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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XII. The Georgian Drama

§ 8. The School for Scandal

Sheridan had acquired elsewhere the matured judgment and dramatic sense which these two ephemeral productions display. While supporting his household and keeping his name before the public, he had slowly and laboriously perfected his powers by constructing the best play of which he was capable. The School for Scandal, which finally appeared on 8 May, 1777, is the last great English comedy and typifies not only the excellence but the limitations of the Georgian theatre. To begin with, it is significant that Sheridan, in the choice of his dramatis personae, was content to use familiar types. Sir Peter Teazle is the traditional stage old man who had already reappeared in The Rivals and The Duenna; Charles Surface is the traditional young man, just as generous and impulsive as Captain Absolute, only more exposed to temptation. As in Sheridan’s earlier work, we have the professed poseur. This time, he is neither a country squire who apes bravery, nor an old woman who affects the phraseology of culture, nor yet a Hebrew opportunist overconfident in his own cleverness, but a character who overreaches himself in the attempt to make a good impression, already familiar to those acquainted with Murphy’s Know your own Mind. The other personages, except Lady Teazle, are not studies of character, but occasional figures, vaguely suggestive of the restoration comedy or of Molière, seen only at one angle, as they come and go in the act of creating the background or contributing to a situation. Even Sir Oliver, despite his common sense, his pardonable vanity at finding his own picture rather than another’s spared in the portrait scene, and despite his humanity, nurtured in a life of enterprise, is hardly more than “an angel entertained unawares” in an eighteenth century garb.

But, if The School for Scandal does not tell us anything that is new or profound about human nature, it is a brilliant exposition of that other superimposed character which an idle, overcivilised society develops. It has already been shown how Sheridan, in writing The Rivals, used a farcical plot to portray the peculiar graces which élite society admired and the peculiar ineptitudes which it despised. In The School for Scandal, he went further; he put on the stage, in his own pregnant way, the psychology of the overtrained world of fashion. In the first place, as conversation was a fine art in a community of drawingroom idlers, Sheridan endowed his personages with a flow of picturesque epigram, of which the studied felicity surpasses all other dialogues, including that of his own previous works. Besides this, he perceived that the intellectually unemployed turn social intercourse into a competitive struggle; and, when he came to portray the underlying stratum of jealousy and intrigue, he brought to his task a touch of modern sentimentality from which few Georgians could escape. Behind his view of London art and artifice, there lurked the popular ideal of simple manners, and, thanks to this background of thought, he was able to show how the vices of the polite world overgrow natural instincts. Since ideas which are to succeed on the stage must be concrete, he made extravagance and scandal examples of decadence, and then worked out a crisis in the lives of characters brought under their influence. Charles Surface is the centre of a circle demoralised by extravagance till a chance episode reveals the generosity of its nature. Lady Sneerwell typifies the irreclaimable scandalmonger; she finds so many opportunities of retaliating on the world which first slandered her that habit is now second nature. Joseph Surface, at heart, is no worse than the character whose desire for respectability exceeds his powers of compassing it; he, too, is gradually fascinated by a brilliant and corrupt society, till an unexpected event shows that he has sinned beyond forgiveness. Sir Peter is the Cato of the piece, good at heart, if self-centred, but soured by contact with many backbiters and rendered ridiculous by the vagaries of his young wife, herself Sheridan’s best creation—an example of how youth and inexperience may be blinded to the follies of fashionable life till the eyes are reopened by a sudden crisis.

Such a theme, in the hands of Cumberland, Holcroft, Mrs. Inchbald, Colman or Morton would have developed into sentimental drama. The Teazle ménage would have provided comic relief; Maria, a defenceless ward in their household, slandered by the scandal club and distressed by Joseph’s insidious attentions, would have become the pathetic heroine of the piece. Sir Oliver, probably her father in disguise, would have appeared in the fifth act to rescue her from persecution and to restore her to her faithful Charles, who had plunged into dissipation because she was too modest to requite his love. That Sheridan was quite capable of so lachrymose a treatment is proved by his Ode to Scandal; but, in his comedy, he confined himself, with admirable skill and judgment to making vice ridiculous. Of all the characters, only Sir Oliver, Rowley and Maria are colourless, because they are untouched by London frivolity. Each of the others exemplifies some vice or weakness with that consistent exaggeration which provokes laughter, because, on the stage, it seems true to life. Even more notable is Sheridan’s classical sense of form and the skill with which he constructed his plot. The characters do not fall, by accident, into ready-made situations, but control the plot throughout. It was part of Charles’s nature to sell his family portraits and of Lady Teazle’s to accept the invitation to visit Joseph. The weakness of English comedy had always been a division of interest between plot and underplot, and Sheridan’s earlier work was by no means free from this defect. But, though The School for Scandal deals with the crisis of not less than four lives, their destinies cross one another in the culminating point. It is this intersection of interests which gives an almost unparalleled dramatic effect to the two great scenes. In the portrait scene, Joseph and the Teazles are present only by implication; in the screen scene, all four meet at what the spectators realise at once as one of the important moments of their lives.

Yet, The School for Scandal is not one of the world’s best comedies; it lacks inspiration. As has been shown, the English theatre had become the mirror of metropolitan wit and gentility. Its public expected polite distraction and were ready to laugh, to weep or to be amused; but their drawing-room culture and coffee-house experiences denied them interest in the puzzles and anomalies of human nature, out of which the greatest comedies are made. Hence, those who wrote for the stage were almost forced to revive the traditional situations and characters of old comedy, or, failing that, to give their colourless plays some topical or temporary interest. Goldsmith and Sheridan succeeded well with this dead material, because the one enlivened it with humour and the other with wit. Even in The School for Scandal, the lack of true insight is not hard to detect; and, two years and a half later, The Critic (October 29, 1779) showed that its author had nothing fresh to say concerning life.

It was now three years since Sheridan had succeeded Garrick as manager of Drury lane and had been exposed to the paper warfare which, for over half a century, had been bickering in the narrow theatrical world. It is not surprising that, in an atmosphere of lampoons and acrid criticisms, he should turn his gift of dramatic caricature against his foes. Just as Buckingham had ridiculed actors in The Rehearsal, Sheridan produced on the stage a satire against the poetasters and intriguing critics who ranged themselves on the side of sentimental drama. He no longer attempted to create characters whose actions should clash and interweave, till a situation revealed each in his true light. He did, indeed, begin by depicting the world of theatrical vanity and self-interest. We have a glimpse of a married couple whose home life is poisoned by stage-mania; two crusted literary aspirants, full of that civilised malignity which Sheridan knew well how to portray, and, above all, Puff, the advertising adventurer, a true stage freak, devoid of reality, whose newly-written play the other characters adjourn to see rehearsed. The dialogue is as sparkling as ever, and the characters, whether or no they are based on contemporary personalities, have just that touch of humorsome exaggeration of which Sheridan was master. But the second act, instead of developing a plot, changes into a parody. Puff’s tragedy, The Spanish Armada, is a pseudo-historical drama, and the spectators are entertained with a caricature of stage-managership and dramatic effect. A parody cannot rank as literature save when, besides a certain felicity, of expression, the ready is able to recognise, not only the peculiarities, but the essence and spirit of what is being travestied; and it cannot be denied that the brilliant inanities, for which this burlesque has been often praised, are founded on the real practices of Georgian tragedy. Nor is the more personal satire of the first act relinquished. Besides a travesty of pedantic devices, such as exposition, peripety, climax, conversion and stichomythia, Dangle, Sneer and Puff discuss the performance, and their comments are an admirable caricature on the demimonde of theatrical art.