On 8 May 1777, the young Frederic Reynolds was passing Drury Lane Theatre in London when he heard a terrible noise. Initially he thought the building was falling down; in fact, it was the roar of applause coming from the audience as the screen collapsed on the opening night of Sheridan’s School for Scandal.[1]

This print depicts that climactic moment when Lady Teazle is revealed behind the screen in Joseph Surface’s library. She has been hiding there since the start of Act 4, Scene 3 to prevent her husband finding her with the charming, two-faced Joseph.

The scenery

This engraving was made in 1778, and it gives us a glimpse of the play as the first audiences saw it. The scenery for the library, hand-painted by Philip James de Loutherbourg, reflects Joseph’s strenuous efforts to appear refined and tasteful. Yet the screen in the centre is a symbol of his duplicity. When Charles knocks it down he exposes the truth behind Joseph’s pretentious surface.

The actors

Sheridan wrote the parts for his favourite comic actors, and the first critics reported that they were brilliantly cast. This print shows the actress Fanny Abington playing Lady Teazle; Tom King as Sir Peter Teazle; John Palmer as Joseph Surface; and the jovial William Smith playing Charles.

Staging and lighting

The scene is a fast-paced series of entrances and exits, and the actors would have entered and left the stage through the large proscenium doors.

Above these – at the side of the stage – the richest, aristocratic viewers are shown seated in the boxes. Because the theatre was fully lit in the late 18th century, the audience is as exposed as the actors on the stage. In the print both actors and viewers wear fashionable clothing, highlighting the parallels between the stage and real world. The play raises fraught questions about truth and reputation, artifice and substance, both in the theatre and in the world beyond.

[1] The Life and Times of Frederic Reynolds. Written by himself (London, 1826), Vol. 1, p. 110.