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Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

The British playwright and orator Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) wrote two comic masterpieces for the stage, The Rivals and The School for Scandal. In his own time, Sheridan was equally celebrated as a great Whig orator.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Oct. 30, 1751. His father, Thomas, was an actor and theater manager; his mother, Frances, was the author of novels and plays. The family moved to London in 1758, and Sheridan was educated at Harrow (1762-1768). His first publication, a joint effort with a school friend, N.B. Halhead, was a metrical translation of Aristaenatus (1771). With this friend Sheridan also wrote his first play, a farce called Jupiter, which was rejected by both David Garrick and Samuel Foote.

Courtship and Marriage

In 1770 the Sheridans moved to Bath. There Richard, his brother Charles, and his friend Halhead were among the many who fell in love with a beautiful young singer, Elizabeth Linley. The most importunate of her admirers was a Capt. or Maj. Mathews. Terrified by his persecutions, she decided to seek shelter in a French convent, and Sheridan offered to protect her on her journey. In March 1772 they fled to France and were secretly married there. Leaving her at the convent, Sheridan returned to England and fought two duels with Mathews. Elizabeth was brought back to Bath by her father, and Sheridan was sent to London by his, but on April 13, 1773, they were allowed to marry openly.

Though at first the young couple had nothing to live on except a small dowry, in January 1775 Sheridan solved the problem of their support with the production of The Rivals at Convent Garden. A comedy of manners that blended brilliant wit with 18th-century sensibility, it became and remained a great successes. One measure of its popularity was that it gave a new word to the English language, "malapropism," based on Mrs. Malaprop's mistakes.

The year 1775 was a productive one for Sheridan. In May his farce, St. Patrick's Day, or the Scheming Lieutenant, was performed, and in November Sheridan's comic opera, The Duenna, was produced with the help of his wife's father at Covent Garden. A son, Thomas, was also born to the Sheridans in 1775.

Drury Lane

In June 1776 Sheridan purchased Garrick's share of the Drury Lane Theater and became its manager. No fault can be found with his theatrical sense, but misfortunes and financial carelessness plagued him in this career. At first, however, Sheridan prospered, and 2 years after purchasing Garrick's interest he was able (with his partners) to buy the other half of the theater.

On May 8, 1777, Sheridan presented his new play, The School for Scandal. It was immediately, and throughout Sheridan's management, the most successful piece in the repertory of the Drury Lane. This comedy is an ingenious blending of two plots, one concerning the young, country-bred wife of a middle-aged husband who is taught town manners by a "school" of scandalmongers, the other concerning the amorous and financial adventures of the Surface brothers, whose contrasting reputations also contrast with their true characters.

In October 1779 Sheridan produced the last play of his own authorship, The Critic, in which he deftly mocked the follies of everyone, from playwright to spectator, connected with the theater. Though he continued as manager of Drury Lane, and though, in 1799, he had a hand in translations of two German plays, Pizarroand The Stranger at the age of 28 Sheridan had virtually completed the first of his careers.

Parliamentary Career

Sheridan had long been sympathetic to the position of Charles James Fox and his fellow Whigs; his first service to that party was his extensive contributions to their periodical, the Englishman (March 13-June 2, 1779). In October 1780 Sheridan entered Parliament as the member for Stafford.

It soon became apparent that the Whigs had another great orator to add to Edmund Burke and Fox. In 1782 and 1783 Fox's friends briefly held office, and Sheridan was respectively undersecretary for foreign affairs and a secretary of the Treasury. His greatest orations, however, were delivered in the 7-year impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings, the first governor general of British India.

On Feb. 7, 1787, Sheridan spoke for 5 hours on the crimes of Hastings against the begums (princesses) of Oudh. A typical response to this speech was that of a Mr. Logan, who, before he heard it, had written a spirited defense of Hastings. After the first hour Logan remarked, "All this is declamatory assertion without proof"; after the second, "This is a most wonderful oration"; after the third, "Mr. Hastings has acted very unjustifiably"; after the fourth, "Mr. Hastings is a most atrocious criminal"; and at the end, "Of all monsters of iniquity the most enormous is Warren Hastings!" Many of Sheridan's other parliamentary addresses were also greatly admired, but few of them were preserved.

A friend of the Prince of Wales (later George IV), an ally of Fox, an independent after Fox's death, Sheridan was treasurer of the navy in the Whig administration of 1806. In 1804 the prince had appointed him receiver of the duchy of Cornwall, and in 1808 Sheridan at last began to benefit from this office. But his fortunes were on the decline, and in 1812 he lost his seat in Parliament.

Sheridan's first wife died in 1792, and in 1795 he married Esther Jane Ogle. In 1792-1794 Sheridan had to rebuild Drury Lane Theatre, incurring great debts. In 1809 it burned. The theater was again rebuilt, by subscription, but Sheridan did not receive enough for his share to prevent his being harassed by creditors before his death on July 7, 1816. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Further Reading

The most complete modern edition of Sheridan's works is The Plays and Poems of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, edited by Raymond C. Rhodes (3 vols., 1928). The Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (3 vols., 1966) were well edited by Cecil Price.

The earliest relatively impartial biography was by Irish poet Thomas Moore, Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan (2 vols., 1825), which omits some of the information made available by Sheridan's family. Early accounts by John Watkins, Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of … Richard Brinsley Sheridan (2 vols., 1817), and by William Smyth, Memoir of Mr. Sheridan (1840), started many false and scandalous stories. Sheridan's sister, Alicia Lefanu, replied to Watkins in her biography of her mother, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mrs. Frances Sheridan, Mother of … Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1824). Of the later accounts, recommended are those of William F. Rae, Sheridan: A Biography (2 vols., 1896), and Walter S. Sichel, Sheridan, from New and Original Material (2 vols., 1909). Raymond Rhodes wrote the most substantial critical study, Harlequin Sheridan: The Man and the Legends (1933). A good brief study is William A. Darlington, Sheridan (1933). □

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Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751–1816)

SHERIDAN, RICHARD BRINSLEY (17511816)

SHERIDAN, RICHARD BRINSLEY (17511816), Irish playwright, theater manager, and politician. Sheridan was born in Dublin shortly before 4 November 1751, the day when he was baptized. His father was Thomas Sheridan, an Irish Protestant actor and theater manager; his mother was Frances Sheridan, who became well known as a writer of novels, including The Memoirs of Miss Sydney Biddulph (1761) and the Oriental tale The History of Nourjahad (1767).

The family moved to England, where Sheridan attended, and disliked, Harrow School, until 1770 when he left and moved, again with his family, to Bath. Early efforts at writing included Jupiter, a farce that prefigures The Critic and that was rejected for production by Sheridan's future colleague David Garrick; verse for the Bath Chronicle; and fragments of political essays. In Bath he met and eloped with the singer Eliza Linley (17541795), but the validity of their marriage was contested by both families and by another admirer of Linley's with whom Sheridan fought two duels. Although the families eventually dropped their opposition to the marriage, Sheridan remained very short of money, having moved to London to study law in 1773.

His first play was the comedy The Rivals, staged at Covent Garden in January 1775. It is a polished and urbane "comedy of manners" whose satirical targets include the corruption of language by Mrs. Malaprop (who famously describes another character as "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile"), and the corruption of morals in the contemporary cult of "sentimentality." After a near failure on the first night, it went on to achieve spectacular success and to bring Sheridan both money and aristocratic contacts. Sheridan went on to write a string of brilliant and successful comedies: The farce St. Patrick's Day was produced in May 1775 and The Duenna, an operatic play, followed in November 1775. In 1776 Sheridan became manager and part-owner of the Drury Lane Theatre. A Trip to Scarborough, a loose adaptation of John Vanbrugh's comedy The Relapse, was staged there in 1777, followed in May of that year by the classic comedy The School for Scandal in which a hypocritical "man of feeling" is contrasted with his rakish but good-hearted younger brother in a comedy set in the world of newspaper columns and society gossip. In 1779 Sheridan became the sole owner of the Drury Lane Theatre, where he produced The Critic, or A Tragedy Rehearsed in the same year.

1780 marked a turning point in Sheridan's career: he spent over £1000 securing election as a member of Parliament for Stafford and ceased to write for the theater. A political ally of Charles James Fox and the Whigs, he joined the government in 1782 as the undersecretary of foreign affairs, and in 1783 became secretary of the treasury. His most famous parliamentary interventions, however, related to the impeachment of Warren Hastings, governor of India. A particular facet of the case related to the Begums of Oude, whom Hastings was alleged to have unlawfully deprived of their property: Sheridan discussed the case in a five-hour speech on 7 February 1787 that even his opponents acknowledged as "the most splendid display of eloquence and talent which has been exhibited in the House of Commons during the present reign" (Bingham, p. 237). Politically, Sheridan also argued against the Act of Union, and against press censorship.

However, Sheridan himself was sinking into debt. The Drury Lane Theatre was declared unsafe in 1792 and had to be demolished; Sheridan himself borrowed the money for the building of a new theater on the site. After the death of his first wife, Sheridan married in 1795 the nineteen-year-old Esther Ogle, daughter of the dean of Winchester. In 1799 Sheridan even returned to dramatic writing, and his tragedy Pizarro, an adaptation from August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue's The Spaniards in Peru, earned enough money to gain him a brief financial reprieve; but in 1802, with debts on all sides, the Drury Lane Theatre went into receivership. At the same time, his political career was stalling.

In the 1806 "ministry of all the talents," Sheridan was made treasurer of the navy, but this relatively minor post did not carry cabinet rank. In 1809 the new Drury Lane Theatre burned down. Although, characteristically, he was able to joke about ithe is said to have watched from a nearby coffeehouse, remarking, "a man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside"the fire made his financial ruin unavoidable and marked the end of his ownership of the theater. Sheridan had been a friend of Prince George (later King George IV) and should have benefited from George's elevation to Prince Regent in 1811, but the prince's favor proved short-lived. The following year Sheridan lost his seat in Parliament, and although the prince supplied him with £3000 to buy his way back in, Sheridan spent the money clearing personal debts. In 1813 Sheridan was again imprisoned for debt. He lived in poverty and alcoholism until his death on 7 July 1816.

See also Drama: English ; English Literature and Language ; Hastings, Warren .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Edited by Cecil Price. 2 vols. Oxford, 1973.

. The Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Edited by Cecil Price. 3 vols. Oxford, 1966.

Secondary Sources

Bingham, Madeleine. Sheridan: The Track of a Comet. London, 1972.

Morwood, James, and David Crane, eds. Sheridan Studies. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995.

O'Toole, Fintan. A Traitor's Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 17511816. London, 1997.

Matthew Steggle

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Sheridan, Richard Brinsley

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1751–1816, English dramatist and politician, b. Dublin. His father, Thomas Sheridan, was an actor and teacher of elocution and his mother, Frances Sheridan, published two novels and a successful play. Sheridan was educated by tutors and at Harrow. After his elopement in 1773 with Elizabeth, daughter of the composer Thomas Linley, Sheridan began writing for the theater and in 1776 became part owner and director of the Drury Lane Theatre. His masterpieces are The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777), comedies of manners that blend the brilliant wit of the Restoration with 18th-century sensibility. Both plays affectionately satirize fashionable society with its materialism, gossip, and hypocrisy. Although each ridicules sentimentalism, neither is itself entirely free of that attribute. The Critic (1779) was a dramatic burlesque modeled on The Rehearsal by the 2d duke of Buckingham. Sheridan's other works include the comic opera The Duenna (1775) and A Trip to Scarborough (1777), an adaptation of The Relapse by Vanbrugh. Entering Parliament in 1780, he allied himself with the Whigs and became one of the most brilliant orators of his time. He played a prominent part in the impeachment of Warren Hastings and with Charles James Fox defended the French Revolution. During the course of his political career he was secretary of the treasury (1783), treasurer of the navy (1806), and member of the Privy Council (1806). A close friend of the prince regent, he was a leader of London society. The burning in 1809 of the new Drury Lane Theatre virtually ruined Sheridan financially. He was arrested and imprisoned for debt in 1813. After his death, he was given a splendid funeral by his wealthy former friends.

See his plays ed. by C. Price (2 vol., 1973); his letters ed. by C. Price (3 vol., 1966); biographies by W. Sichel (1909), M. Bingham (1972), and F. O'Toole (1998); M. S. Auburn, Sheridan's Comedies (1977); J. Loftis, Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England (1977).

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Sheridan, Richard Brinsley

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751–1816). The son of an Irish actor, Sheridan achieved fame as both dramatist and politician, making his way by merit, with the additional advantage of influential friends, notably Charles Fox and the prince of Wales. Sheridan's major works were all produced before entering Parliament in 1780: The Rivals (1775), The Duenna (1775), The School for Scandal (1777), and The Critic (1779). ‘Sheridan’, according to Horace Walpole, was ‘one of the most perfect comic writers … his plots are sufficiently deep, without clumsy entanglement’ and his ‘characters strictly in nature—wit without affectation’.

Sheridan was a superb political orator, achieving fame during the campaign against Warren Hastings; one memorable speech, on 8 February 1787, lasted an astonishing 5 hours and 40 minutes. For all his ability, Sheridan never attained cabinet rank, and served only as under-secretary at the Foreign Office (1782), Treasury secretary (1783), and treasurer of the navy (1806–7). His predominant loyalty was to Fox; but Sheridan's intrigues in the Regency crisis were not approved. Mutual antagonism between Sheridan and Burke contributed to the disintegration of the Whig Party in the 1790s, with Sheridan flaunting his admiration for the French principles Burke despised. Sheridan never became the revolutionary some anticipated, and was a patriot with regard to Napoleonic France. His private life was eventful, even disreputable: he cheated openly on both his wives, drank to excess, and borrowed extensively from friends. He died in straitened circumstances, caused partly by losses incurred from his involvement with Drury Lane theatre.

David Wilkinson

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Sheridan, Richard Brinsley

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751–1816) English dramatist and politician. He excelled in comedies of manners, such as The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777). Entering Parliament as a member of the Whigs in 1780, he became one of the most brilliant orators of his generation.

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