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THE PLAYWRIGHT

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Sheridan

"It was an age of orators and actors."

In 1751, Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin, Ireland, the birthplace of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Although known as a playwright, Sheridan actually had four careers during his lifetime (playwright; manager and part- owner of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London; Parliamentary Member for Stafford and prominent Whig; and as a man of fashion and friend of the First Gentlemen of Europe). As a matter of fact, most of his playwriting days were over by the time he was 25 years old.

In his early years, Sheridan's father, Thomas, was an actor and theatre manager and his mother, Francis, a playwright and novelist. He attended grammar school in Dublin until 1762 when he attended Harrow School in England. He was miserable and lonely there, so when his family moved to London in 1770, he joined them and pursued his studies with his father as mentor.

Thomas Sheridan became head of the Academy of Oratorios at Bath and the entire family moved there. In Bath, Richard met the 17-year-old beauty and celebrated soprano, Elizabeth Linley. She was musically precocious and of fragile health. Elizabeth inspired obsessive attachments and at the age of 16 was contracted to marry a 60-year-old squire named Walter Long, but Long, for some reason, dissolved the contract by paying her father and giving Elizabeth some family jewels. The event was publicized and became the plot of Samuel Foote's play, The Maid of Bath. To add insult to injury, Captain Thomas Mathews, a married man, forced his attentions upon Elizabeth, telling her he would ruin her virtue and/or her reputation. Elizabeth confided in young Richard and they decided to elope to France in March, 1772, where she would stay in a convent until Mathews stopped provoking her.  

By the end of April, Elizabeth and Richard were back in England. However, Mathews felt his honor was assailed by a letter Richard wrote him. In a duel at Covent Garden in London, Richard bested him and forced Mathews to apologize. But Mathews revoked the apology he had given and this led to a second duel at Kingsdown near Bath. Richard was disarmed and severely wounded by Mathew's slashes to his neck and chest. Mathews fled to France; Elizabeth cared for Richard and they were married for the second time on April 13,1773.

The couple moved to London where Elizabeth held musicales and Richard began to write plays. The Rivals, written in 1774, was presented in January,1775, followed by St. Patrick's Day (a farce), The Duenna (comic opera), The School for Scandal in 1777 and The Critic in 1779. In 1776, Richard, James Ford, and Thomas Linley bought David Garrick's half of the Drury Lane Theatre. Richard became business manager. The theatre lost money because of poor management and debts incurred by closing for reconstruction in 1791.

In 1780 Sheridan entered the House of Commons. He championed freedom of the press, abolition of slavery and Catholic emancipation. He defended Home Rule, challenged English coercion of the Irish Parliament and hailed the French Revolution as a blow for freedom. Hence, he was a radical liberal which did not endear him with the conservative pragmatism of statesman Edmund Burke. However, his oratorical skills were outstanding. He was adept at sifting out flaws in opponents' arguments; his speeches were well-prepared and full of wit and humor.

In 1792 wife Elizabeth died, followed shortly thereafter by his young daughter. Though Drury Lane Theatre reopened in 1794 and he remarried in 1795 to Hester Jane Ogle, events did not go smoothly. In 1799 he wrote and presented the play Pizarro at the Drury Lane. This went unheralded and he was plagued by creditors. In 1809 the Drury Lane burned down leaving him almost penniless. In 1812 he lost the election to the House of Commons and one year later, he was imprisoned for debt. Sheridan died in 1816 and is buried in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.

"Thou art a friend indeed and my only request shall be that you continue to love me and look on my imperfections with more affection than judgment."

Richard Brinsley Sheridan,
Pizarro.