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The brilliant playwright and passionate Parliamentarian, Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Politics, Theatre on Thursday, 29 August 2013

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This edited article about Richard Brinsley Sheridan originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 388 published on 21 June 1969.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, picture, image, illustration

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

So greatly did the House of Commons admire Richard Brinsley Sheridan that members offered to adjourn a debate when they heard that his theatre was on fire. Sheridan wouldn’t hear of it. His personal disaster was a small thing, he said, compared with the importance of national affairs: “Pray continue,” he told the House.

Sheridan’s unusual dual role of politician and playwright is commemorated on a blue plaque at No. 10 Hertford Street, where he lived for several years.

Born in Dublin, Sheridan was the son of a schoolmaster. The family later moved to London, so the boy said goodbye to his native city at the age of eight, and never saw it again.

Instead, he soon found himself in the very English surroundings of Harrow School, where he took fencing and horsemanship as “extras.” He had need of both these accomplishments when he eloped with a young singer. Elizabeth Linley, the daughter of Thomas Linley, a composer and singing-master. Her outraged fiance, an army major, denounced Sheridan publicly as a liar and a scoundrel and a duel followed. The unfortunate major was disarmed, forced to beg for his life and to publish an apology.

In a second duel Sheridan was not so lucky. He was seriously wounded. At this point his father stepped in and insisted that Richard took life a little more seriously. He sent him away to study at Waltham Abbey, where Sheridan worked hard, and in 1773 he was admitted to the Middle Temple to practise law. Within a week he celebrated his independence by marrying Miss Linley. His father was disgusted!

He had been writing anonymously for some time. Now, as his confidence grew, he started using his own name in 1774, it appeared on the billboards of Covent Garden Theatre.

The Rivals has since become a classic of the theatre, and an established favourite of repertory companies. In 1774, however, it was a disaster. Within a few days, new posters were appearing.

Sheridan rewrote his play. It was put on again some months later and this time it was an immediate success. The revised version played to packed houses week after week.

Hurriedly, Sheridan wrote more plays, and by the end of 1775 he was accepted as an established playwright.

In the following year, he became manager of the Drury Lane Theatre and there, in 1777, he staged his crowning triumph, The School for Scandal, although the play was very nearly suppressed by the Lord Chamberlain.

In 1780, Sheridan became a Member of Parliament. He was accused of bribery by his unsuccessful opponent and his maiden speech was a defence against that charge.

In the House, Sheridan opposed the harsh game laws of the time, defended the freedom of the Press and fought the idea of union with Ireland.

After the theatre fire, he could no longer afford to buy his votes (which was then customary) and he retired from political life in 1812. He died, five years later, heavily in debt.

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