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IF EVER THERE WERE a theatrical title sounding timely, it would be Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. Even its character names have resonance today, among them Sir Benjamin Backbite, Mrs. Candour, Snake, and Lady Sneerwell. That all this theatrical fun originated more than 240 years ago suggests the timelessness of good satire. What follows are tidbits from this Georgian comedy, gleaned from a variety of sources. Part 1 today is about Sheridan the man. Tomorrow, in Part 2, The School for Scandal takes center stage.

Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan, 1751–1816, Irish satirist, playwright, theater entrepreneur, Member of Parliament. Portrait of a Gentleman, traditionally identified as Sheridan, by John Hoppner.

A Theatrical Family. Born in Dublin in 1751, Richard was raised from the age of seven in England. His mother was a novelist and playwright, with two plays produced in London in the early 1760s. His father gave up an acting career to write books on education. Richard attended Harrow School from 1762 to 1768.

A Duelist—Twice. In 1772, at the age of 21, Sheridan dueled, indeed twice, with a journalist who had defamed his intended. In their first encounter, his adversary lost his sword, begged for his life, and signed a retraction of the offending article.

The second duel ensued when the journalist reneged and challenged Sheridan. This time, both broke their swords, kept fighting anyway and managed to wound each other, Sheridan seriously. It took eight days for him to recover.

That same year, Sheridan eloped with Elizabeth Ann Linley, the lady in question. They returned to London and set up lavish digs, primarily on her dowry.

Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan, née Elizabeth Ann Linsley, 1754–1792, English soprano. Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1785.

A Satirist and Theater Owner. In 1775, Sheridan’s first play, The Rivals, earned him enough money to buy into the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London. By 1778, after the success of The School for Scandal the year before, Sheridan became sole proprietor of the theater.

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, as it appeared c. 1775. Image from The Victoria and Albert Museum London.

When the theater was destroyed by fire on February 24, 1809, Sheridan was chided for casually quaffing a glass of wine nearby. He quipped, “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”

A Pro-Colonist Member of Parliament. In 1780, Sheridan entered Parliament on the side of the American Colonials in the on-going political debate. He evidently brought his sense of humor as well: In one heated debate when a fellow MP dramatically embedded a knife into the House of Commons floor, Sheridan is said to have shouted, “Where’s the fork?”

Uncorking Old Sherry, caricature by James Gillray, 1805.

A contemporary caricature shows William Pitt the Younger uncorking a bottle of sherry containing a Sheridan image. Out pop old puns, stale jokes, and fibs! fibs! fibs!

After serving as MP for 32 years, Sheridan failed to be re-elected in 1812. According to Wikipedia, “… his creditors closed in on him and his last years were harassed by debt and disappointment. On hearing of his debts, the American Congress offered Sheridan £20,000 [about $1.5 million in today’s dollar] in recognition of his efforts to prevent the American War of Independence. The offer was refused.”

Sheridan died in poverty on July 7, 1816, and was buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

This sets the stage for tomorrow’s Part 2 and Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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