Richard Brinsley Sheridan

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This article is about Irish playwright and Whig politician. For his grandson, the English Whig politician, see Richard Brinsley Sheridan (died 1888). For the Australian politician, see Richard Bingham Sheridan.
The Right Honourable
Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan
Richard Brinsley Sheridan 1751 - 1816.jpg
Treasurer of the Navy
In office
1806–1807
Prime Minister Lord Grenville
Preceded by George Canning
Succeeded by George Rose
Personal details
Born (1751-10-30)30 October 1751
Dublin, Ireland
Died 7 July 1816(1816-07-07) (aged 64)
14 Savile Row, London, England
Political party Whig
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Ann Linley, Esther Jane Ogle
Profession Statesman, playwright

Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan (30 October 1751 – 7 July 1816) was an Irish playwright and poet and long-term owner of the London Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He is known for his plays such as The Rivals, The School for Scandal and A Trip to Scarborough. For thirty-two years he was also a Whig Member of the British House of Commons for Stafford (1780–1806), Westminster (1806–1807) and Ilchester (1807–1812). He was buried at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Life[edit]

R. B. Sheridan was born in 1751 in Dublin, Ireland, where his family had a house on then fashionable Dorset Street. While in Dublin Sheridan attended the English Grammar School in Grafton Street. The family moved permanently to England in 1758 when he was age seven.[1] He was a pupil at Harrow School outside London from 1762 to 1768.[2] His mother, Frances Sheridan, was a playwright and novelist. She had two plays produced in London in the early 1760s, though she is best known for her novel The Memoirs of Sidney Biddulph (1761).[citation needed] His father, Thomas Sheridan, was for a while an actor-manager at the Smock Alley Theatre but, following his move to England in 1758, he gave up acting and wrote a number of books concerning education and, especially, the standardisation of the English language in education.[3] After Harrow his father employed a private tutor, Lewis Ker, who directed his studies in his father's house in London, while Angelo instructed him in fencing and horsemanship.[2]

In 1772 Richard Sheridan fought a famous duel against Captain Thomas Mathews. Mathews had written a newspaper article defaming the character of Elizabeth Ann Linley, the woman Sheridan intended to marry, and honour dictated that a duel must be fought. A first duel was fought in London where they agreed to fight in Hyde Park, but finding it too crowded they went first to the Hercules Pillars tavern (on the site where Apsley House now stands at Hyde Park Corner) and then on to the Castle Tavern in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.[4] Far from its romantic image, the duel was short and bloodless. Mathews lost his sword and, according to Sheridan, was forced to "beg for his life" and sign a retraction of the article.[5] The apology was made public and Mathews, infuriated by the publicity the duel had received, refused to accept his defeat as final and challenged Sheridan to another duel. Sheridan was not obliged to accept this challenge, but would have become a social pariah if he had not. The second duel, fought in August 1772 at Kingsdown near Bath, was a much more ferocious affair. This time both men broke their swords but carried on fighting in a "desperate struggle for life and honour".[citation needed] Both were wounded, Sheridan dangerously, being "borne from the field with a portion of his antagonist's weapon sticking through an ear, his breast-bone touched, his whole body covered with wounds and blood, and his face nearly beaten to jelly with the hilt of Mathews' sword".[citation needed] Fortunately his remarkable constitution pulled him through, and eight days after this bloody affair the Bath Chronicle was able to announce that he was out of danger. Mathews escaped in a post chaise.

Playwright[edit]

Mrs Sheridan (Miss Linley)

Later in 1772, Richard Sheridan, at the age of 21, eloped with and subsequently married Elizabeth Ann Linley and set up house in London on a lavish scale with little money and no immediate prospects of any—other than his wife's dowry. The young couple entered the fashionable world and apparently held up their end in entertaining. When Sheridan settled in London, he began writing for the stage. Less than two years later, in 1775, his first play, The Rivals, was produced at London's Covent Garden Theatre. It was a failure on its first night. Sheridan cast a more capable actor for the role of the comic Irishman for its second performance, and it was a smash which immediately established the young playwright's reputation and the favour of fashionable London. It has gone on to become a standard of English literature.

Shortly after the success of The Rivals, Sheridan and his father-in-law Thomas Linley the Elder, a successful composer, produced the opera, The Duenna. This piece was accorded such a warm reception that it played for seventy-five performances.

In 1776, Sheridan, his father-in-law, and one other partner, bought a half interest in the Drury Lane theatre and, two years later, bought out the other half. Sheridan was the manager of the theatre for many years, and later became sole owner with no managerial role.

His most famous play The School for Scandal (Drury Lane, 8 May 1777) is considered one of the greatest comedies of manners in English. It was followed by The Critic (1779), an updating of the satirical Restoration play The Rehearsal, which received a memorable revival (performed with Oedipus Rex in a single evening) starring Laurence Olivier as Mr Puff, opening at the New Theatre on 18 October 1945 as part of an Old Vic Theatre Company season.

Physical Air,—or—Britannia recover'd from a Trance;—also, the Patriotic Courage of Sherry Andrew; & a peep thro' the Fog (1803) by James Gillray, showing Sheridan as a Silenus-like and ragged Harlequin defending Henry Addington and Lord Hawkesbury on the Dover coast from the advancing French rowboats filled with French soldiers, led by Napoleon. Sheridan says: "Let 'em come! damn'me!!!—Where are the French Buggabo's? Single handed I'd beat forty of 'em!!! dam'me I'd pay 'em like Renter Shares, sconce off their half Crowns!!!—mulct them out of their Benefits, &c, come Drury Lane Slang over em!."

Having quickly made his name and fortune, in 1776 Sheridan bought David Garrick's share in the Drury Lane patent, and in 1778 the remaining share. His later plays were all produced there.[6] In 1778 Sheridan wrote The Camp which commented on the ongoing threat of a French invasion of Britain. The same year Sheridan's brother-in-law Thomas Linley, a young composer who worked with him at Drury Lane Theatre, died in a boating accident. Sheridan had a rivalry with his fellow playwright Richard Cumberland and included a parody of Cumberland in his play The Critic. On 24 February 1809 (despite the much vaunted fire safety precautions of 1794) the theatre burned down. On being encountered drinking a glass of wine in the street while watching the fire, Sheridan was famously reported to have said, "A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside."[7]

Member of Parliament[edit]

In 1780, Sheridan entered Parliament as the ally of Charles James Fox on the side of the American Colonials in the political debate of that year. He is said to have paid the burgesses of Stafford five guineas apiece for the honour of representing them. As a consequence, his first speech in Parliament had to be a defence against the charge of bribery.

In 1787 Sheridan demanded the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India. His speech in the House of Commons was described by Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox and William Pitt as the greatest ever delivered in ancient or modern times.[8]

In 1793 during the debates on the Aliens Act designed to prevent French Revolutionary spies and saboteurs from flooding into the country, Edmund Burke made a speech in which he claimed there were thousands of French agents in Britain ready to use weapons against the authorities. To dramatically emphasise his point he threw down a knife onto the floor of the House of Commons. Sheridan is said to have shouted out "Where's the fork?", which led to much of the house collapsing in laughter.[9]

During the invasion scare of 1803 Sheridan penned an Address to the People:

THEY, by a strange Frenzy driven, fight for Power, for Plunder, and extended Rule—WE, for our Country, our Altars, and our Homes.—THEY follow an ADVENTURER, whom they fear—and obey a Power which they hate—WE serve a Monarch whom we love—a God whom we adore...They call on us to barter all of Good we have inherited and proved, for the desperate Chance of Something better which they promise.—Be our plain Answer this: The Throne WE honour is the PEOPLE'S CHOICE—the Laws we reverence are our brave Fathers' Legacy—the Faith we follow teaches us to live in bonds of Charity with all Mankind, and die with Hope of Bliss beyond the Grave. Tell your Invaders this; and tell them too, we seek no Change; and, least of all, such Change as they would bring us.[10]

He held the posts of Receiver-General of the Duchy of Cornwall (1804–1807) and Treasurer of the Navy (1806–1807).

When he failed to be re-elected to Parliament in 1812, after 32 years, 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 in recognition of his efforts to prevent the American War of Independence. The offer was refused.

In December 1815 he became ill, largely confined to bed. Sheridan died in poverty, and was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey; his funeral was attended by dukes, earls, lords, viscounts, the Lord Mayor of London, and other notables.

In 1825 the Irish writer Thomas Moore published a two-volume sympathetic biography Memoirs of the Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan which became a major influence on subsequent perceptions of him. A Royal Society of Arts blue plaque was unveiled in 1881 to commemorate Sheridan at 14 Savile Row in Mayfair.[11] Another plaque is in Stafford.

Family life[edit]

In Uncorking Old Sherry (1805), James Gillray caricatured Sheridan as a bottle of sherry, uncorked by Pitt and bursting out with puns, invective, and fibs.

He was twice married. He and his first wife Elizabeth had two children:

In 1795, Richard B. Sheridan married Hester Jane Ogle (1776–1817), daughter of the Dean of Winchester. They had at least one child:

  • Charles Brinsley Sheridan (1796–1843)

At one time Sheridan owned Downe House, Richmond Hill in London.

Works[edit]

He also wrote a selection of poems and political speeches during his time in parliament.

Adaptations and cultural references[edit]

  • In The Duchess (2008) film, a biography of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, Sheridan is played by Aidan McArdle and The School for Scandal is performed in the movie. Sheridan is played by Barry Stanton in the Madness of King George (1994)
  • In the Yes, Prime Minister episode "The Patron of the Arts", two of Sheridan's plays are named as ones the prime minister could not see: The Rivals, "there were too many cabinet ministers after his job", and The School for Scandal, "well, not after the education secretary had been found in bed with a married primary school headmistress". Later, the same prime minister being asked to name a famous English playwright other than Shakespeare says "Sheridan, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw" and is told, "they were all Irish"
  • In the Blackadder III episode 'Amy and Amiability', Blackadder, dressed in a black mask and cape, is asked if he intends to become a highwayman and replies sarcastically "No, I'm auditioning for the part of Arnold the Bat in Sheridan's new comedy."
  • The very first sentence of Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days" is "Mr. Phileas Fogg lived, in 1872, at No. 7, Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1814" (s:Around the World in Eighty Days/I)—which includes two factual mistakes: Sheridan actually lived in No. 14 and died in 1816. Evidently, Verne assumed as a matter of course that a French readership more than half a century later would know who Sheridan was and would need no further explanation.
  • Chris Humphreys has used the character of Jack Absolute from The Rivals as a basis for his books The Blooding of Jack Absolute, Absolute Honour and Jack Absolute. These are published under the name C. C. Humphreys.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Thomas Sheridan Biography at James Boswell Info. Retrieved 30 June 2013.
  2. ^ a b Rae 1897, p. 78.
  3. ^ Rae 1897a, pp. 87–88.
  4. ^ Wheatley 2011, p. 19.
  5. ^ Rae 1897, p. 79.
  6. ^ The Oxford Companion to the Theatre, edited by Phyllis Hartnoll, OUP (1951)
  7. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1999) OUP
  8. ^ John O'Connor Power, 'Irish Wit and Humour', Time, 1890. p.480. The Making of an Orator, 1906, pp. 187–194
  9. ^ Arnold-Baker 1996, p. 393.
  10. ^ Frank J. Klingberg and Sigurd B. Hustvedt (eds.), The Warning Drum. The British Home Front Faces Napoleon. Broadsides of 1803 (University of California Press, 1944), pp. 93–94.
  11. ^ Sheridan Plaque - Mayfair, London at English Heritage. Retrieved 30 June 2013

References[edit]

Attribution

O'Toole, Fintan. A Traitor's Kiss: The Life of Richard Brindsley Sheridan, 1751-1816, New York, 1998.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
George Canning
Treasurer of the Navy
1806–1807
Succeeded by
George Rose
Parliament of Great Britain
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Richard Whitworth
Member of Parliament for Stafford
1780–1806
Succeeded by
Richard Mansel-Philipps
Preceded by
Earl Percy
Member of Parliament for Westminster
1806–1807
Succeeded by
Lord Cochrane
Preceded by
Sir William Manners
Member of Parliament for Ilchester
1807–1812
Succeeded by
Lord Ward