« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SKETCH
RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN.
BY LEIGH HUNT.
Brinsley Butler, second Earl of Lanesborough, though he dropped the latter name in his signature) was born in Dorset Street, Dublin, in the month of September 1751. He was the son of Thomas Sheridan, actor and elocutionist, and grandson of Dr. Sheridan, a celebrated schoolmaster, the friend of Swift. His mother was Frances Chamberlaine, authoress of “ Nourjahad” and “Sidney Biddulph.” He went to school, first in Dublin, and afterwards at Harrow; and was so careless at both places, and acquired so little, that his Irish schoolmaster pronounced him “an impenetrable dunce," and the masters at Harrow, though they discerned his capacity, could do nothing with it, either by severity or indulgence. When he left Harrow, he could not spell; and he seems to have pronounced as badly, if we are to judge from his writing think for thing; but his aristocratic schoolfellows surpassed him in vulgarity of mind, for they taunted him with being the son of a player.
On leaving school, he did not go to the university, probably because his father was poor ; yet, in spite of his inaptitude for being taught, which continued the same at home, his inclination to letters was so great, that he and a schoolfellow (Halhed whose vivacity afterwards made so strange an end in the dull mysticism of Brothers) had already entered into a sort of partnership of wit and versification, which they now proposed to turn to account with the booksellers. The only project, however, which they completed, was the translation of a book not worth the trouble, the “ Epistles, of Aristænetus."
Sheridan had already got a habit of delay, which spoiled all the projects, both of himself and his friends. Yet he now showed what a curious start he could get of them, by turning out to be the accepted lover of a young lady, of whom his own brother and his friend Halhed were both enamoured, and in whose heart, though they both confided to him their passion, they did not know he took any interest. The
lady was Miss Linley the singer, a beauty then only sixteen, with whom all the world were in love. Sheridan ran away with her to a secret marriage in France, where her friends thought she had gone to evade all her lovers. He then fought a duel on her account with a married scoundrel, who had worried and defamed her; and, finally, on her return to England, and by extorted permission of her father, repeated the nuptial ceremony by license in the year 1773. It is said, that while she was residing with her angry friends during the interval of the two weddings, and pursuing her professional avocations, he more than once disguised himself as a hackney-coachman, and drove her home from the oratorios at Covent Garden.
During the early period of his marriage, Sheridan lived upon part of a sum of three thousand pounds, which a good-natured old gentleman had settled upon Miss Linley, in default of being able to induce her to marry him: yet so strange were the husband's notions of dignity, that he would no longer suffer his wife to earn a subsistence by her talents. It appears from Boswell, that Dr. Johnson applauded this pride : but he did so, probably, in ignorance of the other circumstance; certainly in no foresight of the shifts and improvidences of Sheridan's life.
The approaches of want of money, or most likely the pressure of it, appears to have hastened the composition of our author's first drama, “The Rivals,” which was brought out at Covent Garden in January 1775. The admirers of this highly diverting and popular comedy are astonished to hear that it failed on its first night. But the circumstance was attributable, chiefly, to the bad acting of one of the performers; and, on the substitution of another, and the alteration of such passages as a first night's experience generally requires to be corrected, the comedy became the favourite which it remains. The character of Falkland is thought to have been suggested to the author by some tempers of his own during courtship. The wit and trickery of Captain Absolute probably lost nothing from similar self-references: nor may Sir Anthony be supposed to have been the worse for recollections of the paternal will and pleasure of Mr. Sheridan, senior, who was as arbitrary a father as rhetorician. Mrs. Malaprop is a caricature, but a very amusing one, of Mrs. Slipslop. Even her “allegory on the banks of the Nile," however, must yield to the other's anger in behalf of the "frail sect.” Sheridan's wit is more sparkling, but does not go so deep as Fielding's. Neither is it so good-natured. There is little intimation of tenderness in it, or of the habitual consideration of anything but some jest at somebody's expense. The kindness of Sir Peter Teazle towards his wife is but a sort of dotage, mixed up with the selfishness of unequal years. It was not in Sheridan's nature to invent a Parson Adams, or Sir Roger de Coverley; much less to venture upon an heroical character in the shape of a footman.
The gaiety of success, and, some say, gratitude to the good actor who was substituted for the bad one in Sir Lucius O'Trigger, produced in the ensuing spring the farce of “St. Patrick's Day, or the Scheming Lieutenant,” which turns upon an amusing trick à la Molière, and met with the like prosperity; and the author's animal spirits thus gaining triumph upon triumph, he devoted the summer to an opera (" The Duenna"), which, assisted by the sprightly and characteristic melodies of his fatherin-law, Mr. Linley, came out in the autumn and succeeded to admiration. The
incidents are not new, but are very cleverly put together; the dialogue is smart and unsuperfluous, like all his comic writing; the more humorous characters are not very agreeable, and there is too much jesting upon personal defects, but they are very amusing; and if the poetry has little claim to that most abused term, it is very good town poetry,—full of pretty turns and epigrammatic points, and even as like earnestness of feeling, as such art well can be. It is clear that the heart is generally subordinate to the will, and the passion little but a restless, though elegant, sensuality. His table songs are always admirable. When he was drinking wine, he was thoroughly in earnest.
A passage in one of his letters at this period, shows a strange instance of that subjection of the greater to the less, of the universal to the conventional, which, as it is the very essence of the factitious importance of the leaders of artificial life, becomes the ruin of poetry in their worshippers. But here even wit was dismayed! “Ormsby,” says he, “has sent me a silver branch (candlestick) on the score of “The Duenna.' This will cost me, what of all things I am least free of, a letter; and it should have been a poetical one too, if the present had been any piece of plate but a candlestick ! I believe I must melt it into a bowl, to make verse on it; for there is no possibility of bringing candle, candlestick, or snuffers, into metre. However, as the gift was owing to the Muse, and the manner of it very friendly, I believe I shall try to jingle a little on the occasion; at least, a few such stanzas as might gain a cup of tea from the urn at Bath-Easton.” Poor victim of the
of a candlestick!" Light itself, and the fire of Apollo, could do nothing for him! nor the wax of the bee, nor love, nor lucubration, nor even the Greek Anthology! We wonder what he thought of that pretty feminine speech of the lady in “ The Merchant of Venice," when she is going home, and sees a light in her window :
How far that little candle throws its beams!
Or that other in “Romeo and Juliet," where Shakspeare, applying the word to the very stars, seems to identify them with the artificial lights of our earthly night-time, in order to dismiss them with the better grace before the freshness and hilarity of day-light:
Night's candles are burn'd out, and jocund day
How wit itself seems to vanish, like à squalid reveller, before the coming of that happy god! But Sheridan, if we are not mistaken, was no great believer in Shakspeare.
Our author now became one of the proprietors of Drury Lane Theatre ; how, nobody can tell—for nobody knew where the money came from ; probably, as in the case of his friend Richardson afterwards, from some wealthy nobleman. This cunning and reserve, mixed with pride, does not sit well upon a jovial man of the town; nor did it do him good afterwards, out of whatever immediate necessities it helped him. It only seemed to tempt him into more; for, strangely enough, where such a quality was present, it was the only provident part of his character. Luxury and delay beset all
It was pre
the rest of it; so that his very wit ended in doing him no good, even as the proprietor of a theatre, but by affording him unwieldy, uneasy, and, finally, insufficient means of warding off debts, and encouraging the ruin it delayed.
Sheridan's animal spirits, however, which were also among the causes of his ruinperhaps the chief cause, in a worldly sense,-had the good luck, or misfortune, whichever the reader pleases to call it, of making trouble and difficulty less painful to him than to most men, He doubtless extracted a great deal of pleasure from most of the days of his brilliant career, as long as it remained brilliant, and health and strength were not wanting. And we have now come to the moment when he was at the height of it, that of the production of “The School for Scandal,” in the year 1777. ceded by the re-fashionment, not worth more than alluding to, of Vanbrugh's “Relapse," under the title of “A Trip to Scarborough." He was at this period six-and-twenty, an age at which many prose comic writers have produced their best, though Shakspeare himself could hardly have given us Lear” and “ Hamlet.” But this apparent precocity has excited more admiration than it deserves; for the truth is, that the “ great world” of artificial society is a very little world to become intimate with, compared with Shakspeare's. Passions there, like modes, run very much in patterns, and lie on the surface; and folly, which is the object of satire, is by its nature a thing defective, and therefore sooner read through than the wisdom of the wise, or the universality of nature. A man, like Sheridan or Congreve, may very well know all that is to be known in the circles of conventional grace or absurdity, by the time he has spent more than half his life. Feeling he needs but little, imagination not at all. The stars might be put out, the ocean drunk up, almost everything which makes the universe what it is might vanish, including the heart of man in its largest and deepest sense, and if a single ball-room survived, like some foolish fairy corner, he might still be what he is. A little fancy and a good deal of scorn, a terseness, a polish, and a sense of the incongruous, are all the requisites of his nature,-admirable in the result, compared with what is inferior to them, -nothing (so to speak) by the side of the mighty waters, and interminable shores, and everlasting truth and graces, of the masters of the dramatic art poetical.
“ The School for Scandal,” with the exception of too great a length of dialogue without action in its earlier scenes, is a very concentration and crystallization of all that is sparkling, clear, and compact, in the materials of prose comedy; as elegantly elaborate, but not so redundant or apparently elaborate, as the wittiest scenes of Congreve, and containing the most complete and exquisitely wrought-up bit of effect in the whole circle of comedy—the screen scene. Yet none of the characters, hardly even Sir Peter, can be said to be agreeable ; certainly not Charles Surface, unless performed with a flow of spirits perhaps beyond what the author intended. He is almost as selfish as his brother Joseph, and makes pretensions to generosity hardly less provoking. His inclusion of Lady Teazle among the objects of his mockery in the screen-scene, is particularly unhandsome and ungallant. But the author thought it necessary to the perfection of the joke, and therefore nobody was to be spared. Of Sir Peter we have said more in a former passage. It is painful to witness the depth of reverential silence
with which the audience see him give his wife a bank-bill for two hundred pounds. The whole commercial heart of England seems to be suddenly on the spot, awed by seeing all that virtue going out of it.
The year 1779 produced “The Critic;” and, after a long political interval, his contributions to the stage concluded in the years 1798 and 1799 with adaptations of other people's versions of “ The Stranger ” and Pizarro.” “ The Critic,” though in some of its most admired passages little better than an exquisite cento of the wit of satirists before him, is a worthy successor to The Rehearsal ” of the Duke of Buckingham, and even to Beaumont and Fletcher's “ Knight of the Burning Pestle ;” though the last has the far superior merit to both, of being at once their original, and the work of poetry as well as wit. Sheridan must have felt himself emphatically at home in a production of this kind; for there was every call in it upon
he abounded in, --wit, banter, and style, -and none upon his good-nature. It is observable, however, and not a little edifying to observe, that when those who excel in a spirit of satire above everything else, come to attempt serious specimens of the poetry and romance whose exaggerations they ridicule, they make ridiculous mistakes of their own, and of the very same kind : so allied is habitual want of faith with want of all higher power. The style of “The Stranger” is poor and pick-thank enough ; but “ Pizarro,” in its highest flights, is downright booth at a fair—a tall spouting gentleman in tinsel.
We say little, in this sketch, of our author's political life; but it cannot be passed over, whenever his biography is at all concerned; and, indeed, every man's existence is more or less of a piece, and serves to elucidate the particular phases of it, however inconsistent they may appear.
Sheridan seems to have become a Whig, as most men become anything, by accident, and by the circumstances of early connexion and introduction. He had not the cordial fellowship and overflowing good-nature of Fox. He did not become a partisan out of sympathy. Neither, on the other hand, had his egotism pride or passion enough, to be capable of the resentments and apostacies of Burke. He had a strong, a sensual, and therefore essentially coarse nature, none the less so for a veil of refined language, which was his highest notion of the dress of the heart; but his very animal spirits, and contentment with the pleasure of the moment, served to keep him from dishonest aims. He stuck to his party, as he did to the wine ; and if he did not ultimately abide by it in its corporate sense, when its public virtue was put to a test apart from private considerations, he may still be said, in adhering to the Prince, to have stuck to the last man at the table, influenced by a certain jovial disinterestedness as well as conventional vanity. In the famous trial of Hastings, which produced his highest oratorical flights, and extraordinary they certainly were, though ludicrously overrated by Burke,) it may be said of its three great conductors, that a sort of jealous hatred of wrong was the inspirer of Burke, the love of right that of Fox, and the opportunity of making a display at somebody's expense that of Sheridan, without any very violent care either for right or wrong.
He had perhaps indeed never been thoroughly in earnest during his life, except in having his
way at the moment, and making his case out somehow with his mistress, his wit, or