« PreviousContinue »
hilarating comedy of The Rivals, which was produced at Covent Garden in January, 1775. It failed on the first night, from the stupidity or indifference of the actor who performed Sir Lucius O'Trigger. Another having been substituted in this part, the play was very successful, and has been popular ever since. It placed Sheridan, at the age of twenty-three, at the head of living dramatists. Nothing so brilliant had been brought out on the English stage since Farquhar; and while its wit and hilarity suggested the old school of comic dramatists, it was open to no objection on the score of decency.
The design of Sheridan in The Rivals was not dramatic excellence, but stage effect. In seeing it performed, we overlook, in the glitter and point of the dialogue, the absence of the higher requisites of comedy. The plot is without progress and development. The characters are overcharged into caricatures, and can hardly be said to be conceived, much less sustained. Each has some oddity stuck upon him, which hardly rises to a peculiarity of character, and the keeping of this oddity is carelessly sacrificed at every temptation from a lucky witticism. The comic personages seem engaged in an emulous struggle to outshine each other. What they are is lost sight of in what they say. Sparkling sentences are bountifully lavished upon all. Fag and David are nearly as sparkling as their masters. The scene in the fourth act, where Acres communicates to David his challenge to Beverley, is little more than a brilliant string of epigrams and repartees, in which the country clown plays the dazzling fence of his wit with all the skill of Sheridan himself. When Acres says that no gentleman will lose his honor, David is ready with the brisk retort, that it then “would be but civil in honor never to risk the loss of a gentleman.
Acres swears, "odds crowns and laurels,” that he will not disgrace his ancestors by refusing to fight. David assures him, in an acute non sequitur, that the surest way of not disgracing his ancestors is to keep as long as he can out of their company. “Look’ee now, master, to go to them in such haste- with an ounce of lead in your brains - I should think might as well be let alone. Our ancestors are a very good sort of folks, but they are the last people I should choose to have a visiting acquaintance with.” No dramatist whose conception of character was strong would fall into such shining inconsistencies.
The truth is, in this, as in Sheridan's other comedies, we tacitly overlook the keeping of character in the blaze of the wit. Every body laughs at Mrs. Malaprop's mistakes in the use of words, as he would laugh at similar mistakes in an acquaintance, who was exercising his ingenuity instead of exposing his ignorance. They are too felicitously infelicitous to be natural. Her remark to Lydia, that she is “
as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile,” — her scorn of “ algebra, simony, fluxions, paradoxes, and such inflammatory branches of learning," — her quotation from Hamlet, in which the royal Dane is gifted with the “ front of Job himself,” — her fear of going into " hydrostatic fits,” — her pride in the use of “her oracular tongue and a nice derangement of epitaphs," — are characteristics, not of a mind flippantly stupid, but curiously acute. In the scene where Lydia Languish tells her maid to conceal her novels at the approach of company, the sentimentalist is lost in the witty rake; “ Lord Ainsworth ” being ordered to be thrust under the sofa, and “ The Innocent Adultery” to be put into “ The Whole Duty of Man.”
Sir Anthony Absolute is the best character of the piece, and is made up of the elder Sheridan and Smollet’s Matthew Bramble. Doubtless Sheridan had many a conversation with his father, of which the first scene between Sir Anthony and Captain Absolute is but a ludicrously heightened description. The scenes, also, where the doctrine and discipline of duelling are discussed, and in which Acres and Sir Lucius shine with so much splendor, the author may have obtained in the course of his difficulties with Captain Mathews. Falkland is a satire on a state of mind which Sheridan himself experienced during his courtship of Miss Linley. The fine talk of Falkland and Julia is as unintentionally ludicrous as any comic portion of the play. We can easily imagine how the author himself might have made Puff ridicule it. Indeed, Sheridan's attempts at serious imagery rarely reached beyond capitalizing the names of abstract qualities, or running out commonplace similes into flimsy and feeble allegories. His sentiment, also, is never fresh, generous, and natural, but almost always as tasteless in expression as hollow in meaning. The merit of The Rivals is in its fun and farce; and the serious portions, lugged in to make it appear more like a regular comedy, are worse than the attempts of Holcroft, Morton, and Reynolds in the same style.
The farce of St. Patrick's Day, which Sheridan brought out a few months after The Rivals, though written in evident haste, bears, in a few passages, marks of that elaborate and fanciful wit in which the chief strength of his mind consisted. In the second scene of the first act, the dialogue between Lauretta and her mother, on the relative merits of militia and regular officers, is keen and sparkling. “Give me," says Lauretta, “the bold, upright youth, who makes love to-day, and has his head shot off to-morrow. Dear ! to think how the sweet fellows sleep on the ground and fight in silk stockings and lace ruffles.” To this animated burst of girlish admiration, Mrs. Bridget contemptuously replies :
1. To want a husband that may wed you to-day and be sent the Lord knows where before night; then in a twelvemonth, perhaps, to come home like a Colossus, with one leg at New York and the other at Chelsea Hospital !” This is one of the most startlingly ludicrous fancies in Sheridan's works.
The success of The Rivals seems to have inspired Sheridan with industry as well as ambition, for during the summer of this year he wrote the delightful opera of 'The Duenna. It was produced at Covent Garden in November, 1775, and had the unprecented run of seventy-five nights, exceeding even the success of The Beggar's Opera by twelve nights.
The diction of The Duenna, and the management of its character and incident, evince a marked improvement upon The Rivals. The wit, though not so intellectual as that of The School for. Scandal, is so happily combined with heedless animal spirits, as often to produce the effect of humor. It glitters and plays like heat-lightning through the whole dialogue. Epigram, repartee, and jest sparkle on the lips of every character. The power of permeating every thing with wit and glee — love, rage, cunning, avarice, religion - is displayed to perfection. It touches lightly, but keenly, on that point in every subject which admits of ludicrous treatment, and overlooks or blinks the rest. The best of the songs are but epigrams of sentiment. There is a spirit of joyous mischievousness and intrigue pervading the piece, which gives a delicious excitement to the brain. Little Isaac, the cunning, overreaching, and overreached Jew, is the very embodiment of gleeful craft, — “roguish,
perhaps, but_keen, devilish keen.” The scene in which he woos the Duenna, and that which succeeds with Don Jerome, are among the most exquisite in the play. The sentiment of the piece is all subordinated to its fun and mischief. The scene in the Priory with the jolly monks is the very theology of mirth. Father Augustine tells his brothers of some sinner who has left them a hundred ducats to be remembered in their masses. Father Paul orders the money to be paid to the wine-merchant, and adds, “ We will remember him in our cups, which will do just as well.” When asked if they have finished their devotions, their reply is, “Not by a bottle each.”
The wit of The Duenna is so diffused through the dialogue as not readily to admit of quotation. It sparkles over the piece like sunshine on the ripples of running water. There are, however, a few sentences which stand apart in isolated brilliancy, displaying that curious interpenetration of fancy and wit, in which Sheridan afterwards excelled. Such is Isaac's description of the proud beauty, — "the very rustling of her silk has a disdainful sound”; and his answer to Don Ferdinand's furious demand to know whither the absconding lovers have gone :-“I will, I will ! but people's memories differ ; some have a treacherous memory : now mine is a cowardly memory, - it takes to its heels at the sight of a drawn sword, it does i' faith ; and I could as soon fight as recollect.” In the same vein is Don Jerome's observation on the face of the Duenna :-“I thought that dragon's front of thine would cry aloof to the sons of gallantry ; steel-traps and spring-guns seemed writ in every wrinkle of it.” The description of the same old lady's face, as “parchment on which Time and Deformity have engrossed their titles," was omitted in the published copy ; though brilliant, he could afford to lose it. The Duenda's delineation of little Isaac, after that deluded Jew has called her as “old as his mother and as ugly as the Devil,” reaches the topmost height of contemptuous hyperbole. such a thing as you,” she exclaims, “pretend to talk of beauty ? a walking rondeau ! - a body that seems to owe all its consequence to the dropsy!. a pair of eyes like two dead beetles in a wad of brown dough a beard like an artichoke, with dry, shrivelled jaws which would disgrace the mummy of a monkey!” But perhaps the most purely
intellectual stroke of pleasantry is the allusion to Isaac, who has forsworn the Jewish faith, and “has not had time to get a new one,” as standing “ like a dead wall between church and synagogue, or like the blank leaves between the Old and New Testament."
Mr. Moore has given a few sentences from the manuscript of The Duenna which do not appear in the printed copy. Among these is the following fine soliloquy of Lopez, the servant of Don Ferdinand :
“A plague on these haughty damsels, say I:- when they play their airs on their whining gallants, they ought to consider that we are the chief sufferers, we have all their ill-humors at second-hand. Donna Louisa's cruelty to my master usually
converts itself into blows by the time it gets to me; she can frown me black and blue at any time, and I shall carry the marks of the last box on the ear she gave him to my grave. Nay, if she smiles on any one else, I am the sufferer for it; if she says a civil word to a rival, I am a rogue and a scoundrel ; and
; if she sends him a letter, my back is sure to pay the postage.”
Sheridan's brilliant success as a dramatist led to his in vestments in theatrical property, a fertile source of pecuniary difficulties to him in after years. In June, 1776, he purchased a portion of Garrick's share in the patent of Drury Lane Theatre. For this property he paid £10,000. How he obtained the money has never been ascertained. Hunt conjectures that it was borrowed from some wealthy pobleman. But the mysterious principles of Sheridan's. science of finance, or finesse, have never been laid open. He afterwards, in 1778, bought Mr. Lacy's moiety for £45,000, and thus having the control of the theatre, he made his father the manager, - a reconciliation having taken place a short time before. In raising all this money Sheridan must have displayed a power of persuasion and management which would have done honor to a Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is doubtful if even Mr. Pitt, who performed miracles in the way of loans, ever equalled it.
The first fruit of Sheridan's new interest in the drama was A Trip to Scarborough, altered, with but few additions, from Sir John Vanbrugh's Relapse. This was really a service to the cause both of comedy and decency, for the original play, though one of the most richly humorous in the language, and in Lord Foppington, Sir Tunbelly Clumsey,
No. 138. 8