The plays of Sheridan

I wonder if Sheridan’s literary reputation is on the wane these days. Revivals of his plays are not, I think, so common now as they used to be. We still hear of Edith Evans’ splendid Mrs Malaprop, for instance, or of Laurence Olivier’s exuberant performance as Mr Puff (a role which he seemingly alternated with Sophocles’ Oedipus!), but contemporary luminaries of the stage rarely if ever list Sheridan roles in their credits. And in all the years I have spent here in London, I cannot recall a single performance of a Sheridan play. No doubt I have missed a few, but it’s hard to escape the impression that these plays simply aren’t performed that much these days as they not so long ago used to be. Or read either, for that matter. This is in great part due, no doubt, to that questionable dictum that has gained ground that plays are meant “to be seen, not read” – a dictum that has resulted in the undervaluing of a great many dramatists in preference to authors of prose fiction – but it could also be, I think, that our age is out of sympathy with Sheridan’s dramatic ethos.

I was contemplating this matter only quite recently, when it occurred to me that I had never read Sheridan’s plays either. 18th century writers of prose fiction, yes: the novels of Defoe, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, and even the intimidatingly long Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, have all been duly ticked off the list, and, in many cases, greatly admired and loved; but Sheridan I knew only by reputation. Well, there was only one way to put that right: Penguin Classics do a very useful volume containing his three greatest hits – The Rivals, The School for Scandal, and The Critic – and, while Sheridan is not these days a big enough name for this volume to be readily available in the local bookshop, it is still in print and is easily ordered.

However, on reading these plays, I did, I confess, have a sneaking sympathy with the “meant to be seen, not read” crowd. Imagine never having seen your favourite sitcom, and knowing it only through the script: how much of it would we laugh at? If I had never seen, say, Andrew Sachs’ performance as Manuel in Fawlty Towers, would I have laughed at seeing a mere “ ¿Qué? ” in cold print? The impact of comedy undoubtedly depends to a very great extent on the comic skills and timing of the actors. However, as I was unlikely to see any of Sheridan’s plays any time soon; and, further, as I have gained much merely from reading comic plays (I am an aficionado of Molière, after all); I wasn’t going to let this stop me. After all, reading the lines and trying to imagine how good comic actors would deliver them is in itself great fun.

All this resulted in a very entertaining week’s worth of reading. (Yes, I know … but I’m a slow reader.) In The Rivals, we have all the appurtenances of romantic comedy – young lovers, impossibly eccentric elders, lovers’ tiffs that are lunatic storms in tiny teacups, disguises, misunderstandings, and all the rest of it. It’s the sort of thing that Oscar Wilde wrought to a pitch of perfection in The Importance of Being Earnest, and which Wodehouse later seized upon (albeit as prose fiction rather than as stage drama). If I am to be entirely honest, both Wilde and Wodehouse improved upon Sheridan here: but it is hardly Sheridan’s fault that those who later took up the genre developed it to such an extent. The Rivals still stands up as a fine comedy even on reading: I’d love to see a good comic cast let loose on this.

The tone in The School for Scandal is somewhat darker. Here, Sheridan presents us with a society where gossip, scandalmongering, hypocrisy, gratuitous and mendacious denigration of one’s fellow humans, are virtually social graces: it is almost impossible to be part of society without being part of all this. The world Sheridan presents here is not too dissimilar to the world presented by Molière in possibly his greatest work, Le Misanthrope. There, Molière puts at the centre of his play a man of integrity, Alceste, who deplores all he sees about him, but who is nonetheless hopelessly in love with Célimène, an attractive young lady very much at home in this world that Alceste so deplores.  But ultimately, Alceste refuses to compromise his integrity, leaving himself lonely and isolated, and, in the midst of all the comedy, almost a tragic figure. But this is not the direction Sheridan wants to go in. He gives us delicious characters, a fine farcical plot (involving that famous scene in Act 4 with various people hidden behind screens on various parts of the stage), and a happy ending where all is resolved, although, given the nature of the dramatic world he presents, a completely happy resolution should be well nigh impossible: even if individuals do reform, the nature of the society they inhabit is too inherently corrupt to change even in the slightest: any man of genuine integrity in such a society must, at best, compromise, as Alceste’s friend Philinte does, or, at worst, end up lonely and isolated, like Alceste himself. But this is not Sheridan’s concern. The corruption of society is not here a representation of the fallen nature of Man: it is, rather, a backdrop with great comic potential. And Sheridan exploits this potential brilliantly, squeezing as many laughs out of it as he can with considerable ingenuity.

The Critic seemed to me the funniest of the lot. After all, which other play features as a character an author named Sir Fretful Plagiary? In this play, Sheridan dispenses almost entirely with plot. Most of the play consists of a rehearsal of another play, an absurd “tragic drama” about the Spanish Armada, with comments by the exuberant Mr Puff, author of this play, an enthusiast of the theatre, Mr Dangle, and a dramatic critic, Mr Sneer. That’s it. No young lovers, no-one hiding behind screens, no disguises and misunderstandings to be smoothed out at the denouement. Indeed, no denouement at all, for that matter.

Without anything resembling plot, everything stands or falls by the quality of the gags, and, even seen only in print, they are hilarious. The play within the play is extraordinarily bad, but Puff is nonetheless delighted by his own invention, and is not in the slightest bit put out by any criticism. When it is pointed out, for instance, that one of his lines is straight out of Othello, he blithely responds:

Gad! now you put me in mind on’t, I believe there is, but that’s of no consequence: all that can be said is, that two people happened to hit on the same thought, and Shakespeare made use of it first, that’s all.

Puff is particularly proud of the “mad scene”, and proudly reads out his stage direction:

‘Enter Tilburina stark mad in white satin, and her confidant stark mad in white linen.’

Puff patiently explains to the various objectors that, yes, the confidant as well as the heroine must become mad. Stark mad. And once the scene ends, Puff turns to his audience in triumph:

There, do you ever desire to see any body madder than that?

(I must confess this is a line that has run through my mind after reading many a chapter by Dostoyevsky…)

Now that I have read these plays, I don’t know that I’ll be returning to The Rivals, or even to The School for Scandal: it’s not that I didn’t enjoy them – I did – but I’m not sure there’s enough substance in either play to warrant revisiting (although I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing them performed on stage). The Critic I shall most certainly be returning to: it’s one of those instances we sometimes encounter (Don Quixote is another) of a parody that remains funny even when that which it is parodying has vanished from sight. This play alone should be enough to cement Sheridan’s reputation as one of the great comic authors.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by obooki on January 29, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    The critic is entirely ripped off from a play called The Rehearsal by George Villiers, written about 100 years before. The inept playwright being satirised in that is John Dryden.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Michael on January 29, 2019 at 2:24 pm

    I’ve seen The Critic several times. Once with Derek Jacobi. I remember Geraldine McKewan and Margaret Rutrherford as Mrs Malaprop. And I’ve played in The School for Scandal.

    Reply

    • I might have known you’d seen these plays! Which part did you play in A School for Scandal?

      Would you agree that, compared to some 50 or 60 years ago, Sheridan isn’t performed too often these days?

      Reply

  3. Posted by Janet on January 29, 2019 at 4:34 pm

    Hamadri, you made my morning. I love The Rivals and School for Scandal (and also wonder why the million billion Shakespeare companies around here don’t do either) but I am not at all familiar with the Critic. I was afraid you were going to say it was a bummer, but now I have something to look forward to. Thanks! I’m back to work now.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Nat on January 30, 2019 at 3:10 am

    I enjoyed your assessment of these plays. In a different vein, Pizarro is also good, although its reliance on action and spectacle makes it even more to be “seen, not read”. There has been a recent edition of it, though, published by Broadview.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: