Richard Brinsley Sheridan is famed for his nimble and witty comedies of manners, the most famous of which is The School for Scandal. The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington places Sheridan’s work in the ‘great tradition of English artificial comedy, written mainly by Irishmen and running from the Restoration to Oscar Wilde’.
Sheridan was born in 1751 in Dublin, but his family moved to London when he was seven, and he never returned to Ireland.
He attended Harrow and in 1770 moved with his family to Bath. There he met the soprano singer Elizabeth Ann Linley, the woman he would marry. He fought two duels on her behalf with a Welsh squire, Thomas Mathews, and though he walked away unharmed from the first he was wounded in the second. He briefly embarked on a legal career and was entered at the Middle Temple, but he abandoned this after he married and turned to writing instead.
Sheridan’s rise as a playwright was rapid. His first play, The Rivals, opened at London's Covent Garden Theatre in 1775, but its first performance was not a success. Sheridan revised the play, and this time the result was positive. Brimming with wit and surefooted in its structure, the play established the young Sheridan’s reputation as a writer.
In that same year he wrote the farce St. Patrick’s Day; Or, The Scheming Lieutenant for the actor Lawrence Clinch, and collaborated with his father-in-law Thomas Linley on an opera, The Duenna.
Career as a theatre manager
In 1776 the renowned actor David Garrick was looking for someone to succeed him as manager and proprietor of the Drury Lane Theatre. By this point Sheridan had already earned enough money to buy his share of the patent along with Linley and the physician James Ford. Two years later they were able to buy out Willoughby Lacy, Garrick’s partner in the Theatre. At Drury Lane Sheridan revived the plays of William Congreve, which led to a renewed appreciation of Restoration comedy.
Years later in February 1809, Sheridan famously stood outside the theatre and watched it burn while drinking a glass of wine. He is supposed to have remarked ‘A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside’.
The School for Scandal
In 1777 Sheridan revised Sir John Vanbrugh’s play The Relapse (1696) as A Trip to Scarborough. In the same year he wrote The School for Scandal, the play which earned him the label ‘the modern Congreve’ and is still considered one of the finest comedy of manners in English. He followed this in 1779 with The Critic, another updating of a satirical Restoration play, George Villiers’s The Rehearsal.
Political career, later life and death
Sheridan continued to adapt plays, but increasingly his time and interest was taken up with politics. He became MP for Stafford in 1780 and spent 32 years in Parliament, where he supported the Whigs. Among the roles he held were Secretary to the Treasury and Treasurer of the Navy. He deployed his theatrical talents on the political stage, and became known as a great orator and critic of other men’s speeches in the Commons. Eventually, he broke with his former ally Charles James Fox over the French Revolution. He succeeded Fox as MP for Westminster in 1806 only to lose the seat in 1807. He stood for election for Stafford again in 1812, but was defeated.
His failure to be re-elected, the Drury Lane fire and the loss of his income from the Theatre all led to Sheridan falling into debt. Hounded by creditors and bailiffs, he died in poverty in 1815. He is buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Further information about the life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.