Today is the birthday of Irish playwright and Whig politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan (books by this author), born in Dublin (1751). His family moved to England when he was seven years old. His mother was a playwright and his father was an actor who wrote books about teaching English.
Sheridan wrote plays satirizing English manners and the aristocracy. His first play, The Rivals (1775), was about a wealthy man who pretends to be a poor officer to woo a rich woman obsessed with romance novels. The opening night of the show was a disaster and an audience member threw an apple at the main actor. Sheridan shut down the performance for a couple of weeks to rewrite the play, then recast the leading role with the new script — it was a huge hit and the term “malapropism” was coined after the character Mrs. Malaprop, who makes the mistake of using words that sound like the words she means to say. Mrs. Malaprop was fond of saying, “He is the very pineapple of politeness.” The Rivals was George Washington’s favorite play.
Sheridan’s comedy The School for Scandal (1777) premiered two years later. The play centers on an aristocrat who disguises himself to judge the characters of his two nephews, one of whom he will choose as his heir. The story is full of backbiting, false rumors, and people behind the scenes trying to play puppeteer in others’ lives. One critic wrote: “Sheridan’s satirical bite […] comes not from epigrammatic flourishes, but from the subtle undermining of Georgian social mores […] In this realm, gossip is a form of social control, wielded by the essentially impotent elite to force conformity among their peers.”
In 1780, Sheridan entered Parliament and sided with Charles James Fox, a radical parliamentarian who supported the American Revolution. They couldn’t convince other members of Parliament to oppose King George III’s declaration of war.
While he was giving a speech in Parliament, Edmund Burke once threw a knife onto the floor to make a dramatic point. Sheridan asked, “Where’s the fork?” and the assembly broke down laughing.
Sheridan served as the Treasurer of the Navy toward the end of his career. But after 32 years in Parliament, he lost his run for reelection and spent the last years of his life in poverty. The American Congress offered him £20,000 in gratitude for his efforts to avoid the Revolutionary War, but he refused the money. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey along with Chaucer and Spenser.