Richard Brinsley Sheridan Biography
SHERIDAN, Richard Brinsley (1751-1816). A British dramatist and statesman, born in Dublin. He was the son of Thomas and Frances Sheridan (qq.v.). In 1762 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained till 1768. Having won no distinction at school, he continued his studies with more zeal under private tutors. Sheridan had fallen in love with Miss Elizabeth Linley, a professional singer. Disliking the attentions of a Major Mathews, this young and lovely person made up her mind to seek refuge in a French convent. Sheridan took ship with her as a guardian. The pair were married by a priest in a village near Calais. On returning to England Sheridan had a duel with the furious major, whose ill luck it was to have to beg for his life and afterward to publish an apology in the Bath Chronicle. In a second duel on July 2, 1772, Sheridan was gravely wounded. Both his father and Mr. Linley objected to the newly made union, so Sheridan was sent off to Waltham Abbey in Essex to study undisturbed. For a while he worked hard, being especially eager to master French and Italian, though he meant to be a barrister. On April 6, 1773, he was entered at the Middle Temple, and a week later he married Miss Linley with the consent of her father, but the elder Sheridan called the alliance a disgrace.
In conjunction with a friend at Harrow, Sheridan had already published a metrical translation of the epistles of Aristænetus, had written fugitive verse of his own, and a comedy called Jupiter, which was refused by Garrick. Settling in London with his wife, he now turned to literature for support. The Rivals was first performed on Jan. 17, 1775, and it failed. Carefully revised, it was again put on the stage 11 days later, and it succeeded. This fine comedy was followed by a farce called Saint Patrick's Day, or the Scheming Lieutenant (May 2, 1775) and the comic opera called The Duenna (Nov. 21 1775) , which ran for 75 nights, a popularity until then unprecedented. In 1776 Sheridan, helped by his father-in-law and a friend, bought out Garrick's share in Drury Lane Theatre and two years later the share of Willoughby Lacy, Garrick's partner. The money for these purchases was raised mainly on mortgage. On Sept. 21, 1776, Drury Lane was opened under Sheridan's management. The next year he produced an adaptation of Vanbrugh's Relapse under the title of A Trip to Scarborough (February 24), followed by his greatest comedy, The School for Scandal (May 8). His later plays are The Critic (Oct. 29, 1779) and Pizarro (May 24, 1799), adapted from Kotzebue (q.v.). The Rivals and The School for Scandal are among the best comedies in English since the Elizabethan age.
Sheridan's wit and attractive personality had long made him conspicuous in London society. In 1777 he was elected to the famous Literary Club of Johnson and Burke. Through the influence of Fox he began a parliamentary career in 1780. For his services to the Opposition during the first two years he was appointed Under-secretary of State for Foreign Affairs under the Rockingham ministry (1782) and Secretary to the Treasury under the coalition ministry of the Duke of Portland (1783). For his speeches against the American war the Congress of the United States wished to present him with £20,000. The gift was gracefully declined. His greatest speeches were against Warren Hastings. Sheridan sided with Fox against English interference in the French Revolution, but he opposed the Revolution when it began to interfere with the peace of England. He also met Pitt in debate against the union of England and Ireland and strenuously advocated the freedom of the press. Defeat in the election of 1812 brought his parliamentary career to an end. This was not his only misfortune. The destruction by fire of the new Drury Lane Theatre in 1809 put an end to Sheridan's main source of income, which for a while amounted to £10,000 a year. Harassed by creditors, Sheridan, though he would, could not pay. His embarrassments prevented his being returned from Stafford and caused him to be arrested for debt August, 1813. He became an inmate of a sponging house, but friends soon provided a loan of the needful sum and freed him. He died July 7, 1816, and was buried in Westininster Abbey.
Sheridan came in a period when satirical comedy could easily find something to make merry over in contemporary society. Moreover, that society was highly picturesque. An arch and dainty eighteenth-century grace permeates both The Rivals and The School for Scandal; they have an incessant sparkle of wit and elegance of style. By his own avowal Sheridan was not a happy man. Indeed he often thought life an unendurable burden, but his wit is never sour. He never showed, either in his literary work or in politics, rancor or grudges. Yet he seems to have been slandered his life long, though he refrained from replying to calumnies. Sheridan by sheer inborn goodness, if not by sound intelligence, was habitually on what Time's judgment calls the right side.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XX (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 818.