Friday, December 9, 2011

The School for Scandal and The Critic by Richard Sheridan

Richard Sheridan (1751-1816) was a comic playwright of particularly fine vintage. His two most famous plays, The School for Scandal and The Critic, are still side-splittingly funny even though their primary target is eighteenth-century society.

The School for Scandal, peopled with characters named Teazle, Backbite, Surface, Sneerwell, &c, is a play about gossip, hypocrisy, and true worth. In some ways it's a retelling of the parable of the two sons, the one that said "Yes" and didn't, and the other that said "No" and did. An old bachelor with a young extravagant wife; two brothers in love with the same girl; and a collection of intriguing scandalmongers add up to a sparkling comedy of intrigue.

But The Critic is my favourite--a play-within-a-play, with hilarious commentary. The main characters are Mr Puff, a playwright who invites the author Plagiary and the critics Dangle and Sneer to attend the rehearsal of his new tragedy, The Spanish Armada--a little history, as Mr Puff explains, filled up with some romance:
Sneer: No scandal about Queen Elizabeth, I hope?
Puff: O Lud! no, no. I only suppose the Governor of Tilbury Fort's daughter to be in love with the son of the Spanish admiral.
Sneer: Oh, is that all!
Dangle: Excellent, i'faith! I see it at once. But won't this appear rather improbable?
Puff: To be sure it will--but what the plague! a play is not to show occurrences that happen every day, but things just so strange, that though they never did, they might happen.
The lovers, even more improbably, are named Don Ferolos Whiskerandos on the one hand, and Tilburina on the other... As the play rollicks on, Sheridan mercilessly lampoons all sorts of things: Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Christopher Hatton enter the stage, telling each other the backstory--
Sir Walter: You also know--
Dangle: Mr Puff, as he knows all this, why does Sir Walter go on telling him?
Meanwhile Mr Puff must deal with fractious actors, who keep cutting their lines--
Whiskerandos: O matchless excellence!--and must we part?
Well, if--we must--we must--and in that case
The less is said the better.
Puff: Hey day! here's a cut! What, are all the mutual protestations out?
Tilburina: Now pray sir, don't interrupt us just here, you ruin our feelings.
Puff: Your feelings!--but zounds, my feelings, ma'am!
Needless to say, the play is one laugh from beginning to end, when Tilburina goes "stark mad in white satin"--
Sneer: Why in white satin?
Puff: O Lord, sir, when a heroine goes mad she always goes in white satin--don't she, Dangle?
Dangle: Always--it's a rule.
They say the past is a different country. But fortunately, in Sheridan's England, they liked to laugh just as much as we do.

Gutenberg etext of The School for Scandal
Gutenberg etext of The Critic

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