Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Sheridan, the School for Scandal, and Aggression

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Sheridan, the School for Scandal, and Aggression

Article excerpt

For a canonical play, one that was extremely successful from the start and has occupied a regular place in the repertory ever since the 1770s, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal elicits no consensus from playgoers or readers about what it means or even how it works. Indeed, response is divided on both issues. In proposing to resolve these interpretive problems, I should admit from the start that I have never found The School for Scandal a particularly appealing play; it lacks the warmth and physicality of Sheridan's first play, The Rivals, and in its casual, throwaway anti-Semitism, it epitomizes much that is repugnant about late eighteenth-century British culture. It is, moreover, a poorly, or at least a very loosely, constructed play, with two separate plots clumsily grafted together--that of the Teazles or Slanderers and that of the Surface brothers. Theater historians praise Sheridan for working so closely with his Drury Lane Company and adapting parts to the apparently limited talents at his disposal, (1) though this is hardly a feature that endures over time. And finally, not surprisingly, this is not a play that has attracted particularly interesting commentary, which consists too often of old school praise of witty dialogue as a throwback to Restoration comedy. (2)

I don't propose to offer a bold new reading that will either resolve the divisions or rehabilitate Sheridan's play, but I would like to suggest a generic reconsideration. We understand the long eighteenth century as a period of unusual generic instability and experimentation. Our attention tends to be absorbed by the emergence and normalization of the novel, but there is also considerable generic flux, albeit without the appearance of new forms, in the playhouse as well. Just to pick some obvious examples, we have self-defined tragedies such as Congreve's The Mourning Bride, that end with prosperous protagonists, just as we have self-described comedies that end with their protagonists miserable, such as Otway's Friendship in Fashion. Satire and comedy are terms that appear to be used interchangeably on the title pages of plays throughout the period. And while this does not exactly constitute legitimate historical evidence, the bewildering range of categories and subcategories that J. Douglas Canfield used in his anthology of Restoration and eighteenth-century drama indicates the grievous difficulty we have in making sense out of the types of these plays. (3) Nowhere are generic classifications more vexed than with sentimental comedy and its aftermath, a body of serious comedies that quite self-consciously exhibit many of the characteristics of tragedy. In short, Aristotle is of no help in understanding eighteenth-century British drama. In the standard histories of drama, Oliver Goldsmith's 1772 "Essay On The Theatre; Or, A Comparison Between Laughing And Sentimental Comedy" has come to function as that libratory modernization text that delivers us from the mess of early modern generic indistinction, driving a stake through the heart of sentimental comedy and restoring the power of aggression and the pleasures of ridicule to comedy: "The principal question therefore is whether, in describing low or middle life, an exhibition of its follies be not preferable to a detail of its calamities?.... [A]s tragedy displays the calamities of the great, so comedy should excite our laughter, by ridiculously exhibiting the follies of the lower part of mankind." (4)

I want to read Sheridan's 1777 The School for Scandal as a text marked by parallels to Goldsmith's "Essay," for it too repeatedly, even obsessively asks in scene after scene, line after line, What's funny? What is the relation between comedy and ridicule, comedy and aggression? Given the nature of much late eighteenth-century literature from Frances Burney's The Witlings to Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, it is not surprising that most readings of Sheridan's play find their resolution in the domestic portions of the plot--those elements that formally repudiate the public sphere and its addiction to gossip, slander, and aggressive competition. …

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