Posts Tagged ‘Sheridan’

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.

“A Month in the Country” by Ivan Turgenev

I’ve long had a theory – which will, I am sure, be quite exploded in the comments section of this post by people better read than myself – that while the novel was establishing itself in the nineteenth century as perhaps the most important literary form of the age, drama lagged significantly behind. While prose drama was seen primarily as suitable for comedy ( Sheridan, Gogol, the prose plays of Molière, etc.), tragic works were still seen to require a dignity and nobility that only verse could provide. Further, drama, unlike prose fiction, had either to be tragic or comic: there was nothing between Racine on the one hand, and Molière on the other. And while the comic could (and indeed did) accommodate figures from all walks of life, the tragic had to deal with kings and queens, nobles and bishops, princes and princesses; and, with people now reading about Emma Woodhouse or Emma Bovary, kings and queens and nobles and bishops delivering high-flown blank verse were, perhaps, starting to seem a bit old hat. So, while the novel flowered as a literary form (Austen, Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, and so on), drama, in contrast, remained relatively static, and, indeed, stultified, until some time in the late nineteenth century when Ibsen and Chekhov (and I guess I should add Strindberg, although, personally, I have never really understood his work) rescued the form by raising it to the heights that the novel, at its best, had already attained.

I suppose it would be easy enough to find exceptions to this (Büchner, for instance, although his remarkable plays weren’t know about till much later); but, whatever the reason, as a vehicle of literary expression, the drama did indeed, I think, lag behind the novel for much of the nineteenth century. But one very notable exception is a play Ivan Turgenev wrote in 1850, A Month in the Country.

At this stage in his career, Turgenev had written some wonderful short stories and sketches, but had not yet embarked on the novels on which his fame now primarily rests. A Month in the Country is not too often performed these days (at least, I cannot remember a single performance of it in London in the last few decades), but, reading it, it seems a remarkably assured work, and leaves one wondering what Turgenev might have gone on to achieve in the field of drama had he not decided to turn instead to the novel. Not that A Month in the Country is not a fine work in itself. But it also seems, in the context especially of the times, a sort of harbinger, indicating directions of development in the drama that were only really taken up by Chekhov some fifty years afterwards.

The scene should be familiar to anyone who knows Chekhov’s plays: a country estate populated by its owners (landed gentry naturally), and various hangers on (wards, ageing parents, “companions” – i.e. those who would have been destitute were it not for the landowners’ charity); tutors and governors, maids and servants; and the occasional country doctor or neighbouring landowner stopping off. It is, in short, an ensemble piece, as are all of Chekhov’s dramas. And the mode is neither comic (although there are a few jokes in it), nor explicitly tragic: it is pitched – once again, as Chekhov’s plays are – between the two extreme poles, depicting with the utmost seriousness and sensitivity the unfulfilled longings and the pains of disillusion of its principal characters, while yet placing them in a wider context in which we may see such things as, perhaps, less than cataclysmic. The register, as in Turgenev’s novels, is of a gentle sadness.

At the centre of this group is Natalya Petrovna, the lady of the house. Although she is married, she is loved by Rakitin, described in the list of characters as a “friend of the family”. The love is not returned: Natalya Petrovna is not an adulterous wife. Nonetheless, and despite knowing what Rakitin feels for her, she is on friendly terms with him, and often confides in him. This scenario would recur in Turgenev’s later novel, Smoke, with Irina and Potugin; and, as was well-known even at the time, Turgenev himself was in just such a position, in love with the famed opera singer Pauline Viardot, and hanging around hopelessly with the Viardot household. It does seem a somewhat humiliating situation to be in, and it seems surprising that Turgenev, knowing this to be his own situation, and knowing, further, that this situation was no secret, should so draw attention to it by depicting it in his own work.

In Smoke, the husband had been a pretty nondescript character. Here, the husband is off-stage for most of the play, but when he does emerge in the final acts, the way Turgenev presents his is arresting: he knows full well how his friend Rakitin feels about his wife, but has such confidence both in his wife and in his friend, he firmly believes that neither would betray him. This is quite remarkable, especially in a drama, in which an Othello-like jealousy would have created a far greater theatrical impact; and that Turgenev was prepared to forgo such a immediate theatrical impact for the sake of greater subtlety of characterisation is an indication of how seriously he took the artistic potential of what he must have known was a new kind of drama – neither broadly comic, nor yet aiming for the intensity of high tragedy.

But arresting though this situation is, Turgenev keeps it mainly in the background till the final two acts. Of greater impact in the earlier part of the play is the passion Natalya Petrovna feels for her son’s tutor, a young man barely out of childhood himself, and who is utterly taken aback when he discovers the intensity of the passion he has unwittingly unleashed. And here, although Turgenev is not aiming to write high tragedy, he is surely harking back to Racine’s Phèdre, or even to Euripides’ Hippolytus. Racine’s focus had been the older woman, and Euripides’ the younger man, but since Turgenev’s play is an ensemble piece, he can focus equally on both. The young tutor, Belyaev, finds himself having to grow up quickly, and come to some kind of understanding of the endless complexities of adult human emotions; and Natalya Petrovna, having regarded lightly Rakitin’s passion for herself, has now to understand, and, if she can, come to terms with her own unfulfilled passion, and its destructive power. And this proud lady has to cope also with the humiliation of becoming a rival to her own teenage ward.

One may, of course, read this as Turgenev “getting his own back” on Pauline Viardot, but that would seem to me a shallow reading. Quite apart from the inadvisability of interpreting a work based on what we know of the author’s own life, advancing such an interpretation is to overlook the gentle compassion with which Natalya Petrovna is depicted. If there is any sense of triumph on the author’s part, I, for one, could not detect it. The theme here is unfulfilled desire, and, however humilating it may be, either in Rakitin or in Natalya Petrovna, or, for that matter, in the teenage ward Vera, Turgenev’s treatment of this theme evinces a gentle sadness. There is no catharsis at the end. Turgenev was not writing high tragedy: people here do not die of unhappiness, but have to go on living, bearing their burdens as best they can.

The play is not, perhaps, flawless. Ibsen had once said of one of Tolstoy’s plays that there were “too many conversations and not enough scenes”: sadly, he did not go on to explain what he regarded as the distinction between the two, but we may, perhaps, guess at it: in a “conversation”, only what is explicitly said is important, whereas in a “scene”, what is said is invested with various overtones and resonances in such a way as to communicate more than what is explicitly said. That, at least, is my understanding. And here, too, I think Ibsen might have made the same criticism as he had made of Tolstoy’s plays – “too many conversations, not enough scenes”. But Ibsen himself had worked for decades to master the art of creating scenes rather than mere conversations; and while it is true that much of this play consists merely of conversations (at least by the definition I have proposed above), these conversations are never less than interesting, and are often compelling; and the “scenes”, when they come, are magnificent.

There are cases, admittedly, when characters express their thoughts through long monologues. I suppose that in a modern production, realism can be dispensed with altogether at such points, and stage time frozen as the character steps up to the footlights to deliver what we would now describe as “stream of consciousness”. Or better still, such monologues may be cut altogether: audiences are more used now to picking up subtleties of internal thought purely from what the characters say on stage.

And little passages such as this may also be cut:

ISLAEV: I’m not used to altercations of this sort. I hope they won’t often be repeated. I’ve a strong constitution, God knows, but I can’t bear this.

To our modern ears, this sounds very much like a novelist writing a play. We can easily imagine a passage such as this in a novel – for instance:

Physically, Islaev had a strong constitution, but he had been throughout his life so free of all worry, and so unused to conflict, that confrontations of all kinds upset his natural equilibrium.

But in a play, such lines seem out of place. We are asked to believe that Islaev, in a state of mental perturbation, could nonetheless analyse himself accurately, and articulate clearly the fruits of his analysis for the audience’s benefit. But these were early days for realistic drama: one can easily find such passages also in early Ibsen or in early Chekhov.

A Month in the Country was Turgenev’s last play: he had written a few earlier – mainly in a comic, Gogolian mode – but none of them are anywhere near the class of this. After this, he turned to the novel. But it’s hard not to speculate how the drama might have developed had he decided otherwise. A Month in the Country very clearly points forward to Chekhov, but even when seen purely in its own light, it seems to me a remarkable achievement.

(The translation I read and quoted from above is by Stephen Mulrine, published by Oberon Books)