Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan (30 October 1751 – 7 July 1816) was an Irish satirist, a playwright, poet, and long-term owner of the London Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He is known for his plays such as The Rivals, The School for Scandal, The Duenna and A Trip to Scarborough. He was also a Whig MP for 32 years in the British House of Commons for Stafford (1780–1806), Westminster (1806–1807), and Ilchester (1807–1812). He is buried at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. His plays remain a central part of the canon and are regularly performed worldwide.


Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan
Richard Brinsley Sheridan 1751 - 1816.jpg
Treasurer of the Navy
In office
1806–1807
Prime MinisterLord Grenville
Preceded byGeorge Canning
Succeeded byGeorge Rose
Personal details
Born(1751-10-30)30 October 1751
Dublin, Ireland
Died7 July 1816(1816-07-07) (aged 64)
14 Savile Row, London, England
Political partyWhig
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Ann Linley, Esther Jane Ogle
ProfessionStatesman, playwright

Early LifeEdit

 
Portrait of a Gentleman, traditionally identified as Richard Brinsley Sheridan, by John Hoppner

Sheridan was born in 1751 in Dublin, Ireland, where his family had a house on then fashionable Dorset Street. His mother, Frances Sheridan, was a playwright and novelist. She had two plays produced in London in the early 1760s, though she is best known for her novel The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph (1761).[1] His father, Thomas Sheridan, was for a while an actor-manager at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, but following his move to England in 1758 he gave up acting and wrote several books on the subject of education, especially the standardisation of the English language in education.[2]

While his family was in Dublin, Richard attended the English Grammar School in Grafton Street. In 1758, when he was seven years old, the Sheridans moved permanently to England.[3]

He was a pupil at Harrow School from 1762 to 1768.[4] At the end of his 1768 school year, his father employed a private tutor, Lewis Ker, to direct his studies in his father's house in London, while Domenico Angelo instructed him in fencing and horsemanship.[4]

In 1772, aged 20 or 21, Sheridan fought two duels with Captain Thomas Mathews, who had written a newspaper article defaming the character of Elizabeth Ann Linley, whom Sheridan intended to marry. In the first duel, they agreed to fight in Hyde Park, but finding it too crowded they went first to the Hercules Pillars tavern (on the site where Apsley House now stands at Hyde Park Corner) and then on to the Castle Tavern in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.[5] Far from its romantic image, the duel was short and bloodless. Mathews lost his sword and, according to Sheridan, was forced to 'beg for his life' and sign a retraction of the article.[6] The apology was made public and Mathews, infuriated by the publicity the duel had received, refused to accept his defeat as final and challenged Sheridan to another duel. Sheridan was not obliged to accept this challenge but could have become a social pariah if he had not.[citation needed] The second duel, fought in July 1772 at Kingsdown near Bath,[7] was a much more ferocious affair. This time both men broke their swords but carried on fighting in a 'desperate struggle for life and honour'.[8] Both were wounded, Sheridan dangerously, and he had to be 'borne from the field with a portion of his antagonist's weapon sticking through an ear, his breast-bone touched, his whole body covered with wounds and blood, and his face nearly beaten to jelly with the hilt of Mathews' sword'.[9] Mathews escaped in a post chaise. Eight days after the bloody affair the Bath Chronicle was able to announce that Sheridan was out of danger.

Later that year, Elizabeth and the 21-year-old Richard eloped and set up house in London on a lavish scale. Sheridan had little money and no immediate prospects of any, other than his wife's dowry. The young couple entered the fashionable world and apparently held up their end in entertaining.

Literary CareerEdit


In 1775 Sheridan's first play, The Rivals, was produced at London's Covent Garden Theatre. It was a failure on its first night. Sheridan cast a more capable actor in the lead for its second performance, and it was a huge success, immediately establishing the young playwright's reputation and the favour of fashionable London. It went on to become a standard of English literature.

Shortly after the success of The Rivals, Sheridan and his father-in-law Thomas Linley the Elder, a successful composer, produced the opera The Duenna. This piece, warmly received, played for seventy-five performances.

His most famous play, The School for Scandal, premiered at Drury Lane on 8 May 1777. It is considered one of the greatest comedies of manners in English. It was followed by The Critic (1779), an updating of the satirical Restoration play The Rehearsal.

Having quickly made his name and fortune, in 1776 Sheridan bought David Garrick's share in the Drury Lane patent, and in 1778 the remaining share; his later plays were all produced there.[10] In 1778 Sheridan wrote The Camp, which commented on the ongoing threat of a French invasion of Britain. The same year Sheridan's brother-in-law Thomas Linley, a young composer who worked with him at Drury Lane Theatre, died in a boating accident. Sheridan had a rivalry with his fellow playwright Richard Cumberland and included a parody of Cumberland in his play The Critic. On 24 February 1809 (despite the much vaunted fire safety precautions of 1794) the theatre burned down. On being encountered drinking a glass of wine in the street while watching the fire, Sheridan was famously reported to have said, 'A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.'[11] Sheridan was the manager of the theatre for many years, and later became sole owner with no managerial role.

Political CareerEdit

 
In Uncorking Old Sherry (1805), James Gillray caricatured Sheridan as a bottle of sherry, uncorked by Pitt and bursting out with puns, invective, and fibs.

In 1780, Sheridan entered the House of Commons as the ally of Charles James Fox on the side of the American Colonials in the political debate of that year. He is said to have paid the burgesses of Stafford five guineas apiece to allow him to represent them. As a consequence, his first speech in Parliament was a defence against the charge of bribery.

In 1787 Sheridan demanded the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India. His speech[12] in the House of Commons was described by Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, and William Pitt as the greatest ever delivered in ancient or modern times.[13]

In 1793, during the debates on the Aliens Act designed to prevent French Revolutionary spies and saboteurs from flooding into the country, Edmund Burke made a speech in which he claimed there were thousands of French agents in Britain ready to use weapons against the authorities. To dramatically emphasise his point he threw down a knife onto the floor of the House of Commons. Sheridan shouted, 'Where's the fork?', which led to much of the house collapsing in laughter.[14]

During the invasion scare of 1803 Sheridan penned an 'Address to the People':

THEY, by a strange Frenzy driven, fight for Power, for Plunder, and extended Rule—WE, for our Country, our Altars, and our Homes.—THEY follow an ADVENTURER, whom they fear—and obey a Power which they hate—WE serve a Monarch whom we love—a God whom we adore...They call on us to barter all of Good we have inherited and proved, for the desperate Chance of Something better which they promise.—Be our plain Answer this: The Throne WE honour is the PEOPLE'S CHOICE—the Laws we reverence are our brave Fathers' Legacy—the Faith we follow teaches us to live in bonds of Charity with all Mankind, and die with Hope of Bliss beyond the Grave. Tell your Invaders this; and tell them too, we seek no Change; and, least of all, such Change as they would bring us.[15]

He held the posts of Receiver-General of the Duchy of Cornwall (1804–1807) and Treasurer of the Navy (1806–1807).

When, after 32 years in Parliament, he lost re-election in 1812, his creditors closed in on him and his last years were harassed by debt and disappointment. On hearing of his debts, the American Congress offered Sheridan £20,000 in recognition of his efforts to prevent the American War of Independence. He refused the offer.

 
Mrs Sheridan (Miss Linley)

Death and commemorationEdit

In December 1815 Sheridan became ill and was largely confined to bed. He died in poverty. However, dukes, earls, lords, viscounts, the Lord Mayor of London, and other notables attended his funeral, and he was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.

In 1825 the Irish writer Thomas Moore published a sympathetic two-volume biography, Memoirs of the Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, which became a major influence on subsequent perceptions. A Royal Society of Arts blue plaque was unveiled in 1881 to commemorate Sheridan at 14 Savile Row in Mayfair.[16] Another plaque is in Stafford.

Family lifeEdit

He was twice married. He and his first wife Elizabeth had a son:

Elizabeth also had a daughter, Mary, born 30 March 1792 but fathered by her lover, Lord Edward FitzGerald.[17] After Elizabeth's death, Sheridan fulfilled his promise to look after Elizabeth and FitzGerald's baby daughter. A nurse was employed to care for the child at his Wanstead home.[18] The baby had a series of fits one evening in October 1793, when she was 18 months old, dying before a doctor could attend. She was interred beside her mother at Wells Cathedral.[19]

In 1795, Richard B. Sheridan married Hester Jane Ogle (1776–1817), daughter of the Dean of Winchester. They had at least one child: Charles Brinsley Sheridan (1796–1843).[20] At one time Sheridan owned Downe House, Richmond Hill in London.[21]

WorksEdit

 
Physical Aid,—or—Britannia recover'd from a Trance;—also, the Patriotic Courage of Sherry Andrew; & a peep thro' the Fog (1803) by James Gillray, showing Sheridan as a Silenus-like and ragged Harlequin defending Henry Addington and Lord Hawkesbury on the Dover coast from the advancing French rowboats filled with French soldiers, led by Napoleon. Sheridan says: "Let 'em come! damn'me!!!—Where are the French Buggabo's? Single handed I'd beat forty of 'em!!! dam'me I'd pay 'em like Renter Shares, sconce off their half Crowns!!!—mulct them out of their Benefits, &c, come Drury Lane Slang over em!."

He also wrote a selection of poems and political speeches during his time in parliament.

Adaptations and cultural referencesEdit

  • Sheridan is played by Barry Stanton in the film The Madness of King George (1994). In The Duchess (2008), a film based on the life of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, Sheridan is played by Aidan McArdle and The School for Scandal is performed in the movie.
  • Chris Humphreys has used the character of Jack Absolute from The Rivals as a basis for his books The Blooding of Jack Absolute, Absolute Honour and Jack Absolute. These are published under the name C. C. Humphreys.
  • Sheridan was a village in Toronto Township, Ontario, named for R. B. Sheridan. Its name was later used by a neighbourhood, Sheridan Homelands, which is now part of the City of Mississauga. Sheridan was shortlisted as the name of the newly incorporated city in 1974, which lies just west of the province's capital city of Toronto.[22]

NotesEdit

  1. ^ Campbell Ross, Ian (2004), "Sheridan , Frances (1724–1766)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, retrieved 2 September 2014
  2. ^ Rae 1897a, pp. 87–88.
  3. ^ Thomas Sheridan Biography at James Boswell Info; retrieved 30 June 2013.
  4. ^ a b Rae 1897, p. 78.
  5. ^ Wheatley 2011, p. 19.
  6. ^ Rae 1897, p. 79.
  7. ^ "Bath, Wednesday July 8th", Bath Chronicle, XII (612), p. 3, 9 July 1772 – via British Newspaper Archive
  8. ^ Steinmetz 1868, p. 17.
  9. ^ Fintan O'Toole: A Traitor's Kiss
  10. ^ The Oxford Companion to the Theatre, edited by Phyllis Hartnoll, OUP (1951)
  11. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1999) OUP
  12. ^ http://www.bartleby.com/268/6/6.html
  13. ^ John O'Connor Power, 'Irish Wit and Humour', Time, 1890. p.480. The Making of an Orator, 1906, pp. 187–194
  14. ^ Arnold-Baker 1996, p. 393.
  15. ^ Frank J. Klingberg and Sigurd B. Hustvedt (eds.), The Warning Drum. The British Home Front Faces Napoleon. Broadsides of 1803 (University of California Press, 1944), pp. 93–94.
  16. ^ Sheridan Plaque – Mayfair, London at English Heritage. Retrieved 30 June 2013
  17. ^ Chedzoy 1998, p. 278, 281.
  18. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 297
  19. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 298
  20. ^ Jeffares, A. Norman (2008). "Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751–1816)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 19 June 2015. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  21. ^ Historic England. "Downe House (1249949)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 19 June 2015.
  22. ^ Riendeau, Roger (1985), Mississauga, An Illustrated History, Windsor Books

ReferencesEdit

Attribution

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

Political offices
Preceded by
George Canning
Treasurer of the Navy
1806–1807
Succeeded by
George Rose
Parliament of Great Britain
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Richard Whitworth
Member of Parliament for Stafford
1780–1806
Succeeded by
Richard Mansel-Philipps
Preceded by
Earl Percy
Member of Parliament for Westminster
1806–1807
Succeeded by
Lord Cochrane
Preceded by
Sir William Manners
Member of Parliament for Ilchester
1807–1812
Succeeded by
Lord Ward