« PreviousContinue »
and Miss Hoyden, containing characters which could not well be lost to the stage, was still conceived in so libertine a spirit, and deformed with so audacious a coarseness of expression, that it must soon have passed from the list of acting plays. This comedy shows us at once the superiority of Vanbrugh to Sheridan in humor and dramatic portraiture, and his inferiority in wit and polish. Sheridan could not have delineated with such consistency of purpose of coxcombs, Lord Foppington. As an illustration of the difference between the manner of the two dramatists, we extract a portion of the dialogue between Young Fashion and his brother, on the return of the former to his native country, a penniless adventurer :
“ Fashion. Now your people of business are gone, brother, I hope I may obtain a quarter of an hour's audience with you.
“ Lord Fop. Faith, Tam, I must beg you 'll excuse me at this time, for I have an engagement which I would not break for the salvation of mankind.
“ Fash. Shall you be back to dinner?
“ Lord Fop. As God shall judge me, I can't tell; for it is possible I
dine with some friends at Donner's. “ Fash. Shall I meet you there? For I must needs talk with you.
“ Lord Fop. That I 'm afraid may n't be quite so proper; for those I commonly eat with are a people of nice conversation ; and you know, Tam, your education has been a little at large. But there are other ordinaries in town, very good beef ordinaries, - I suppose, Tam, you can eat beef? – However, dear Tam, I 'm glad to see thee in England, stap my vitals !”
This is the perfection of coxcombical heartlessness and egotism, — the sublime of ideal frippery. It is easy to distinguish here between the hearty exaggeration of humor and the hard caricature of wit.
Sheridan reached the height of bis dramatic fame in May, 1777, by the production of The School for Scandal, a comedy which still occupies the first place on the stage, and which will ever be read with delight for the splendor, condensation, and fertility of its wit, the felicitous contrivance of some scenes and situations, the general brilliancy of its matter, and the tingling truth of its satirical strokes. representation of men as they appear, and manners as they are, it has the highest merit. The hypocrisies of life were
never more skilfully probed, or its follies exposed to an ordeal of more polished scorn. It was triumphantly successful from the first, and during its long run exceeded mos other attractions of town life. Probably no comedy ever cost its author more toil, or was the slow result of more experiments in diction and scenic effect. It was menced before The Rivals. With his usual sagacity, Sheridan contrived that it should appear, in a great measure, as the hasty product of an indolent genius, spurred into activity by the pressure of business engagements. Mr. Moore, in his life of the author, has introduced us into the workshop of the literary mechanician, shown us the scattered limbs of the characters, the disjointed sentences of the dialogue, and the little grains of diamond dust as they first sparkled into substantial being. Every portion was elaborated with the nicest care, - not to purchase elegance by
dilution, but to fix the volatile essence of thought in the smallest compass of expression, to sharpen the edge of satire to the finest point, to give scorn its keenest sting. Beginning with weakness and verbiage, he did not end until he had reduced his matter to the consistency as well as glitter of the most polished steel.
The last contribution of Sheridan to dramatic literature was the farce of The Critic, produced in 1779; we say the last, for his adaptations of Pizarro and The Stranger, twenty years after, were contributions neither to literature nor the stage. The Critic excels every thing of its kind in the English language, for it is to be compared with Buckingham's Rehearsal and Fielding's Midas, not with Beaumont's Knight of the Burning Pestle. The wit always tells and never tires.
Thus, at the age of twenty-eight, Sheridan, the “impenetrable dunce” of his first schoolmaster, had contrived to enrich English letters with a series of plays which are to English prose what Pope's satires are to English verse. We may now pause to consider the nature and extent of his comic powers, and his claim to be ranked among the masters of cornic genius.
Sheridan's defects as a dramatist answer to the defects of his mind and character. Acute in observing external appearances, and well informed in what rakes and men of fashion call life, he was essentially superficial in mind and
heart. A man of great wit and fancy, he was singularly deficient in the deeper powers of humor and imagination. All his plays lack organic life. In plot, character, and incident, they are framed by mechanical, not conceived by vital, processes. They evince no genial enjoyment of mirth, no insight into the deeper springs of the ludicrous. The laughter they provoke is the laughter of antipathy, not of sympathy. It is wit detecting external inconsistencies and oddities, not humor representing them in connection with the inward constitution whence they spring. The great triumphs of comic genius have been in comic creations, conceived through the processes of imagination and sympathy, and instinct with the vital life of mirth. Such are the comic characters of Shakspeare, of the elder dramatists generally, of Addison, Goldsmith, Fielding, Sterne, Scott, and Dick
A writer who grasps character in the concrete gives his creation a living heart and brain. His hold upon the general conception is too firm to allow his fancy to seduce him into inconsistencies for the sake of fine separate thoughts. Every thing that the character says is an expression of what the character is. Such a creation impresses the mind as a whole. Its unity is never lost in the variety of its manifestation. This is evident enough in the case of Falstaff, for the living idea of the man impressed on our imaginations gives more mirthful delight than his numberless witticisms. The witticisms, indeed, owe much of their effect to their intimate relation with the character. But the principle is no less true, though less evident, of Mercutio, Beatrice, and the airier creations of mirth generally. We conceive of them all as living beings, whose wit and humor do not begin with their entrance, or cease with their exit from the scene, but overflow in fun, whether we are by to hear or not. Such creations represent the poetry of mirth, and spring from profound and creative minds.
Now Sheridan's comic personages display none of this life and genial fun. They seem sent upon the stage simply to utter brilliant things, and their wit goes out with their exit. Every thing they say is as good as the original conception of their individuality, and character is therefore lost in the glare of its representation. In truth, Sheridan conceived a character as he conceived a jest. It first Aashed upon his mind in an epigrammatic form. In his Memoranda, published by
Moore, we find the hints of various dramatic personages embodied in smart sayings. Thus, one is indicated in this significant sentence : . " I shall order my valet to shoot me the first thing he does in the morning.” Another is sketched as “an old woman endeavouring to put herself back into a girl”; another, as a man who changes sides in all arguments the moment you agree with him”; and another, as a “pretty woman studying looks, and endeavouring to recollect an ogle, like Lady
who has learned to play her eyelids like Venetian blinds.” In all these we perceive the wit laughing
" at external peculiarities, and subjecting them to the malicious exaggerations of fancy, but not the dramatist searching for internal qualities, and moulding them into new forms of mirthful being. The character is but one of the many pleasantries it is made to speak. In those instances where Sheridan most nearly produces the effects of humor, it is done by the coöperation of brisk animal spirits with fancy, or by adopting and refining upon the delineations of others.
We would not, in these remarks, be considered as underrating Sheridan's real powers. He is undoubtedly to be placed among the wittiest of writers and speakers. His plays, speeches, and the records of his conversation sparkle with wit of almost all kinds, from the most familiar to the most recondite. Though seldom genial, it is never malignant; and if it rarely reaches far beneath the surfaces of things, it plays over them with wonderful brilliancy. No English comic writer, who was not also a great poet, ever approached him in fineness and remoteness of ludicrous analogy: In delicacy of allusion, in exquisite lightness and certainty of touch, in concise felicity and airiness of expression, his wit is almost unmatched. It has been asserted that he had not a fertile fancy, and that he gained much of his reputation by the care with which he husbanded his stores. He was doubtless often complimented for his readiness when he least deserved it, and was cunning in the concealment of preparation. But we think he was so entirely a wit as to be choice to daintiness in what he employed, and to aim at perfection in its verbal expression. He would not always trust to a mere flow of animal spirits to fashion the light idea of the minute ; for his object was not mere hilarity, but the keen, subtile, piercing strokes of the intellect. We believe he suppressed more sparkling jokes than he ever wrote or
uttered ; that the fertility of his fancy was' great, but that its expression was checked by his taste.
There are as many stories of his readiness as of his premeditation. His calling Whitbread's image of the phenix“ a poulterer's description
a of a phenix," and his objecting to a tax on mile-stones as unconstitutional, because they were a race who could not meet to remonstrate,” are as happy as any of his most elaborated epigrams.
Brilliant as had been the success of Sheridan as a dramatist, he commenced, shortly after the production of The Critic, a still more brilliant career as an orator and politician. His powers of conversation and his delight in social pleasures brought him into terms of intimacy with many prominent members of the Whig opposition, who could appreciate both his talents and good-fellowship. Through Lord John Townsend, he became acquainted with Mr. Fox, and they were mutually pleased at their first meeting. Fox declared Sheridan the wittiest man he had ever known. An introduction to Burke soon followed. He soon became one of the most welcome visitors at Devonshire House, “where politics was made to wear its most attractive form, and sat enthroned, like Virtue among the Epicureans, with all the Graces and Pleasures for handmaids.” At Brooks's Clubhouse, where the Whig politicians blended conviviality with business, he soon shone preëminent among the hardest drinkers and wittiest talkers, the very man to do honor to that
" liberal Brooks, whose speculative skill
Exults to trust, and blushes to be paid." There his spirits were repressed by no attempt on the part of his associates, noble by birth or genius, to assert the lord or the Right Honorable. The usual style of address was Jack
Townsend, Ned Burke, Tom Grenville, Dick Sheridan, and the like. The ease and familiarity of the Whigs in their social intercourse, and those signs of the times which indicated their approaching change from opposition to administration, offered stimulants both to Sheridan's love of pleasure and to his ambition. He joined the party, and, with a few exceptions, was faithful to its creed and leaders through life. His brilliancy and adroitness made him an able coadjutor of Burke and Fox in assailing the corruptions of the court, and defend