BRINSLEY SHERIDAN seems to have had two good plays, one good
opera, and one good oration in his system. His life, aside from
that, boils down to twenty years of fashionable life in London
as a dabbler in politics, the companion of dissolute princes
and a wastrel. At the age of 21, following a romantic elopement,
he married and set up housekeeping in London on a grand scale
with no money and no prospects except his wife's dowry. The young
couple, nevertheless, entered the fashionable world and apparently
held up their end in entertaining.
Sheridan's lucky star was in the ascendant, however, for on
January 17, 1775, at the Covent Garden Theater, The Rivals
was produced. The first performance was not a success. It was
too long and the part of Sir Lucius O'Trigger was poorly played.
On January 28, a second performance proved a complete success,
establishing both play and playwright in the favor of fashionable
The following year Sheridan, his father-in-law (the composer,
Thomas Finley) and Dr. Ford bought a half interest in the Drury
Lane theater and in 1778 became sole owners. Shortly after the
success of The Rivals Sheridan with the help of his father-in-law
produced the opera, The Duenna. This piece was accorded
such a warm reception that it played for seventy-five performances.
On May 8, 1777, Sheridan directed his masterpiece, A School
for Scandal, in the Drury Lane theater of which he was now
manager, with Mrs. Abington in the rôle of Lady Teazle.
The play lacks the unity which marks The Rivals, and it
does not have the same wealth of broadly humorous incident. Of
the many "screen" scenes of dramatic history, however,
the one in School for Scandal is by far the cleverest,
while the "auction" scene is a success on any stage.
In 1780 Sheridan entered Parliament as the ally of Charles
James Fox on the side of the American Colonials. He is said to
have paid the burgesses of Stafford five guineas apiece for the
honor of representing them. As a consequence, his first speech
in Parliament had to be a defense against the charge of bribery.
During the bitter political controversies of the period Sheridan
was practically the only man in Parliament who was never challenged
to a duel . . . this, in spite of the sharp and effective weapon
of ridicule he constantly wielded. When finally he failed of
reelection to Parliament his creditors closed in on him and his
last years were harassed by debt and disappointment. In the course
of events the American Congress offered Sheridan 20,000 pounds
in recognition of his efforts to prevent the Revolutionary War.
To his eternal credit is recorded the refusal of this gift.
This article was originally published
in Minute History of the Drama Alice B. Fort & Herbert
S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. p. 64.