Thursday 1 August 2013

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

This Richard was a playwright and politician in eighteenth-century England. He is best known for his plays, such as The Rivals, School for Scandal, and A Trip to Scarborough (the first two are probably more famous than the third).

Richard was born in Dublin, Ireland on 30 October 1751. The family moved to London when Richard was seven, and he spent most of the rest of his life in England.

Aside from being a talented playwright, Richard was surrounded by talented people. His mother was a playwright and novelist, while his father wrote a number of books about education and the need to standardize the English language. Richard's wife, Elizabeth (daughter of a composer), had a beautiful singing voice and regularly sold-out concert halls in her youth. Her father wanted her to marry a man she didn't like (not Richard), and her domestic drama was subsequently made into a play entitled The Maid of Bath (it was a comedy, however).

Speaking of Richard and Elizabeth, the early days of their marriage were fit for the stage. The two eloped in 1772, when Richard was on the cusp of 21 and Elizabeth was three years younger. Although married in France by a Catholic priest, their marriage was deemed invalid since both were underage. Eventually, their marriage was accepted by Elizabeth's father (who had wanted her to marry a wealthier man), and the marriage was subsequently recognized as valid. The two were re-married in England in April of 1773.

During those early months, when the marriage's validity was touch-and-go, a man named Thomas Mathews publicly besmirched Elizabeth's honor in the newspaper. Naturally, Richard had to fight a duel to defend her. The initial duel was rather a non-starter. The two had to move venues (the initial place was too crowded), and Richard defeated Thomas without shedding any blood. Thomas later challenged Richard to a second duel, in which Richard was actually severely wounded. Obviously, he recovered.

Richard and Elizabeth moved to London, and Richard began to write and produce plays. The Rivals premiered in 1775. In 1776, Richard, his father-in-law, and another partner purchased half of the Drury Lane Theatre. By 1778 Richard owned the entire theatre.

Richard's most famous play, School for Scandal, appeared in 1777. It is considered to be one of the greatest comedies of manners ever written in English. Although Richard is not a household name today, his comedies are quite witty and carefully crafted. I recommend that you read some!

In 1780 Richard began his second career as a member of Parliament. He was a Whig and (of interest to us Americans) a supporter of the American colonists in their rebellion. During his 32 years in Parliament (Richard failed to win re-election is 1812), Richard gave many great orations and made plenty of sassy comments. As told by that glorious purveyor of knowledge, Wikipedia:

1793 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 is said to have shouted out "Where's the fork?", which led to much of the house collapsing in laughter." [From Arnold-Baker, Charles. The Companion to British History. Longcross Press, 1996, page 393].

If you would care to learn more about Richard's political career, check his entry in the great Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Anyway, Richard spent his entire life living beyond his means. Being an MP meant he couldn't be arrested for debt; when he lost his re-election bid in 1812, the creditors came calling. Since the Drury Lane Theatre had burned down in 1809, Richard didn't have much income and he died in poverty in 1816. He was, however, buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey and had a celebrity's funeral.

Despite his glorious wit, Richard was not entirely a roguish good guy. Despite the trouble he went through to marry Elizabeth, he had several affairs. His wife contemplated leaving him around 1789, but was persuaded otherwise. She ended up having an affair in 1791; her lover was the father of her daughter, born in 1792. This pregnancy (Elizabeth and Richard had a son born in 1774) exacerbated Elizabeth's tuberculosis and she died a few months later. Her daughter, treated by Richard as his child, sadly died in 1793. Richard remarried in 1795, and had a son with his second wife, Hester. In later years, Hester also had an affair. No doubt Richard did, too.

Although he was a man of many faults, Richard was highly regarded at his death. Even Lord Byron was a fan.

Read More:

A. Norman Jeffares, ‘Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751–1816)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [].

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