Richard Brinsley Sheridan
heridan was early in the field as a dramatist, and both in wit and success eclipsed all his contemporaries. In January 1775 his play of The Rivals was brought out at Covent Garden. In this first effort of Sheridan – who was then in his twenty-fourth year – there is more humour than wit.
He had copied some of his characters from Humphrey Clinker, as the testy but generous Captain Absolute – evidently borrowed from Matthew Bramble – ans Mrs.Malaprop, whose mistakes in words are echoes of Mrs.Winifred Jenkins’ blunders.
Some of these are farcical enough; but as Moore observes – and no man has made more use of similes than himself – the luckiness of Mrs.Malaprop’s smile – „as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile” – will be acknowledged as long as there are writers to be run away with by the wilfulness of this truly headstrong species of composition.
In the same year, St.Patrick’s Day and The Duenna were produced; the latter had a run of seventy-five nights! It certainly is greatly superior to The Beggar’s Opera, though not so general in its satire. In 1777, Sheridan wrote other two plays, The Trip to Scarborough and The School for Scandal.
In plot, character and incident, dialogue, humour, and wit, The School for Scandal is acknowledged to surpass any comedy of modern times. It was carefully prepared by the author, who selected, arranged, and moulded his language with consummate taste, so as to form it into a transparant channel of his thoughts. Mr.Moore, in his Life of Sheridan, gives some amusing instances of the various forms which a witticism or pointed remark assumed before its final adoption.
As, in his first comedy, Sheridan had taken hints from Smollett, in this, his last, he had recourse to Smollett’s rival, or rather twin novelist, Fielding. The characters of Charles and Joseph Surface are evidently copies from those of Tom Jones and Blifil. Nor is the moral of the play an improvement on that of the novel. The careless extravagant rake is generous, warm-hearted, and fascinating; seriousness and gravity are rendered odious by being united to meanness and hypocrisy.
The dramatic art of Sheridan is evinced in the ludicrous incidents and situations with which The School for Scandal abounds: his genius shines forth in its witty dialogues. „The entire comedy,” says Moore, „is an El Dorado of wit, where the precious metal is thrown about by all classes as carelessly as if they had not the least idea of its value.”. This fault is one not likely to be often commited!
Some shorter pieces were afterwards written by Sheridan: The Camp, a musical opera, and The Critic, a witty afterpiece, in the manner of The Rehearsal. The character of Sir Fretful Plagiary – intended, it is said, for Cumberland the dramatist – is one of the author’s happiest efforts; and the schemes and contrivances of Puff the manager – such as making his theatrical clock strike four in a morning scene, „to beget an awful attention” in the audience, and to „save a description of the rising sun, and a great deal about gilding the eastern hemisphere” – are a felicitous combination of humour and satire.
Towards the close of the century, plays translated from the German were introduced. Amidst much false and exaggerated sentiment, they appealed to the stronger sympathies of our nature, and drew crowded audiences to the theatres. One of the first of these plays was The stranger, said to be translated by Benjamin Thompson; but the greater part of it as it was acted was the production of Sheridan.
It is a drama of domestic life, not very moral or beneficial in its tendencies – for it is calculated to palliate our detestation of adultery – yet abounding in scenes of tenderness and suprpise, well adapted to produce effect on the stage. The principal characters were acted by Kemble and Mrs.Siddons, and when it was brought out in the season of 1798-8, it was received with immense applause.
In 1799, Sheridan adapted another of Kotzebue’s plays, Pizarra, which experienced still greater success. In the former drama, the German author had violated the proprieties of our moral code, by making an injured husband take back his guilty though penitent wife; and in Pizzarro he has invested a fallen female with tenderness, compassion, and heroism. The obtrusion of such a character as a prominent figure in the scene was at least indelicate; but, in the hands of Mrs.Siddons, the taint was scarcely perceived, and Sheridan had softened down the most objectionable parts.
The play was produced with all the aids of splendid scenery, music, and fine acting, and these, together with its displays of generous and heroic feeling on the part of Rolla, and of parental affection in Alonzo and Cora, were calculated to lead captive an English audience. Its subject was also new and peculiarly fortunate. It brought the adventures of the most romantic kingdom of Christendom – Spain – into picturesque combination with the simplicity and superstitions of the transatlantic world; and gave the imagination a new and fresh empire of paganism, with its temples, and rites, and altars, without the stale associations of pedantry.
Some of the sentiments and descriptions in Pizarro are said to have originally formed part of Sheridan’s famous speech on the impeachment of Warren hastings. They are often inflated and bombastic, and full of rhetorical glitter. Thus Rolla soliloquises in Alonzo’s dungeon: „O holy Nature! thou dost never plead in vain. There is not of our earth a creature, bearing form and life, human or savage, native of the forest wild or giddy air, around whose parent bosom thou hast not a cord entwined of power to tie them to their offspring’s claims, and at thy will to draw them back to thee. On iron pinions borne, the blood-stained vulture cleaves the storm, yet is the plumage closest to her heart soft as the cygnet’s down; and o’er her unshelled brood the murmuring ringdove sits no more gently.”