The School for Scandal (1777) overview
The critic and essayist William Hazlitt called Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 play The School for Scandal, ‘if not the most original, perhaps the most finished and faultless comedy which we have’.
Rumour and reputation play a large part in Sheridan’s meticulously crafted play, with gossip being a weapon one can use against someone.
Lady Sneerwell is in love with young Charles Surface. He, however, is in love with Maria – as is his brother Joseph. While Charles is regarded as a man of loose morals whose lavish habits have led to financial ruin, Joseph is held to be more upright and responsible. The truth of their characters is, of course, more complicated. Maria is also in love with Charles, so Lady Sneerwell and Joseph plot to ruin the relationship by putting about rumours of Charles’s unfaithfulness.
In the subplot, Sir Peter Teazle has taken a younger wife. They bicker constantly about matters of money, driving the new Lady Teazle to contemplate an affair with Charles’s brother Joseph Surface.
The Surface brothers’ rich uncle Oliver returns to town from abroad and decides to test the young men’s moral worth. He disguises himself as a money lender named Mr Premium in order to ascertain how lavishly Charles is spending and how much debt he is in. Charles is prepared to sell off all of his family portraits, but Oliver’s anger is calmed when Charles refuses to sell the painting of him.
The plot is further complicated when Lady Teazle visits Joseph Surface, and first her husband then Charles come to call. This leads to characters hiding in closets and behind screens.
Sir Oliver then visits Joseph, this time dressed as one of their poor relations seeking financial assistance. Joseph reveals himself to be tight-fisted, his kindness superficial, and he will do nothing to help.
Sheridan brings the play to a close by having Sir Oliver reveal his plot and his findings to Charles and Joseph. It also becomes clear to everyone that Lady Sneerwell orchestrated the rumour about Charles and Lady Teazle.
Key productions of The School for Scandal
The School for Scandal was first performed in London at Drury Lane Theatre in May 1777. The play has been revived numerous times since. John Gielgud played Charles Surface at the Queen’s Theatre in 1937. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh played Sir Peter and Lady Teazle in the late 1940s. A silent film version was made in 1923 starring Basil Rathbone.
One of the most recent major UK productions was by Deborah Warner at the Barbican in 2011. But Warner’s punky spray-paint production divided the critics, ‘banging us over the head with the play's contemporary relevance’, according to The Guardian’s Michael Billington.