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.
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.
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.
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.
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). □