ABOUT THE PLAY
The School for Scandal, brilliantly performed, was a smash hit from the first night at Sheridan's Drury Lane, not least for its blend of freshness and familiarity. It carries echoes of Molière even in its "School for . . . " title, and of the Restoration comedies of manners with their rake heroes and avid mistresses that had more recently been sanitized or displaced by plays given over to lachrymose trials and elevated feeling, or "sentiment." It foregrounds the contrast and rivalry of brothers, one ostensibly high-minded and virtuous, the other disreputable, a motif rife in folklore, the Bible, literature and drama including Shakespeare and Fielding (Tom Jones). Equally, the vulnerable young wife with an old husband, up from the country, and the nubile ward and heiress whose disapproving guardian blocks the path of true love, were the common currency of comedy and farce. But the sense of freshness and modernity in Sheridan's treatment, emerging in the liveliness and seeming naturalness of the language, the characters that rise above type, strikes in the very opening with the assembly of the eponymous circle of scandal-mongers
The comedy offers three clusters of interest, loosely interconnected, out of whose intercut intrigues and situations Sheridan generates his play. These are Lady Sneerwell's coterie, the "School for Scandal"; the Teazle household, with mismatched husband and wife and young ward; and the contrasted Surface brothers, Joseph, the elder, his Biblical name a byword for conscious virtue, and Charles, the younger, prodigal and dissolute, with their prospects in love and fortune in the balance. (That Sheridan had an older brother named Charles, much favored by his father as a paragon of talent and virtuous conduct, as opposed to the younger Richard's idle and trouble-prone shortcomings, doubtless has some relevance here). Molière also had ridiculed salons devoted to character assassination (as in The Misanthrope); but Sheridan's eighteenth century had seen a great explosion in public print, the beginnings of modern journalism and scandal-sheet celebrity reportage. The supposed duel so excitedly misreported by the scandal-mongers in the play had precedent in the reportage of Sheridan's own field-of-honor escapades and the gossip columns beleaguering his celebrity wife. Other features of modern society—commercial practice, bills in parliament, egregious colonial-made fortunes, fashionable phrase and form—add to the presentness and novelty.
Sheridan also, like his contemporary Haydn, plants some innovative surprises in his dramaturgy. Charles, for example, his leading man, though much talked about, doesn't make an appearance until the middle of the third act, of the five that a conventional classical comedy then demanded. The play, with its three interlinked centers, proceeds through a series of prepared situations fraught with tension and "effect." Here--like Diderot and Beaumarchais in France—Sheridan points the way to the serial pictorial style that dominated the theatricality of the nineteenth century. It is manifest in the climactic scene of revelation and unmasking known as "the screen scene" culminating in what we have come to know as a Tableau, that on the first night virtually stopped the play.
Subthemes through the play are reflections on art and artifice (from cosmetics and disguise to portraiture and social performance); on wit and comedy and the role therein of malice and good nature; on "sentiment," or emotion, as a guide, as opposed to rational self-interest. A "sentiment" is both a sententious saying of the kind Joseph produces on all occasions, generalizing high-minded feeling, and the feeling itself, whose genuine expression may be laconic or even wordless, as in Maria's final "yes" at the end of the play. With Joseph Surface as its flag bearer, no less a comedian than Richard III or Tartuffe, the contemporary cult of sentimentality is in for some hard knocks; but as the two set-piece test-of-character scenes demonstrate so thoroughly and hilariously, it is Charles, who follows his heart in everything rather than his head, who is valued as the true sentimentalist or man of feeling.