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Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816)

One of the only English playwrights of the period whose work survives, a lover of high society, and a dabbler in politics.

Early Life

Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin on the 30th of October, 1751, the third son of Thomas and Frances Sheridan. He attended a junior school to which he was introduced - by his own mother - as an 'impenetrable dunce'. Nonetheless, he managed to join Harrow school at the age of 11, where he was extremely popular. He left here 6 years later to live with his father, who was working as an elocution teacher in Bath. Sheridan was trained by his father in elocution, while attending an English course and taking lessons in fencing and riding - all the education he would later need as a darling of high society.

While at Bath, Sheridan made the acquaintance of the family of Thomas Linley, a composer. The young man fell in love with his daughter, Elizabeth Ann (b. 1754), who was exceedingly beautiful and had many suitors. Because Sheridan was not favoured by the girl's father, and to protect her from the persecutions of a Major Matthews, he eloped with her to France. After the couple were caught by Linley, Sheridan returned and fought two duels with Matthews, causing great sensation at the time.

He was forbidden to see Elizabeth, and was sent to Waltham Abbey to continue his studies. After qualifying as a lawyer, however, he returned to openly declare his earlier marriage to Elizabeth. He took a house in Portman Square and decorated it 'in the most costly style' - despite his total lack of income or capital - and began writing plays.

Dramatic Career

Sheridan appears only to have had two 'good' plays in his system, which he wrote within a very short period of time. His first, The Rivals, was produced in 1775 a had a very poor reception, partly due to its long length, but also because of the poor acting of the part of Sir Lucius o'Trigger. A revised version was soon released, to much better reception. 1775 also saw St. Patrick's Day, a lively farce, and The Duenna.

In 1776, Sheridan joined with his father-in-law to secure the purchase of the Drury Lane theatre for the meagre sum of £35,000. In the following year, Sheridan produced The School for Scandal, generally regarded to be the pinnacle of his achievement.

Sheridan's last major play was The Critic. All in all, Sheridan's plays are very mediocre compared to the achievements made in other fields during the period. His comedies pale in comparison to his French predecessor Molière's, and his plays are interesting merely because of his uniqueness as a surviving English playwright of the period and because of his rare theatrical innovations. (It should also be noted that, since little theatre from this period survives, the 'innovations' themselves may have been borrowed.)

Political Career

Having met Charles James Fox in 1776, Sheridan had decided to abandon his writing in favour of a political career. He joined Parliament in 1880 as his ally on the side of the American Colonials. He paid the burgesses of Stafford five guineas a piece for his election. He spoke out against the Government's policy on North America, and was offered £20,000 by Congress for his efforts, an offer which he refused under allegations of disloyalty to his country.

In 1782, Sheridan was appointed under-secretary for Foreign Affairs by the Marquis of Rockingham, and he served in the coalition headed by William Pitt the next year. During his time in Parliament, Sheridan retained strong and controversial beliefs, defending variously the French Revolution, freedom of the press, and the cause of the Irish in the face of the Union Act.

Sheridan lost office when Henry Addington replaced Pitt as Prime Minister. In 1806, he returned to Government as the Treasurer of the Navy. He was defeated in 1807's General Election, but managed to procure a seat for Ilchester. In 1812, he attemped to win back Stafford, but was unable to afford the fee of five guineas per voter, and fell into serious financial problems as his creditors closed in upon him, now that he had no protection as a member of Parilament.

Miscellaneous Biographical Notes

Sheridan had one son by his first marriage, Thomas Sheridan, a poet. Sheridan lost his first wife in 1792, and was married again in 1795 to Esther Jane, the daughter of Newton Ogle, the dean of Winchester.

In 1813, Sheridan was arrested for debt. He was only freed because Samuel Whitbread paid the required sum. Sheridan died three years later, in great poverty, but had nonetheless a funeral full of pomp.

Selected Works

  • The Rivals - 1775
  • St. Patrick's Day - 1775
  • The Duenna - 1775
  • School for Scandal - 1777
  • The Critic - 1779


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