School for Scandal
RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN 1777
School for Scandal opened at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, England, in May of 1777. It was an enormous success. Reviews heralded the play as a “real comedy” that would supplant the sentimental dramas that had filled the stage in the previous years. While wildly popular in the eighteenth century, the play has not been as successful with contemporary audiences.
One significant problem is the anti-Semitism that runs throughout the play. Post-World War II audiences are understandably sensitive to the disparaging remarks made about moneylenders, who were often Jewish. That the character of Moses is portrayed as honest and concerned is depicted in the play as an aberration. When Sir Oliver is learning how to disguise himself as a moneylender, he is told that he must ask 100% interest because it is expected that he must behave as an “unconscionable dog.”
But anti-Semitism is not the only problem with modern staging. By current standards, the play appears artificial in the characters’ speech, dress, and motivations. A comedy about manners is not as interesting to twentieth century audiences because manners and the rules of society are far more permissive and wide-ranging than they were in the 1700s. When School for Scandal was revived on the London stage in 1990, the director stated that another problem with staging was the lack of any one strong character to drive the play.
Perceptions regarding the nature of drama also play into contemporary perceptions of Sheridan’s work. Peter Woods, who directed the 1990 revival, stated in an interview in Sheridan Studies, that “today’s audience supposes itself to be watching ART. Sheridan’s audience was looking at the funnies.” Woods believed that audiences taking themselves and historical plays too seriously are what prevents Sheridan’s comedy from being as successful today. Nevertheless, School for Scandal remains a standard for comedies of manner and is considered Sheridan’s defining work.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin, Ireland, and was christened on November 4, 1751. His father was an actor and author, a path that Sheridan himself would choose for his vocation. He was educated at Harrow School in London, England. After the family moved to Bath in 1770, Sheridan met and eloped with a young singer, Eliza Linley. Their marriage contract was invalid due to a lack of parental consent, however. Sheridan fought two duels on her behalf, nearly dying in the second, and finally, after three years, the couple’s families withdrew their opposition and the pair were legally married in 1773.
Sheridan had begun to study the law the year before, and, in 1773, he entered as a barrister in the Middle Temple. When the law failed to provide him with adequate financial means, Sheridan turned his attention to writing drama. His first play, The Rivals was completed in a few weeks and opened in 1775 at the Covent Garden Theatre. The production closed the same day; Sheridan revised the work, shortening the structure and recasting his actors. The play reopened to great success only ten days later. A few months later his second work, St. Patrick’s Day, opened. Sheridan next collaborated on an operatic play, The Duenna, with his father-in-law. Both of these works were popular with audiences.
After writing and producing three successful plays in 1775, Sheridan and some partners bought the Drury Lane Theatre in 1776, and he became its manager. In 1777, his play A Trip to Scarborough was presented at the Drury Lane, and, three months later, School For Scandal became his most popular play. In 1779, Sheridan became the sole owner of the theatre, and his last play for another twenty years, The Critic, opened to the same success as his earlier works.
Despite critical and popular success, Sheridan had accumulated a huge amount of debt. On the surface, he appeared a success. By his late twenties he was the owner of the most famous theatre in England and was a well-known, successful playwright, yet his finances were in ruins.
In 1780, Sheridan was elected to Parliament. By all reports, Sheridan was a brilliant orator, but he never achieved the kind of success he desired, due in part to British prejudices against his Irish birth. Sheridan’s wife died in 1792; she had left him years earlier because of his drinking and infidelity. The same year, the Drury Lane Theatre was condemned and torn down. Sheridan went even further into debt but managed to rebuild the theatre. Three years after his wife’s death, he married Hester Jane Ogle, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the Dean of Winchester. Sheridan wrote his last play, Pizarro, in 1799. The income from this last successful production only slightly reduced his mountain of debt. Finally, Sheridan was ousted from Drury Lane’s management due to his mishandling of funds. When he lost his Parliament seat, he also lost protection against arrest for his debts. Sheridan was imprisoned several times for failure to pay his debts; his furniture was sold, and he was living in filth at the time of his death in 1816. Although he died in financial ruin and ignominy, the work that he produced for the stage in the years 1773-1779 earned Sheridan a place among the great writers of drama.
School for Scandal opens with Lady Sneerwell and her henchman Snake plotting a means to break up the romance between Charles Surface and Maria. It is Snake’s job to assist in disseminating the gossip that Lady Sneerwell creates, and when he asks why she wishes to destroy this romance, Lady Sneerwell reveals that she wants Charles for herself. Maria’s hand would then go to Charles’s brother, Joseph.
In the first act, the audience is introduced to the characters who surround Lady Sneerwell and their true nature is revealed. Gossip and slander fill their time; they consider the destruction of marriages and reputations as entertainment.
Maria is the exception in this group. She condemns their gossip and refuses to be persuaded that Charles is unworthy of her. Sir Peter and his servant, Rowley, arrive on stage at the change of scene. Sir Peter is openly questioning his wisdom in marrying such a young wife. He thought that by marrying an innocent country girl, his happiness would be assured. Instead, Sir Peter reveals to the audience that his wife spends too much time with her friends and too much money on dresses and extravagances. Rowley tells Sir Peter that Charles and Joseph’s uncle, Sir Oliver, is returning to London after a long absence. The audience also learns that it is Rowley’s opinion that Charles has more potential than Sir Peter recognizes.
The second act opens with an argument between Sir Peter and his wife, Lady Teazle, about the money she is spending. He focuses on her extravagant purchase of fresh flowers during the winter. She is not intimidated by his anger. When her husband reminds her of how he rescued her from a simple but poor life, Lady Teazle nearly admits that she would wish her husband dead as his next step toward rescuing her.
In the next scene, the gossips are busy slandering everyone they know as they prepare for a card game at Lady Sneerwell’s. Lady Teazle joins them and in a few moments is joined by her husband. Maria is also there and is joined by Joseph who presses his suit for her attention. She is clearly annoyed and pleads with him to change the subject.
In the following scene, Sir Oliver has returned and is briefed by Rowley and Sir Peter regarding his nephews, Joseph and Charles. Rowley and Sir Peter differ in their appreciation of the two young men. Sir Oliver is determined to investigate and decide the nature of his nephews for himself.
Rowley, Sir Peter, and Sir Oliver are joined by the moneylender, Moses. Moses will take Sir Oliver to meet Charles under the guise of a moneylender, Mr. Premium. Moses coaches Sir Oliver in the behavior and manners of a moneylender, and the two depart for Charles’s home. When Maria enters, Sir Peter takes the opportunity to chastise her for her rejection of Joseph, but Maria stands her ground, proclaiming her love for Charles.
The scene ends with a humorous exchange between Sir Peter and his wife. Although the two
begin lovingly enough, the compliments soon turn to an argument as the two each claim that the other one is always at fault for their constant quarreling.
In the next scene, Moses and the disguised Sir Oliver arrive at Charles’s home. Charles is happily at play gambling, singing, and drinking with his friends, but he is delighted to be visited by the moneylender, since Charles needs cash quite badly. Charles agrees to sell the family portraits to raise money. It is agreed that he will make a game of an auction to sell the pictures to Mr. Premium.
During the auction, Sir Oliver buys all the portraits except his own, which Charles will not sell. He has a fondness for his uncle whom he has not seen in many years and refuses to part with the portrait. Sir Oliver is charmed and forgives Charles his faults. While still disguised, Sir Oliver gives Charles far more money than the agreed upon price and leaves with Moses. Charles immediately sends some of the money to a poor relation.
In the next scene, Lady Teazle has called upon Joseph. He has been attempting to seduce her, and, although she has resisted thus far, she has come to Joseph’s home because she is tempted. When her husband is announced, Lady Teazle hides behind a
screen. Sir Peter has arrived to ask Joseph if his brother, Charles, is having an affair with Lady Teazle. Joseph is taken aback by the suggestion, and although he hedges a bit, finally states that he cannot think Charles guilty of such a thing.
At that moment Charles is announced, and Sir Peter asks to hide so that he might overhear Joseph ask Charles about Lady Teazle. When Sir Peter goes to hide behind the screen that conceals his wife, Joseph tells Sir Peter that his arrival had interrupted a rendezvous with a French milliner and the young woman is hiding behind the screen. Sir Peter hides in a closet just as Charles is ushered into the room.
In a few moments Joseph learns that Lady Sneerwell is arriving, and he leaves the room. Sir Peter, having heard Charles profess that he has no interest in Lady Teazle, reveals himself. When Charles pronounces Joseph too worried about his reputation to risk scandal, Sir Peter knocks down the screen, thinking that he will reveal a French milliner. Instead, his own wife is revealed hiding behind it.
Joseph rushes back into the room and attempts to create a story to explain everything. But Lady Teazle, who has overheard her husband’s plans to honor her, is ashamed of her near betrayal and confesses everything to Sir Peter. Sir Peter declares Joseph a villain. The act ends.
Sir Oliver, unaware of the recent activities, arrives at Joseph’s disguised as a poor relation. He asks Joseph for help but is turned quickly away. Rowley returns to tell Joseph that his Uncle, Sir Oliver, has returned to London and wishes to meet with both brothers.
The next scene opens with all of the gossips clamoring for more information about what really occurred between Sir Peter and his wife and Joseph. In a matter of moments, they have concocted a duel and a near fatal injury for the participants. They are interrupted when Sir Peter arrives and throws his wife’s former friends outside. Lady Teazle resigns from the scandal club. In the library of Joseph’s house, Sir Oliver arrives. Charles and Joseph recognize him from the disguised identities he assumed. Sir Oliver’s true identity is revealed, but at that moment, Lady Sneerwell arrives for one last try at breaking up Maria and Charles.
Sneerwell fails when it is revealed that Snake has betrayed her to someone who would pay him a higher price. She leaves. Joseph follows her after it is made clear that everyone present now recognizes his hypocrisy. Sir Oliver and Sir Peter confer their blessings upon Maria and Charles.
Sir Benjamin Backbite
Backbite is a suitor to Marie. He is a gossip who will slander anyone, even those he does not know. Page 275 | Top of ArticleLady Sneerwell admires Backbite’s wit and poetry. Backbite is an especially malicious character whose rude behavior is encouraged in the company of his uncle, Lady Sneerwell, and Mrs. Candour.
Sir Harry Bumper
Toby is one of Charles’s friends who spends his time drinking, gambling, and singing.
Mrs. Candour is a good-natured and friendly gossip whose talkative nature makes her dangerous, since she spreads slander more effectively than Backbite or Crabtree.
Careless is one of Charles’s friends. He plays auctioneer when the family pictures are sold to Mr. Premium.
Crabtree is Backbite’s uncle and as big a gossip as his nephew.
Maria is Sir Peter’s wealthy ward. She is in love with Charles and he is in love with her. Her nature is sweet, and she is very disturbed at the vicious gossip she encounters at social functions. Although Maria is considered a principle character, she has only a small role in the play.
Moses is the moneylender who has been lending money to Charles. He has tried to help Charles with his money problems and bring his spending under control. Moses is honest and helps Sir Oliver in his pretense as a moneylender.
See Sir Oliver Surface
See Sir Oliver Surface
Rowley is Sir Peter’s servant and was formally a steward to Joseph and Charles’s father. He recognizes that Charles is kind-hearted and good in spite of his problems managing money. Rowley has caught Snake at forgery and uses the information to force Snake to betray Mrs. Sneerwell. Rowley serves
as go-between for Sir Oliver when he disguises himself to visit his nephews.
Snake works for Lady Sneerwell; he undertakes the actions that destroy reputations. He is indeed a snake, since his job is to slither around gaining and dispensing gossip. Snake willingly goes to the highest bidder and in the final scene admits that Rowley has paid him a greater fee to betray Lady Sneerwell.
Lady Sneerwell was the target of slander in her youth. She now directs her efforts at ruining the reputations of other women. She prides herself on her delicacy of scandal, which she manages with only a hint of asneer (she “sneers well”). Slander is her primary source of pleasure. Lady Sneerwell is secretly infatuated with Charles, and that is the real reason she wants to break up his relationship with Maria. Lady Sneerwell plots with Joseph to secure Charles for herself and Maria for Joseph, but the plot blows up when Joseph is exposed to Sir Peter and when Maria refuses to consider Joseph as a suitor. She forges letters in a final attempt to further her plot but is revealed when her partner, Snake, sells his loyalty to a higher bidder.
Charles is the protagonist of the play and the younger Surface brother. He is extravagant but good-natured. He is in love with Maria and wishes to marry her. Mrs. Sneerwell, however, wants him for herself. Charles sells his uncle, who is in disguise, Page 276 | Top of Articlethe family portraits, since he, as usual, needs money. He wins his old uncle’s heart when he refuses to sell his beloved uncle’s portrait. Sir Oliver finds that Charles is honest and generous. In the final scene, Charles and Maria receive the endorsement and good wishes of her guardian, Sir Peter, and that of Sir Oliver.
The elder Surface brother, Joseph is amiable and well regarded. But he is a hypocrite, since he is courting the wealthy Maria behind his brother’s back while also flirting with Lady Sneerwell and trying to seduce Mrs. Teazle. When Joseph refuses to help his disguised uncle, his true nature is revealed. He is artful, selfish, and malicious, but he has Sir Peter completely convinced of his merit and good name until Lady Teazle tells her husband that Joseph has attempted to seduce her. Joseph lacks the qualities of truth, gratitude, and charity.
Sir Oliver Surface
Sir Oliver is Charles and Joseph’s rich uncle. He returns to England and attempts to test his nephews’ character without revealing his identity. Sir Oliver assumes the identity of a moneylender, Mr. Premium, to test Charles’s loyalty. Later, he assumes the identity of Old Stanley, a poor relation, to test Joseph. In the final scene he reveals his true identity to both brothers, and Joseph is disinherited while Charles is rewarded by his uncle for his honesty and generosity.
Lady Teazle is young and was educated in the country. But since her marriage and move to London, she has learned to dress well and to spend lavishly. She counts Lady Sneerwell among her friends and engages in flirtations with young men. She fights frequently with her husband, contradicts him, and flaunts his authority, but he continues to love her. When Lady Teazle engages in gossip with her friends, there is a noticeable meanness in her words. Yet her country upbringing makes her hesitate when she considers engaging in an affair with Joseph. When Lady Teazle overhears her husband’s plan to settle an income on her, she realizes that he does love her and she quickly comes to her senses. She reveals to Sir Peter Joseph’s attempts to seduce her. In the final scene, she resigns from the company of gossips and reaffirms her devotion to her husband.
Sir Peter Teazle
A neighbor of Lady Sneerwell, Sir Peter is also the guardian of Joseph and Charles Surface. Sir Peter was an older bachelor when he married his much younger wife six months before the start of the play. She is making his life miserable with her extravagances and her friends. But he loves his wife, although his friends sneer at him for letting her take advantage of him. Although Sir Peter has always favored Joseph (he even suspects Charles of trying to seduce Lady Teazle), Joseph’s hypocritical nature is revealed when Lady Teazle confesses to her husband that Joseph was attempting to seduce her. Eventually, Sir Peter approves of the marriage of his ward, Maria, to Charles.
See Sir Harry Bumper
Trip is Charles’s footman. He also needs to borrow money and seeks out the moneylenders when they come to see Charles.
Initially honor seems to be in short supply in School for Scandal: The gossips are completely without honor; Lady Teazle is considering abandoning the lessons about honor that she learned growing up in the country; Joseph is ready to betray his brother to secure a wealthy wife; and Charles is hopelessly in debt to moneylenders. Even Sir Oliver, whose honor should be above question, is ready to assume a disguise to test his nephews’ honor.
By the conclusion of the play, however, it is clear that only the gossips have no true honor. Lady Teazle realizes that she values her husband and that she has more honor than her friends had supposed. Charles, though foolish and intemperate with gambling and money, is honorable. He pays his debts, if slowly, and he is willing to help a poor relation without being asked. Sir Oliver’s deception unmasks Joseph’s hypocrisy. And the moneylender, Moses, is a man of so much honor that he assists Charles in managing his debts.
Sheridan asks his audience to question the morality of society in this play. Slandering one’s
neighbors, acquaintances, and friends is an entertainment. There is no real interest in the truth—and even less consideration is given to the damage that such gossip causes.
In the early acts of School for Scandal, the subjects of such gossip are not known to the audience, who cannot determine the truth of Lady Sneerwell and Mrs. Candour’s observations. But by the last act, it becomes clear that these gossips need absolutely no element of truth to fuel their stories. The felling of the screen in Joseph’s library—and the confrontation that took place immediately after—are fresh in the audience’s mind. This earlier scene serves as a nice contrast to the speculation and innuendo that engages the gossips. Although it is all comedy, it is comedy that teaches a lesson to the audience.
School for Scandal is generally regarded as a refutation of the sentimental drama that was prevalent on the London stage prior to and during Sheridan’s era. Sentiment was much admired as a replacement for the debauchery of Restoration comedy, but it often proved bland and boring. Often the protagonists were pure to the point of generic blandness. In Sheridan’s play, Joseph Surface is much admired for his sentiment. Conversely, his brother Charles is chastised because he is not the man of sentiment that his brother is: “He is a man of sentiment . . . there is nothing in the world so noble as a man of sentiment.” That Joseph is really not at all noble or admirable makes Sir Peter’s compliment more damning and more a mockery of this eighteenth-century convention.
Truth and Falsehood
Trying to determine the truth occupies much of Sheridan’s play. Lady Sneerwell and Snake are engaged in deception and falsehood, and Joseph is willing to bend the truth to get what he wants. When Sir Oliver, disguised as old Stanley, approaches Joseph to ask for money, Joseph easily lies that he has no money. He even blames his brother, Charles, Page 278 | Top of Articlestating that Charles’s free-spending has left Joseph without funds. Of course the gossips have no interest in the truth; their goal is to entertain one another with wild speculation. When compared to such exciting exaggerations as theirs, reality—and the truth—is boring.
This is certainly a play about wealth. The poor in London were much too busy trying to find shelter and food to engage in such idle distractions as gossip or gaming. Wealth really sets the characters in this play apart from the rest of society. For instance, Sir Peter complains that his wife spends too much on silk dresses and fresh out-of-season flowers. Charles spends his money gaming and drinking with his friends, and the moneylenders are on their way to being wealthy, thanks to idle young men such as Charles. Maria is the object of Joseph’s plotting only because she is wealthy, and Sir Oliver is primarily interested in the morals of his nephews because he plans to leave them him wealth.
A major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama signified by the appearance of the chorus were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans and to Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House) revolutionized dramatic structure by combining elements into fewer acts.
School for Scandal is a five act play. The exposition occurs in the first act when the audience learns of Lady Sneerwell and Joseph’s plan to break up the romance between Charles and Maria; the audience also meets the gossips. By the end of Act II, the complication, the audience has met Sir Oliver and knows that he plans to test his nephews’ morality. The climax occurs in the third act when Charles meets his uncle disguised as a moneylender and agrees to sell him the family portraits.
The conflict between Maria and her guardian, Sir Peter, is revealed when she refuses his request to allow Joseph to court her. There are several near misses as a series of visits, Lady Teazle and her husband, Charles, and Lady Sneerwell all arrive at Joseph’s. As Lady Teazle and her husband each hide in separate areas and each peek to see what is occurring, the screen finally provides the falling action, and the catastrophe occurs in the last act when Sir Oliver’s arrival restores order and Sir Peter is reconciled with Maria and Charles.
This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused by the two terms; but themes explore ideas and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner.
Thus the plot of School for Scandal is the story of how Joseph and Lady Sneerwell each try to lie their way to getting what they want, while its parallel plot is how Sir Oliver attempts to discover the truth about his nephews. But the themes are those of falsehood (in the form of malicious gossip), honesty, true love, and a rejection of sentiment as a virtue.
The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Sheridan’s play is London during the eighteenth century—more specifically, it is set in London’s richer quarters. No exact time markers are provided, but the action takes place during a short period of time.
A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. “Characterization” is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation.
School for Scandal provides two types of characters. There are traditional heroes and villains and a vulnerable young woman. But some characters are also defined by his or her name. Lady Sneerwell clearly does a good job of sneering contemptuously at everyone else. And Backbiter lives up to his name as well. Charles and Joseph’s natures are revealed in their surname, Surface, indicating that they are somewhat superficial characters interested in appearances.
Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means “kind” or “type.” Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy, or romance.
School for Scandal is most frequently classified as a comedy of manners, although it has also been accurately described as social satire and anti-sentimental drama.
Comedy of Manners
“Comedy of manners” is a term applied to a type of play that provides a depiction of the very artificial manners and conventions of society. Characters are usually types and not individuals. Their names reflect their “type.” The dialogue in these plays is witty and is of more interest to the audience than the plot, which serves more as an excuse to deliver humorous lines. The comedy of manners is associated most closely with the Restoration of the late-seventeenth century. But the illicit love affairs and lack of morality that defined the genre eventually resulted in their disappearing from the stage. Sheridan revived this genre in the late eighteenth century.
Satire attempts to blend social commentary with comedy and humor. Satire does not usually attack any individual but rather the institution he or she represents. The intent is to expose problems and create debate that will lead to a correction of the problem. In School for Scandal, Sheridan satirizes a society that is so shallow that gossip and slander—and the destruction of a reputation—are forms of entertainment.
Sheridan’s England was a very different one than that of earlier British playwrights. The mid-seventeenth century had brought the German House of Hanover to the English throne. The first two King Georges spoke little English and had no interest in patronizing the arts. Royal patronage, which had supported so many writers in the past, ended. By the time George III became king in 1760, England was more concerned with colonization and reform than with supporting the arts.
While the British were cementing their control over Canada and India, the American colonists were proving themselves restless with Britain’s rule. England had always seen itself as a military power; when the discontent in the colonies developed into the American Revolutionary War, which the British ultimately lost, George III took the news badly. But George III, who had always been popular with his subjects, was ill and at the mercy of his son who constantly plotted to seize the throne.
At the same time, the industrialization of England had resulted in an even sharper division between classes. Industrialization brought a great deal of wealth to England but little of it found its way to the working class or the poor. What the poor had, instead, was even less than before. With the Enclosure Act, the lower class were shifted from the country, losing a simple existence that permitted them to grow some of their food and trade for their needs.
With no where else to go, these displaced people moved into London. There was little shelter and even fewer jobs to greet them. But there was cheap gin, and public drunkenness became a serious problem. But there were also public executions to entertain the poor and prisons for those who could not pay their debts. For those with money, there was tobacco and opium. There were coffeehouses, where tea was served more frequently than coffee, and men met there to drink and talk and read the newspapers.
Women were usually excluded from these social activities, but they did make attempts at social integration and suffrage (the right to vote). Gambling was a proper occupation for gentlemen, as was the visiting of brothels. While paying a prostitute for sex or having a mistress was acceptable for men, the same behavior was not permitted for women.
Ladies of the eighteenth century were to be chaste and early marriage was encouraged to ensure this; girls could wed at twelve years-of-age. Still, no such high standard interfered with men’s behavior.
By the last half of the eighteenth century, drama had almost disappeared from the theatre. There were many great actors, but few playwrights were creating memorable work. There was little incentive for good writing. The playwright collected only the third, sixth, and sometimes (if the play lasted), ninth nights’ profits. Theatre owners and actors, however, made a great deal of money. Still, theatre flourished, and several of London’s more notable drama houses (including Sheridan’s own Drury Lane Theatre) were established in the 1700s.
Surrounding the theatres were brothels, and this reflected the dual nature of the city. London was a complex city, and, in many ways, it reflected the chaos of the royal family. There were huge stores that imported the finest objects from around the world, and the city was crowded with artisans and street singers. The municipality tried to keep the streets cleaned and sewers were being built. But coal dust turned the buildings black and covered everything in its path. And on the edge of all this civility the slums existed. Sewage was dumped into the river Thames, and the poor made use with outside privies and slept in the doorways. Whole families shared one room—if they could afford it.
The city overflowed with life and vitality, but there were two distinct worlds present. One of the rigidly defined life of society, where social convention ruled behavior. This is the world of Sheridan’s School for Scandal. The other world lay just outside the theatre’s doors. Those dark, depressed, and often twisted lives would not be the subject of plays until the next century.
School for Scandal opened in May 1777 to enthusiastic audiences. Since it appeared at the end of the London theatre season, it played only twenty performances before the season closed, but Sheridan’s play reappeared the following season for an additional forty-five performances. Since few plays enjoyed runs of more than fifteen performances, School for Scandal was, by prevailing standards, a success.
In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Mark S. Auburn noted that “the play engendered wildly enthusiastic support. Passing by the outer walls of Drury Lane just as the famous screen fell and the audience exploded in laughter and applause, a journalist of that day claimed to have run for his life in fear that the building was collapsing.”
The reason for the play’s success, stated Auburn, is “the witty repartee of fashionable society, the Cain-and-Abel motif, and the delightful recitation of the May-and-December theme.” Richard C. Taylor, writing in Sheridan Studies, noted a different reason for the play’s success. Taylor stated that critics overlooked the play’s faults because they “recognized the topicality of Sheridan’s moral concern and that Sheridan was targeting hypocrisy.” Still, both Auburn and Taylor felt that School for Scandal was very popular with audiences and with reviewers. The audience appreciated the plot, especially since gossip had become an important feature in newspapers of the time (a foreshadowing of the gossip-frenzy that dominates many forms of multimedia information in the twentieth century).
But besides plot, Sheridan himself had ensured the play’s success by opening it after a popular revival of William Congreve’s comedies at Drury Lane. Sheridan eliminated some of the more offensive sexuality, and Congreve’s work, which had been unpopular in recent years, received generally good reviews. When Sheridan opened School for Scandal immediately after showcasing three of Congreve’ s comedies, the critics quickly drew comparisons between the two dramatists. Suddenly Sheridan was the new comedic playwright of his generation, just as Congreve had been in his era.
Several critics, who made the intended connection between Congreve and Sheridan, pronounced Sheridan’s work the superior while additionally congratulating him on resurrecting Congreve’s reputation. In an examination of Sheridan’s ties to Congreve, Eric Rump included several of the 1777 reviews of School for Scandal in an essay for Sheridan Studies. For instance, the reviewer for The Gazetter applauded Sheridan’s “Manly sentiments, entirely divested of affectation, and which are conveyed to the heart through the purest channels of wit.” But an even more important compliment follows when the same reviewer stated that Sheridan’s work presents a real challenge to Congreve’s “royal supremacy.”
The reviewer for the London Evening Post celebrated School for Scandal’s “wit and fancy . . . decency and morals.” Sheridan, stated the same reviewer, demonstrates that “the standard of real comedy is once more unfurled.” Seven years later, the connection to Congreve was not forgotten; a critic for the Universal Magazine wrote that Sheridan’s play “has indeed the beauties of Congreve’s comedies, without their faults; its plot is deeply enough perplexed, without forcing one to labour to unravel it; its incidents sufficient without being too numerous; its wit pure; its situations truly dramatic.”
School for Scandal has endured as a popular play worthy of revival. The work was produced in England in 1990, and while the language, dress, and behavior appear alien to modern audiences, the revival still found appreciative viewers. The 1990 London production’s director, Peter Woods, stated in Sheridan Studies that the characters are difficult, since “Nobody’s fond of anybody.”
The play is more difficult to stage in the contemporary dramatic era because audiences are too far removed from the issues presented in the play. The falling screen is still considered funny, but the context is not as filled with tension. Adultery and divorce are simply not as scandalous to a twentieth-century audience. Whereas a 1777 London audience would be tense with anticipation that Lady Teazle might be discovered, with the falling screen providing an explosion of laughter and release, a modern audience might only appreciate the slapstick nature of the scene. Woods described School for Scandal as “an artificial comedy about an artificial society in an artificial city.”
An additional reason for the difficulty in staging the play is the anti-Semitism in its references to moneylending. Contemporary audiences are not comfortable with this, said Taylor, and the sections cannot be cut without compromising an important part of the play. Still, many of the societal malignancies that Sheridan sought to criticize are just as prevalent in modern society as they were during the Page 282 | Top of Articleplaywright’s lifetime. Combined with its distinction as a model comedy of manners, these touchstones to contemporary life allow School for Scandal to be appreciated by generations of audiences.
In this essay, Metzger discusses the merits of viewing a production of School for Scandal as opposed to merely reading the play. She also discusses the cultural problems—notably the anti-Semitism that is woven throughout the drama—that prevents a wider contemporary audience from embracing and fully appreciating Sheridan’s work.
I often tell my students that a play needs to be seen and heard to be properly appreciated. Reading a play requires an ability to visualize, and it is very difficult to manage this visualization without a careful scrutiny of the stage directions and some experience reading drama. This notion is especially true for Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s, School for Scandal, which makes the reader wish for a fine production to view.
In the fourth act when Lady Teazle and Sir Peter are each peeking out of their respective hiding places, and Joseph is cautioning each to retreat, the reader can only imagine the fun occurring on stage. But when the screen falls later in that same act and Lady Teazle is exposed, this bit of slapstick demands to be seen. Mark S. Auburn related in Sheridan Studies that anyone passing by the theatre during that scene would have heard the riotous laughter of the audience that erupted from the theatre. This type of comedy was an early inspiration for the silly situation comedies that are a staple of television viewing; but if this play is so funny, why is it so infrequently staged?
Some critics suggest that the language is stilted or the subject matter not topical. When Peter Wood was interviewed about his 1990 production of School for Scandal, he expressed the opinion that the public might be developing a new appreciation for the rhythm and tone of language such as Sheridan’s. And while it is true that the comedy of manners motif might be of less interest to twentieth-century audiences, it is certain that with tabloid journalism an especially hot topic on television and in mainstream newspapers, the public’s interest in gossip, or in a play that satirizes gossip, should be apparent.
But if language and topic do not limit the play’s reception, what other reasons might? One possibility is offered by Richard Taylor, who suggested in Sheridan Studies that the play’s anti-Semitism may present a problem for audiences. Taylor asserted that “the anti-Semitism that runs through School for Scandal produces palpable discomfort in contemporary audiences, and no amount of directorial cutting easily eliminates it.”
Anti-Semitism was a part of eighteenth-century English life. An act that would have permitted Jews to become naturalized citizens was repealed immediately when anti-Semitic street mobs loudly protested the law. When Moses is introduced in Act III of School for Scandal, his name is prefaced with the character descriptor “Honest.” Since it was Moses who led the Jews from Egypt to their salvation during the Biblical Exodus, the audience should expect that this Moses will help Charles to his reward. But as important as his name is the qualifier that comes before it. Sheridan places great emphasis on “honest,” using the word many times to describe Moses. The obvious inference is that Moses is an exception: moneylenders are stereotyped as dishonest.
The same is true for the overly used “friend” or “friendly.” If descriptions of Moses must note his friendliness, then the point is made that most moneylenders are not their client’s friends. Historically Jews have been identified with usury or moneylending, and in School for Scandal, Sheridan also identifies Jews as dishonest and unfriendly—proven by the fact that Moses’s honesty and friendship are repeatedly inferred as anomalous to both his race and occupation.
In School for Scandal, to be a moneylender is to be a cheat. Sir Oliver is told that to be successful in his disguise, he must demand 50% interest. And if the subject seems especially desperate, then 100% interest would be appropriate. Thus, to be a successful moneylender, one must also be greedy, unfeeling, and unsympathetic. In Sheridan’s play, Jews must even look different from other men. Sir Oliver asks if he shall be able to pass for a Jew. The response is that this moneylender is a broker—a step up socially, and since he is also a Christian, Sir Oliver’s appearance will be satisfactory.
The text never explains what a Jew should look like, but Sir Oliver’s “smart dress” is in keeping for a broker though not a moneylender. Sir Oliver is even told that moneylenders talk differently than other men. All of these points create an image of
Jews that sets them apart from other businessmen. The implication is that Jewish businessmen are different—in clothing, in speech, and in morality. While this depiction would have raised little concern in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, twentieth-century audiences have the example of the Holocaust. The realization that anti-Semitism is never harmless and never acceptable intrudes on the otherwise light-themed School for Scandal. It cannot and should not be forgotten, and since the scenes with Moses and the disguised Sir Oliver form an important section of the text, their deletion would be nearly impossible.
If its portrayal of moneylenders detracts from School for Scandal, Sheridan’s glimpse at the morals and social manners of the period do offer much for an audience to appreciate. As Louis Kronenberger observed, this is a play with a “sense of naughtiness”; this “play is concerned with the imputation of sinning; of sin itself there is absolutely nothing. No one ever actually commits a sin. The actors only talk about sin.”
Of course, it could be argued that slander and gossip is in itself a sin, and Sheridan might have agreed; but for the audience, gossip is the subject of satire, and satire’s result is laughter. All this talk about sin, accompanied by its absence, is a departure from Restoration theatre. The comedy of manners of the earlier century emphasized sexuality and sexual situations, and the writers relied on the titillation of the audience as a necessary component of comedy. But Sheridan’s play offered a fresh voice. There is a mystery associated with what is hidden by shadow.
As Kronenberger noted, “sin now seems far more wicked and important than it used to.” All of this absence of sex might be as equally refreshing to modern audiences who have become jaded by the explicit sexuality portrayed in film and drama. When Kronenberger stated that with School for Scandal, “we are back in an age when sex has become glamorous through being illicit,” I am reminded of the popularity of Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. The audience could anticipate a happy resolution. Romance ended in weddings, but only after one of the stars had resisted illicit temptation. This is also the happy ending of School for Scandal.
Although romance provides the play’s happy ending, very little of the play is actually concerned with the romance that ends the play. Maria has a very small part, and there is little interaction on
stage between her and Charles, little to exemplify the devotion they profess for one another. The romance between Lady Teazle and Sir Peter is given greater emphasis. And although they are married, it is their discovery of romance that offers much entertainment for the audience.
Auburn related that Sheridan rejected the stock depiction of May-December romance. How to recreate a new approach to a familiar story was a challenge, and Auburn said that “in an early version [Sheridan] toyed with a harsh cuckolding story like Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” and Wycherley’s Country Wife (1675), but in the final version he sought and achieved the amiable tone of Georgian comedy.” The couple’s happy resolution is based on an awareness of their love for one another. Lady Teazle’s country origins, which led her to believe that Lady Sneerwell represented fashion, help remind the young bride of why she chose to marry. And Sir Peter, who had too often focused on his age, recognized that although he might be old enough to be Lady Teazle’s father, he was, instead, her husband.
Sheridan’s decision to soften the relationship between Lady Teazle and her husband was also noted by Rose Snider, who compared Sheridan’s handling of May-December romance to that of Wycherely and Congreve. Snider stated that Sir Peter “reacts in a more gentlemanly fashion” than Wycherely or Congreve’s similarly challenged husbands. Accordingly, “Sir Peter Teazle is a far pleasanter person than the earlier prototypes.” Snider pointed out that the Teazles introduce some sentiment into the comedy; thus, Sheridan’s play is more pleasant for the audience, as well.
Lady Teazle and Sir Peter are, as Aubrey de Selincourt noted, stock characters. The task for Sheridan was to make these familiar characters interesting. Sheridan does succeed, says de Selincourt, “with unsurpassed brilliance and precision.” In School for Scandal, Sheridan creates a genuinely comic moment with the falling screen; it is sincerely funny because the audience likes these two characters. A cuckold husband and an unfaithful wife do not invite the audience’s loyalty, but Sheridan creates two characters the audience can like. Their discovery of one another’s value provides a more genuine appreciation of romance than the too brief framing of Maria and Charles’s courtship.
Source: Sheri Metzger for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Copeland reviews a Stratford Festival production of Sheridan’s play. While finding the text as theatrical and resilient as ever, the critic was less than impressed with the production.
As conceived by Robin Phillips, The School for Scandal displays a harsh and glittering world of exquisite beauty and viciousness, where sentimental sobriety—when genuine—is the only refuge from the savagery that lies in wait for vitality and virtue. Phillips has read the play as a piece of serious social criticism, with decidedly mixed results: his version of this classic comedy of manners is thought-provoking, visually stunning, but finally a failure.
Sheridan wittily exhibits the machinations of the hypocritical Joseph Surface, who joins with the malicious Lady Sneerwell in a campaign of slander originally designed to obtain his uncle Oliver’s fortune and the hand of the wealthy Maria by the destruction of his brother Charles’s reputation, but which eventually expands to threaten the marriage of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle. In his program note, Phillips emphasizes the importance of reputation in a mercantile society, where to lose respectability is literally to lose “credit.” In such an environment, the power of Lady Sneerwell and her “scandalous college” of gossips is no laughing matter, and Phillips’s production takes its tone from the seriousness of their crime. The characterizations are subdued, the comedy is underplayed: the audience is never allowed to forget that the events it is witnessing could end as easily in suffering as in happiness.
Flamboyant performances are therefore the rare exception in this School. As that victim of a May-September marriage, Sir Peter Teazle, William Hutt is a sober, tender husband, whose very irascibility is restrained. He is seen at his most characteristic in his Act III scene with his young wife, where his Page 285 | Top of Articlechildlike delight in her affection succumbs with reluctance to her attacks, to be replaced by deeply felt hurt, rather than rage, when her wounding remarks struck home. His violent emotions are reserved for his ward Maria, whom he reduces to tears with his attempt to bully her into accepting Joseph as her husband. Douglas Campbell’s excellent Sir Oliver is almost equally grave, although he is captivatingly comic during the debt-ridden Charles’s private auction of the family portraits and in his encounter with the slanderers who gather at Sir Peter’s door to gloat over Lady Teazle’s apparent indiscretion with Joseph. Susan Wright’s Mrs. Candour typifies the treatment of Sheridan’s wit in this production, delivering her catalogue of scandal in a matter-of-fact tone that underlines the speech’s audacity while it almost eradicates its humor. Only Richard Curnock and Keith Dinicol, as the arriviste gossips Crabtree and Sir Benjamin Backbite, are allowed to fully exploit the comedy of their roles, to the considerable delight of the audience.
Sheila McCarthy combines these two approaches to delineate this production’s central action: the maturation of Lady Teazle. In her first scene McCarthy emphasizes the broad comedy of her role, playing a squeaky-voiced caricature of an empty-headed flirt as she tantalizes and torments her hapless spouse with her childlike longings for fashionable extravagancies. But in the course of her trials at the hands of Colm Feore’s lascivious Joseph and the chorus of scandalmongers, she gradually adopts the subdued style of the more experienced characters, as the enthusiastic girl dwindles into the sedate—but safe—wife. The diminished Lady Teazle of the last act is the poignant symbol of the price to be paid for social security in Phillip’s London.
This autumnal drama is played out most clearly in the visual aspect of the production. Michael Eagan’s set is a vision of geometric opulence: a long, narrow thrust covered in white tile with a metallic border, terminated upstage by an enormous moveable three-tiered cage, in white and silver, that perfectly balances the proportions of the playing area. The spare luxury of the set is matched by an enormous silver rocking horse that appears, surrounded by a chorus of dancers and a fireworks display, in a spectacular entr’acte representing the temptations of fashionable London. Anne Curtis’s equally lavish costumes provide an emblematic commentary on the action through a general movement from white and beige in the early scenes, punctuated dramatically by Lady Teazle’s orange hair and gown and the complete blackness of Snake’s
costume, toward more sombre colors, as the circumstances of Charles and the Teazles became more precarious. Matters are at their darkest when the vultures descend on the house of the supposedly cuckolded Sir Peter dressed in deep brown and carrying black umbrellas. The arrival of Sir Oliver in fawn and Sir Peter in an oatmeal-colored coat prepared the way for the denouement, in which the blacks and dark browns of the evil characters are ranged against the sensibly muted buffs and beiges of the virtuous. Maria arrives for her happy ending dressed in realistic beige and brown stripes, while the chastened Lady Teazle appears in very pale peach.
The emblematic quality of the costuming is echoed in Phillips’s use of tableaux. The prologue is set against a spectacle of voyeurism: while Sir Peter describes the evils of slanderous newspaper paragraphs, upstage, inside the cage, Lady Teazle exhibits herself in a state of undress to a crowd of scandalized gawkers. Once again surrounded by an attendant crowd, she delivers the epilogue from the back of the silver rocking horse amid darkness and dry ice, the spotlit image of her wistful lament for her lost pleasures. The prologue tableau is preceded by a mysterious sound effect—a prop-driven airplane—but the use of sound is generally more
straightforward, indeed, prosaic: music underlines moment of turmoil and sentiment; Snake is accompanied by a synthesized rattle and hiss. Even the lighting design functions symbolically, reinforcing the theme of relentless social scrutiny by the frequent use of spotlights.
By taking Sheridan seriously, Phillips discovers in The School for Scandal a critique of urban consumerist culture that has unexpected resonance, but his approach is finally self-defeating. His reliance on schematic visual effects betrays the conflict between his interpretation and the text, which promulgates its ethics by means of blatantly theatrical comedy. In the service of his solemn interpretation, Phillips attacks the play’s comic structure, retarding its rhythms, evading its comic builds, and eschewing its invitations to physical comedy and broad characterizations. Drained of comic energy, Phillips Scandal is ultimately a lackluster performance, despite its considerable intelligence and beauty, and, as such, a misrepresentation of Sheridan’s work.
Source: Nancy Copeland, review of The School for Scandal in Theatre Journal, Volume 40, no. 3, October, 1988, pp. 420-21.
Clifford expresses disappointment at being denied the full pleasure of Sheridan’s play. Complaining of poor technical values and a general lack of enthusiasm, the critic feels that the play deserves better attention.
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Source: John Clifford, review of The School for Scandal in Plays and Players, Number 407, August, 1987, pp. 33-34.
In this uncredited review, a 1963 production of School for Scandal receives a favorable appraisal. The critic terms the play as “iridescently enchanting, contagiously amusing.”
Source: “Elegantly on the Harpsichord” in Time, Volume LXXXI, no. 5, February 1, 1963, p. 65.
Morrow, Laura. “Television, Text, and Teleology in a School for Scandal” in Shakespeare on Film Newsletter, Vol. 11, no. 2, 1987, p. 3.
Morwood, James and David Crane. “On Producing Sheridan: A Conversation with Peter Wood” in Sheridan Studies, edited by Morwood and Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 178-88.
Rump, Eric. “Sheridan, Congreve and School for Scandal” in Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 58-70.
Snider, Rose. “Richard B. Sheridan” in Satire in the Comedies of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, and Coward, 1937, reprint by Phaeton Press, 1972, pp. 41-73.
Taylor, Richard. “‘Future Retrospection’: Rereading Sheridan’s Reviewers” in Sheridan Studies, edited by James
Morwood and David Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 47-57.
Wiesenthal, Christine. “Representation and Experimentation in the Major Comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan” in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 25, no. 3, 1992, pp. 309-30.
Auburn, Mark S. “Richard Brinsley Sheridan” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 89: Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Dramatists, edited by Paula R. Backscheider, Gale, 1989, pp. 298-322.
Auburn provides a general overview of Sheridan’s plays and his life.
de Selincourt, Aubrey. “Sheridan” in Six Great Playwrights: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Sheridan, Ibsen, Shaw, Hamish Hamilton, 1960, pp. 105-31.
This essay is an examination of the construction of several of Sheridan’s plays, with a brief look at Sheridan’s development of characters.
Hay, Douglas and Peter Linebaugh, Editors. Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, Pantheon, 1975.
This book explores the legal problems that confronted the differences in class. The book includes a number of detailed studies.
Hogan, Robert. “Plot, Character, and Comic Language in Sheridan” in Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan, edited by A. R. Braunmiller and J. C. Bulman, University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 274-85.
Hogan compares Sheridan’s use of plot and comedic language in School for Scandal and The Rivals.
Kronenberger, Louis. “School for Scandal” in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy, edited by Scott McMillin, W.W. Norton, 1973, pp. 558-63.
Kronenberger discusses the strengths and appeal of School for Scandal. He focuses on the themes and on the play’s contrasts with Restoration comedy.
Jarrett, Derek. England in the Age of Hogarth, Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1974.
Derek presents a social history of the eighteenth century. The author uses diaries and letters to provide authenticity to his ideas.
Mikhail, E. H., Editor. Sheridan: Interviews and Recollections, St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Mikhail provides an interesting examination of the private Sheridan through the use of letters and recollections from the period to offer a different biography of Sheridan. The author has tried to use information that has not been previously printed in other biographies.
Porter, Roy. English Society in the Eighteenth Century, Penguin, 1982.
Porter tries to provide a comprehensive look at eighteenth-Century English life. He offers a number of small details on every aspect of English social life, from the small country town to London.
Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800, Penguin, 1977.
Stone’s study of family life and the relationship between family, state, and law is easy to read and absorb. Stone includes examples to support this account of social history. This volume makes it easy to see the progression of family structure and values during 300 years of political and social transformation.