Three Plays by Sheridan

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, painted by Karl Anton Hickel in 1793.

Left with a bit of spare time after handing in a draft of a conference paper, I decided to refamiliarise myself with some of the plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. I’d picked up the Penguin Classics The School for Scandal and Other Plays secondhand in Oxford, on the basis that I probably should own copies of not just The School for Scandal, but The Rivals and The Critic too, as at least two out of three of these plays (sorry, The Critic) are amongst the vanishingly small pieces of eighteenth-century drama still taught and studied nowadays. This post will give my responses to all three plays, largely as they occurred to me.

The Rivals

I knew about Lydia’s mother, Mrs Malaprop, before I’d ever read this play, as I’d seen the term ‘malapropism’ used to describe (anachronistically) the verbal bungles of such Shakespearean characters as Elbow and Dogberry. It’s possible that Sheridan was in fact inspired by Shakespeare for Mrs Malaprop, but there are many other potential sources for her verbal oddities. As well as being very funny on stage, and still pretty comic on the page, I was also struck by how close the malapropisms were to being irony, those moments where the manifestly wrong word might also be the right one. When telling Sir Anthony Absolute (father to Lydia’s lover Captain Jack Absolute, or Beverley) of the dangers of Lydia’s affection for the apparently low-born Beverley, Mrs Malaprop says, “[Lydia] should have be mistress of orthodoxy [i.e. orthography], that she might not misspell, and mispronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend [i.e. comprehend] the true meaning of what she is saying.” As well as the irony of Mrs Malaprop raging against mispronunciation, the error of “reprehend” for “comprehend” is heavily ironic in that, as far as Mrs Malaprop is concerned, if Lydia comprehended what she was doing, she would have reprehended herself.

Elsie Leslie as Lydia Languish, 1899.

Soon after this scene, Sir Antony leaves, and, upon Mrs Malaprop’s departure, it is left to the servant Lucy to close the act. She does so with a machiavellian soliloquy on the subject of “to what account I have turned my simplicity recently”, lifting her “mask of silliness” to end this part of the play with a flourish. Such a revelation also fits with previous events, where character after character has spoken to us of deception, whether it be Fag revealing how Captain Absolute has disguised himself as Beverley, or the strange case of Mrs Malaprop signing herself as ‘Delia’ in letters to woo Sir Lucius. This way of ending an act with a bang fits with eighteenth-century stage practice, where up to four intervals (and their entertainments) would severely disturb the course of the show – all the more so if audiences couldn’t remember how the last act ended. Thus we have Lucy telling Fag that Sir Antony wants to force his son to marry the very woman Captain Absolute has been wooing in disguise at the end of second act, while the last lines of the third and fourth acts all look forward to oncoming action.

Such endings to each act are part of the pacing of the play, and I was struck as I read by how long Sheridan makes us wait before we witness a scene with ‘Beverley’ in it. This is similar to the length of time we have to wait to see Charles Surface in The School for Scandal, and in both cases, the wait allows anticipation (not to mention the moral stakes) to rise, as we listen to various reports on the character’s activity. After having made them wait for a ‘Beverley’ scene, Sheridan then toys with the audience again by having the collapse of Captain Absolute’s disguise occur in the fourth act, well before the dénouement of the play. This is a stroke of genius, in that it is not expected, and in that it allows a great development of the character of Lydia, whose first response to the fact that both the man she loved and the man she has to marry are the same is, “[sullenly] So! – there will be no elopement after all!”

While the main plot of The Rivals always keeps you on your toes with its (collapsing) layers of deceit, I still find the Julia-Faulkland subplot weak. Neither character is interesting, and the mockery of sentimental gentlemen in the character of Faulkland has little bite. The best example of what I mean occurs in the final few lines of the play, as the two happy couples (Captain Absolute and Lydia, Julia and Faulkland) stand on stage:

ABSOLUTE: Well, Faulkland, we have both tasted the bitters as well as the sweets of love – with this difference only, that you always prepared the bitter cup for yourself, while I –
LYDIA: – Was always obliged to me for it, hey! Mr Modesty? – But come, no more of that – our unhappiness is now as unallayed as general.
JULIA: Then let us study to preserve it so: and while hope pictures to us a flattering scene of future bliss, let us deny its pencil those colours which are too bright to be lasting. When hearts deserving happiness would unite their fortunes, virtue would crown them with an unfading garland of modest, hurtless flowers; but ill-judging passion will force the gaudier rose into the wreath, whose thorn offends them, when its leaves are dropped!

Lydia and Absolute are lively, joking, knowing; Julia comes off as sententious and sentimental. Of course, the speech can be played for laughs, but only at the expense of Julia’s character. At least it shows that she and Faulkland are suited to each other.

One other thing at the end of the play, once all the excitement of the duels is over, caught my eye: the sad state of Mrs Malaprop, whose disguise as Delia collapses and leaves Sir Lucius appalled that he had been tricked by a pseudonym into writing to Lydia’s mother and not to Lydia herself. Sir Anthony offers a bone of comfort when he tells her, “Come, Mrs Malaprop, don’t be cast down – you are in your bloom yet”, but all he gets in reply is Mrs Malaprop’s judgement that “men are all barbarians”. This brief interchange balances the sweetness of the play’s conclusion: Mrs Malaprop may have been ridiculous, but her deceptions were still very similar to those of Captain Absolute’s; the difference between the woman’s fate and the man’s leaves much to mull over at the play’s conclusion.

The Critic

Compared to my jottings on the pages of The Rivals (I’m an inveterate annotator, so much so I was involved in a project to annotate the internet), there are vast areas of The Critic unadorned with my scribble. In the first act, I only picked up a particular way Sheridan has of showing Dangle’s ineptitude. As Signor Pasticcio and his daughters sing to the critics Sneer and Dangle, a stage direction informs us that Dangle is “beating out of time”. This doesn’t stop him exclaiming in pigeon-Italian, “Bravo! admirable! bravissimo! admirablissimo!” at the song’s conclusion.

Apart from this brief moment of brilliance, things only really warmed up in this short, three-act play, when the writer Puff comes on stage. He launches into an anatomy of ‘puffs’ (i.e. publicity):


Perhaps I liked this send-up of the eighteenth-century press because it reminded me of a passage from a Shakespeare play almost certainly known to Sheridan, As You Like It:

TOUCHSTONE: O sir, we quarrel in print, by the book; as you have books for good manners: I will name you the degrees. The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheque Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct. All these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too, with an If.

I guess Sheridan liked this device too, as he also uses it in The Rivals, when the hapless suitor Acres gives a theory of swearing:

[…] a commander in our militia – a great scholar, I assure you -says that there is no meaning in the common oaths, and that nothing but their antiquity makes them respectable; becasue, he says the ancient would ever stick to an oath or two, but would say by Jove! or by Bacchus! or by Mars! or by Venus! or by Pallas! according to the sentiment – so that to swear with propriety, says my little major, the ‘oath should be an echo to the sense’; and this we call the oath referential, or sentimental swearing.

Leaving this inspired mix of Pope, Shakespeare and an oaf behind us, but returning to Puff, I have to admit that this character is also responsible for much of the charm of the third and final act of The Critic. As Sneer and Dangle watch Puff’s bombastic tragedy, the writer keeps up a running commentary, containing such gems as the explanation that “by that shake of the head, he [the actor playing Burleigh] gave you to understand that even though they had more justice in their cause and wisdom in their measures […] the country would at last fall a sacrifice to the hostile ambition of the Spanish monarchy”. The very last lines of the play are also Puff’s, and make for a kind of reverse epilogue, in that – instead of appealing for the audience’s approbation of a finished play – they inform the public, through Sneer and Dangle, that the same play will appear again tomorrow in order to improve it. That this is one of the best lines of the entire work perhaps explains why I found it lacking.

Well, pretty well, – but not quite perfect – so ladies and gentlemen, if you pleae, we’ll rehearse this piece again tomorrow.

The School for Scandal

Miss Chester as Lady Teazle, 1828.

This play has the best prologue of all three in this edition, not least because it endearingly lays out the weaknesses of the work, namely that the “devil” of scandal “is sooner raised than laid”. Despite that, the author promises, as “young Don Quixote” to seek the “hydra” scandal, and, in a well-turned couplet, “fight – that’s write – cavalliero true, / Till every drop of blood – that’s ink – is spilt for you.” After this, the action begins in the house of Lady Sneerwell, to which – sooner or later – almost every character repairs in this course of the first scene. This makes for an efficient, if heavy-handed, exposition. Sheridan manages suspicion of artifice by having Maria despair that Crabtree and Backbite have followed her to Lady Sneerwell’s, an exclamation that transforms our awareness of the need to show all the characters into sympathy for Maria’s feelings of entrapment.

There’s a lot to say about The School for Scandal, so I’ll focus here on one particular thread. As with The Rivals, this is a play about deception, but, at the same time, Sheridan seems keen to show how beneficial illusion might be. I’ll quote three examples. The returning Sir Oliver (like Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure – sorry, can’t help myself) puts himself in disguise to see how his wards, Charles and Joseph Surface, are getting on. Yet even before he meets Charles, he discovers that the very process of transforming into a moneylender reveals the baseness of his mentor, the usurer Moses, who counsels Sir Oliver unscrupulously to “ask double” interest on any loan he makes.

My second example comes from the famous farce in Act Four, when Joseph, enjoying an intimate meeting with Lady Teazle is interrupted first by Sir Peter Teazle and then by Charles Surface. With each new arrival, Joseph manages to hide the previous occupant somewhere in the room, until – inevitably – the entire deception collapses. Sheridan times this to perfection, and has Lady Teazle (who, since she was hidden the longest, has overheard the most) exclaim that she now sees straight through the duplicitous Joseph, since his “own arts have furnished her with the means.”

My final example of this strange phenomenon is Sir Oliver’s meeting with Joseph at the start of the fifth act. Sir Oliver is now disguised as Mr Stanley, a man down on his luck. Joseph fobs his requests off with a pack of lies, yet this deceit, since it is being deployed in the face of Sir Oliver’s own deception of Joseph, is turned to good: Sir Oliver is convinced of Joseph’s perfidity and Charles’ character is saved. Two falsehoods make a right.

This pattern, whereby one character’s deceptions lead to a larger revelation when confronted with a different kind of illusion, sits oddly with the play’s mockery of scandal, which is of course itself a kind of falsehood. There may be a larger point to make here about the correct and incorrect uses of falsity (given that Sir Oliver’s tricks are always moral, while few of the antics of others are), but Sheridan is wise enough to see the potential for comedy in those moments where illusion and misinformation are exposed. As rumours swirl of a gunfight, and the maiming of Sir Peter Teazle (not to mention policeman killed by a ricochet), who comes on stage but Sir Peter, “walking as if nothing at all was the matter.”

I’ll conclude this long post on Sheridan’s plays here, for – even more so than the way The School for Scandal neatly comes full circle to finish with Snake and Lady Sneerwell – the skill with which the simple entry of Sir Peter back onto the stage, with nothing at all wrong or unusual about him, has been made into such a great comic moment offers a strong argument for these plays still to be read today.

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