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Richard Brinsley Sheridan


At a time when Sheridan's fortunes were in decline, and the eating, drinking, and wenching habits of the Regency era were catching up with him, his young friend Lord Byron declared:


Whatever Sheridan has done or chosen to do has been par excellence, always the best of its kind.  He has written the best comedy, (School for Scandal), the best opera (The Duenna)—in my mind far before that St. Giles's lampoon, The Beggar's Opera), the best farce, (The Critic—it is only too good for an after-piece), and the best Address, (Monologue on Garrick),-- and to crown all, delivered the very best oration, (the famous Begum Speech), ever conceived or heard in this country.


In this spirited, but by no means overstated account, Byron touches on all the major elements of Sheridan's public life  He first made his mark as a brilliant playwright, producing half a dozen plays, including The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777) in less than five years in his twenties.  (Only one notable play would follow, twenty year later: Pizzaro [1799], a spectacular anti-colonial melodrama with a heroic native leader, adapted from a German predecessor.)  The Critic; or, A Tragedy Rehearsed, a behind-the-scenes satire (ancestor to Noises Off!) on authorship, criticism, and potboiler historical spectacle, and the monody "to the Memory of Garrick" speak to Sheridan's career as the manager and proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which with Covent Garden then had a monopoly on the performance of "legitimate" plays in the capital.  Sheridan took over from the great actor Garrick in 1776 and held that demanding position until after the demise by fire of his expensively rebuilt playhouse in 1809.  Simultaneously  Sheridan entered a career in high politics in which he distinguished himself as one of the greatest parliamentary orators of the age, a high point being "the famous Begum speech" lasting over four days (1788).  The occasion was  the trial of Warren Hastings, who as de facto Governor General had served the British East India Company's commercial/colonial occupation in India.


Sheridan was born in Dublin in 1751 of Irish stock that had gone Protestant two generations earlier, and though his family left Ireland when he was a child and he never returned, the Irish side of his identity remained strong in his politics and sentiments.  It could be said of him, as Shaw said of himself and might have said of a line of Irish playwrights including Congreve, Farquhar, Goldsmith, Boucicault, Wilde, O'Casey and others, that they set out to conquer England, cutting their way in at the point of a pen.  His father, Thomas Sheridan, was an actor and educator who managed theaters and wrote on language and elocution; his mother, Frances, who died when he was fourteen and alone at Harrow School, was a successful novelist in the line of Samuel Richardson.  After Harrow, Sheridan began his serious apprenticeship in matters literary, intellectual, political, and in gentlemanly accomplishments.  At Bath, the fashionable spa town where his father had launched an Academy, Sheridan became enamored of the very young Elizabeth Ann Linley, daughter of notable musicians, whose voice and beauty had already made her a celebrity.  Beset by less savory suitors, she and Sheridan, an impecunious 20-year old, eloped to France where they were married.  Among the consequences were two duels, the second a bloody affair using broken swords, wherein Sheridan established his claim to gentility despite his theater-stained parentage.  As the wife of "a gentleman," however needy, Eliza would never be allowed to put her gifts on display for money again.


In London where they settled, Sheridan began writing for the stage, and the immense success of first The Rivals and then The Duenna brought him into fashion and temporary fortune, which led in turn to his assumption of the management and eventual ownership of Drury Lane.  These were the years of the rising revolutionary tide in America, when Sheridan forged his links with the Whig faction opposed to the American war led by Charles James Fox.  In his pro-American, republican sympathies and in his commitment to Catholic emancipation in Ireland and to Irish self-governance, Sheridan shared much with the other great spokesman in Fox's camp, his fellow countryman Edmund Burke.  It was Burke who later led the long effort, with Sheridan, to call Warren Hastings to account; but the two drastically parted ways over the French Revolution in 1789 and after, with Sheridan treading a dangerous path in the increasingly oppressive security state, through his continuing support of egalitarian, republican, and libertarian ideals.  Despite those leanings, Sheridan along with  the Foxites had been close, politically and otherwise, to the then Prince of Wales, later Regent and  ultimately George IV.  They formed a set attacked as raffish, dissolute and disloyal, notably in the brilliant caricatures of James Gillray and other graphic artists of Tory leanings, where a distinctly freckled and theatrical Sheridan often held the stage.


Sheridan secured a seat in parliament in 1780, and functioned there most of the time in opposition.  He was a witty and implacable antagonist of William Pitt, Prime Minister through much of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and though he held some remunerative secondary posts, he declined to demonstrate the flexibility that could have brought him a ministerial position.   He served in parliament for 32 years, losing his seat decisively in 1812, whereupon, no longer immune to his creditors' claims, he was left with neither theater nor Commons.   He died in 1816.


-Martin Meisel

Portrait of a Gentleman, traditionally been identified as Richard Brinsley Sheridan, by John Hoppner

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