Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 –1816) was an Irish playwright and politician. The School for Scandal and Other Plays is a collection of five of his most famous plays, The Rivals, The Duenna, A Trip to Scarborough, The School for Scandal and The Critic.
Sheridan’s first and arguably most famous play, The Rivals, was first staged in 1775. The play was an utter failure on its first night. Undaunted by this calamity Sheridan radically re-wrote and re-cast the play. The play’s second performance was a hit with the public and made the young writer an instant success.
The Rivals is a comedy of manners. Set in Bath, it is a classic tale of misunderstandings, mistaken identities and mix-ups.
Most of the scenes are funny. I particularly like the scenes leading up to the proposed duel between Jack Absolute, Bob Acres, Faulkland and Sir Lucius O’Trigger. Bob’s and his servant David’s nervousness about the duel is hilarious!
As with most of Sheridan’s plays the characters’ names are a good indication of their natures. So, Mrs. Malaprop constantly uses words that sound like the words she wants to use but actually mean something entirely different, Sir Lucius O’Trigger is a very combative man and is often instigating fights; etc, etc.
The next play in the collection is The Duenna. The Duenna is not really a play but a comic opera. Sheridan collaborated with his father-in-law Thomas Linley, who was a successful composer, for this project. The Duenna was extremely successful having been performed seventy-five times in its first season.
The Duenna is essentially a parody of the hugely popular Spanish honour dramas.
The song This bottle’s the sun of our table sung by the Friars in the Priory caused quite a bit of controversy at the time. A song sung in appreciation of drinking by Friars was deemed inappropriate. The early Italian texts of The Duenna often omit the scene with the friars.
Even though The Duenna is an opera, the songs do not hamper the flow of the play in any way. The play is as funny as any of Sheridan’s other more conventional works.
The next play, A Trip to Scarborough, was first performed in 1777. This is not an original work. Rather it is a cleaned up version of John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse (1696). Sheridan changed the plot for the more conservative audience of the 18th century. Much of the rather bawdy language of the original text was also removed.
I personally like the sub-plot with Lord Foppington and his brother Tom Fashion much better than the main plot. I enjoyed Lord Foppington getting his just deserts.
The School for Scandal is a comedy of manners first performed in 1777.
I really don’t like the whole Sir Oliver Surface disguising himself and testing his nephews episode of the story. The character of Charles frankly irritates me.
I much prefer the scenes where the scandal mongering crowd discuss outrageous and most of the time untrue rumours. They entertain and disturb me at the same time.
The last play of the book is The Critic. It was first performed in 1779. The play is a satire on the production of plays. It is based upon an earlier play, George Villiers’ The Rehearsal (1671).
The Critic is a bit more sophisticated than the rest of the plays in the present collection. It doesn’t contain any unhappy lovers or misunderstandings. It simply presents the efforts of a not-so-talented writer to put on a profitable and, at the same time, an artistic play. The result is, of course, not quite what he hopes for.
This is one play that I’ve understood better with time. Some of the jokes, like the one about contemporary tragic heroines going ‘mad’ with grief (à la Ophelia), I appreciate better now.
“Enter Tilburina and Confidante mad, according to custom
SNEER. But, what the deuce, is the confidante to be mad too?
PUFF. To be sure she is. The confidante is always to do whatever her mistress does- weep when she weeps, smile when she smiles, go mad when she goes mad.-Now, Madam Confidante! But keep your madness in the background, if you please.”
Sheridan’s wit is unrivalled. His dialogues and characterizations are almost flawless.
My Oxford World’s Classics edition of The School for Scandal and Other Plays contains a rather large introduction to the text, a brief description of Sheridan’s association with the famous playhouses of his time and a chronology of his life and above all extensive explanatory notes and glossary. The explanatory notes are the best and the worst thing about this edition. They provided me with extensive background information on the plays and on the author. They certainly added to my reading experience. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to get many of the hidden allusions contained in the plays. But at the same time the editors seem over zealous. A lot of words that are still very much in use are included and explained in the notes. Seriously, how many of us don’t know what a ‘green room’ is? As the notes are at the back of the book I had to constantly flip back and forth, something that really irritates me. After all that flipping back and forth, they’d better tell me something worth knowing rather than something I already know!
I like all of the plays in this collection. The Rivals remains my favourite. The Duenna and A Trip to Scarborough are good. The School for Scandal is funny in parts. The Critic I’ve grown to appreciate more over time although it still feels a little unstructured.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan is undoubtedly one of my favourite authors. Seldom do I like almost every single work of any one author. Every writer has at least one or two duds, in my opinion. But Sheridan’s plays rarely fail to entertain me. As a result, The School for Scandal and Other Plays remains one of my eternally favourite books. Even after four-five re-reads I still laugh at the same jokes. This one never really grows old for me.
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