1902 Encyclopedia > Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Irish playwright and Whig statesman

RICHARD BRINSLEY BUTLER SHERIDAN (1751-1816), second son of Thomas and Frances Sheridan, was born in Dublin in September 1751. Moore records for the encouragement of slow boys that the future dramatist was " by common consent of parent and preceptor pronounced an impenetrable dunce." The plain fact is that the expression occurs in a smart letter about him and his sister, written by his mother to a schoolmaster. Mrs Sheridan wrote that she had been the only instructor of her children hitherto, and that they would exercise the schoolmaster in the quality of patience, "for two such impenetrable dunces she had never met with." One of the children thus humorously described was Bichard Brinsley, and the age of the " impenetrable dunce " at the time was seven. At the age of eleven he was sent to Harrow. There, to please orthodox biographers, he gave no such sign of future eminence as is implied in taking a high place in school. Dr Parr, who was one of his masters, "saw in him vestiges of a superior intellect," but, though he " did not fail to probe and tease him," by no harassing or tormenting process could he incite the indolent boy to greater industry than was "just sufficient to save him from disgrace." But these facts about young Sheridan's determined indolence in the study of Latin and Greek should be taken in connexion with his father's peculiar theories on the subject of English education. The father's theories possibly did not encourage the son to learn Latin and Greek. Why, with his views on the unprofitableness of those studies, he sent his younger son to Harrow, is not obvious; but it was probably as much for social as for educational reasons. If so, the purpose was answered, for Sheridan was extremely popular at school, winning somehow, Dr Parr confesses, " the esteem and even admiration of all his schoolfellows," and giving a foretaste of his mysterious powers of getting things done for him by making the younger boys steal apples for his own private store and good-humouredly defying the masters to trace the theft home to him.

Sheridan left Harrow at the age of seventeen, having impressed his schoolfellows at least, who are sometimes better judges than their masters, with a vivid sense of his powers. It was probably his father's design to send him afterwards to Oxford, but the family circumstances were too straitened to permit of it, and the educationist, who had just then returned from France, and was about to launch his appeal to the king on behalf of his new plan of education, took his son home and himself directed and superintended his studies. What his plans were for his brilliant son's future we have no means of knowing, but the probability is that, if the projected academy had become an accomplished fact, he would have tried to make Richard Brinsley an upper master in some one of its numerous departments. There are traces of method in the superficially harum-scarum Irishman's courses, and it looks as if he had intended both of his sons to help him in the magnificent project from which his sanguine temperament expected such great things,—the elder, who had been with him in France, in what would now be called the modern side, and the classically educated younger in the ancient side. Meantime, pending His Majesty's resolution on the projector's offer, Brinsley, besides being trained by his father daily in elocution, and put through a course of English reading in accordance with the system, received the accomplishments of a young man of fashion, had fencing and riding lessons at Angelo's, and began to eat terms at the Middle Temple. His destination apparently was the bar, if fortune should deny him the more glorious career of lieutenant in the new academy through which young England was to be regenerated.

As to how young Sheridan, with a cooler head to regulate his hot Irish blood, looked at his father's grand schemes, we have no record. But it is of importance to remember those schemes, and the exact stage they had now reached, in connexion with the accepted view of Sheridan's behaviour at this time, which represents him as a mere idler, hanging on at Lome like an ordinary ne'er-do-well, too indolent to work for any profession, simply enjoying himself and trusting recklessly to chance for some means of livelihood. The fact would seem to be that over and above whatever he did in the way of qualifying himself for a regular career—which possibly was little enough —he began from this time with fundamentally steady purpose to follow the bent of his genius. After leaving Harrow he kept up a correspondence with a school friend who had gone to Oxford. With this youth, whose name was Halhed, he had not competed for school honours; but both had dreams of higher things; and now they concocted together various literary plans, and between them actually executed and published metrical translations of Aristaenetus _—an obscure Greek or pseudo-Greek author brought to light or invented at the Renaissance, a writer of imaginary amorous epistles. The two literary partners translated his prose into verse which has the qualities of lightness, neatness, and wit, and is in no respect unworthy of being the apprentice-work of Sheridan.

In conjunction with the same young friend he began a farce entitled Jupiter. It was not completed, but the fragment is of interest as containing the same device of a rehearsal which was afterwards worked out with such brilliant effect in The Critic. Some of the dialogue is very much in Sheridan's mature manner. It would seem indeed that at this time, idle as he appeared, Sheridan was deliberately exercising his powers and preparing himself for future triumphs. Moore's theory is that his seeming indolence was but a mask; and extracts given from papers written in the seven years between his leaving Harrow and the appearance of The Rivals—sketches of unfinished plays, poems, political letters, and pamphlets—show that he was far from idle. He was never much of a reader ; he preferred, as he said, to sit and think—a process more favourable to originality than always having a book in his hand ; but we may well believe that he kept his eyes open, and his father's connexion with fashionable society gave him abundant opportunities. The removal of the family to Bath in 1771 extended his field of observation. Anstey's New Bath Guide had just been published and had greatly stimulated interest in the comedy of life at this fashionable watering-place.

Presently, too, already a favourite in Bath society from his charming manners and his skill as a writer of graceful and witty verses, the youth played a part in the living comedy which at once made him a marked man. There was in Bath a celebrated musical family—"a nest of nightingales,"—the daughters of the composer Linley, the head of his profession in the fashionable town. The eldest daughter, a girl of sixteen, the prima donna of her father's concerts, was exceedingly beautiful, and very much run after by suitors, young and old, honourable and dishonourable. In the latter class was a Captain Mathews, a married man; in the former, young Sheridan. Mathews had artfully won the girl's affections, and persecuted her with his importunities, threatening to destroy himself if she refused him. To protect her from this scoundrel's designs the younger lover, who seems to have acted at first only as a confidential friend, conceived the romantic plan of escorting Miss Linley to a nunnery in France. After performing this chivalrous duty he returned and fought two duels with Mathews, which made a considerable sensation at the time. The youthful pair had gone through the ceremony of marriage in the course of their flight, but Sheridan chivalrously did not claim his wife, kept the marriage secret, and was sternly denied access to Miss Linley by her father, who did not consider the professionless young man an eligible suitor. Ultimately, after a courtship romantic enough to have satisfied Lydia Languish, they were openly married in April 1773; Sheridan's daring start in life after this happy marriage showed a confidence in his genius which was justified by its success. Although he had no income, and no capital beyond a few thousand pounds brought by his wife, he took a house in Orchard Street, Portman Square, furnished it " in the most costly style," and proceeded to return on something like an equal footing the hospitalities of the fashionable world. His wife—" the celebrated Miss Linley"—was a most popular singer, but he would not allow her to appear in public. She was to be heard only at private concerts in their own house, and her beauty and accomplishments combined with her husband's wit to draw crowds of fashionable people to their entertainments. Sheridan's conduct may have been youthful pride and recklessness, the thoughtless magnificence of a strong and confident nature; all the same, it answered the purpose of deep-laid and daring policy. When remonstrated with by a friend, and asked how he found the means of supporting such a costly establishment, he is said to have answered— "My dear friend, it is my means." And so it proved, for his social standing and popularity helped to get a favourable start for his first comedy, The Rivals, produced at Covent Garden on the 17th January 1775.

The Rivals is said to have been not so favourably received on its first night, owing to its length and to the bad playing of the part of Sir Lucius O'Trigger. But the defects were remedied before the second performance, and the piece at once took that place on the stage which it has never lost. It was the last season but one of Garrick's long career, and the current story preserved by Moore is that the run upon Covent Garden was such as to alarm the veteran of Drury Lane and drive him to extraordinary exertions to counterbalance the attractions of the new play. This seems to be a myth, natural enough in the circumstances, but unfounded in fact, for we have contem-porary testimony that Drury Lane was never more crowded than during the last years of Garrick's management, when it was known that he intended to retire from the stage. There were crowded houses at both theatres. Sheridan, though bearing his brilliant success lightly, proceeded at once to take the tide at the flood. St Patrick's Day, or the Scheming Lieutenant, a lively farce, written it is said at the request of Clinch, in gratitude for his coming to the rescue of Sir Lucius, was produced in May. In the course of the year, with the assistance of his musical father-in-law, he wrote the comic opera of The Duenna; and by the end of the year, with an eye to the profits of theatrical management, he was in negotiation with Garrick for the purchase of his share of Drury Lane. The Duenna was the great theatrical success of the winter of 1775-76 ; it ran even longer than The Beggar's Opera had done—up to that time the longest run on record. The bargain with Garrick was completed in June 1776. The sum paid for the half-share was £35,000; of this Sheridan contributed £10,000.

None of his letters show where the money came from, and much wonder has been expressed on the subject; but after all it is not so very mysterious that the most brilliant dramatist of his time, in all the credit of unparalleled success, should have been able to borrow such a sum as this with the best theatrical property to offer as security. There is a tradition that Garrick advanced the money or let it lie at interest; anyhow, the loan could not have appeared at the time a very risky speculation. Two years afterwards Sheridan and his friends bought the other half of the property for £45,000.

From the first the direction of the theatre would seem to have been mainly in Sheridan's hands. It was opened under the new management in February 1777, with a purified version of Vanbrugh's Relapse, under the title of A Trip to Scarborough. This is printed among Sheridan's works, but he has no more title to the authorship than Colley Cibber to that of Richard LLI. His chief task was to remove indecencies; he added very little to the dialogue. Astonishment has been expressed that he should have fallen back on an old play instead of writing a new one. The fact is quoted among the proofs of his indolence. But the new manager, apart from the engagements of a popular man of fashion, probably found work and worry in his novel task of organization sufficient to leave him little leisure for composition. Vanbrugh's play was probably chosen for the simple reason that it suited his company. Possibly also he wished to make trial of their powers before entrusting them with a play of his own. The School for Scandal was produced little more than two months afterwards. Mrs Abington, who had played Miss Hoyden in the Trip, played Lady Teazle, who may be regarded as a Miss Hoyden developed by six months' experience of marriage and town life. The actors who played the brothers Surface had been tried in the Trip in opposite characters, Charles playing Townley, while Joseph played Tom Fashion. It looks as if shrewd managerial caution was responsible for the delay quite as much as indolence. The former may at least have been in Sheridan's mind the plausible excuse for the latter. There are tales of the haste with which the conclusion of The School for Scandal was written, of a stratagem by which the last act was got out of him by the anxious company, and of the fervent " Amen " written on the last page of the copy by the prompter, in response to the author's " Finished at last, thank God!" But, although the conception was thus hurriedly completed, we know from Sheridan's sister that the idea of a " scandalous college " had occurred to him five years before in connexion with his own experiences at Bath. His difficulty was to find a story sufficiently dramatic in its incidents to form a subject for the machinations of the character-slayers. He seems to have tried more than one plot, and in the end to have desperately forced two separate conceptions together. The dialogue is so brilliant throughout, and the auction scene and the screen scene so effective, that nobody cares to examine the construction of the comedy except as a matter of critical duty. But a study of the construction brings to light the difficulties that must have worried the author in writing the play, and explains why he was so thankful to have it finished and done with at last. After all, he worried himself in vain, for The School for Scandal, though it has not the unity of The Rivals, nor the same wealth of broadly humorous incident, is universally regarded as Sheridan's masterpiece. He might have settled the doubts and worries of authorship with Puff's reflexion " What is the use of a good plot except to bring in good things ?" The vitality of a play depends mainly on its good things in the way of character, incident, and happy saying, and to a very limited extent on their relevance to any central plan.

The third and last of Sheridan's great comedies, The Critic, was produced in 1779, The School for Scandal meantime continuing to draw larger houses than any other play every time it was put on the stage. The Critic is perhaps the highest proof of Sheridan's skill as a dramatist, for in it he has worked out, with perfect success for all time, a theme which, often as it has been attempted, no other dramatist has ever succeeded in redeeming from tedious circumstantiality and ephemeral personalities. The laughable infirmities of all classes connected with the stage, —authors, actors, patrons, and audience,—are touched off with the lightest of hands; the fun is directed, not at individuals, but at absurdities that grow out of the circumstances of the stage as naturally and inevitably as weeds in a garden. It seems that he had accumulated notes, as his habit was, for another comedy to be called Affectation. But apparently he failed to hit upon any story that would enable him to present his various types of affectation in dramatic interaction. The similar difficulty in his satire against scandal, of finding sufficiently interesting materials for the scandal-mongers, ho had surmounted with a violent effort. This other difficulty he might have surmounted too, if he had had leisure to " sit and think " till the happy thought came. But his energies were now called off in a different direction. His only dramatic composition during the remaining thirty-six years of his life was Pizarro, produced in 1799—a tragedy in which he made liberal use of some of the arts ridiculed in the person of Mr Puff. He is said also to have written more of The Stranger than he was willing to acknowledge.

He entered parliament for Stafford in 1780. It was not a sudden ambition to shine on a wider stage after having gained the highest honours of the theatre. Ever since leaving Harrow he had dabbled a little in politics, had sketched letters in the manner of Junius, and begun an answer to Johnson's Taxation no Tyranny. But he had not made any public appearance as a politician until his acquaintance with Fox led to his appearing on a Westminster platform with the great leader of opposition. Apparently he owed his election for Stafford to more substantial persuasives than the charms of his eloquence. He paid the burgesses five guineas each for the honour of representing them. It was the custom of the time. His first speech in parliament, like the first speech of a great parliamentarian of this century, between whose career and Sheridan's there are many striking points of resemblance and contrast, was a failure. But he persevered, spoke little for a time and chiefly on financial questions, soon I took a place among the best speakers in the House, and . under the wing of Fox filled subordinate offices in the 1 short-lived ministries of 1782 and 1783. He was under-secretary for foreign affairs in the Rockingham ministry, and a secretary of the treasury in the Coalition ministry. This was rapid promotion for a man who owed everything to his own talents, and yet not an excessive recognition of the services of such a speaker as he is described as having proved himself at this exciting period. In debate he had the keenest of eyes for the weak places in an opponent's argument, and the happy art of putting them in an irresistibly ludicrous light without losing his good temper or his presence of mind. In those heated days of parliamentary strife he was almost the only man of mark that was never called out, and yet he had not his match in the weapon of ridicule.

The occasion that gave Sheridan a chance of rising above the reputation of an extremely effective and brilliant debater into the ranks of great parliamentary orators was the impeachment of Warren Hastings. His speeches in that proceeding were by the unanimous acknowledgment of his contemporaries among the greatest delivered in that generation of great orators. The first was in 1787, on Burke's proposal that Hastings should be impeached. Sheridan spoke for three hours, and the effect of his oratory was such that it was unanimously agreed to adjourn and postpone the final decision till the House should be in a calmer mood. Of this, and of his last great speech on the subject in 1794, only brief abstracts have been preserved; but with the second, the four days' speech in Westminster Hall, on the occasion so brilliantly described by Macaulay, posterity has been more fortunate. The reader should, however, be cautioned against accepting the version given in a collection of Sheridan's speeches published by a friend after his death. This long passed current as a genuine specimen of Sheridan's eloquence at its best, in spite of Moore's protest that he had in his possession a copy of a shorthand writer's report, and that the two did not correspond. But Gurney's verbatim reports of the speeches on both sides at the trial were published at Sir G. Cornewall Lewis's instigation in 1859, and from them we are able to form an idea of Sheridan's power as an orator. There are passages here and there of gaudily figurative rhetoric, loose ornament, and declamatory hyperbole such as form the bulk of the incorrect version; but the strong common sense, close argumentative force, and masterly presentation of telling facts enable us to understand the impression produced by the speech at the time.

Sheridan's long parliamentary career terminated in 1812. He could not help being to the last a conspicuous figure both in society and in parliament, but from the time of the break-up of the Whig party on the secession of Burke he was more or less an " independent member," and his isolation was complete after the death of Fox. The Begum speech remained his highest oratorical achievement. By it he is fixed in the tradition of the House as one of its greatest names. But his opinions on other great questions were given with a force and eloquence worthy of his position. When Burke denounced the French Revolution, Sheridan joined with Fox in vindicating the principle of non-intervention. He maintained that the French people should be allowed to settle their constitution and manage their affairs in their own way. But when the republic was succeeded by the empire, and it became apparent that France under Napoleon would interfere with the affairs of its neighbours, he employed his eloquence in denouncing Napoleon and urging the prosecution of the war. One of his most celebrated speeches was delivered in support of strong measures against the mutineers at the Nore. When the Whigs came into power in 1806 Sheridan was appointed treasurer of the navy, but was denied the honour of admission to the cabinet. After Fox's death he succeeded his chief in the representation of Westminster, and aspired to succeed him as leader of the party, but this claim was not allowed, and thenceforward Sheridan fought for his own hand. When the prince became regent in 1811 Sheridan's private influence with him helped to exclude the Whigs from power. For his interference on this occasion between the regent and his constitutional advisers Sheridan was severely blamed. To judge fairly as to how far he was justified in his conduct as a matter of private ethics we must take into account his previous relations with the leaders of his party, a point on which Moore, one of the disappointed placemen, is somewhat reticent. Throughout his parliamentary career Sheridan was one of the boon companions of the prince, and his champion in parliament in some dubious matters of payment of debts. But he always resented any imputation that he was the prince's confidential adviser or mouthpiece. A certain proud and sensitive independence was one of the most marked features in Sheridan's parliamentary career. After a coolness arose between him and his Whig allies he refused a place for his son from the Government, lest there should be any suspicion in the public mind that his support had been bought.

His last years were harassed by debt and disappointment. At the general election of 1812 he stood for Westminster and was defeated, and turned in vain to his old constituency of Stafford. He could not raise money enough to win back their confidence. As a member of parliament he had been safe against arrest for debt, but now that this protection was lost his creditors closed in upon him, and from this time till his death in 1816 the life of Sheridan, broken in health and fortune, discredited in reputation, slighted by old associates, so enfeebled and low-spirited as to burst into tears at a compliment, yet at times vindicating his reputation as the wittiest of boon companions, is one of the most painful passages in the biography of great men. Doubtless, in any attempt to judge of Sheridan as he was apart from his works, we must make considerable deductions from the mass of floating anecdotes that have gathered round his name. It was not without reason that his granddaughter Mrs Norton denounced the unfairness of judging of the real man from unauthenticated stories about his indolent procrastination, his recklessness in money matters, his drunken feats and sallies, his wild gambling, his ingenious but discreditable shifts in evading and duping creditors. The real Sheridan was not a pattern of decorous respectability, but we may fairly believe that he was very far from being as disreputable as the Sheridan of vulgar legend. Against the stories about his reckless management of his affairs we must set the broad facts that he had no source of income but Drury Lane theatre, that he bore from it for thirty years all the expenses of a fashionable life, and that the theatre was twice burnt to the ground during his proprietorship. Enough was lost in those fires to account ten times over for all his debts. His biographers always speak of his means of living as a mystery. Seeing that he started with borrowed capital, it is possible that the mystery is that he applied much more of his powers to plain matters of business than he affected or got credit for. The records of his wild bets in the betting book of Brook's Club date in the years after the loss of his first wife, to whom he was devotedly attached. The reminiscences of his son's tutor, Mr Smyth, show anxious ana fidgetty family habits, curiously at variance with the accepted tradition of his imperturbable recklessness. Many of the tricks which are made to appear as the unscrupulous devices of a hunted and reckless debtor get a softer light upon them if we ascribe them to a whimsical, boyish, ungovernable love of fun, which is a well-attested feature of his character. But the real Sheridan, as he was in private life, is irrecoverably gone. Even Moore, writing so soon after his death, had to lament that he could " find out nothing about him." Moore seems to have made an imperfect use of the family papers, and it is on record that Lord Melbourne, who had undertaken to write Sheridan's life, always regretted having handed over his materials to the professional biographer. He died on the 7th of July 1816, and was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey.

There is, unfortunately, no complete authoritative biography of Sheridan. Mrs Norton, his granddaughter, questioned the accuracy of Moore's Life in many particulars, and announced her intention of writing a history of the Sheridans from the family papers, of which Moore had made very partial use. But she never carried out the project. The current statements about the father and grandfather of the dramatist are inaccurate and misleading in several important respects. The best account of them—making allowance for a slight bias of family pride—is to be found in the Memoirs of Mrs Frances Sheridan, by her granddaughter, the dramatist's niece, Miss Lefanu. There is an excellent sketch of Sheridan's political career in Mr W. Fraser Kae's Wilkes, Sheridan, and Fox, and Mrs Oliphant's Sheridan, in the " English Men of Letters " series, interprets his character with the luminous breadth and sympathy always to be expected from her. (W. M.)

The above article was written by: Prof. William Minto.

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