Richard Brinsley Sheridan was a leading eighteenth century playwright and parliamentary figure. He was born in Dublin on 30th October 1751, but sent to school in England, at Harrow, in 1762. He studied at Harrow for six years, before moving to Bath, following his father who was taking up a teaching job. A few years later, in 1772, Sheridan was involved in his first scandal, when he eloped with Elizabeth Linley. The couple were married in Calais, but Elizabeth's father caught up with them, and poor Richard was challenged to a duel, during which he was seriously injured. In 1777 Richard was to write his famous play A School For Scandal which made a humorous and intelligent study of what we consider acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Everyone in the play seems mired in scandal in one way or another, and rather than being an aberration, scandal almost seems a natural part of life. People seem to seek out scandal even in condemning it. Lady Teasle, wife of Sir Peter Teasle, has an affair because she thinks it is a fashionable thing to do. The unacceptable is somehow accepted, even required. Today's newspapers might make a big fuss if someone in the public eye does something naughty, but you can imagine editors almost praying for a scandal to break so that their papers will sell. It seems that in every age there has to be a degree of accepted unacceptable behaviour. Scandal fits this bill. It is not proper, but it is not quite criminal; it is that divine middle way we call scandal.
Sheridan's play writing career was actually quite short. His first play The Rivals opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 17th January 1775. After a slow start, and an early revision, it became a standard of English literature. St Patrick's Day and The Duenna were then produced at Covent Garden Theatre. Sheridan's career as a playwright peaked in 1776 - 1777. In 1776 he bought the Drury Lane Theatre in partnership with his father-in-law, and the following year his most famous play, A School For Scandal was produced there. He then pulled down the old Drury Lane Theatre and built a new one, which opened in 1794. The building project ran hugely over budget, and was expensive to run when completed due to its extravagant size. Revenue from extra seats did not cover extra costs, and financial problems were now a constant feature of Sheridan's life.
Even as A School For Scandal was pulling in the crowds at Drury Lane, Sheridan had already decided to abandon writing and concentrate on politics. In 1776 he had met Charles Fox of the Whigs, and began a lifelong friendship. Sheridan became MP for Stafford in 1780 and entered Parliament. Here he became a well known and controversial figure, using his dramatic talent to good effect in his oratory. Once again he trod a tightrope between acceptable and unacceptable. During the American War of Independence Sheridan supported American colonists against the British government of Lord North. The colonists were so grateful that they offered their supporter £20,000. Sheridan refused to take the money to head off criticism that he was acting treacherously against his own country. In 1782 Sheridan entered government himself, as under secretary for foreign affairs to the Marquis of Rockingham. Here he continued as a "radical". He defended the French Revolution at a time of hysterical worry about possible social breakdown. Though he disapproved of the French Revolution's excesses, he defended its underlying aims, which sought to allow the French people to form their own government. Sheridan was also an advocate of press freedom. He opposed attempts to use libel laws to prevent criticism of the government.
Perhaps some of Sheridan's views were considered scandalous at the time, though today they seem laudable. Scandal has a funny habit of changing through time as culture shifts in its conventions. Sometimes the most "scandalous" of people in one era became heroes in the next. Oscar Wilde was jailed for homosexuality late in the nineteenth century. Today there are laws to prevent the kind of treatment he received. As scandal is on the borderline between what is acceptable and unacceptable, it is here that many of society's most crucial battles are fought out.
Sheridan lost his government post when Sir Henry Addington's government replaced that of William Pitt. Sheridan was then offered a peerage by Addington in return for supporting the Tories. This was refused with the famous words: "My visits to you might possibly be misunderstood by my friends. But I hope you know Mr Addington that I have an unpurchaseable mind."
Sheridan, a scandalous figure, was really most upstanding.
In 1804 Sheridan purchased a beautiful house at Polesden Lacey near Dorking in Surrey. He loved this house, but could never really afford it. Although Sheridan's career continued, with further short spells in government, his finances were increasingly shaky. This situation was not helped by a fire which destroyed the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in February 1809. By 1813 Sheridan was bankrupt and under arrest as a debtor. Only the intervention of his friend Samuel Whitbread allowed his release. Whitbread agreed to fund the building of the Drury Lane Theatre which we see today, but Sheridan had to withdraw from its management. Sadly Sheridan's finances never recovered and he died in poverty on 7th July 1816.