As of today, we’ve had to live without Richard Brinsley Sheridan for exactly 200 years.
Yes, R. B. Sheridan died 200 years ago today. His was a turbulent and exciting and difficult sort of a life, which involved theatrical politics and political theatre in roughly equal measure. Like his father (I wrote a book about his father dontchya know?) he had a rather ambivalent relationship with theatre. Theatre was his bread and butter, but he was prone to see the stage as a mere stepping stone to something larger and more important.
Dramatists are considered “great” if they can keep two or three of their plays in a professional repertoire long after their deaths. By this measure, Sheridan is certainly a great dramatist. “The Rivals” and “School for Scandal” remain remarkably funny and enjoyable plays if performed properly. “The Critic” is also hilarious, even if it’s an awkward length. Sheridan always had problem writing plays of optimal length and was never good at cutting. “The Critic”, a three act afterpiece, fits no known performance slot, whether eighteenth century or twenty first century. As for “Pizarro”, the anti-colonialist pageant play that anticipates “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” of the late Peter Shaffer, it is said that he was still writing the final lines of this sprawling epic after the first night curtain had gone up.
Sheridan preferred to think of himself as a genteel reformist whig politician rather than as a dramatist. He is gave, what was regarded as the greatest speech anybody had ever heard, while helping to indict Warren Hastings, CEO of the East India Company. Indeed, his speech was regarded by those who heard it as better than anything offered by the far more industrious and philosophical Edmund Burke. My suspicion is that Burke’s speeches read better than they originally sounded, while no proper printed text exists of Sheridan’s great speech. He could be lazy (or ‘dilatory’) that way.
The sheer impact of this speech helped to reconcile Richard Sheridan with his father Thomas. Both father and son were difficult and proud characters, but the knowledge that Richard had succeeded so dramatically as an orator, seems to have warmed the cockles of Thomas’ aged phonocentrically obsessive heart. There was a touching scene involving Thomas’ deathbed in 1788.
Indeed, if Richard Sheridan had died at the same moment as his father, his modern reputation might have been higher, as his biographers Linda Kelly and Fintan O’Toole have noted. Decline, Disappointment and Dissipation all followed this high water mark of political and literary influence. But he was always fun to be with and he will assuredly be missed. An urgent and patriotic Irishman who never set foot on Irish soil as an adult, a consummate wit who responded to Burke’s flourishing of a dagger for rhetorical effect with the simple rejoinder “where’s the fork?”, R. B. Sheridan was one of the big beasts of the late eighteenth century, someone who enjoyed life while observing its cruelties and injustices, who knew what it was like to live, love, and risk life and love on a grand scale.
Exactly 200 years on, we can ill afford the loss of people like that.
Damn you 1816. Damn you to Hell.