He was one of the outstanding English playwrights and politicians of the 18th century. Except like many other exceptional exponents of the benign art of theatre and the dark arts of politics he wasn’t English – he was Irish.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dorset Street in Dublin in 1751. His surroundings were slightly more fashionable then than they are now. He was probably born to write for the theatre. His mother, Frances was a playwright and novelist, his father Thomas was, for a long time, an actor-manager.
His budding theatrical and political careers almost failed to get off the ground, however. Sheridan, to defend the honour of his future wife, Elizabeth Linley, was obliged to fight a duel against one Thomas Matthews, a rival for Elizabeth’s affections, who also happened to be married. Matthews had churlishly defamed her in a newspaper article when she rejected his advances.
The two men met twice in 1772. Swords were the weapons of choice on both occasions. At the first encounter, in London, Matthews posed few difficulties for the Irishman. He was quickly disarmed, begged for his life and was forced to retract the defamatory article. However, Matthews insisted on a rematch and Sheridan decided to oblige him. The second meeting, in Bath, was a much bloodier affair that Sheridan barely survived. According to contemporary accounts he was borne from the field with his opponents broken sword sticking from his ear and his whole body covered in wounds.
Sheridan survived and three years later produced his first play The Rivals a sparkling comedy that included the character of a hot-blooded and mean-spirited Irish duelist Sir Lucius O’Trigger. The comedy, coincidentally, is set in Bath. There is more than one way of gaining revenge on a loathsome adversary.
However, the most memorable character in the play was the sublime Mrs. Malaprop, a lady much given to hilarious verbal solecisms. Hence such infamous howlers as her reference to ‘an allegory on the banks of the Nile’ and ‘he can tell you the perpendiculars’. She also refers to another character as ‘the very pineapple of politeness.’
His greatest work, which appeared two years later, in 1777, was The School for Scandal – still performed today it matches and surpasses most of Oscar Wilde’s comedies of manners with it’s acid observations on contemporary social mores and the endless capacity for evil gossip in 18th century London society.
In 1780 Sheridan essentially bribed his way into the House of Commons, as you often did in those days. The franchise in his constituency was fortunately small as each vote cost him a reported five guineas. In parliament he allied himself to the Whig faction led by Charles James Fox and sided with the American Colonials in their disputes with England. In one celebrated and highly theatrical aside in 1793 his fellow Irishman Edmund Burke was ranting about French revolutionary spies and saboteurs. After a rhetorical flourish to emphasise the dangers of allowing Johnny Foreigner access to England Burke threw a knife onto the floor of the Commons. This drew the retort from Sheridan ‘where’s the fork?’
Although he was an accomplished parliamentary orator and briefly held political office one of Sheridan’s reasons for retaining his seat in the Commons was probably to evade his creditors. When he lost his seat in 1812 they pounced. He died in poverty three years later but is buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Sheridan is responsible for many memorable, pithy and witty phrases. He once said of a political opponent that ‘the right honourable gentleman is indebted to his memory for his jests and to his imagination for his facts.’ In his 1779 play The Critic he has one of his characters make the very politically apposite observation that ‘the number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves is very small indeed.’
Richard Brinsley Sheridan, playwright, politician and sometime duelist, was born 264 years ago, on this day.
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