Richard Brinsley Sheridan
From The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble:
SHERIDAN, Richard Brinsley (1751-1816), the son of Thomas Sheridan, an Irish actor-manager, and Mrs Frances *Sheridan. Richard learned early that as a livelihood the theatre was both precarious and ungentlemanly. He was sent to Harrow School, where he was unhappy and regarded as a dunce. in Bath, however, where he joined his family in 1770, he was at once at home. His skit, written for the local paper, on the opening of the New Assembly Rooms was considered good enough to be published as a separate pamphlet. He fell in love with Eliza Linley, a beautiful and accomplished young singer, with whom he eloped to France and entered into an invalid form of marriage contract, and on whose behalf he fought two farcical duels with her overbearing admirer Captain Matthews. Sheridan's angry father sent him to London to study law, but eventually the fathers withdrew their opposition and in 1773 he was lawfully married to Eliza. Very short of money, he decided to try his hand at a plyay, and in a very few weeks wrote *The Rivals, which was produced at Covent Garden in 1775. It was highly successful and established Sheridan in the fashionable society he sought. The Rivals was followed in a few months by the farce *St Patrick's Day, again a success; and in theautumn by *The Duenna, an operatic play which delighted its audiences. In 1776 Sheridan, with partners, bought *Garrick's half-share in the *Drury Lane Theatre and became its manager. Early in 1777 appeared *A Trip to Scarborough, loosely based on Vanbrugh's *The Relapse, and this again was a success. In March of that year Sheridan was elected a memeber of the *Club, on the proposal of Dr. *Johnson. Meanwhile he was working hard and long on *The School for Scandal, which was produced, with Garrick's help and with a brilliant cast, in May. The play was universally acclaimed, and all doors, from those of the duchess of Devonshire and lady Melbourne downwards, were open to the dramatist—whose personal expenses rose accordingly. Although The School for Scandal had 73 performances between 1777 and 1789 and made a profit of £15,000, Sheridan's financial anxieties, which were to dog him to the end of his life, became even more acute. In 1779 he became the sole proprietor of Drury Lane, and began to live far beyond his means. Although he seems to have been a sympathetic and creative producer, he found the business side of management increasingly irksome. In 1779 he produced his new play *The Critic, based on *The Rehearsal by Buckingham; once again he enjoyed a huge success, and the world regarded him as the true heir of Garrick. But it was not what he wanted. He had grown up with a positive dislike of the theatre, and he declared he never saw a play if he could help it. He wished to shine only in politics, but he had neither the correct family connections nor the financial stability. He became the friend and ally of *Fox and in 1780 won the seat at Stafford. After only two years as an MP he became the under-secretary for foreign affairs, but he neglected his office work, both as a politician and as the manager of Drury Lane. Fortunately his father had secured both Mrs *Siddons and J. P. *Kemble, who brought the required audiences to the theatre. In 1783 he became secretary to the treasury and established his reputation as a brilliant orator in the House of Comons. In 1787 *Burke persuaded him into supporting the impeachment of *Hastings, and his eloquent speeech of over five hours on the Begums of Oude ensured that he was made manager of the trial. He was by now confirmed an intimate friend of the prince regent and other royal figures. Eliza died in 1792, and in the same year the Drury Lane Theatre was declared unsafe and had to be demolished. Sheridan raised £150,000 for a new theatre with apparent ease, but he was plunging himself yet deepr into debt, and payments to his actors became more uncertain than ever. In 1795 he married Esther Ogle. All though these years he was speaking eloquently in the House and hoping for eventual political advancement. *Pizarro, adapted by Sheridan from *Kotzebue, was performed in 1799 and was sucessful enough to bring a brief reprieve, but in 1802 the theatre funds were impounded and the bankers put in charge. Enormous sums were owing to the landlord, the architect, the actors, and stage staff. Although he was still speaking daily at the Commons, Sheridan's friendship with Fox was fading, and when Grenville formed the 'ministry of all the talents' in 1806 Sheridan was offered only the treasureship to the navy, without cabinet rank. The money which came with his appointment to a post with the duchy of Cornwall was soon spent. In 1809 the new Drury Lane was destroyed by fire, the debts became crushing, and Sheridan was excluded from all aspects of management. In 1811 he lost his seat at Stafford, and in 1813 he was arrested for debt. Friends rallied, but he and his wife became ill. His house was discovered to be filthy and denuded of almost all furnishings. He died in July 1816 and was given a fine funeral, with four lords as pall-bearers. He wished to be remembered as a man of politics and to be buried net to Fox, but he was laid near Garrick instead. He is remembered chiefly as the author of two superb comedies, but his speeches and letters have also been published. The standard edition of the plays is The Plays and Poems of Sheridan, ed. R. C. Rhodes (3 vols., 1928): see also Harlequin Sheridan (1933), a life by R. C. Rhodes. The Letters were edited by C. Price (3 vols., 1966).