely unfamiliar point of view has much in common with Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World—which describes London as seen by an innocent Chinese visitor.)

Having established Sheridan’s place in revolutionary America, O’Toole then takes us back to seventeenth-century Ireland, to the time of the Uprising of 1641, when a certain Donnchadh O Sioradain—a Gaelic-speaking convert to Protestantism—was engaged in a project to translate the Old Testament into Irish, under the direction of William Bedell, Bishop of Kilmore. This project—described by O’Toole as “one of the most poignant enterprises in Irish cultural history”—is of extreme interest to this Irish author of the first Irish biography of Sheridan since Thomas Moore’s.

Sheridan was born in Dublin, and while he spent his life mostly in England, he supported the Irish cause. Everything Irish in the story is of interest, but O’Toole is particularly moved by a great might-have-been. Might Ireland have avoided the particular viciousness of its subsequent history if, instead of dividing over religion, Catholic and Protestant had made common cause on the nationalist issue? The rare kind of British Protestant represented by Bishop Bedell took seriously the translation of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Gaelic because he had made converts from “popery” who “understood not the English tongue.”

For a man like O Sioradain (“Dennis Sheridan” to the English), it would have been possible to be both a Protestant and an Irish nationalist, in the sense, at least, of respecting and nurturing the Irish cultural heritage. For Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the playwright, it was possible to be a Protestant by upbringing if not by sharp conviction, a passionate upholder of the rights of Catholics, and a defender of Irish nationalism from within the British political establishment, as a member of the British parliament and a leading Foxite Whig—a defender of the Irish to the very point of treason. But the defeat of the United Irish in 1798 spelled the long-term defeat of Protestant nationalism. It left nationalism in the hands, largely, of the Catholics—with deplorable consequences. “Never again,” O’Toole writes, “would Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter be united in pursuit of a single vision for the island’s future.”

O’Toole’s book, one feels, is written first and foremost for an Irish reader, because the burning issues in it are Irish ones, even though most of the story takes place in England. The author acknowledges “a considerable debt to Conor Cruise O’Brien for his book on Edmund Burke, The Great Melody, which both suggested the way an Irish life could affect English politics in the eighteenth century and provided a political grain to go against.” There is a quarrel here about these “Irish lives”: Burke or Sheridan? we seem to be asked to choose. But it is worth noting now that Sheridan left Dublin in 1759 when he was eight and never returned to Ireland. He came close to extreme danger in his support of Irish aspirations, but O’Toole quotes the “only significant occasion” on which Sheridan ever referred to himself as an Englishman. This was at the time when there was a danger that the French would use Ireland as a base for an attack on England. Sheridan said:

With respect to the provocation of Ireland to pursue any particular mode of resistance, I should say nothing; it is enough to say, that I never could permit Ireland to be seized on as a post from which this country could be attacked. I might pity the hardships of Ireland, but as an Englishman I could never suffer the enemy to obtain such a favourable point from which to direct their attack against our existence as a nation.

O’Toole calls this reference to himself “a mark of the strain he was under.” But it strikes me as a recognition of the logic of his position. He was, after all, a member of Parliament for the English constituency of Stafford.

The steps by which he arrived at this position are recounted by O’Toole. Great attention is paid to the nuances of class, to the workings of an honor code in a period when the status of a gentleman was ambiguous. Sheridan’s father, Thomas Sheridan, provoked riots in Dublin by publicly claiming to be a gentleman. Besides being an actor, he was an author, a compiler of a dictionary and grammar of the English language, and, as such, a rival and enemy of Dr. Johnson. He prided himself on his elocution, and undertook, when living in England, to teach various Scots (including Boswell) to speak better English.

Thomas Sheridan was a vain, unfeeling man who neglected his younger son in childhood, concentrating his attention exclusively on his firstborn, Charles. Richard’s unhappy childhood in Dublin was followed by a no less unhappy schooling at Harrow. His mother, a successful novelist, agreed with her husband that “as [Richard] probably may fall into a bustling life, we have a mind to accustom him early to shift for himself.”

Shift for himself he certainly did, as soon as the opportunity arose. His father had moved the family to Bath, where he intended to run an academy, a sort of finishing school for gentlemen. But society in Bath found it hilarious that an Irish actor should imagine that he had any useful skills to impart. The academy failed. Richard’s career took off in circumstances of high drama.

His elder brother was in love with a young girl, Eliza Linley, noted for her beauty and for her singing. But Eliza was being pestered by the attentions of a married man, a whist player called Captain Mathews. Sheridan, clearly deciding that he was not only a better man than his brother but also more in love with Eliza, managed to elope with her to France and marry her secretly in a Catholic ceremony. In the ensuing scandal, Bath took the side of the young couple, against Mathews. Sheridan and Eliza returned, and Sheridan fought two duels to protect Eliza’s honor. The first he won. The second, being drunk, he lost. But the upshot, in the end, was that he established his name as a gentleman, and finally won Eliza’s hand in legitimate marriage.

To be seen as a gentleman was of prime importance. Sheridan immediately cut short his wife’s singing career; she fulfilled her last contracts, but ostentatiously donated the proceeds to the church collection. The gesture (Sheridan having no money to his name) was considered flamboyant, but admirable. Dr. Johnson:

He resolved wisely and nobly, to be sure. He is a brave man. Would not a gentleman be disgraced by having his wife sing publickly for hire? I know not if I should not prepare myself for a publick singer, as readily as let my wife be one.

Not only did the young Sheridan remove his wife from the public arena. He also vigorously objected to her sister performing at Drury Lane. He told his father that he had always had “an instinctive abhorrence” of the stage. If Mary worked for Garrick she would be forced to

represent all the different modifications of love before a mix’d Assembly of Rakes, Whores, Lords and Blackguards in succession!—to play the Coquet, the Wanton, to retail loose innuendos in Comedy, or glow with warm Descriptions in Tragedy; and in both to be haul’d about, squeez’d and kiss’d by beastly pimping Actors!

Sheridan wrote these lines in the year of his success with The Rivals. Within an astonishingly short time he had made his fortune as a playwright and bought an interest in Drury Lane. But he meant what he said about not having any relation of his on stage. He made efforts to reconcile himself with his father (who had not approved of his marriage) and he in due course relied for a while on his father’s managerial skills, but he would not let his father perform on the London stage.

He needed to be a gentleman because he was on his way into public life, having been taken up by the Duchess of Devonshire. In the aristocratic Whig circles in which he moved, he enjoyed a style of life which was based on a noble disdain for bourgeois values: one drank deeply, gambled, and indulged amorous pursuits. Sheridan became a close friend of the Prince of Wales, and one of the early tasks he had, as a member of Parliament, was to make a speech which, while not openly admitting that the Prince had made an unconstitutional marriage to the Catholic Mrs. Fitzherbert, nevertheless managed to persuade the House of Commons “by sleight of tongue” that there was a person in the Prince of Wales’s life whose conduct and character were beyond reproach, and who must not be criticized. Astonishingly enough, Sheridan was the only person in the country able to do this and thereby head off the constitutional crisis that was threatening.

The “Begum speech,” to which Byron referred, calling it “the very best oration…ever conceived or heard in this country,” was given in favor of impeachment of Warren Hastings for misrule and colossal self-enrichment in India, including embezzlement from the Begums of Oudh. The speech took five and a half hours to deliver and relied on an intimate knowledge of the affairs of a country Sheridan had never visited, together with rhetorical skills of improvisation and a willingness to pursue criticism of the East India Company (and by extension British policy) to the very limit.

In those days, women could not watch the proceedings of the Commons. They could only (in small numbers) listen to the speeches in a small room above the chamber known as the hen-hutch. But when the trial proper began, it was held in Westminster Hall, and women slept in the coffee-houses nearby in order to witness Sheridan’s repeat performance. O’Toole tells us that when the doors opened “many fashionable ladies lost their shoes in the mêlée, some going into the hall barefoot, others picking up other women’s strays and sitting in the hall all day wearing one red and one yellow shoe.”

Sheridan’s fame could hardly have been greater. But though his skills and popularity led to a great career as a principled and “impurchaseable” politician, Sheridan never came into his own as a power. For decades he expected the Prince of Wales to become regent, and to rise along with the Foxite Whigs. But when the Prince finally became regent, he treated Sheridan as a sort of Falstaff, an embarrassing reminder of his youthful sins. Sheridan’s theater burned to the ground, and was only partially insured. His sanity was uncertain. He spent some time in prison for debt. “Poor Brinsley,” wrote Byron, after his reported compliment had made Sheridan weep, “if they were tears of pleasure, I would rather have said these few but most sincere words than have written the Iliad….” Much the same generous spirit has created O’Toole’s wonderful biography.

  1. 1

    The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, edited by Cecil Price (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1973), Vol. 2, pp. 582-583.

  2. 2

    Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia (London: T. Nelson, n.d.), p. 192.

  3. 3

    The Works of Lord Macaulay, Albany edition (London: Longmans, 1898), Vol. 9, p. 338.

  4. 4

    In the essay on Machiavelli. Macaulay, Works, Vol. 7, p. 89.

  5. 5

    Norman Marshall, The Other Theatre (London: John Lehmann, 1947), p. 37.

  6. 6

    T.C. Worsley, The Fugitive Art: Dramatic Commentaries, 1947-1951 (London: John Lehmann, 1952), p. 52.

  7. 7

    This production came to Broadway in 1946. Kenneth Tynan’s account of it was adverse, despite the fact that he revered Olivier and thought The Critic a masterpiece.