Publicerad på nätet 2.7.2019
A Scandalous Talent
Richard Brinsley Sheridan and The School for Scandal
Few people could come to despise their own profession more, or yearn more to make their mark in another, than did the 18th century dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Although his reputation rests on being the greatest English writer of the comedy of manners, the fame he passionately desired was not that of a dramatist but of a great statesman, a Parliamentary leader, somebody who was above all a gentleman. It was that mistaken goal that was to be his personal undoing.
To be successful in Parliament in the 18th century, you had to have not only important connections with great people but also money. Sheridan had neither. Like a great many “English” writers, too, he wasn’t even English: he was Irish, like Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde. He came from a respectable family of Irish gentlemen, but his father, Thomas Sheridan, seeking fame and fortune, had become first an actor in Dublin and then an actor-manager of one of the two Dublin theatres. A little later, realizing that London was the centre of the theatre world, Thomas became the actor-manager of a theatre there.
In the extremely class-conscious society that was England at that time, to be an actor was to be far down on the social scale. This had always been so, even if actors were no longer classed amongst “rogues and vagabonds”, as they had been even in Shakespeare’s day, when one had to belong to a company under the protection of a nobleman to escape being arrested and imprisoned. However, actors in the 18th century were still not “gentlemen” in the class sense, however much they might aspire to being one, and actresses were still considered little better than prostitutes.
Nor were theatres in the middle of the century the well-regulated, well-behaved and respectable places they are today. Ladies who attended them mostly wore masks lest they be recognized, and they were known to be places for secret sexual assignations as well as renowned for what today would be euphemistically called “inappropriate behaviour”. They could also be dangerous places, not just for petty crimes such as pickpocketing, but fights could break out amongst factions in the audience or even on the stage, where theatre-goers were allowed to sit. The audience were also allowed to come and go as they pleased, and those entering after three acts of a play were even charged half price. If an audience disliked a play, they could stop it – often by throwing apples and oranges or even stones at the actors - and demand to see another one. It is hardly surprising that the theatre was held in low esteem along with those associated with it.
However, theatre-going itself was a very popular amusement, despite – or perhaps because of – its questionable reputation. Plays made money and there was always a demand for new ones, just as there is today. This was the attraction for Thomas Sheridan and later for his son Richard. They were both well aware that anything to do with the theatre was not the right place for a gentleman, a title they were both anxious to keep, but the attractions of the profession, and no doubt the knowledge they both had a talent for it, were too strong.
To begin with, Thomas left seven-year-old Richard and his younger sister Betsy behind in Dublin to be brought up and educated by relatives there, taking only his older and favourite son Charles with him. Later, when Richard was in his early teens, Thomas brought him over to England, but sent him to boarding-school at Harrow. It was intended to be upper-class Eton, but Thomas found he had not the money to pay the fees there, so sent him to the (at that time) much less prestigious school at Harrow. Richard was miserable. Not only did he almost never see his parents, even in the holidays, but he was mercilessly teased by the other boys for being “a player’s son” and therefore not a gentleman. It was no doubt here that Richard became so intensely sensitive on the subject and so desperate to prove it untrue.
His father, Thomas, however, was still an actor-manager in London and naturally an embarrassment to his son, but luckily or unluckily, Thomas’s theatre failed and he was forced to sell it. Never a man to blame himself, he blamed David Garrick, the great actor of the day, whom he said had been jealous of his own acting and had deliberately caused his theatre to fail. For the moment, Thomas abandoned London and moved his whole family to the town of Bath, intending to make money there by giving public Entertainments, where there would be music and singing and where he could declaim speeches from great plays – but not act.
Bath at that time was extremely fashionable. The aristocracy, the upper classes and anyone who was, or hoped to be, someone important went there in the summer season to “take the waters” at the famous healing springs, as well as to see and be seen. There they would stay for weeks or even months, enjoying the frequent balls or “assemblies”, the plays, concerts and musical soirees, as well as entertaining their friends in their homes or going on expeditions with them. Jane Austen, a little younger than Sheridan, sets scenes in her novels in Bath, to which she also went on occasion. Social life, dress and behaviour there were strictly regulated by the person in charge of the Assembly Rooms and the leaders of society, and only “ladies and gentlemen” were admitted. It was the perfect place for someone who wanted to be accepted in society and make their way in the world, and indeed to learn more about that world as well. The young Sheridans, Charles, Richard and their two teenage sisters, were extremely happy.
They also naturally made friends with another family who were taking advantage of the opportunities Bath gave them. These were the Linleys, the twelve extremely good-looking and musically talented children of the musician Thomas Linley. Linley was also without money and saw the potential of making money from his children’s gifts. His elder daughter in particular, Elizabeth, was both extremely beautiful and a wonderful singer. When she was sixteen, he launched her onto the musical world of Bath, where she soon became known as the Maid of Bath, famous for her singing, her beauty – and her virtue.
Elizabeth was naturally also much admired and sought after by the young men of Bath – and the old. This was a period when marriages between old men and young girls was very frequent, as so many women died in childbirth or exhausted by constant child-bearing. Widowers who were well-off were often sought after as husbands for young women who had little or no dowry to bring to a marriage and for whom the alternative was the dreaded life of the poor spinster. It was a fair exchange, most people thought. An offer of marriage of this kind was soon made to Elizabeth Linley by an elderly Mr Long, which both she and her father at first accepted. Elizabeth, though, had second thoughts. Mr Long behaved with the utmost generosity – since the person who broke an engagement was socially condemned – said he would take the blame on himself and even gave her an endowment so that she would not be penniless in future.
Elizabeth continued to be pursued by suitors, by no means all of whom had honourable intentions like Mr Long. It is hardly surprising that both Sheridan brothers were in love with her, Charles openly and Richard in secret, but there were others, such as a Captain Matthews who was particularly persistent and caused her real fear, which she confided to her two friends, the Sheridan girls. They in turn told their beloved brother Richard. The result was that he challenged Captain Matthews to a duel (a very gentlemanly thing to do of course). After this, the story takes on even more of the colour of a romantic drama: the duel was fought, and lost by Matthews. Sheridan broke Matthews’ sword – another insult which led to another duel. This time Sheridan lost and was so badly injured that it was thought he would die. A frantic correspondence with the distraught Elizabeth led to her promising to run away with him to a nunnery in France, although accompanied by a chaperone. As soon as Richard was better, they carried this out (Richard of course borrowing the money for the chaise and horses, the overnight stays, and possibly the chaperone), chased by her furious father. In France they were illegally married, but both kept this a secret. Elizabeth’s father took her back to Bath, her singing, and her unwanted suitors, while Richard was packed off to study law (a gentleman’s profession) in London. Thomas Sheridan was perhaps even angrier than Thomas Linley, since Linley’s father had been a carpenter and therefore not a gentleman. A child of such a man was certainly no match for his son.
Despite all the attempts of the fathers to part their children and to prevent them exchanging letters, they nonetheless contrived to correspond and to meet behind their backs. Richard and Elizabeth finally married legally and set out to experience “love in a cottage” in a village outside London. But even love in a cottage needs at least a little money, and they had none. It was inevitable that they should eventually look around for how they could acquire some. Perhaps Elizabeth could sing, give concerts as she had done before and which had been so profitable for her father? Out of the question, said Sheridan, for the wives of gentlemen did not sing for money. However…
What happened was that the Sheridans had an invitation from an aristocratic family to have dinner at their house in London. Would perhaps Mrs Sheridan be able to honour them by singing to their other guests at the entertainment afterwards? She would. So began a constant flow of invitations by the rich and famous to dinners, weekend parties and even a fortnight or so at country houses. The invitations were accepted and it became a useful way for the couple way to live at someone else’s expense, since of course singing in return for your host’s hospitality was not like being paid, and was perfectly gentlemanly and acceptable. In addition, they were now moving in the more elevated circumstances Sheridan craved and meeting “the right people”. They gave up the romantic cottage and moved to London to be closer to the action. For Sheridan had thought of a way of earning real money: he was writing a play, a comedy.
Despite his feelings about being “a player’s son”, Sheridan had always been attracted to the theatre. He had studied at the University of Dublin, where acting and the theatre were very popular, and had himself taken part in plays there. He was also a man of easy wit and charm in an age when wit and witty conversation were highly valued. Sheridan had long thought of writing, particularly of writing a comedy. His escapades in Bath and his knowledge of the ways of Bath society now inspired him to write one based on his experiences there. It was called The Rivals and featured jealous lovers, duels, tyrannical parents, mistaken identity, and a heroine, Lydia Languish, who, like Jane Austen’s in Northanger Abbey, had read too many fashionable novels.
The Rivals, which Sheridan hoped would make his fortune, had a disastrous first night, mainly due to the poor acting of one of the Irish characters, but he wisely heeded the advice of the manager and took the MS away to alter it, add and cut. The actor playing the Irishman was also changed, and the second time The Rivals was acted on the stage, it was a huge success.
A Comedy of Manners was very much to the taste of its audience: a satire on the “manners”, or social behaviour of its day, light-hearted, witty and a huge contrast to the gloomy tragedies as well as Shakespearean plays which were mostly what was performed at the theatres. Sheridan had the lightest of touches and an instinctive appreciation of the subtle use of words, the different ways in which people spoke and the absurdities of human behaviour. He had also the gift of creating memorable and original characters.
In London Sheridan had become friends with the actor David Garrick, the same man whom his father blamed for the failure of his own theatre, and who had long been the manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, one of the two main theatres in London. Garrick had by now amassed a great fortune and was thinking of retirement. Richard Sheridan offered to buy Drury Lane. He had of course not nearly enough money for such a purchase, but this did not discourage him. Lack of money, an almost permanent state for Sheridan, was never to be a discouragement to him, and he was later to be known as one of the greatest Debtors and one of the greatest Borrowers of his age. Yet he was almost always able to charm people into lending him money, whether they were tradesmen or Dukes, and even if they still owed him money from previous loans. He raised the money to buy Drury Lane.
To begin with, he put on various plays, including tragedies, but he needed a big success to ensure the general success of the theatre, which was very expensive to run. He would write another comedy, of course. Again the Bath scenes came back to him, the remembrance of the gossiping tongues, he and his brother’s rivalry for the Maid of Bath, old Mr Long’s proposal to Elizabeth, the duels once more… He sat down to write what would be The School for Scandal. Rehearsals began almost at once.
What makes a successful play? Why does one play disappear from the stage repertoire after it has been performed and had its run? Why is another revived? And why do a few, a very very few, continue to be performed over the centuries? It is sometimes easy to see why a tragedy survives, such as a Greek play like Oedipus or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Deep and complicated human passions are involved, ones which are common to humans down the ages, and characters which are ever open to nuanced interpretation by actors and directors. But a comedy is much more transient; it deals with things of the moment, particularly a comedy of manners, which is based on the contemporary scene, the now. Jokes or comic characters which also occur in tragedies are usually based on something that has happened recently and are often cut out when the play is performed at a later date, when the jokes are no longer relevant or frequently not even understandable. In Shakespeare’s day, a good comic actor could often be left to make his own contemporary jokes, and the playwright would write “etc. etc” to indicate this. A comedy of manners, though, is usually designed for entertainment alone and has no serious messages about life nor complex aspects of character that an actor can interpret. Indeed, in the 18th century, as well as earlier, it was customary for the name of many characters to indicate unmistakably their main characteristic, such as Waitwell the faithful servant in Congreve’s The Way of the World or Lady Sneerwell and Snake, scandal-mongers in The School for Scandal. Although there are several excellent modern English writers of stage comedy today, such as Alan Ayckbourn or Michael Frayn, the comedy of manners has in many ways transferred to the TV sitcom. Keeping up Appearances with Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket (which she insists should be pronounced as the French Bouqet) is a good example. The humour of each incident is based on the age-old human characteristic of snobbishness, the admiration of those above you in social status in the world and the desire to become or be counted as one of them. The constant repetition of the series and its appeal to other countries besides Britain is proof of the universality of its comedy. Similarly, Sheridan hit on an age-old universal subject of comedy in The School for Scandal - that of gossip, the frequent topics of gossip and how gossip develops through repetition.
His School is a group of idle upper-class ladies and gentlemen who practice the art of scandal. They speak of it, indeed, in art terms: it needs “delicacy of tint” “design” and of course “invention” and, like artists, they can each be recognised by their individual style: Mrs Candour, for instance, whose method is to drop malicious news while appearing to be all good nature and kindness: Poor dear girl – who knows what her situation might be.” The subjects of the scandal are ones we recognise today – who has been seen with whom, possible pregnancies, infidelities, bad make-up, who has lost money, who is in debt – universal topics. Scandal is the link that binds the whole, as well as giving Sheridan constant opportunities to display his wit and his skilful use of words.
As in all comedies of manners, there are several intertwining and complicated plots. One concerns two brothers who are rivals for the hand of the virtuous young Maria: one brother is called Charles (the name of Sheridan’s brother) but is clearly Sheridan himself, or as Sheridan sees himself – witty, always in debt, good-humoured, a likeable rogue but basically honest and loving; his brother is Joseph, who is the opposite of all these and at heart a hypocrite. Their surname is appropriately Surface. Their true characters will be tested by the arrival of a rich uncle from abroad, Sir Oliver, someone they haven’t seen for so long they neither of them recognise him, so that with ease he pretends to be someone else in order to see which of them deserves to be his heir (as so often in 18th century plots, money is the reward of virtue). Another main plot concerns Lady Teazle , saved for her entrance until Act II for dramatic effect. She is a new member of the School, a young woman from the country who has recently married a rich, elderly man and is happily spending his money and learning the ways of the town. A couple like this was a standard joke of comedy in Sheridan’s day, much as “the mother-in-law” was to become in later centuries, but Sheridan’s dialogue is so inventive that it gives her a freshness and charm that is irresistible. They quarrel all the time, but as Sir Peter Teazle says of her:
One part of this plot centres on whether Lady Teazle in a fit of pique might or might not be tempted to give in to Joseph’s clearly dishonourable proposals. In fact she agrees to an invitation “to visit his library” alone – a half-way step to accepting them. The pair are, however, interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Sir Peter himself, and Joseph hurriedly draws a screen to conceal her. Again an interruption occurs when his brother Charles arrives, and this time it is Sir Peter who hides in a cupboard. A typical stage farce scene then takes place in what is known as a Box-and-Cox situation when first one face and then another pops out of hiding. Joseph becomes so entangled in his own lies that he is forced into telling Charles that he has “a French milliner” behind the screen, and Charles, thinking it all a joke, hurls the screen down. Lady Teazle is revealed. For a moment, all the actors are speechless. Not so the audience. It is said that when the screen fell down at the first performance, the great cry and laughter from the audience could be heard by half London. It has been known as the Screen Scene ever since. Not only is it symbolic of some of the main themes of the play - concealment, pretence and hypocrisy – but the way it is led up to step-by-step is a wonderful example of theatrical timing.
Timing is well-known to be an essential of comedy, just as it is of a political speech. To know exactly how long to lead up to a joke or a major point, how long to keep it going, when to change the subject or to speed up or slow down, when to finish - all these things can make the difference between success or failure. Sheridan did not leave it up to the actor, he wrote it into his dialogue. In both the famous Screen Scene and the reporting of the duel, he first introduces a new element of surprise, plays on it for a while, then unexpectedly introduces another new element which screws up the tension even more. The report of the duel, too, is a brilliant example of how rumour develops as it is spread by one character after the other, like the game of Chinese Whispers. In Sheridan’s play rumour is made concrete by each character entering with a new version of the Sir Peter/Joseph story, in which there is first confusion about exactly who was involved, then the report of an argument turns into that of a duel, first said to be with swords, then with pistols, each version becoming more and more absurdly detailed:
Sheridan would certainly have been delighted with the creation of the modern term Alternative Facts.
Although the dialogue is extremely natural, that does not mean that Sheridan does not make full use of the very “stagey” conventions of the time, such as the soliloquy, the aside to the audience and the-audience-in-possession-of-information-unknown-to-the-actors. He uses these to full effect to increase the humour, so we know who is behind the Screen, and we know exactly what happened and didn’t happen between the brothers, their uncle and Sir Peter and we know that Sir Oliver is pretending to be someone else.
The School also has that essential ingredient for the continued popularity of a play, what one might call “actability”. Even in the hands of amateur actors -and it is a play frequently chosen by amateur groups – the dialogue is so amusing, the pace so quick, that it is hard to go wrong. The way in which the dialogue is written, with its sharp observation of natural speech and human behaviour, gives perfect guidance on how it should be acted. Here is Sir Peter, having just finished a quarrel with his wife:
…and within seconds, of course, they are quarrelling again.
Furthermore, it is a play in which all of the actors, even those playing the smallest part, have their moment in the spotlight, when the audience will focus on them alone and in which their perhaps one line will cause a roar of laughter. Who would not want to act in a play so actable?
The first group of actors who rehearsed The School for Scandal in 1777, however, were by no means sure there would ever be a play. Sheridan was writing it, changing it and polishing the lines up to the last minute, as was his habit, and the actors of course still did not have all of their parts ready to learn even as the first night was drawing near. At the end of the original manuscript, Sheridan has written:
And under it the prompter has written a heartfelt Amen!
They need not have worried: from its first performance, it was a huge success and has continued to be for the last almost 250 years.. It was also a financial success, and it must have seemed as if Sheridan only had to continue as a dramatist and all his money problems would be solved. But there was always that question of being accepted as a gentleman. By now he was moving in important circles, including that of politicians. He met Charles James Fox, one of the chief Whig (Liberal) politicians of his day and each was delighted with the intelligence, wit and charm of the other. Sheridan could now see himself becoming a leading politician. At twenty-nine he found himself a seat in Parliament, buying the votes, as it was possible to do then.
Before that, he had written two other shorter plays, one of which was a satire on writers of tragedy and their critics. Called The Critic, it was, and still is delightfully funny but relies on a knowledge of how tragedies were performed in its day, so is very seldom performed nowadays. Jane Austen was someone who had clearly at least read it, just as she had taken part at the age of eight in a family performance of The Rivals and later of The School for Scandal (for even if ladies did not often go to theatres, family performances of plays were very popular). Jane Austen was no doubt an admirer of Sheridan’s plays, as the two shared the same love of life’s ironies, the appreciation of the absurdities of human behaviour, and the same skill with which they set down the idiosyncrasies of speech. Sheridan for his part, on reading Pride and Prejudice, said it was “one of the cleverest things he had ever read.”
However, being a member of Parliament was the finish of Sheridan’s writing for the stage. His thoughts were now concentrated on speeches, intending to become famous for them. His first speech was a disappointment: he concentrated too much on protesting that he was not an actor but a gentleman – and by so doing let his opponents clearly know where his weak point lay. He said afterwards: “It is in me, and by God it shall come out.” He knew he could be a great orator.
He became one. His next speech was a different matter: speaking for five hours without a pause or repeating himself, he transfixed his audience and changed the course of the debate, using his wit, his sense of timing, his art of acting, everything he knew. As a Whig, he was on the side of liberty, so he defended America when it fought to rid itself of English rule, just as he was on the side of the French Revolution at its start. His most famous speech, though, was when the English Governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, was impeached, a speech which was said to be the best ever made in Parliament. We do not have even a written record of this from which to judge, but in any event it is not just the words that make a speech. How many of Churchill’s would be remembered so well if we did not hear that measured, slightly growling voice, the stresses and pauses, the timing with which they were uttered? Sheridan the orator was surely in part Sheridan the actor too.
No doubt others felt this, and in Parliament Sheridan was never to be acknowledged as a gentleman. His opponents filled speeches directed at him with covert and malicious taunts, using words referring to his former profession like “audience”, “stage”, “scenes” and “players”. Even a friendship with the Prince Regent was not enough to make him accepted by the gentry. Worse, the Prince Regent’s habits of drink, gambling and general debauchery were imitated by his friends, and Sheridan – already drinking heavily and perpetually short of money – was soon in such a condition of daily drunkenness that he could not be trusted with a government post. When he finally lost his seat in Parliament, he became vulnerable to his many debtors, and shut himself away in his house with his second wife, his former friends mostly having abandoned him.
One friend found them there, starving. Sheridan was lying in bed in his own excrement, covered only by a horse blanket, when the bailiffs broke in to carry him away. The friend prevented at least this last indignity.
He died shortly afterwards. His funeral carriage was followed through the streets of London by Dukes, noblemen and statesmen, which would have pleased him, just as did the knowledge before he died that he was to be buried in Westminster Abbey. However, his wish was to lie in the section with other famous politicians, such as William Pitt and Charles Fox. Instead he was buried in Poets’ Corner, near David Garrick, and along with great writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Lord Byron. He was destined even at the last to be ranked with Players and Players’ Sons.
DIANA WEBSTER, May 2019.
Finished at last, thank God!)