Description

Richard Brinsley Sheridan seems to have had some trouble producing a finished version of The School for Scandal. He went on tinkering with the text, both before and after it was first staged on 8 May 1777.

This worn and well-thumbed notebook is a manuscript draft of Act 1. It was written out by a scribe, possibly around March‒May 1777, just months before the first performance. There are numerous cuts and adjustments in Sheridan’s own handwriting, revealing how much he changed his mind about the dialogue and characters.

Characters and dialogue: What changes does Sheridan make?

Sheridan clearly went to great lengths to get his characters’ names right. The names ‘Surface’, ‘Backbite’ and ‘Sneerwell’ reflect the scheming world in which scandal and gossip flourish. But in this draft of the ‘Dramatis Personae’, he rejects his first ideas for Charles’[1] and Lady Sneerwell’s servants, before settling on the names ‘Trip’ and ‘Snake’. He also cuts out ‘Miss Verjuice’, Lady Sneerwell’s poor relative, whose name evokes the sour juice of an unripe fruit.

In the first scene, Lady Sneerwell and her school of scandalmongers describe the malicious rumours they’ve planted in the newspapers. In this manuscript, the lines formerly spoken by Miss Verjuice are now given to Snake. Sheridan then cuts a section where Snake/Miss Verjuice boasts that s/he has destroyed a woman’s precious reputation. He strikes through the words, ‘Madam by this Time Lady Brittle is the Talk of half the Town – and I doubt not in a week the Men will toast her as a Demirep [a woman whose chastity is doubtful]’.

Sheridan’s resistance to print

This is one of over a dozen surviving manuscript versions of The School for Scandal, yet Sheridan never agreed for the play to be published in his lifetime. As the manager and co-owner of the Drury Lane Theatre, he was fiercely aware of the profits he’d lose if others got hold of his script. He may also have agreed with his character Sir Benjamin Backbite that ‘’tis very vulgar to print’ (1.1.254).

From 1780 onwards there were pirated print editions, but no definitive version was approved by Sheridan. This poses difficult questions for modern editors and directors, who are forced to decide which print or manuscript version to use.

[1] This is sometimes known as the ‘Shargill’ manuscript, because Sheridan has crossed out the names ‘Spunge’ and ‘Shargill’ here.

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