The following is a brief history of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, directed by Mitchell Cushman (2018 Mary Mooney Distinguished Artist), running March 29 – April 7, 2018, in the Timms Centre for the Arts. These notes were prepared by dramaturg and MA Drama candidate, Max Rubin.
Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London.
No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
~Samuel Johnson, 1777
From a certain point of view, Johnson had a point.
At this time, London was a powerhouse of technological innovation, cultural achievement and outrageous prosperity: the central point and symbol of an empire upon which the sun never set.
However, a large proportion of this wealth was held by a small percentage of the population. Alongside London’s great theatres and public buildings, the effects of poverty were all too visible. Overcrowding, rising rents and a scarcity of work in the capital led to a great rise in homelessness, alcoholism, prostitution and the spread of slums rife with crime and suffering.
Sheridan wrote The School for Scandal about a society in which there was a sharp and intractable divide between rich and poor.
The previous century saw rapid social change. The daring and explicit Comedies of Manners of the permissive early Restoration period were supplanted by overwhelmingly sentimental productions which shied away from social commentary.
By the time George III was crowned in 1761, royal patronage for the theatre had ended and the London stage was thick with saccharine, entirely commercial productions such as Edward Moore’s The Foundling or Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers. Commonly, these plays involved virtuous characters overcoming various moral trials – commendable perhaps, but highly forgettable.
The School For Scandal represents an attempt by Sheridan to reinvigorate the genre and reclaim the satiric bite of earlier writers such as William Wycherley, whose anti-puritanical The Country Wife had so scandalized audiences in 1675.
The features of these Comedies of Manners are scrupulously recreated in The School for Scandal. Characters are archetypal – often defined by their name (Snake, Sneerwell, etc.). Plot is secondary to dialogue which is complex, witty and elegantly brutal.
Sheridan aims his sights squarely at the privileged classes. He describes a group of people who feast on gossip and rumour, but live in terror of exposure. Scandal-mongering is an addictive drug – providing diversion from the world’s harsher realities, but so pervasive and destructive that society is rotted from the top down. Particular targets are elderly husbands, the foolishly naïve and, of course, the falsely sentimental.
Although it received an enthusiastic reception and remains a staple of the repertoire, modern audiences have struggled to reconcile the play’s joyous, gleeful irreverence with a distinct aftertaste of anti-semitism. While Sheridan is careful to describe Moses, the money-lender, as an honest Jew, it is equally clear that this is intended as an exception to the usual rule. Some directors have responded by removing all references to his Jewishness from their productions, others have embraced the play’s difficulties to draw parallels with their own communities.
One thing is certain: the play has provided an eloquent vehicle for generations of theatre artists to satirize and celebrate their times. Pshaw!