Sheridan, Richard Brinsley

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Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751-1816): Irish/English, Playwright.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, son of actor, orator, and educator Thomas Sheridan and of playwright Frances Sheridan, was born and raised in Dublin but lived his adult life in London. Sheridan was a notable and a successful playwright, a very unsuccessful manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, and a member of Parliament. Sheridan married the beautiful singer Elizabeth Linley in an exciting and adventurous courtship. Linley was engaged to the wealthy squire Walter Long who broke the engagement at her request. She then attracted the interest and infatuation of a married man, Captain Thomas Mathews, who threatened at first to commit suicide if he could not have her; subsequently, he reconsidered his thoughts of suicide and decided that it would be better to destroy her reputation. In order to protect Elizabeth, Sheridan eloped with her; he later told her that in order to preserve her good name after the elopement, she would have to marry him, which she did in 1773. Mathews became enraged when he learned that the playwright had blamed him for the captain’s mistreatment of Elizabeth, which led to two duels. In 1772, Sheridan defeated Mathews in the first duel and could have killed him but refrained when Mathews agreed to apologize; Mathews subsequently refused to apologize, thus resulting in a second duel. In this encounter, Mathews wounded Sheridan repeatedly, and it took several months for the injuries to heal. The marriage was not particularly a happy one, and Elizabeth died of tuberculosis in 1792 after giving birth to a daughter, Mary, whom she conceived in an adulterous affair. Sheridan bought shares of the Drury Lane Theatre from David Garrick in 1776 and became theatre manager; because of his gross mismanagement and laziness, the finances of the theatre were in terrible shape and he found himself with great debts--a problem that haunted him throughout his life, even causing him to spend time in prison in 1813 for his debts. The playwright also was a politician and supported with vigor the French Revolution.

Sheridan’s first great play, The Rivals (1775) dramatizes the story of Jack Absolute, who woos the wealthy and romantic Lydia Languish while pretending to be a common ensign (Beverley), knowing that Languish would find a union between a poor man and a wealthy woman romantic (she would marry for love, not social position). He does not realize that his father, Anthony Absolute, has made arrangements with Languish’s aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, for him to marry Lydia. Consequently, Jack Absolute becomes his own rival (with Beverley) for the hand of Languish, along with the rustic Bob Acres and the temperamental Irishman, Sir Lucius O’Trigger. Anthony Absolute must fight a duel with Acres and O’Trigger--until his identity is revealed. The plot, which contains much confusion about identity, is humorous, but the characterizations and the language make the play successful. The spirited Sir Lucius and the language-abusing Mrs. Malaprop are magnificent characters (actually caricatures). The dialogue is outstanding.

In The School for Scandal (1777), the naive Lady Teazle is caught in an intrigue by the hypocritical and cunning Joseph Surface. Lady Teazle considers having an affair with Joseph after mistakenly believing that her husband, Peter Teazle, does not love her. She is deceived because she listens to the mean-spirited Lady Sneerwell and the rest of her scandal mongers. Meanwhile, the sinful Joseph has convinced his Uncle Oliver that his brother, Charles, is a villain and thus undeserving of his inheritance--in which case, Joseph will obtain it. Sheridan’s drama manifests the dangers and the hypocrisy of those who disseminate gossip and scandalous reports. The play, which includes the famous scene in which the screen falls, revealing Joseph together with Lady Teazle, dramatizes the significant distinction between virtue and reputation, with Joseph possessing the latter but not the former.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan is arguably the greatest playwright in late eighteenth-century England. The Rivals and The School for Scandal are comedies that illuminate and mock the weaknesses in human nature--failings such as pride, snobbery, cowardice, and hypocrisy; he showed his audiences that theatre was a mirror in which they could see themselves; the plays are humorous and didactic.

Further Reading:

Morwood, James, and David Crane, eds. Sheridan Studies, 1995.

O’Toole, Fintan, A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1751-1816, 1998.

Eric Sterling

Auburn Montgomery University