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WITHIN THE FIRST few lines of The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the play’s satirical intent is evident:
Lady Sneerwell says to her accomplice, “Did you circulate the Report of Lady Brittle’s Intrigue with Captain Boastall?”
The accomplice responds, “Madam, by this time Lady Brittle is the Talk of half the Town—and I doubt not in a week the Men will toast her as a Demirep.”
Its Georgian England audience would have immediately recognized the personality types. Reputations, and ill reputes, were made and broken as easily as promises, from a cast of characters with names such as Lady Sneerwell, her servant Snake, Mrs Candour, and Sir Benjamin Backbite. And, by the way, a “demirep” is a woman whose chastity is considered doubtful.
Sources: Music, Costumes, and Project Gutenberg. The School for Scandal came into my ken years ago through Samuel Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal, a concert overture that was Barber’s first work for full orchestra. Recently, Sirius XM “Symphony Hall” commentator Preston Trombly prefaced this Barber work by praising Sheridan’s comedy. Costume on the Stage: A Book of Costume Designs, devotes a chapter to The School for Scandal and its costumes by American designer Jan Skalický.
The Play’s Performances. The School for Scandal opened at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on May 8, 1777. At the time, Sheridan had part interest in the Theatre Royal; success of the play gave him the cash to buy its remaining shares.
English essayist and critic William Hazlitt, 1778–1830, wrote about The School for Scandal, “When it is acted, you hear people all around you exclaiming, ‘Surely it is impossible for anything to be cleverer.’ The scene in which Charles sells all the old family pictures but his uncle’s who is the purchaser in disguise, and that of the discovery of Lady Teazle when the screen falls, are among the happiest and most highly wrought that comedy, in its wide and brilliant range, can boast…. It professes a faith in the natural goodness as well as habitual depravity of human nature.”
Some 200 years later, The New York Times wrote that a 2001 production was “just the classy antidote one needs in a celebrity-crazed world where the invasion of privacy is out of control, but the art of gossip is nonexistent.”
Of Course, a Scandalous Plot. A most entertaining production of The School for Scandal is posted at YouTube.
Here’s a brief summary: Lady Sneerwell is striving to break up a love affair between Charles Surface and Maria, ward of Sir Peter Teazle. Part of a clique of scandalmongers, Sneerwell wants the wild, extravagant Charles for herself.
Joseph Surface, brother of Charles, is respected by society, though he’s a hypocrite to the core. Joseph has his eye on Maria too, or at least on her fortune. Maria recognizes this, but Sir Peter is fooled by Joseph’s righteous exterior.
Sir Oliver Surface, the young men’s uncle, arrives from abroad. In disguise, he learns of Charles’ high sense of honor and Joseph’s true colors. Or are those honour and colours?
Lady Teazle, Sir Peter’s wife, has been having a tryst with Joseph, gets caught hiding behind a screen, and then convinces her husband that the affair was merely in the name of fashion.
As noted in Costumes on the Stage, and only a partial spoiler, “The scoundrel [Joseph] is found out in the end and the good man [Charles] is rewarded as it should be: with a lovely bride [Maria], a big dowry and the prospect of an even bigger inheritance.”
A good, highly scandalous time is had by all. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019