R.B. Sheridan's "A School For Scandal": a play in a colonial context

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature




1. “The School for Scandal”- a sentimental comedy?

2. “The School for Scandal” in Calcutta
2.1 The Production

3. The Importance of “The School for Scandal”

4. Conclusion

Works Cited


This paper shall analyse Richard Brinsley Sheridan`s play “The School for Scandal”. This drama was first performed in 1776 in London’s Drury Lane Theatre, and was a cultural part of the colonization process in India.

The aim of the first chapter is to provide some background information about Sheridan and his time, and also serves to explain the role which the concept of the sentimental comedy played during the time it was first performed in London. The main focus here, however, is to explore the differences as well as the comparable elements with other comedy genres.

The second chapter deals with the production of “The School for Scandal” which was first performed in Calcutta in 1777. Here it seem appropriate to analise the motives behind the exportation of British culture into the colony and to find out more about the commercial as well as the cultural. aspects.

An important source of information in reference to this production is the Folger manuscript; a handwritten copy of the play complete with stage directions, which had been used at the New Playhouse in Calcutta. It is necessary to mention here that this Folger manuscript “recovered” by Mita Choudhury, whose essay about the production of “The School for Scandal” is the main source for the second part of this paper. The aim of this chapter however, is not to summarise her work, but rather to approach her argumentation critically.

The last part of the paper deals with the question whether or not there is a connection between the play and the process of colonialism in Calcutta in terms of the production itself and its content. It also examines the part which colonialism plays within the drama, with regards to its moral and financial aspects.

1. “The School for Scandal”- a sentimental comedy?

Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in 1751 in Dublin, and grew up in relative poverty. His live was long, in many ways disappointing and even tragic. In spite of his great reputation as wit, it is always important to remember that though he lived to be sixty five, his reputation as a dramatist was made before he was thirty and after that he became more important as a theatre manager rather than as an author.[1] Sheridan took over David Garrick’s share of the Drury Lane Theatre in 1776, and shortly afterwards his most successful play to date “The School for Scandal” was performed there for which Garrick the prologue[2]. In this comedy, Sheridan caricatures the bored, scandal-striving and rather decadent London of the 18th century. T.H. White complains about that time in “The Age of Scandal”, in which he says: “great thoughts and large political or moral issues were absent. The nature of the ‘bootikins’ worn by Horace Walpole for his gout, or the problem of what Dr. Johnson used to do with his dried orange peel were the core of the age.”[3]

In those times, just as today, people considered to be in the public eye were usually of great interest and even Sheridan himself was often the subject of speculation and gossip.[4]

The protagonists of “The School for Scandal” are mainly members of the aristocracy, except for the servants, the administer Rowley and the Jew Moses, who is a pawnbroker.

One can definitely say that “The School for Scandal” is, in its core, a comedy, which is based on the sentimental philosophy, a movement that evolved in the 18th century as a counter-reaction to the tendency to see human beings as rational thinking and acting creatures. That means that this philosophy is based on the principle of deism[5], a theory at that time, which- although religiously forced- questions the bible as the root of all wisdom, but rather believes in a fundamental goodness of man. Apart from that it allocates him an active role in remaining his divinity in a society that could influence him in an immoral way.

Even though he was influenced by the sentimental philosophy, Sheridan wanted to change the concept of comedy, an aim that Goldsmith had already achieved with “She stoops to conquer”, first performed in 1753 , in which he breaks with the traditions of the sentimental comedy although he works with some of its characteristics. Leonard J. Leff describes this use of sentimental elements as follows: “In The School for Scandal Sheridan still yields to public taste, for while anti-sentimental fireworks brighten the perimeter of the play, sensibility dominates its thematic core.”[6]

In “The School for Scandal” Sheridan uses mainly telling names, for example the character of Maria immediately arouses associations with motives such as “goodness” and “unselfish love”, typical elements of the sentimental comedy. Also the way in which Charles Surface “obeys” her at the end of the play fits into this context:

Thou, dear maid, thou shouldst

Wave thy beauty`s sway,

Though still must rule, because I will obey:

An humble fugitive from Folly view,

No sanctuary near but Love and you (…)[7]

Apart from these “sentimental” elements, Sheridan also uses certain elements from the restoration comedy. He uses the “wit” of the restoration comedy which is missing in the sentimental comedy, but not its frivolity; the characters here, conversely to the restoration comedy, experience a moral “awakening”. For example the “town” versus “country” concept, represented in “The School for Scandal” by Sir Peter Teazle, who is a man from the town, but- and this is one of the differences to the restoration comedy - has country values. There is also his much younger wife Lady Teazle, who would have reminded the audience probably more than a little of Wycherly’s “The Country Wife” at first sight, but the difference to the restoration comedy is made obvious here in the development which the character of Lady Teazle experiences; she changes her mind as well as her value system. This implies that she is not a stock character which is the way she would have been portrayed in the restoration comedy.

Lady Sneerwell, also representing town, is an elderly woman who falls in love with a young man, namely Charles Surface- again a restoration motive. However, she shows the audience in the “screen scene”, that she is able to distinguish right from wrong and that she does in fact have a moral conscience, a fat that enables her to recognise Joseph’s false character as well as her own fault.

Looking at Charles and Joseph Surface one sees at the surface, as this telling name suggests again, Charles the “rake”; this motive being “stolen” again from the restoration comedy, who at the end turns out to be good-hearted and altruistic[8], while Joseph Surface is revealed as a hypocrite (this way of revealing wicked characters can also be found in Ben Johnson’s concept of the satirical comedy). Particularly this way of “blowing Joseph’s cover”, the typical “man of sentiment” at first sight, shows that Sheridan is not criticising sentiment, but false sentiment.

The only character in the play who seems to be able to recognise the “real” nature of all the other characters is Sir Oliver who is the uncle of Joseph and Charles; a rich man who had just returned the West Indies where he was very successful. In some ways he even seems to reflect Sheridan[9], who was a supporter of colonialism himself and also had some financial success in the West Indies. But although he was rich, he tried not to loose his moral consciousness or “common sense”. He does not get irritated by the gossip about his nephew Charles by answering:


[1] www.shakkespeare.org/schcen.html

[2] Sheridan, Richard Brinsley: The School for Scandal. Macmillans English Classics, London: 1967,4.

[3] www.shakespeare.org/schcen.html

[4] s.a.

[5] Ernest Bernbaum, The Drama of Sensibility (Boston, M`ss., 1915), 32.

[6] Leonard J. Leff, `Sheridan and Sentimentalism´, Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research, xii, no. 1 (1973), 38.

[7] Sheridan, 101.

[8] The motive of altruism becomes more important in the melodrama of the 19th century

[9] www.shakespeare.org.


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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz – Institut für Anglistik
Sheridan School Scandal Seminar




Title: R.B. Sheridan's "A School For Scandal": a play in a colonial context