Last reviewed: June 2018
November 4, 1751 (baptized)
July 7, 1816
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. Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
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.