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Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Richard Brinsley SheridanAKA Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan

Born: 30-Oct-1751
Birthplace: Dublin, Ireland
Died: 7-Jul-1816
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Westminster Abbey, London, England

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Playwright, Politician
Party Affiliation: Whig

Nationality: Ireland
Executive summary: The School for Scandal

Third son of Thomas and Frances Sheridan, born in Dublin on the 30th of October 1751. There is a discredited story that Mrs. Sheridan, on placing her sons with their first schoolmaster, Samuel Whyte, said that she had been the only instructor of her children hitherto, and that they would exercise the schoolmaster in the quality of patience, "for two such impenetrable dunces she had never met with." One of the children thus humorously described was Richard Brinsley, then aged seven. At the age of eleven he was sent to Harrow school. Sheridan was extremely popular at school, winning somehow, Dr. Parr confesses, "the esteem and even admiration of all his schoolfellows"; and he acquired, according to the same authority, more learning than he is usually given credit for. He left Harrow at the age of seventeen, and was placed under the care of a tutor. He was also trained by his father daily in elocution, and put through a course of English reading. He had fencing and riding lessons at Angelo's.

After leaving Harrow he kept up a correspondence with a school friend who had gone to Oxford. With this youth, N. B. Halhed, he concocted various literary plans, and between them they actually executed and published (1771) metrical translations of Aristaenetus. In conjunction with Halhed he wrote a farce entitled Jupiter, which was refused by both David Garrick and Samuel Foote and remained in manuscript, but is of interest as containing the same device of a rehearsal which was afterwards worked out with such brilliant effect in The Critic. Some of the dialogue is very much in Sheridan's mature manner. Extracts given from papers written in the seven years between his leaving Harrow and the appearance of The Rivals -- sketches of unfinished plays, poems, political letters and pamphlets -- show that he was far from idle. The removal of the family to Bath in 1770-71 led to an acquaintance with the daughters of the composer Thomas Linley. The eldest daughter, Elizabeth Ann (b. 1754), a girl of sixteen, the prima donna of her father's concerts, was exceedingly beautiful, and had many suitors, among them Sheridan, N. B. Halhed and a certain Major Mathews. To protect her from this man's persecutions, Sheridan, who seems to have acted at first only as a confidential friend, carried out the romantic plan of escorting Miss Linley, in March 1772, to a nunnery in France. Sheridan returned and fought two duels with Mathews, which made a considerable sensation at the time. The pair had gone through the ceremony of marriage in the course of their flight, but Sheridan kept the marriage secret, and was sternly denied access to Miss Linley by her father, who did not consider him an eligible suitor. Sheridan was sent to Waltham Abbey, in Essex, to continue his studies, especially in mathematics. He was entered at the Middle Temple on the 6th of April 1773, and a week later he was openly married to Miss Linley.

His daring start in life after this happy marriage showed a confidence in his genius which was justified by its success. Although he had no income, and no capital beyond a few thousand pounds brought by his wife, he took a house in Orchard Street, Portman Square, furnished it "in the most costly style", and proceeded to return on something like an equal footing the hospitalities of the fashionable world. His first comedy, The Rivals, was produced at Covent Garden on the 17th January 1775. It is said to have been not so favorably received on its first night, owing to its length and to the bad playing of the part of Sir Lucius O'Trigger. But the defects were remedied before the second performance, which was deferred to the 28th of the month, and the piece at once took that place on the stage which it has never lost. His second piece, St. Patrick's Day, or the Scheming Lieutenant, a lively farce, was written for the benefit performance (2nd of May 1775) of Lawrence Clinch, who had succeeded as Sir Lucius. In November 1775, with the assistance of his father-in-law, he produced the comic opera of The Duenna, which was played 75 times at Covent Garden during that season. Sheridan now began to negotiate with Garrick for the purchase of his share of Drury Lane, and the bargain was completed in June 1776. The sum paid by Sheridan and his partners, Thomas Linley and Dr. Ford, for the half-share was 35,000; of this Sheridan contributed 10,000. The money was raised on mortgage, Sheridan contributing only 1300 in cash. Two years afterwards Sheridan and his friends bought the other half of the property for 35,000.

From the first the direction of the theater would seem to have been mainly in the hands of Sheridan, who derived very material assistance from his wife. In February 1777 he produced his version of John Vanbrugh's Relapse, under the title of A Trip to Scarborough. This is printed among Sheridan's works, but he has no more title to the authorship than Colley Cibber to that of Richard III. His chief task was to remove indecencies; he added very little to the dialogue. The School for Scandal was produced on the 8th of May 1777. Mrs. Abington, who had played Miss Hoyden in the Trip, played Lady Teazle, who may be regarded as a Miss Hoyden developed by six months' experience of marriage and town life. The lord chamberlain refused to license the play, and was only persuaded on grounds of personal friendship with Sheridan to alter his decision. There are tales of the haste with which the conclusion of The School for Scandal was written, of a stratagem by which the last act was got out of him by the anxious company, and of the fervent "Amen" written on the last page of the copy by the prompter, in response to the author's "Finished at last, thank God!" But, although the conception was thus hurriedly completed, we know from Sheridan's sister that the idea of a "scandalous college" had occurred to him five years before in connection with his own experiences at Bath. His difficulty was to find a story sufficiently dramatic in its incidents to form a subject for the machinations of the character-slayers. He seems to have tried more than one plot, and in the end to have desperately forced two separate conceptions together. The dialogue is so brilliant throughout, and the auction scene and the screen scene so effective, that the construction of the comedy meets with little criticism. The School for Scandal, though it has not the unity of The Rivals, nor the same wealth of broadly humorous incident, is universally regarded as Sheridan's masterpiece. He might have settled the doubts and worries of authorship with Puff's reflection: "What is the use of a good plot except to bring in good things?"

Sheridan's farce, The Critic, was produced on the 29th of October 1779, The School for Scandal meantime continuing to draw larger houses than any other play every time it was put on the stage. In The Critic the laughable infirmities of all classes connected with the stage -- authors, actors, patrons and audience -- are touched off with the lightest of hands; the fun is directed, not at individuals, but at absurdities that grow out of the circumstances of the stage as naturally and inevitably as weeds in a garden. It seems that he had accumulated notes for another comedy to be called Affectation, but his only dramatic composition during the remaining thirty-six years of his life was Pizarro, produced in 1799 -- a tragedy in which he made liberal use of some of the arts ridiculed in the person of Mr. Puff. He also revised for the stage Benjamin Thompson's translation, The Stranger, of Kotzebue's Menschenhass und Reue.

He entered parliament for Stafford in 1780, as the friend and ally of Charles James Fox. Apparently he owed his election for Stafford to substantial arguments. He is said to have paid the burgesses five guineas each for the honor of representing them, beside gifts in dinners and ale to the non-voting part of the community, for their interest and applause. His first speech in parliament was to defend himself against the charge of bribery, and was well received. He spoke little for a time and chiefly on financial questions, but soon took a place among the best speakers in the House. Congress recognized his services in opposing the war in America by offering him a gift of 20,000 which, however, he refused. Under the wing of Fox he filled subordinate offices in the short-lived ministries of 1782 and 1783. He was under-secretary for foreign affairs in the Rockingham ministry, and a secretary of the treasury in the Coalition ministry. In debate he had the keenest of eyes for the weak places in an opponent's argument, and the happy art of putting them in an irresistibly ludicrous light without losing his good temper or his presence of mind. In those heated days of parliamentary strife he was almost the only man of mark that was never called out, and yet he had no match in the weapon of ridicule.

Sheridan found his great opportunity in the impeachment of Warren Hastings. His speeches in that proceeding were by the unanimous acknowledgment of his contemporaries among the greatest delivered in that generation of great orators. The first was on the 7th of February 1787, on the charges brought against Hastings with regard to the begums or princesses of Oude. Sheridan spoke for more than five hours, and the effect of his oratory was such that it was unanimously agreed to adjourn and postpone the final decision until the House should be in a calmer mood. Of this, and of his last great speech on the subject in 1794, only brief abstracts have been preserved; but with the second, the four days' speech delivered in his capacity of manager of the trial, in Westminster Hall, on the occasion so brilliantly described by Macaulay, posterity has been more fortunate. Gurney's verbatim reports of the speeches on both sides at the trial were published at Sir G. Cornewall Lewis's instigation in 1859, and from them we are able to form an idea of Sheridan's power as an orator. There are passages here and there of gaudy rhetoric, loose ornament and declamatory hyperbole; but the strong common sense, close argumentative force and masterly presentation of telling facts enable us to understand the impression produced by the speech at the time.

From the time of the breakup of the Whig party on the secession of Edmund Burke he was more or less an "independent member", and his isolation was complete after the death of Fox. When Burke denounced the French Revolution, Sheridan joined with Fox in vindicating the principle of non-intervention. He maintained that the French people should be allowed to settle their constitution and manage their affairs in their own way. But when the republic was succeeded by the empire, and it became apparent that France under Napoleon would interfere with the affairs of its neighbors, he employed his eloquence in denouncing Napoleon and urging the prosecution of the war. One of his most celebrated speeches was delivered in support of strong measures against the mutineers at the Nore. He was one of the few members who actively opposed the union of the English and Irish parliaments. When the Whigs came into power in 1806 Sheridan was appointed treasurer of the navy, and became a member of the Privy Council. After Fox's death he succeeded his chief in the representation of Westminster, and aspired to succeed him as leader of the party, but this claim was not allowed, and from that point forward Sheridan fought for his own hand. When the prince became regent in 1811 Sheridan's private influence with him helped to exclude the Whigs from power. Throughout his parliamentary career Sheridan was one of the boon companions of the prince, and his champion in parliament in some dubious matters of payment of debts. But he always resented any imputation that he was the prince's confidential adviser or mouthpiece. A certain proud and sensitive independence was one of the most marked features in Sheridan's parliamentary career. After a coolness arose between him and his Whig allies he refused a place for his son from the government, lest there should be any suspicion in the public mind that his support had been bought.

His last years were harassed by debt and disappointment. He sat in parliament for Westminster in 1806-07. At the general election of 1807 he stood again for Westminster and was defeated, but was returned as member for Ilchester, at the expense apparently of the prince of Wales. In 1812 he failed to secure a seat at Stafford. He could not raise money enough to buy the seat. He had quarrelled with the Prince Regent, and seems to have had none but obscure friends to stand by him. As a member of parliament he had been safe against arrest for debt, but now that this protection was lost his creditors closed in upon him, and the history of his life from this time until his death in 1816 is one of the most painful passages in the biography of great men. It may be regarded as certain, however, that the description of the utter destitution and misery of the last weeks of his life given. in the Croker Papers is untrue. In any attempt to judge of Sheridan as he was apart from his works, it is necessary to make considerable deductions from the mass of floating anecdotes that have gathered around his name. It was not without reason that his granddaughter Mrs. Norton denounced the unfairness of judging of the real man from unauthenticated stories. The real Sheridan was not a pattern of decorous respectability, but we may fairly believe that he was very far from being the Sheridan of vulgar legend. Against the stories about his reckless management of his affairs we must set the broad facts that he had no source of income but Drury Lane theater, that he bore from it for thirty years all the expenses of a fashionable life, and that the theater was twice rebuilt during his proprietorship, the first time (1791) on account of its having been pronounced unsafe, and the second (1809) after a disastrous fire. Enough was lost in this way to account ten times over for all his debts. The records of his wild bets in the betting book of Brooks's Club date from the years after the loss, in 1792, of his first wife, to whom he was devotedly attached. He married again in 1795, his second wife being Esther Jane, daughter of Newton Ogle, dean of Winchester. The reminiscences of his son's tutor, Mr. Smyth, show anxious and fidgetty family habits, curiously at variance with the accepted tradition of his imperturbable recklessness. He died on the 7th of July 1816, and was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey.

Father: Thomas Sheridan (b. 1719, d. 1788)
Mother: Frances Sheridan (b. 1724, d. 1766)
Wife: Elizabeth Ann Linley (b. 1754, d. 1792)
Son: Thoms Sheridan (poet, b. 1775, d. 1817)
Wife: Esther Jane (m. 1795)
Brother: Charles

    High School: Harrow School

    UK Member of Parliament Stafford (1780)
    Garrick Club
    Literary Club
    Duel: Swords against Thomas Mathews (2-Jul-1772)
    Duel: Swords against Thomas Mathews (again)
    Debtor's Prison (1813)
    Risk Factors: Alcoholism


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