Authors: Richard Brinsley Sheridan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Irish playwright

November 4, 1751 (baptized)

Dublin, Ireland

July 7, 1816

London, England

Biography

Between 1775 and 1779, Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote five plays, two of which remain popular theater pieces. Indeed, among the many comic plays of the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, The Rivals and The School for Scandal are the only ones still being produced, except for Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773). Having achieved such successes while still in his twenties, Sheridan forsook a promising career as playwright and turned to other pursuits: theater management and politics. {$I[AN]9810000398} {$I[A]Sheridan, Richard Brinsley} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Sheridan, Richard Brinsley} {$I[geo]IRELAND;Sheridan, Richard Brinsley} {$I[tim]1751;Sheridan, Richard Brinsley}

Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

By John Cassell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sheridan’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Sheridan, had distinguished himself in the classics at Trinity College in Dublin, taken holy orders, and become an educational reformer as head of a school in Dublin. The future playwright’s father, also named Thomas Sheridan, took his M.A. at Trinity College. Though prepared for a clerical career, he preferred the stage, becoming manager of Dublin’s Smock-Alley Theatre and the country’s leading actor. Sheridan’s mother, Frances, not only was the author of three popular romantic novels but also wrote three comic plays, two of which were produced at London’s Drury Lane.

Frances Sheridan was her younger son’s tutor until 1757, when he was enrolled in Samuel Whyte’s grammar school; however, a year later the Sheridans moved to England. In 1762 Richard was sent to Harrow, where he remained until about 1768, gaining a reputation for pranks, indolence, and carelessness but at the same time enjoying the esteem of his schoolfellows and the admiring attention of his masters. He was, in fact, unhappy there and felt deserted by his parents, who had moved to France, where his mother died in 1766.

When he was seventeen, Sheridan left Harrow for London, where his father again was living. For a time he was tutored by a physician, the owner of a fencing and riding school, and his father. In 1770 Thomas Sheridan again moved his family, this time to Bath. Though his father’s entertainment and educational ventures were unsuccessful, the move was propitious for young Sheridan, for in Bath he met seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Ann Linley, a celebrated soprano known for her beauty. So she could escape an unwanted admirer, a family friend named Thomas Matthews, she eloped with Sheridan to France in March 1772. There they went through a marriage ceremony but lived apart until they returned to England two months later, when Sheridan faced Matthews in two duels. Seriously wounded in the second encounter, Sheridan had a long recuperation, following which, on April 6, 1773, he entered the Middle Temple, London. A week later, against their families’ wishes, he and Linley were married at London’s Marylebone Church.

His law studies notwithstanding, Sheridan had already taken steps toward a literary career. At Harrow he had written a stage adaptation of Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and political satires, and at Bath he published light satiric verse and collaborated on a burlesque and translations of Greek love epistles. In London after his marriage, he wrote political and social tracts as well as his first full-length play.

When The Rivals premiered at Covent Garden on January 17, 1775, audience reaction was so negative that Sheridan withdrew it, extensively rewrote it, and presented the play anew eleven days later. His primary source for The Rivals was his own experience: living in a resort town, dealing with recalcitrant parents, falling in love, coping with rivals, and engaging in duels. Lacking a substantive plot, this comedy of character succeeds because of the deft handling of farce, imaginative disguises and deceptions, and clever dialogue, mainly that spoken by Mrs. Malaprop, whose mangling of English has given a word—malapropism—to the language. With its mockery of sentiment and prevalence of sheer fun, The Rivals is closer to the comedies of William Congreve (1670–1729) than to those by Sheridan’s contemporaries. Whereas Sheridan disdained “the sentimental Muse” (in a prologue to The Rivals), he did not crusade to change the comic drama. Like Goldsmith—with She Stoops to Conquer—Sheridan demonstrated the vitality of old conventions in skillful new hands.

His second play opened at Covent Garden on May 2, 1775. St. Patrick’s Day was a farcical afterpiece that ran for six performances. Sheridan’s third play, a comic opera titled The Duenna, was his second major success. The Duenna premiered at Covent Garden on November 21, 1775, and broke all previous records for full-length plays, with seventy-five performances in its first season. Sheridan’s elopement with Linley and his mother’s romance Eugenia and Adelaide (1791) probably served as sources.

The following year Sheridan and two partners bought David Garrick’s interest in the Drury Lane Theatre and took over its management, a role he filled for more than thirty years. The first of his Drury Lane plays opened on February 24, 1777, a transformation of Sir John Vanbrugh’s bawdy The Relapse (1696) into the more decorous A Trip to Scarborough. It was followed, on May 8, 1777, by The School for Scandal, whose intricate plot with parallel intrigues is complemented by farce and social criticism. It has endured on the stage partly because of its universal theme: the contrast between reality and appearance, depth and superficiality, and truth and delusion. Stereotypical though they are, Sir Peter and Lady Teazle, Snake and Lady Sneerwell, and the Surface brothers are among the most memorable characters in English comedy, and the auction and screen scenes are comic masterpieces. The Critic, which opened at Drury Lane on October 30, 1779, is a topical burlesque of stage absurdities in the tradition of the duke of Buckingham’s The Rehearsal (1672) and Henry Fielding’s The Tragedy of Tragedies: Or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great (1731). The timelessness of Sheridan’s hilarious satire of theatrical banalities accounts for its continued stage life.

Though he continued to manage the Drury Lane Theatre into the next century and did a few translations and adaptations for the stage, The Critic was Sheridan’s last original play, and in 1780 he embarked on a political career. Elected to Parliament, where he gained renown as an orator, he also served in cabinet and other government posts. While enjoying public successes, he had a turbulent personal life. His wife and an infant daughter died in 1792. He married Hester Jane Ogle in 1795, and a son was born the next year. In 1802 creditors took him to court, where his eloquently delivered defense won the day; the Drury Lane Theatre burned down in 1809; and in 1813 he was imprisoned briefly for debt. He died in 1816 and was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Author Works Drama: The Rivals, pr., pb. 1775 St. Patrick’s Day: Or, The Scheming Lieutenant, pr. 1775 The Duenna: Or, The Double Elopement, pr. 1775 (libretto; music by Thomas Linley the elder, Thomas Linley the younger, and others) A Trip to Scarborough, pr. 1777 (adaptation of Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse) The School for Scandal, pr. 1777 The Critic: Or, A Tragedy Rehearsed, pr. 1779 The Agreeable Surprise; A Comic Opera, 1786 The Glorious First of June, 1794 (music by Stephen Storace; lyrics by Sheridan, James Cobb, et al.) Pizarro: A Tragedy in Five Acts, pr., pb. 1799 (adaptation of August von Kotzebue’s Die Spanier in Peru) Complete Plays, pb. 1930 Plays, pb. 1956 (L. Gibbs, editor) The School for Scandal, and Other Plays, pb. 1998 (Michael Cordner, editor) Poetry: Clio’s Protest; or, “The Picture” Varnished, with Other Poems, wr. 1771–76, pb. 1819 A Familiar Epistle to the Author of the Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers, 1774 “Epilogue to The Rivals,” 1775 The Muse’s Mirrour: Being a Collection of Poems, 1778 “Verses to the Memory of Garrick, Spoken as a Monody,” 1779 “Epilogue to The Fatal Falsehood,” 1779 The Struggles of Sheridan, or the Ministry in Full Cry, 1790 “Prologue to Pizarro,” 1799 “Lines by a Lady of Fashion,” 1825 Nonfiction: A Letter to the Most Insolent Man Alive, 1789 Speeches of the Late Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Several Corrected by Himself), 1816 (5 volumes) The Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1966 (3 volumes; C. J. L. Price, editor) Edited Text: The Camp by Richard Tickell, 1778 Miscellaneous: The Plays and Poems of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1928, 1962 (3 volumes; R. Compton Rhodes, editor) Bibliography Ayling, Stanley. A Portrait of Sheridan. London: Constable, 1985. More than two hundred pages on Sheridan’s life and work. Ayling offers glimpses of Sheridan’s true nature, including the unflattering views on the theater expressed in his letters. The treatment of the early plays is rather brief. Includes some comments on the management of the Drury Lane in later chapters. Hare, Arnold. Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Windsor, England: Profile Books, 1981. This thin volume sketches the major details of Sheridan’s life, family, and career. Pays brief attention to the theatrical milieu but analyzes the plays, including some relatively minor ones. Includes a select bibliography. Kelly, Linda. Richard Brinsley Sheridan: A Life. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997. The biography looks at Sheridan as both dramatist and legislator. Bibliography and index. Loftis, John. Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977. This authoritative volume examines Sheridan’s relationships with his dramatic predecessors, then analyzes extensively Sheridan’s plays. The bibliography is divided into editions, biographies, critical studies, and background studies. Includes a lengthy index. Morwood, James. The Life and Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985. Norwood attempts a lengthy biographical study in which extensive discussion of the writing career appears. Makes an effort to evaluate Sheridan’s political career and to create a balanced assessment of his thirty-two years as manager of the Drury Lane. Includes several illustrations, a bibliography, and an index. Morwood, James, and David Crane, eds. Sheridan Studies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A collection of essays on Sheridan as a dramatist and member of Parliament. Includes a bibliography and index. O’Toole, Fintan. A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. A biography which examines Sheridan’s career. Smith, Dane F., and M. L. Lawhon. Plays About the Theatre in England, 1737–1800. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979. Interprets The Critic as an attack on the sentimentalism of the contemporary comedy and of the writers and critics who supported it. Also sees parts of The School for Scandal and The Rivals as attacks on sentimentalism. Some comparisons are made with Oliver Goldsmith’s comedies. Worth, Katharine. Sheridan and Goldsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. The commentary emphasizes performance and dramaturgy.

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