Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Sheridan and the Legacy of His Irish Parents

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Sheridan and the Legacy of His Irish Parents

Article excerpt

Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin in September 1751. In 1759, around the time of his eighth birthday, he left Ireland, never to return. But he did not forget his native land. In an essay written in the mid- 1770s his mode of address to his assumed readers was 'we in Ireland'. Almost forty years later in 1812, in one of his final speeches as a member of the House of Commons, he reiterated his support for the cause of Catholic emancipation - a cause, as he had earlier declared, which, in so far as it would affect Ireland, 'must ever be nearest to my heart'2 - with this resonant declaration:

If they were to be the last words I should ever utter in this House, I should say, 'Be just to Ireland as you value your own honour - be just to Ireland as you value your own peace.3

In a recent book, Fintan O'Toole has shown that Sheridan's obsession with what he saw as justice in Ireland was the driving force behind his lengthy political career. It even led him to high-risk dabbling in treason. Sheridan's preoccupation with his native country led to his inclusion of an Irish element in his work for the stage which is plainly visible, even though it has been surprisingly little noted in previous critical studies.

There is a certain irony in the fact that The Rivals, the first play of this passionate Irish patriot, almost came to grief on its unhappy first night at Covent Garden (17 January 1775) because of his characterization of an Irishman, his Sir Lucius O'Trigger. (Here I retread familiar territory.) The Town and Country Magazine (vii, 1775) spoke of 'a pretty warm contest towards the end of the last act', during which, according to Sheridan, an apple projected at John Lee, who was playing Sir Lucius, found its target, whereupon 'he stepped forward, and with a genuine rich brogue, angrily cried out, "By the pow'rs, is it personal? - is it me, or the matter?'"5 It was clearly both. The critic of St. James's Chronicle (for 17-19 Jan. 1775) recommended Mr. Lee 'to give up most Characters of Humour and Pleasantry that he may possibly be fond of, for he can very seldom make People laugh with him; and I should be very sorry to see him so much laughed at, as he was in this new Play.' Sheridan, on the other hand, was manifestly the target of ? Briton' writing in the Morning Post on 21 January. 'Sir Lucius O'Trigger,' he thundered, 'was so ungenerous an attack upon a nation, that must justify any severity with which the piece will hereafter be treated: it is the first time I ever remember to have seen so villainous a portrait of an Irish Gentleman, permitted so openly to insult the country on the boards of an English theatre.' And three days earlier the Morning Chronicle's critic had proclaimed that the 'representation of Sir Lucius is indeed an affront to the common sense of an audience, and is so far from giving the manners of our brave and worthy neighbours, that it scarce equals the picture of a respectable Hotentot...'

How had Sheridan got it wrong? R.L.Purdie, the editor of the text acted on that first night, sums the matter up:

As Sheridan originally conceived of Sir Lucius he was an unscrupulous fortune hunter, coarse and fatuous.... [When] in consequence of the last scene of all at King's Mead Fields he was accused of challenging himself, he could retort, 'Challeng'd myself! - Hell and Fury, Sir, what do you mean? 'Sblood! I would resent an affront from myself, as soon as from another Gentleman. And if my Honour were concern'd in it, my right hand should measure Swords with my left! how dare you laugh, Gentleman...' After the revelation that Lydia was not his Delia...., he was even accused of making love to himself, and the whole ridiculous proceeding reached a climax in his announcement of a match with Mrs. Malaprop.6

Though this is not without a charge of surreal energy, 'coarse and fatuous' seems a just verdict. And a disconcerting note of violence can be sounded too:

Sr.- Luc. A Rival in the Case, is there - Then sure you know what is to be done. …

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