Thursday, April 12, 2012

The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This play is on my reading list because the Bakersfield Symphony is performing Samuel Barber’s overture, written over a century later to accompany the play. I usually attempt to familiarize myself with the back story for the works we perform, and this one promised to be a good read as well.

The School for Scandal (the play) was first performed in 1777, the era of Mozart and Haydn, Boswell and Johnson, Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Wollstonecraft. Aristocratic society was an irresistible target for an acerbic wit, and Sheridan was one of the finest.

Sheridan wrote The School for Scandal and his other hit play, The Rivals, before the age of thirty. (The Rivals contains the memorable Mrs. Malaprop, whose name became a word in its own right.) Sheridan used the proceeds from his plays to purchase the Drury Lane Theater, later plowing the profits of this business into his career in parliament.

Gossip and hypocrisy take center stage in The School for Scandal. Lady Sneerwell and her lackey, Snake, spread malicious rumors for fun and profit. As the stage directions for the opening of the play state, she “entertains her intimates to relieve the tedium of being idly rich.” Furthermore, she delights in the fact that her rumors have caused engagements to be broken, and children to be disinherited.

Lady Sneerwell herself justifies this occupation as follows:

Wounded myself in the early part of my life by the envenomed tongue of slander, I confess I have since known no pleasure equal to the reducing others to the level of my own injured reputation.

Lady Sneerwell is hardly the only character who gossips, and is indeed one of many with a razor-sharp wit and tongue. Indeed, one of the criticisms of the play is that the characters are a bit too similar – most of them display Sheridan’s wit rather than an original wit of their own.

One exception in this case is Maria, who is the one honorable female in the play. She simply wants to marry the spendthrift Charles Surface; while her guardian, Sir Peter Teazle, wishes for her to marry the more respectable brother, Joseph Surface.

Lady Sneerwell: Nay, but we should make allowance; Sir Benjamin is a wit and a poet.

Maria: For my part, I confess, madam, wit loses its respect with me, when I see it in company with malice.

Lady Sneerwell: Pshaw! There’s no possibility of being witty without a little ill nature: the malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick.

Sir Peter himself has a low opinion of gossip, particularly as he is the butt of many of the jokes, having married a wife half his age. Lady Teazle was once relatively poor, but her elevation to high society has failed to inspire gratefulness. She spends his money with impunity, and considers it to be owed to her. Sir Peter feels humiliated by her lack of love for him, but is fascinated by her nonetheless.

Sir Peter: …yet with what a charming air she contradicts everything I say, and how pleasingly she shows her contempt for my authority! Well, though I can’t make her love me, there is great satisfaction in quarreling with her; and I think that she never appears to such advantage as when she is doing everything in her power to plague me.

Lady Sneerwell and her fellow gossips cannot resist twisting the knife a little:

Lady Sneerwell: But you are a cruel creature – too phlegmatic yourself for a jest, and too peevish to allow wit in others.

Sir Peter: (seriously) Ah, madam, true wit is more nearly allied to good nature than your ladyship is aware of.

Lady Sneerwell: (walking up to him and tapping him condescendingly on the shoulder with her fan with heartless innuendo) True, Sir Peter. I believe they are so near akin that they can never be united.

Sir Benjamin: Or rather, madam, suppose them to be man and wife, because one seldom sees them together.

Sir Peter, even in his indignation preserves his dignity and his wit. He eventually expresses his opinion that those who repeat gossip are as guilty as those who start the rumor. In doing so, he makes a delightful legal reference. (Okay, at least my lawyer colleagues will find this one funny.)

Mrs. Candour: But, surely, you would not be quite so severe on those who only report on what they hear?

Sir Peter: Yes, madam, I would have the law merchant [analogous to the UCC in the United States] for them too; and in all cases of slander currency, whenever the drawer of the lie was not to be found, the injured parties should have the right to come on any of the indorsers.

The plot of the play turns on the contrast of Joseph and Charles, neither of whom is exactly who they seem. It is true that Charles is a spendthrift. He is deeply in debt, and has sold most of the family furniture and valuables. However, as Mrs. Candour (another of the gossips) points out, “everybody almost is the same way…; so if Charles is undone, he’ll find half his acquaintance ruined too, and that, you know, is a consolation."

Sir Oliver, the Surface brothers’ rich uncle, returns from India, and decides to test his nephews by appearing to them in disguise.

He pretends to be a moneylender when he visits the bankrupt Charles, who suggests selling the family portraits to him to raise cash. This mortifies Sir Oliver, until Charles oddly refuses to sell the portrait of Sir Oliver. I thought this scene was rather amusing. It contains this gem:

Charles: And there are two brothers of his, William and Walter Blunt, Esquires, both members of Parliament, and noted speakers, and what’s very extraordinary, I believe, this is the first time they were ever bought or sold.

Later, Sir Oliver visits Joseph, impersonating a friend who needs to borrow some money. Joseph, who is already having a bad day (see below), claims that he has none to lend, and that Sir Oliver has never sent him money. This is a lie, as Sir Oliver has sent £12,000 to each of the brothers over the years.

Joseph may have some excuse for being a bit out of sorts, however, as he has just gotten himself in a pickle. Now follow along carefully: Joseph wants to marry Maria for her money, but in order to get into Sir Peter’s good graces, he has been flattering Lady Teazle. He tries to seduce her, using the argument that a good scandal will make her appear more human and sympathetic. He is interrupted by Sir Peter, so he hides Lady Teazle behind a screen. He is then interrupted again by Charles, so he hides Sir Peter in a closet. All is discovered, and Charles gets a good laugh at Joseph’s expense, Sir Peter is outraged, and Lady Teazle is mortified. And Joseph, of course, is exposed as a hypocrite.

After yet another witty scene in which the rumor that Joseph and Sir Peter have dueled (patently false), and that Sir Peter is near death (even more false), takes flight until dashed by the appearance of an irritated Sir Peter; the expected conclusion is reached. Maria and Charles are free to marry, Sir Peter and Lady Teazle are reconciled, and Joseph and Lady Sneerwell get their just deserts.  

This play, and Sheridan’s work in general resembles that of Oscar Wilde a century later. The wit is the thing, and the well turned phrases come one after the other. If anything, Sheridan’s wit is a slight bit meaner than Wilde’s – the term razor sharp is apropos. One almost feels guilty for laughing; but one cannot help it.

The section in which the Ladies Sneerwell, Candour, and Teazle, along with Sir Benjamin and Crabtree eviscerate their acquaintances is shocking in its meanness while it is devastatingly funny.

Lady Sneerwell: Well, well, if Mrs. Evergreen does take some pains to repair the ravages of time, you must allow she effects it with great ingenuity, and surely that’s better than the careless manner in which the widow Ochre chalks her wrinkles.

Sir Benjamin: Nay, now, Lady Sneerwell, you are severe upon the widow. Come, come, ‘tis not that she paints so ill, but when she has finished her face, she joins it so badly to her neck, that she looks like a mended statue, in which the connoisseur sees at once that the head’s modern though the trunk’s antique.

The play shows some signs of its age. For example, there is the casual anti-Semitism and Jewish stereotyping that plagues literature from the Middle Ages right up through the last century. These are a cringe-worthy as blackface to our modern senses. I also noted the use of descriptive names. This antiquated device seems less jarring, and can be a bit of an aid in keeping the characters straight.

As a final thought, it is interesting that Sheridan ended up living out some of his art. Like Charles Surface, he squandered his fortune, and ended up in debt. Unlike Charles, there was no rich uncle to bail him out. After the early death of his first wife, Sheridan took the route of Sir Peter, and married a much younger woman. One tends to think of authors of writing from their experience. In this case, it went in reverse. Sheridan ceased writing before age thirty, and had his misadventures late in life.

On the other hand, given his reputation as a wit and a carouser, perhaps he felt he had to keep up appearances. The scoundrel Snake has one of the last words in The School for Scandal.

Sir Peter: Well, well, you have made atonement by a good deed at last.

Snake: But I must request of the company that it shall never be known.

Sir Peter: Hey! What the plague! Are you ashamed of having done a right thing once in your life?

Snake: (sighing deeply) Ah, sir! Consider; I live by the badness of my character. I have nothing but my infamy to depend on! And if it were once known that I had been betrayed into an honest action, I should lose every friend I have in the world.

Note on Barber’s Overture:

Barber was one of the premier twentieth century American composers. Unfortunately, most know him only for his poignant Adagio for Strings (featured in the movie Platoon, for those who know classical music only through the movies. Barber wrote great music in a variety of forms, from opera to solo concertos.

The School for Scandal was written in 1931, when Barber was a 21 year old college student. While it has a few youthful foibles in the orchestration, it is a remarkably mature and well constructed work, in my opinion. Barber typically shows discipline in his forms, combined with melody and emotion that move the listener.

This overture captures the acerbic nature of Sheridan’s wit. The harmonies and timbres often have the sense of the edge of a razor, and the musical humor tends to bite rather than sparkle. Even the tender sections come with a slightly raised eyebrow and a wry smile. In other words, Barber captured the essence of Sheridan rather well. 


  1. I read this play in high school and acted out one scene from it with a guy I couldn't stand then (and can stand less now.) I was Lady Teazle but everything I've stated to you so far is all that I can remember. I should re-read it. I thought it was amusing then. It would be nice if I could remember it.

    1. I wish I had had more opportunities in the way of drama in high school. Unfortunately, I was pretty much the oldest home-schooler I knew, and our neighborhood tended to cultivate dropouts rather than thespians. I can see our family acting out scenes in a few years, however.