Fintan O’Toole’s publishers announce that Richard Brinsley Sheridan has been generally ill-served by biographers, ‘who rehash the familiar outlines of his story every decade or so without bringing any intelligent new insights to the task’. By contrast, O’Toole has written a ‘gripping, carefully composed exploration of Sheridan’s career’. His biography comes hard on the heels of Linda Kelly’s, and it would be comforting to report that O’Toole’s was the rehash, but the Granta puff has it the right way round, while Alan Chedzoy’s life of the first Mrs Sheridan (the noted soprano and beauty Elizabeth Linley) is more boisterously entertaining than either of them.
The subject of all this feverish activity was born in Ireland to a theatrical father and moved with his family to England at the age of eight. After a miserable period at Harrow, the young Sheridan settled with his family at Bath, where his father attempted to set up a Rhetorical and Grammatical Academy. Here Sheridan met Eliza Linley, rescued her from the unwelcome attentions of a soi-disant army captain, and eloped with her to France. On their return, Sheridan fought two duels on Eliza’s account; once married, the couple relied on Sheridan’s income as a theatre manager (he bought a controlling interest in the Drury Lane Theatre at the age of 25), and his earnings from the three major plays and one operetta he wrote before his 29th birthday. In 1780 he became an MP for Stafford and, aside from a couple of short periods of government office, remained a leading member of the Whig opposition (and in particular, a harrier of Pitt the Younger) throughout what was a long political career. His most noted campaign was against Warren Hastings, the supposedly corrupt Governor of the East India Company, but he also supported the French Revolution and the cause of Irish emancipation (although he was never to return to the land of his birth). Chaotic in his personal finances, a heavy drinker and moderate philanderer, Sheridan lost Eliza to tuberculosis in 1792, saw the theatre he rebuilt burnt to the ground in 1809, and died in debt and some privation in 1816.
The different approaches of the three writers can be seen in their treatment of two early incidents. Describing the two duels Sheridan fought with Eliza’s inamorato ‘Captain’ Mathews, Kelly gives a dispassionate summary of the various accounts, while O’Toole follows Sheridan’s report of the first contest, which Sheridan won, tending to Mathews’s view of the second, in which Sheridan was severely wounded. Alan Chedzoy combines historical rigour with romance: noting that the course of duels fought by candlelight in small rooms is often a matter of dispute, he cannot resist the story that a locket containing Eliza’s miniature deflected Mathews’s frenzied stabbing, without which ‘the blows would certainly have pierced Dick Sheridan’s heart’.
On a more substantial issue the three biographers also diverge. There is no dispute that, in accordance with her new husband’s wishes, Eliza Sheridan stopped singing professionally after her marriage, completing her outstanding commitments and placing her last fee – a £100 banknote – in the collection plate at Gloucester Cathedral. At issue is her attitude to the matter. For Linda Kelly, ‘Sheridan’s first action on their marriage was to refuse to allow his wife to sing in public any more.’ Eliza is subsequently ‘delighted’ with the initial failure of his first play The Rivals, as now ‘there is nothing for it but my beginning to sing publicly again, and we shall have as much money as we like.’ For Chedzoy, Eliza’s actions were explained not by her own desires but by her husband’s vanity and sexual jealousy, while O’Toole argues that she ‘hated being on public display and had been determined to stop performing once she was no longer her father’s indentured servant’, explaining her later remarks as a change of heart.
O’Toole does something else, however: he sets Richard Sheridan’s individual attitudes against the mores of his time. He notes, for instance, how the revival of duelling in the last three decades of the 18th century was the result of changes which made social distinction ‘increasingly difficult to enforce by mere codes of dress and manners’. The idea of reputation, a means of social positioning that went beyond (and indeed could counter) the immovabilities of birth, was ‘at the heart of the Enlightenment’s attempts to understand what, in the late 18th century, it meant to be modern’. Following an altercation at his theatre, Sheridan’s father had stood up in a Dublin court to defend his right as an actor-manager to call himself a gentleman; Sheridan himself had suffered for his theatrical origins at Harrow. Now aspiring to become a figure in society, ‘he was living proof that gentility was no longer an obvious and unquestionable quality’ – but ‘like all uncertain things, it needed to be tested.’ This accounts for much of his politics: ‘I shall one of these days,’ he wrote, ‘learnedly confute the idea that God could ever have intended individuals to fill up any particular station in which accidents of birth or fortune may have flung them.’ But it also accounts for his insistence on his wife’s retirement. A gentleman did not allow his wife to sing for money. And as it was impossible to be a public man without being a gentleman, ‘he could only move onto the public stage if Eliza moved off it.’
The huge changes of which Sheridan was both an agent and an example had a cultural as well as a sociological dimension. The late 18th century was the moment when the hard edges of the Age of Reason were softened by sensibility; in a manner not without resonance today, a culture in which logic, science and formality held sway was giving way to one in which real men could cry. In The School for Scandal, Sheridan exposed the false man of sentiment, not for his expressed beliefs but for his hypocrisy. As O’Toole argues persuasively, Sheridan’s politics were an expression of his feelings; in his mammoth speech calling for the impeachment of Warren Hastings, a speech acknowledged even by his opponents as among the best of the age, ‘all the forces of Romantic sensibility – tears, rapture, passion – had been unleashed on a Parliamentary audience that had no defence against it.’
Things begin to go amiss when O’Toole seeks to buttress analysis with metaphor. The career of Sheridan’s clergyman grandfather was destroyed when his use of the text ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’ was misread as a call to insurrection. And thus, from the juvenilia onwards, Sheridan understood that ‘the meaning of words depends on the actions and intentions that surround them, not on roots in the past.’ And when in later life Sheridan comes uncomfortably close to aiding and abetting the escape of an alleged French agent literally over the barricade of the dock, he survives ‘yet again, by exploiting with extraordinary presence of mind the gap between appearance and reality, between performance and intention’.
That this might be stretching things is clear from O’Toole’s treatment of The Rivals (which, following its catastrophic first performance, Sheridan rewrote, recast and reopened, transforming the play and his fortunes thereby). Sheridan got the idea of Mrs Malaprop from his mother’s play A Journey to Bath, using the bare bones of Frances Sheridan’s Mrs Tryfort to create a character who exemplifies ‘what happens when the proper use of language is neglected’. Mrs Malaprop is ‘at one and the same time an example of bad language and a pedant’, demanding attention to propriety and yet flaunting the very ignorance she complains of. No wonder that most of her more spectacular mistakes ‘are not merely misuses of language, they are actually about language’, including as they do ‘illegible’ for ‘ineligible’, ‘conjunctions’ for ‘injunctions’, ‘delusions’ for ‘allusions’, ‘oracular’ for ‘vernacular’, ‘epitaphs’ for ‘epithets’ and the famous ‘allegory on the Banks of the Nile’.
In fact, there are 59 Malapropisms in The Rivals, ‘most’ of which are not about language at all. What leads O’Toole to over-egg this particular pudding is his conviction that The Rivals borrowed not just from his mother’s play but from his father’s life. The pretensions of Thomas Sheridan, he argues, were Sheridan’s real target. For O’Toole’s linguistic psycho-genealogy is only a prelude to his Oedipal reading of the roots of the plays which goes way beyond young Sheridan’s entrapment ‘inside his father’s linguistic obsessions’.
So, in The Rivals, the tempestuous relationship between the swashbuckling Jack Absolute and his irascible father is of course a direct dramatisation of the relationship between Richard and his father (as, in The School for Scandal, the balance between the wastrel Charles and the puritan Joseph echoes that between Richard and his brother). Naturally, ‘within the insistent artifice’ of The Rivals, Sheridan represents ‘almost everything that had happened to him in the previous two years’; while the marriage between Sir Peter Teazle and his young bride in The School for Scandal is clearly based on the wooing of Eliza Linley by an elderly suitor before Sheridan came on the scene. And it is, of course, ‘no accident’ that The Rivals starts where most romantic drama would end, with the principal partners having ‘met, courted, fallen in love and agreed to marry’, thus teetering on the very edge of the Sheridans’ condition at the time.
Biography is not, for O’Toole, the only provenance of Sheridan’s plays: he accepts that in stuffing his comedies with elopements, duels, disguises and old husbands of young brides, Sheridan might have drawn just a little on the dramaturgical conventions of his time. Indeed, O’Toole insists that the rumbustious Sir Lucius O’Trigger was constructed by portraiture, plagiary and contemporary dramatic convention: the character was obviously stolen from Sheridan’s father, clearly a portrait of one of the seconds in Sheridan’s duel with Captain Mathews, manifestly a stock stage Irishman and plainly based on the author himself.
In truth, of course, playwrights do draw on their own experience and biography (though less mechanically and directly than is often alleged) as well as on the conventions of the time. However, any Sheridan biographer has to confront one central question, and any worth his or her salt to answer it. There is a theory – defied by instances too numerous to begin to mention – that writing plays is a young person’s game, and that most playwrights burn out after ten years and fall prey either to drink or to more agreeable and profitable occupations. There are a couple of examples of this tendency from the Restoration period (Etherege abandoned writing plays for diplomacy, and Wycherley for despair). But the most notable illustration is Sheridan himself, who wrote nothing original for the stage after the age of 30 (his 1799 tragedy Pizarro was a translation). Linda Kelly argues (somewhat lamely) that Sheridan stopped writing when he entered Parliament because running a theatre and being an MP were ‘enough for even his ambitions’. For Fintan O’Toole, the problem was his sources. ‘Every aspect of Sheridan’s public life so far had been cannibalised for his plays,’ he writes, so by the end of The Critic ‘there was little left for him to use.’ In short, Sheridan abandoned his art because he’d run out of life to base it on.
It seems more likely that the reverse is true, and that the hectic melodrama surrounding his courtship of Eliza Linley was a homage to the stock situations of the drama. During his twenties, however, Sheridan became concerned with matters of public importance for which the theatre of his time provided no means of expression. O’Toole claims that, like his plays, Sheridan’s political beliefs were no more than a transference of ‘his erotic passions and familial affections’ into another realm (ridiculously, he reads Sheridan’s support for the American Revolution as an expression of his revolt against his own father, with ‘George III as Thomas Sheridan, George Washington as himself’). The idea that Sheridan’s politics were fundamentally solipsistic, and as such a continuation of his dramatic project by other means, accounts for O’Toole’s extraordinary inflation of the purposes and achievements of Sheridan’s last comedy, among other things. The first act of The Critic is an effective satire on a number of recognisable theatrical types, and the second (in which we move from a drawing-room into a theatrical rehearsal) a workable spoof of current theatrical conventions. The third act was written under exceptional circumstances, the notoriously dilatory Sheridan having been locked in a room by the prompter with a pile of anchovy sandwiches, two bottles of claret and the unfinished script, and informed that he would not be released until he’d finished all three. As a consequence, the third act of The Critic essentially repeats the jokes of the second, and ends up with a remarkable instruction to the designer and stage manager effectively to finish the play off as they please (there can be few other plays whose closing stage direction contains four ‘etceteras’). In fact, Chedzoy gets it right when he argues that, in writing The Critic, ‘Sheridan was like a small boy cheerfully smashing china’: having exploded all current theatrical conventions, he would clearly have found it difficult to return to working within them. Far from being a treatise on appearance and reality, as O’Toole argues, or a farce transformed into a genuinely patriotic pageant, as Kelly insists, The Critic is the work of a highly accomplished and facile writer who had lost faith in his art: an emergent polemicist who realised that what he wanted to address was not addressable within the confines of the theatre of his day.
Linda Kelly asserts that Sheridan ‘presided over one of the most brilliant periods in the history of the English stage’; O’Toole that The Rivals was ‘one of the greatest comedies of the century’. The latter was not difficult, because the former was not true. It is one of the ironies of British theatre history that three of its greatest plays are surrounded by wasteland: there is nothing bar The Beggar’s Opera between Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem 66 years earlier; there will be nothing after The Rivals and The School for Scandal until the emergence of Pinero, Wilde and Shaw over a century later.
There is surely a simple explanation for this. The Rivals and The School for Scandal are among the most adept of British comedies precisely because they are fundamentally empty of the kind of abrasive content that characterises the less perfect comedies of Jonson, Etherege and Congreve. There are youthful faults in The Rivals – it was not until Sheridan was well into Act IV that a solicitous friend mentioned to him that it is permissible to have more than three people on the stage at the same time. But Mrs Malaprop is an extraordinary creation, and Sheridan keeps her eponymous characteristic in balance with her function in the story with dazzling technical assurance. And in terms of sheer stagecraft there is nothing in the whole of Restoration drama – and only a scene or two in Shakespeare – which manages to bring such a variety of matters to a head as ingeniously as the screen scene in The School for Scandal – uniting the crisis of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle’s marriage with the contest between the hypocrite Joseph Surface and the ne’er-do-well Charles in the single moment when Sir Peter and Charles fling down the patterned screen in Joseph’s library, exposing the hidden Lady Teazle and her interrupted assignation with Joseph Surface, just as he enters the room.
But brilliant though they are from a technical point of view, there is a soft-centredness in both plays. As O’Toole notes, Jack Absolute’s battle for Lydia Languish’s heart has been won before the curtain rises on The Rivals, and the play is merely about settling the terms of surrender. Similarly, The School for Scandal ends with the predictable exposure of Joseph, the elevation of Charles and the reconciliation of Lady Teazle with her elderly husband. There is a real, tough, brittle comedy on the outer edges of The School for Scandal: it is the story of Lady Sneerwell, poisoning others’ reputations in bitter revenge for the youthful ruin of her own. But this twisted tale is eventually smothered by the sentiment of Lady Teazle, having once escaped the tedium and triviality of the countryside, finding at the last that its values are preferable to the mores and fashions of the town.
Both traditional dramatic genres can be read in two ways. In tragedy, men are brought down either by their own limitations or by the blind inevitability of fate. In comedy, the triumph of young love over parental opposition can be read as the defeat of the old by the new, or as the means by which each generation is incorporated into the ways of its predecessors. In both The Rivals and The School for Scandal, young women stage a revolt against the men that their class or condition has obliged them to marry. In both cases their revolt is unsuccessful and they succumb to social convention.
Had Sheridan’s command of dramatic convention been less complete, he might have proved a theatre revolutionary. As it was, the combination of Restoration stagecraft with late Enlightenment sensibility made his play-writing conservative. Far from being continuous with his plays, Sheridan’s move into politics allowed him to employ his dramatic instincts to propound much more radical ideas. His commitment to the American and French Revolutions, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of Ireland was expressed with full-blown rhetoric, high emotion and biting wit. He was unlucky to have been a politician in an era of reaction in his own country; he was fortunate that there were models of political reform overseas to whose ultimate realisation he would contribute.
Sheridan’s composer once told him that he was afraid to write. ‘Of what am I afraid?’ Sheridan asked. ‘You are afraid,’ Michael Kelly replied, ‘of the author of The School for Scandal.’ It is the kind of thing that people say to writers who have stopped writing and chosen to do something more immediately practical in the world. Chedzoy quotes the London Evening Post of 8 May 1777, noting that ‘on Tuesday last, Mrs Sheridan was delivered of a child still born,’ while, with The School for Scandal, ‘Mr Sheridan’s muse was delivered of a fine chopping female, likely to live for ever.’ All three biographers describe the black farce of Eliza Sheridan’s funeral 15 years later, with gaping, irreverent crowds hampering what turned out to be the cortège’s 12-hour journey from the Sheridans’ home to Wells Cathedral. And both O’Toole and Kelly note how, at the last, the Establishment seized the dead Sheridan himself, laying him not (as he would have wished) beside his political hero Charles James Fox, but in Poets’ Corner.
Shortly before he died, Sheridan threatened his former mistress Lady Bessborough that he would return from death to haunt her. Why, she asked, after persecuting her all his life, would he want to continue doing so from beyond the grave. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘I am resolved you should remember me.’ Most of the great political questions which Sheridan addressed are long since resolved (with the single exception of the land of his birth). But if, by contrast, his plays are for all time, it’s because they were in a sense written outside time, and were the lesser for it.