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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Brander Matthews (1852–1929)
 
RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN was the most distinguished member of a distinguished family. His grandfather was Dr. Sheridan, the friend and correspondent of Swift. His father was Thomas Sheridan, elocutionist, actor, manager, and lexicographer. His mother was Frances Sheridan, author of the comedy of ‘The Discovery’ (acted by David Garrick), and of the novel ‘Miss Sidney Biddulph’ (praised by Samuel Johnson). His three granddaughters, known as the beautiful Sheridans, became, one the Duchess of Somerset, another the Countess of Dufferin, and the third the Hon. Mrs. Norton (afterward Lady Stirling-Maxwell). His great-grandson is Lord Dufferin, author and diplomatist. Thus, in six generations of the family, remarkable power of one kind or another has been revealed.  1
  Richard Brinsley was born in Dublin, Ireland, in September 1751. Before he was ten the family moved to England; and he was presently sent to Harrow. Later he received from his father lessons in elocution, which he was destined to turn to account in Parliament. Before he was nineteen the family settled in Bath, then the resort of fashion. Here the young man observed life, wrote brilliant bits of verse, and fell in love with Miss Linley. The Linleys were all musicians: Miss Elizabeth Linley was a public singer of great promise; she was not seventeen when Sheridan first met her. She was beset by suitors, with one of whom, a disreputable Captain Mathews (who was the author of a good book on whist), the future dramatist fought two duels. Sheridan eloped with Miss Linley to France; and after many obstacles, the course of true love ran smooth at last and the young pair were married. Although he was wholly without fortune, the husband withdrew his wife from the stage.  2
  Sheridan’s education had been fragmentary, and he lacked serious training. But he had wit and self-confidence; and he determined to turn dramatist. His father was an actor, his mother had written plays, and his father-in-law was a composer; and so the stage door swung wide open before him. His first piece, the five-act comedy the ‘Rivals,’ was brought out at Covent Garden Theatre, January 17th, 1775; and it then failed blankly, as it did again on a second performance. Withdrawn and revised, it was soon reproduced with approval. A similar experience is recorded of the ‘Barber of Seville,’ the first comedy of Beaumarchais, whose career is not without points of resemblance to Sheridan’s. The ‘Rivals’ and the ‘Barber of Seville’ are among the few comedies of the eighteenth century which will survive into the twentieth.  3
  In gratitude to the actor who had played Sir Lucius O’Trigger, Sheridan improvised the farce of ‘St. Patrick’s Day; or, The Scheming Lieutenant’; brought out May 2d, 1775, and long since dropped out of the list of acting plays. During the summer he wrote the book of a comic opera, the ‘Duenna,’ for which his father-in-law Linley prepared the score, and which was produced at Covent Garden November 21st, 1775,—making three new plays which the young dramatist had brought out within the year.  4
  The great actor, David Garrick, who had managed Drury Lane Theatre with the utmost skill for many years, was now about to retire. He owned half of the theatre, and this half he sold to Sheridan and to some of Sheridan’s friends; and a little later Sheridan was able to buy the other half also, paying for it not in cash, but by assuming mortgages and granting annuities. It was in the middle of 1776 that David Garrick was succeeded in the management of Drury Lane Theatre by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who was then not yet twenty-five years old.  5
  The first new play of the new manager was only an old comedy altered. ‘A Trip to Scarborough,’ acted February 24th, 1777, was a deodorized version of Vanbrugh’s ‘Relapse’; rather better than most of the revisions of old plays, and yet a disappointment to the play-goers who were awaiting a new comedy. The new comedy came at last in the spring, and those who had high expectations were not disappointed. It was on May 8th, 1777, that the ‘School for Scandal’ was acted for the first time, with immense success,—a success which bids fair to endure yet another century and a quarter. With a stronger dramatic framework than the ‘Rivals,’ and a slighter proportion of broad farce, the ‘School for Scandal’ is as effective in the acting as its predecessor, while it repays perusal far better.  6
  When Garrick died, early in 1779, Sheridan wrote a ‘Monody,’ to be recited at the theatre the incomparable actor had so long directed. And in the fall of that year, on October 30th, 1779, he brought out the brightest of farces and the best of burlesques, ‘The Critic; or, A Tragedy Rehearsed’; a delightful piece of theatrical humor,—suggested by Buckingham’s ‘Rehearsal,’ no doubt, but distinctly superior. The ‘Critic,’ like the ‘Rivals’ and the ‘School for Scandal,’ continues to be acted both in Great Britain and the United States. Sheridan’s best plays have revealed a sturdy vitality, and a faculty of readaptation to changing theatrical conditions. After the production of the ‘Critic,’ Sheridan did not again appear before the public as an original dramatist. Perhaps he was jealous of his reputation; and, aware of the limit of his powers, he knew that he could not surpass the ‘School for Scandal.’ Just as Molière used to talk about his ‘Homme de Cour,’ which he had not begun when he died, so Sheridan used to talk about a comedy to be called ‘Affectation,’ for which he had done no more than jot down a few stray notes and suggestions. Thereafter he confined himself to the outlining of plots for pantomimes, and to improving the plays of other authors. Thus the ‘Stranger’ indubitably owed some of its former effectiveness in English to his adroit touch. Perhaps it was the success of the ‘Stranger’ which led him to rework another of Kotzebue’s plays into a rather turgid melodrama with a high-patriotic flavor. This, ‘Pizarro,’ was produced on May 24th, 1799; and it hit the temper of the time so skillfully that it filled all the theatres in England for many months.  7
  But long before this, Sheridan had entered into political life. He took his seat in Parliament in 1780,—being then not yet thirty. His first speech was a failure, as his first play had been. But he persevered; and in time he became as completely master of the platform as he was of the stage. He was a Whig; and when Fox and North drove out Shelburne, Sheridan was Secretary of the Treasury: but the Whigs went out in 1783. When Burke impeached Warren Hastings, Sheridan was one of the managers of the prosecution; and in the course of the proceedings he delivered two speeches, the recorded effect of which was simply marvelous.  8
  In 1792 Sheridan’s wife died, and from that hour the fortune that had waxed so swiftly waned as surely. He neglected the theatre for politics, and his debts began to harass him. He married again in 1795; but it may be doubted whether this second marriage was not a mistake. In 1809 Drury Lane was burnt to the ground; and Sheridan had rebuilt it at enormous cost only fifteen years before. This fire ruined him. In 1812 he made his last speech in Parliament. In 1815 he suffered the indignity of arrest for debt. He died on July 7th, 1816.  9
  Sheridan’s indebtedness was found to be less than £5,000: that it had not been paid long before was due to his procrastination, his carelessness, and his total lack of business training. He seems to have allowed himself to be swindled right and left. In other ways also is his character not easy to apprehend aright. In his political career he unhesitatingly sacrificed place to patriotism; and during the mutiny at the Nore he put party advantage behind him, and came forward to urge the course of conduct best for the country as a whole. In his private life he was not altogether circumspect; but he lived in days when it was thought no disgrace for a statesman to be overtaken with wine. In all things he was his own worst enemy.  10
  It is as a writer of comedies that Sheridan claims admission into this work; and here his position is impregnable. Of the four comic dramatists of the Restoration,—Congreve, Vanbrugh, Wycherley, and Farquhar,—only one, Congreve, was Sheridan’s superior as a wit; and Sheridan is the superior of every one of the four as a playwright, as an artist in stage effect, as a master of the medium in which they all of them worked. His only later rival is his fellow-Irishman, Oliver Goldsmith: but of Goldsmith’s two comedies, one, the ‘Good-Natured Man,’ has always been a failure, when first acted and whenever a revival has been attempted; and the other, ‘She Stoops to Conquer,’ delightful as it is, is what its hostile critics called it when it was first seen, a farce,—it has the arbitrary plot of a farce, though its manner is the manner of comedy. Neither in the library nor in the theatre does ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ withstand the comparison with the ‘School for Scandal’; and Sheridan has still to his credit the ‘Rivals’ and the ‘Critic.’ (It is true that Goldsmith has to his credit the ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ and his poems and his essays; but it is of his plays that a comparison is here made.)  11
  Sheridan is not of course to be likened to Molière: the Frenchman had a depth and a power to which the Irishman could not pretend. But a comparison with Beaumarchais is fair enough, and it can be drawn only in favor of Sheridan; for brilliant as the ‘Marriage of Figaro’ is, it lacks the solid structure and the broad outlook of the ‘School for Scandal.’ Both the French wit and the Irish are masters of fence, and the dialogue of these comedies still scintillates as steel crosses steel. Neither of them put much heart into his plays; and perhaps the ‘School for Scandal’ is even more artificial than the ‘Marriage of Figaro,’—but it is wholly free from the declamatory shrillness which to-day mars the masterpiece of Beaumarchais.  12
  It is curious that the British novelists have often taken up their task in the maturity of middle age, and that the British dramatists have often been young fellows just coming into man’s estate. One might say that Farquhar and Vanbrugh, Congreve and Sheridan, all composed their comedies when they were only recently out of their ’teens. Lessing has told us that the young man just entering on the world cannot possibly know it. He may be ingenious, he may be clever, he may be brilliant,—but he is likely to lack depth and breadth. Here is the weak spot in Sheridan’s work. Dash he had, and ardor, and dexterity, and wit; but when his work is compared with the solid and more human plays of Molière, for example, its relative superficiality is apparent. And yet superficiality is a harsh word, and perhaps misleading. What is not to be found in Sheridan’s comedies is essential richness of inspiration. Liveliness there is, and dramaturgic skill, and comic invention, and animal spirits, and hearty enjoyment: these are gifts to be prized. To seek for more in the ‘Rivals’ and the ‘School for Scandal’ is to be disappointed.  13
 
 
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