Scandal in the Making

Richard Brinsley Sheridan and The School for Scandal

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, actor, duelist, theater manager, playwright and risk taker was born in Dublin in October 1751. He attended the prestigious Harrow School, where he mixed with the sons of the titled and wealthy, and learned how to use a sword at fashionable Angelo’s fencing rooms. This came in very useful when, after falling in love with the beautiful, talented singer Elizabeth Linley, who was only 16 years old, he fought two duels defending her honor before the couple eloped. These early dramas in Sheridan’s life would stand him in good stead for his future career as playwright and theater owner for, as the saying goes, “Any publicity is good publicity!”

Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Elizabeth Linley Sheridan

The newly married Sheridans set up house in Orchard Street, Portman Square, a most fashionable part of town, and entertained on a lavish scale without the means to do so. But the Georgian Age was the age of credit, and so the Sheridans lived on their wit and conversation, owing others money to provide a good table for their many friends and acquaintances. What Sheridan lacked in money he more than made up for in self-belief. And that he had in abundance. He also had Elizabeth’s one thousand pound dowry, which he put to good use investing in his abilities on and off the stage! Armed with his Harrovian connections and his “celebrity” as a twice-wounded and successful duelist, who had eloped and married a very beautiful and well-known singer, the playwright staged his first play at Convent Garden in 1775.

The Rivals was a first night failure, blamed on the actor playing Sir Lucius O’Trigger, rather than the script, but it did showcase Sheridan’s satirical comedic wit. Indeed, with revision and a new Sir Lucius, the play became a success. With the character of Mrs. Malaprop, Sheridan achieved an unsurpassed creative and quite idiosyncratic character that lives on today in the term malapropism, meaning ‘the misuse of similar sounding words, especially with humorous results”.

Here are a few of Mrs. Malaprop’s malapropisms (with correct word in square brackets]:

Celia Imrie as Mrs. Malaprop

“He is the very pineapple of politeness!” [pinnacle]

“I am sure I have done everything in my power since I exploded the affair.” [exposed]

“…promise to forget this fellow, to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.” [obliterate]

“…she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” [alligator]

With the success of The Rivals, Sheridan next produced a comic opera with the help of his father-in-law. The Duenna played 75 times at Covent Garden during the season of 1775. But Sheridan wanted more than the success of one season. He was confident in his ability to not only write plays but to successfully manage an entire theater and its productions. Others had confidence in him too, and he was able to convince his father-in-law Thomas Linley and Dr. Ford to pay a half share of 35,000 pounds in the Royal Theatre, Drury Lane. What did Sheridan contribute? A mere 1,300 pounds cash; the rest of the 10,000 he raised on mortgage. Yet, Sheridan’s friends and relations knew they were on to a good thing because Sheridan could write, direct and produce wonderful plays!

In AUTUMN DUCHESS, my hero, East India merchant Jonathon Strang, knows a thing or two about investments. After all, he is a wealthy self-made man. He’s read Sheridan’s play The Rivals (he was in India so did not see the performance), and so when the opportunity arises to invest in Sheridan’s next major play, The School for Scandal, Jonathon jumps at the chance. Not only does he invest in the play, he is confident that his friend’s play will be a huge success. Jonathon has the script copied out for Antonia before the play is produced, hoping that if she reads the play through it will persuade her to accompany him to the opening night.

Naturally, Antonia recognizes Sheridan’s genius in The School for Scandal. Yet, she hesitates to accompany Jonathon to the play’s opening night. After all, she has not been seen in public since the death of her beloved Duke three years earlier. Antonia knows as well as Jonathon that sharing a public box with him at Drury Lane Theatre will not only be an open declaration of their relationship but also create just the sort of malicious gossip rife in fashionable London society that Sheridan brilliantly satirizes in The School for Scandal.

So how was Sheridan’s comedy of manners, The School for Scandal, received by London’s theater-going public on opening night 8 May 1777? Did Jonathon make a wise investment? Was Sheridan’s self-confidence in his own abilities as playwright and theater manager justified?

Absolutely! It is still considered one of the most engaging high comedies in the English language, with wonderfully funny scenes. I won’t go into plot detail here, any Google search will give you that, or better still, read the play for yourself.

Alan Howard with Matilda Ziegler in
Deborah Warner’s production of
The School for Scandal at the Barbican

Suffice for me to say that The School for Scandal is Sheridan’s most brilliant work. Employing his satirical wit, Sheridan shows the psychology and vices of the polite world of fashion for what it truly is: In 1770’s London Society, conversation as a fine art form has been turned into a competition by drawing room layabouts and the “intellectually unemployed”, who use intrigue and jealousy to amuse themselves at the expense of others. Lady Sneerwell and Sir Benjamin Backbite typify incorrigible scandalmongers; Charles Surface is the centre of a circle demoralized by extravagance; Sir Peter Teazle means well but is soured by contact with many backbiters and rendered ridiculous by Lady Teazle, his young wife, who is considered one of Sheridan’s best creations. But for all that, as William Hazlitt, that great critic and essayist of the late 18th Century, observed, “[The School for Scandal] has a genial spirit of frankness and generosity about it”.

The greatest stage actor of the 20th Century, Sir Laurence Olivier admitted to being drawn more instinctively to an understanding of the spirit of Sheridan than anyone else, declaring, “Few will dispute that The School for Scandal is the most brilliant comedy that has been given the world.”

References

http://www.bartleby.com/221/1208.html The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21) Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley, The School for Scandal, [with an Introduction by Sir Laurence Olivier and designs for décor & costumes by Cecil Beaton], The Folio Society, London, 1949

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_School_for_Scandal The School for Scandal

ImageYou can read more about Antonia, Dowager Duchess of Roxton and her suitor, East India Merchant Jonathon Strang in AUTUMN DUCHESS: A Georgian Historical Romance. (Roxton Series Book 3). Out now in print and e-book.

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2 thoughts on “Scandal in the Making

    • You’re welcome, Lauren! How wonderful you had the opportunity to see a performance of School for Scandal. There is nothing quite like a theatre production of a Sheridan play, is there?

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