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.

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.” 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 …

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