Theatres of Opposition: Empire, Revolution, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, by David Francis Taylor, Oxford University Press, 296 pp, £55.00, ISBN: 978-0199642847
Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin in 1751 and died in London in 1816. While his life fell wholly within the Georgian era, he did live long enough to experience two very different cultural epochs – the flamboyantly lavish, coarse, secular and optimistic period of the eighteenth century, and the sober, prudish, evangelical and pessimistic reaction of the nineteenth. The cheerful licence of the first decades of his life sparkles all the more because of the contrast with the Great French War, the war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France, which in effect lasted from 1793 to 1815 and the public fear and government oppression in Great Britain which accompanied it.
Sheridan was not only a talented wit and masterly playwright, but also the part-owner and proprietor of the London Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, one of the great European theatres of the day. (There were in London two patent theatres or theatres royal: Covent Garden and Drury Lane. In Sheridan’s day, the two reflected parliamentary divisions. Covent Garden represented the government, Drury Lane the opposition. George III attended the former, but only rarely the latter: indeed, from 1792 to 1799, Francis Taylor says, the king attended Covent Garden seventy-three times and Drury Lane just four times.) For three decades, Sheridan was active, largely in opposition, as a Whig MP in the House of Commons. And since he was for much of his life a close friend and confidant of the Prince of Wales, he was an important Regency figure.
In the more educated days of 1909, Virginia Woolf wrote:
Nine people out of ten, if asked to give you their impression of Sheridan, would tell you that he wrote three standard plays, was famous for his debts, his wit, and his speech at the trial of Warren Hastings; they would add that he had played a distinguished but not a commanding part as a statesman, and flitted through the society of the Georgian era, a brilliant but slightly intoxicated insect, with gorgeous wings but an erratic flight.
Today, over a century later, while his wit is perhaps better remembered, and the Hastings speeches are not, those who know of Sheridan would probably not change much of this. He is still often seen as a man of contradictory contrasts. Among others, Fintan O’Toole has argued that, in 1798-1799, his political beliefs consisted of a number of irreconcilable positions: “Opposition to a French invasion but support for the United Irish rebellion staged with French help; a passionate British patriotism and a belief that the British government was an organized tyranny; republican instincts and dependence on the Prince”.
In his “Monody on the Death of the Right Honourable R. B. Sheridan” (1816), Lord Byron writes of “The flash of Wit, the bright Intelligence, / The beam of Song, the blaze of Eloquence, / Set with their Sun, but still have left behind / The enduring produce of immortal Mind”. The wit, intelligence and eloquence both of the life and the writings have indeed endured. According to one well-known story, the children of Richard Cumberland (a rival playwright who was to be immortalised as Sir Fretful Plagiary in The Critic) had begged their father to take them to see The School for Scandal. Although he eventually gave in to their entreaties, he is said to have been so jealous that he pinched them to stop them laughing during the play. When told the story, Sheridan said that it was very ungracious of Cumberland to have been so displeased – “for I went the other night to see his tragedy and laughed at it from beginning to end”. Byron has another story of an occasion when a very drunk Sheridan was accosted by a night-watchman. “‘Who are you, sir?’ – no answer. ‘What’s your name?’ – a hiccup. ‘What’s your name?’ – answer, in a slow, deliberate and impassive tone – ‘Wilberforce!!!’”. (O’Toole reminds us in his A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1751-1816 that Wilberforce was “the most famously abstemious and righteous figure of the day”.) Byron goes on to say that Sheridan’s “very dregs” remain better than the inspired brilliance of others. The story shows Sheridan at his best – and his worst. He was flamboyant and extravagant, a supremely funny, good-hearted, well-meaning man, but deeply flawed. He was utterly and completely irresponsible with money, he drank too much, and some would say that he wasted his talents in politics.
He was born into a Protestant Irish family of the lower gentry. The Sheridans were highly literate – three generations have continued to fascinate biographers and historians. Dr Thomas Sheridan, the close friend of Jonathan Swift, was his grandfather (Swift stayed at and satirised his home: “Let me thy properties explain: / A rotten cabin, dropping rain: / Chimneys, with scorn rejecting smoke; / Stools, tables, chairs, and bedsteads broke”). His father, Thomas Sheridan, Swift’s godson, fell in love with the theatre and managed Dublin’s Theatre Royal, Smock Alley (to which he invited David Garrick). Like Garrick, who managed Drury Lane, Thomas Sheridan of Smock-Alley was also both actor and theatre manager. He enjoyed a second career in London, Scotland and Bath, where he pursued interests in oratory, elocution, and educational reform (he famously taught James Boswell correct English pronunciation), and published, in 1780, a well-received dictionary of the English language. As actor and lexicographer, he competed with and was overshadowed by Garrick and Dr Johnson. He married a talented wife, Frances Sheridan (née Chamberlaine), who enjoyed some success as a novelist and playwright. Her most successful novel was Memoirs of Miss Sydney Biddulph (1761), and Garrick produced two of her plays at Drury Lane in the 1760s. Sheridan’s own careers as playhouse proprietor and playwright thus developed trajectories his parents had already mapped out. His career as a radical politician can be attributed at least in part to his strong and lifelong Irish identity.
After what must have been a lonely childhood – O’Toole calculates that between the ages of three and eighteen he did not spend more than four and a half years living with either one of his parents – including a long stint at Harrow, to which he was sent in 1762, and the death of his mother in 1766, he was reunited with his family in Bath in 1770. There he met and fell in love with the talented singer and cultural icon of the day Elizabeth (Eliza) Linley, painted by Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.
Eliza had a number of admirers. The attentions of one Captain Thomas Mathews were such as to cause her to flee to France. Sheridan arranged the trip and accompanied her. Although the relationship was not consummated, this was in effect an elopement. Despite the fact that neither had reached the age of majority, they were married in France. The elopement was a sensation, and public gossip was further stimulated when Sheridan returned, fought and won a duel with Mathews, then fought and lost a second (duelling was of course an aristocratic pursuit and Sheridan was determined to be accepted as a “gentleman”). The young lovers faced parents who disapproved of the relationship. Sheridan was packed off to Essex to study law, but despite – or perhaps because of – parental disapproval, they married (again) in April 1773, a year after leaving together for France. The whole episode reads like one of the plays – a love affair, elopement, duels, parental opposition and estrangement and finally marriage and (in the world of the theatre at least) domestic bliss.
Although Eliza was a very popular singer, gentlemen did not allow their wives to sing for money. Much to Dr Johnson’s approval – “He is a brave man. Would not a gentleman be disgraced by having his wife singing publickly for hire? No, Sir, there can be no doubt here.” – she retired from the public sphere.
To support his wife Sheridan began to write light, frivolous, and witty plays, the brilliance of which continues to sparkle and delight (in 1822, looking back over his life, Charles Lamb reminisced that “Amid the mortifying circumstances attendant upon growing old, it is something to have seen the School for Scandal in its glory.”). Sheridan was one of those Irish writers who was able to conquer London through the sheer eloquence and literary force of his talent, and did so in his early twenties. His first play, The Rivals, warmer if less brilliant than The School for Scandal, premiered in January 1775 at Covent Garden (it was not successful; he then rewrote it over ten days and produced a hit). He was only twenty-three at the time, but even at this early age, the stormy events of his youth, the elopement and duels so beloved by chroniclers, were behind him. The Rivals was quickly followed by St Patrick’s Day (1775) and the opera The Duenna (1775). This was, as Linda Kelly says in her Richard Brinsley Sheridan: A Life, a spectacular debut: 1775 was an annus mirabilis. Indeed, in proposing Sheridan as a new member of the Literary Club, Dr Johnson said that he had “written the two best comedies of his age” – and this was before The School for Scandal was written.
Garrick retired from Drury Lane in 1776, naming Sheridan his successor. Still in his mid-twenties, he was now the part-owner and manager of the theatre, which he ran from 1776 until it was destroyed by fire in 1809. As proprietor, he first staged the magnificent comedy of manners The School for Scandal in May 1777 and what may be viewed as his last major comedy, The Critic, in October 1779.
By the age of twenty-eight, he had written all his major comedies. Following The Critic, in 1780, he was elected to parliament (William Wilberforce entered parliament at the same time, and William Pitt the Younger the next year, both aged twenty-one). Three decades were then spent in the House of Commons, where he became one of the great parliamentary orators – no mean feat considering that he was competing with such notables as the young, radical Whig Charles James Fox, the political philosopher Edmund Burke and the major opponent of both Fox and Sheridan, Pitt, prime minister in 1783 at the age of twenty-four.
For most of Sheridan’s life, George III was king. From the regency crisis of 1788, power was divided between the king, who seemed to be mad (he was suffering from porphyria), and a debauched, dissipated, dissolute, extravagant, and profligate prince, the Prince of Wales (later, from 1811, Prince Regent). Percy Bysshe Shelley savaged the ruling class of the day in his “England in 1819”: “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king, – / Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow / Through public scorn, mud from a muddy spring, – / Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, / But leech-like to their fainting country cling, / Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow, –”.
His career was shaped by revolutionary events overseas – the American War of Independence (1775-1783), the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the long war with France from 1793 – and by domestic unease emerging from both the long regency crisis and the threat posed by radicals sympathetic to the cause of republican France. Together with Fox and especially Burke, he played a major role in the trial of Warren Hastings, and so helped to shape the idea of the British role in India.
One of the great tragedies of Sheridan’s life is that he completed The School for Scandal at such an early age. Much later in life he was told that he would never write another comedy because he was afraid to do so. “Of whom am I afraid?” he asked. “You are afraid,” he was told, “of the author of The School for Scandal.” It is indeed a perfect play. Like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a book Sheridan thought one of the cleverest works he had ever read, it is light and bright, and sparkles with wit and genius – and how could anyone hope to improve on such near perfection?
After the brilliant success of the early years, Sheridan’s later political life was to a much larger degree a struggle. For Sheridan the person, the tragedy of his life was a by-product of the progressive Whig circles in which he moved. Fox was at the centre of Whig politics, but the social centre settled on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and the Devonshire House circle, a group of aristocratic Whigs, connoisseurs of fashion, tolerant, secular, cosmopolitan, elegant, and sophisticated, famous or infamous for their political radicalism and social decadence. Sheridan became one of the habitués of this aristocratic but morally suspect milieu. He was, moreover, a close friend and trusted adviser of the Prince of Wales, whom Byron was to label the “leviathan of the haut ton”. The prince’s womanising, drunkenness, gambling and spending, his dissolution and self-indulgence, can only have reinforced the example set by the Devonshire House circle.
Sheridan learned to live like a louche aristocrat, deeply in debt – gambling was one of the defining vices of his aristocratic friends – drinking to excess, enjoying sexual freedom. And if he was not himself quite a Regency rake, he certainly hobnobbed with them. The School for Scandal depicts this world of wealth without responsibility. Sheridan however, although he associated with the racier elements of high society, lacked as an outsider the aristocratic background, social status, and wealth that enabled his friends to shrug off criticisms of their disreputable, promiscuous, and profligate behaviour.
The radical or Foxite Whigs were Francophiles. This was to become an increasingly untenable position after the French Revolution, and Burke was indeed to split the Whigs on the issue. In Great Britain, the years after 1793 were characterised by both military action overseas to counter France and police action at home against those who were inspired by and hoped to implement aspects of the revolutionary French model. Pitt’s government introduced a range of oppressive measures to combat revolutionary forces. Since Sheridan was a leading figure in the reformist camp, he experienced the anti-Jacobin reaction, during which it was said to be “safer to be a felon than a reformer”. At least until the turn of the century however, he remained committed to the radical ideas of his youth and resisted the reactionary policies introduced in the shadow cast by the French Revolution.
Since Whigs such as Fox and Sheridan remained sympathetic to the republican cause, they came to be caricatured as sans culottes. In James Gillray’s The Republican Attack (1795), Pitt is the coachman, running roughshod over Britannia in an attempt to save the king from an attempted assassination, while Fox and Sheridan are in full revolutionary garb with clubs (the king’s carriage was in fact attacked in October 1795).
His last years were unhappy ones. He moved in circles in which mistresses were shared and discreet adultery was de rigueur. Both his wives adored him, both were slowly alienated by his extravagances, debt, heavy drinking and womanising and both eventually driven into the arms of other men. Those of the younger generation, such as Byron, who venerated him, still did so with tongue in cheek – to them he was “Old Sherry”. For those who did not, the dissolution and debauchery of his private life were linked to his radical politics, and his own life seemed to vindicate Puritan warnings about the consequences of moral corruption and fiscal negligence. Drury Lane Theatre (the source of the financial security he enjoyed) was destroyed by fire in 1809. He lost his seat in parliament 1812. Members of parliament were protected from arrest for debt, but he had now lost that immunity and was in fact arrested in 1814. He died in poverty in 1816 and was buried as he has been remembered: not as a statesman but as a man of letters, in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Kelly says that his political career was “a splendid failure”. He did enjoy some early successes. For instance, he was made under-secretary of state for the Northern Office when, in 1782, a new government was formed under the Marquis of Rockingham. And he played a major role in the trial of Hastings, giving several well-received speeches – of which the February 7th, 1787 one on the Begums of Oudh is of particular note. Nevertheless, most of his career was spent in opposition. He was a radical, and for a radical politician, the French Revolution brought almost permanent opposition. He argued for and believed in parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation, but did not live to see either realised. His great cause was Ireland and Catholic emancipation, and he pursued vigorously the idea of an independent and non-sectarian Ireland. His hopes were crushed by the failed Irish rebellion of 1798 and then the Act of Union (which became law by late 1800, and which he opposed in vain).
Sheridan then acted on two major stages: the theatre and parliament. Older narratives tended to examine as separate categories the fertile playwright years of Sheridan’s youth and the barren political era of his decline. But such versions have come to be rejected in favour of an emphasis on an inherent continuity throughout the life. Recent works focus not only on Sheridan the playwright but have started to re-evaluate his career in politics together with his role as the manager of Drury Lane. His achievements as writer, manager and politician, and the radical politics and mastery of language and rhetoric revealed in both theatrical and political activities, have been emphasised at least since the publication in 1996 of Sheridan Studies edited by James Morwood and David Crane. This theme also emerges in O’Toole’s readable A Traitor’s Kiss, and now especially in Taylor’s more academic Theatres of Opposition.
Parliamentary debate – perhaps in particular within the Westminster system – can make for entertaining, even riveting, theatre. And of course the theatre too can be deeply political. Theatres of Opposition provides a case study of the complex interaction and coexistence of theatrical politics and political theatre. Taylor also pays due attention to the political context and cultural terrain.
Led by artists such as Isaac Cruikshank, James Gillray, and Thomas Rowlandson, Sheridan’s era was a golden age for caricature. One of many images of Sheridan – Taylor has identified four hundred and sixty-eight caricatures dating from 1783 to 1816 – is the 1805 Uncorking Old Sherry by James Gillray.
William Pitt the Younger uncorks a bottle containing the head of Sheridan, which leads to an explosion of words – including “Fibs. Fibs. Fibs” and “Dramatic Ravings”. A dramatic pose is struck by Pitt and the theatrical setting is the House of Commons. Here, we can see a complex interplay between statecraft and stage, parliament and theatre, in which the boundaries separating high politics and popular culture collapse. Taylor’s Theatres of Opposition untangles some of the ambiguities of this overlapping relationship (what he calls “the symbiosis of theatre and parliament”). One of the book’s central aims is to outline both the political nature of Sheridan’s theatre and the theatrical nature of his politics, and to examine the interconnections and cross-fertilisations between the two. Taylor succeeds in making it abundantly clear that there is indeed much new light to be shed from an examination of these interconnections.
In examining the plays, he develops a number of insightful arguments, and offers stimulating insights into many of Sheridan’s texts and episodes from his life through a juxtaposition of and contrasts with different media and images (such as Gillray’s Uncorking Old Sherry). He examines the playwright and politics of the plays, the theatre manager and the role politics again played here, and the radical and theatrical politician. Of the three aspects – playwright, orator, manager – the last is the weakest.
Sheridan the playwright burst onto the scene in 1775 with The Rivals. One of the advantages of Taylor’s approach is that it highlights the historical context. He reminds us that, over the winter of 1774-1775, public opinion in Great Britain was divided on the question of America and whether or not to go to war. Keeping this passionate debate in mind, Taylor urges his readers to revisit the plays.
The Rivals features one of the great Sheridan characters, Mrs Malaprop, who has some of the best lines in the play. Captain Absolute, she says, “is the very Pine-apple of politeness”, while Lydia is “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile”. (It is by the way difficult to read Mrs Malaprop’s heroic mangling of her “oracular tongue” without seeing in her a criticism of Sheridan’s father.)
However, Taylor examines the politics, not the comedy, of the plays. The comedy of The Rivals revolves around the theme of elderly relatives who attempt to determine the marital fates of a younger generation, members of which are equally determined to resist – the twist being that Sir Anthony is going to try to force his son to marry the girl he has already set his heart on. The relationship between the Absolutes, father and son, and between Mrs Malaprop and Lydia Languish, is characterised by intergenerational friction and conflict. Taylor argues that this is dramatised consciously in a way that resonates with the familial tension between the British mother nation and the American child colony. Sheridan did, after all, once write that “when a colony is of age [there is a] parallel between father & son”. The theme of familial power politics is, Taylor argues, thus a reflection of and commentary on the American War of Independence. It must also be a reflection of the events leading up to Sheridan’s own marriage but Taylor is less interested in biographical contexts.
One of the characteristics of Taylor’s study is the attempt to seek sources and echoes in the cultural terrain of the day that might shed light on Sheridan. Great Britain was at times imagined as a mighty imperial power, a Colossus straddling the Atlantic, with one foot planted firmly on English, the other on American, soil. One example of this imagery is the 1766 caricature of William Pitt the Elder standing in as the Colossus, one foot in London, the other in New York.
Here Pitt is walking on stilts; one leg, labelled “Sedition”, is about to be placed in New York, another, labelled “Popularity”, is planted in London (there is one more stilt labelled “Pension”, with a fourth unlabelled). In St Patrick’s Day, Lauretta is seduced by the notion of the soldier, to which Bridget says: “Oh, barbarous! to want a husband that may wed you to-day, and be sent the Lord knows where before night; then in a twelvemonth perhaps to have him come like a Colossus, with one leg at New York, and the other at Chelsea Hospital.” Here, as Taylor says, we can see “two of the key tropes – the dismembered body politic, the dysfunctional imperial colossus – deployed in contemporary political discourse as a means of articulating imperial crisis”.
The School for Scandal is set in a world of upper class gossip in which the understanding of reality is constructed through false texts – “The Paragraphs, you say, Mr. Snake, were all inserted?” – and through speech. The word (theatre) is at least as powerful as the act (politics): thus Sir Peter Teazle says “a character dead at every word”. When the play was written, the government was actively engaged in propaganda: according to Taylor, “the political administration, like Sneerwell and her gang, had become ‘utterers of forg’d Tales’”. Thus the play “exposed the dangers of a culture that habitually replaced social and sexual realities with fictions less complex and more titillating”.
The play pivots on the famous screen scene. Hiding behind the screen, the innocent sophisticate Lady Teazle becomes a second audience to the action on the stage. As audience, she comes to understand the true nature both of her husband, Sir Peter, and Joseph Surface. Sheridan provides a demonstration of the power of the stage to enlighten the audience, in the same way that Lady Teazle has been enlightened. O’Toole also notes that the theatre “now appears not as a source of illusions but as a revelation of the truth”. This theme is repeated in The Critic, where Dangle, again in O’Toole’s words, juxtaposed theatrical reality and political illusion, and “placed theatre and politics side-by-side, so that they could contaminate and subvert each other”. According to Taylor, in The Critic “Sheridan dramatizes a metropolis which experiences the American War as a discursive event, a world in which the habitual presentation and fetishization of warfare for consumption by a public audience has eroded the boundaries between politics and entertainment, news and gossip, parliament and playhouse”.
Sheridan’s last completed play was an adaption, Pizarro (1799), a lavish spectacle made possible by the newly built Drury Lane theatre. It was (or it was at least perceived as) a patriotic piece. According to Taylor: “In 1798, alarmed by the increasing power and imperial intent of republican France, Sheridan had finally backed Britain’s war effort.” It is arguably Sheridan’s worst play. However, Taylor writes that “It is in the language of Pizarro that Sheridan-the-politician and Sheridan-the-playwright most entirely coalesce.” Taylor is in fact most interested in this least of Sheridan’s plays and devotes far more space to it than is usual. This minor quibble aside, however, the argument that the plays need to be read in context and that the context is a deeply political one is persuasive.
Taylor attempts to examine not only the politics in the theatre, but also the theatre in the politics. Sheridan’s own contemporaries were aware of the theatrical nature of his oratory. Several examples of this theatricality can be seen in his speeches, famous in his own lifetime, and remembered in Woolf’s, during the trial of Hastings. Again in his “Monody on the Death of the Right Honourable R. B. Sheridan”, Byron writes, “When the loud cry of trampled Hindostan / Arose to Heaven in her appeal from man, / His was the thunder, his the avenging rod, / The wrath – the delegated voice of God!”
Following the 1787 speech prosecuting the case for the impeachment, Sheridan returned to the fray in June 1788, and gave another well received speech. At the end of it, he collapsed into the arms of Burke – “A good Actor”, said the cynical Gibbon. Taylor argues that he was mimicking the iconography of both the death of General Woolf and the collapse of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords: “Falling into the arms of Burke, Sheridan placed his exhausted body within the visual economy of an imperial hagiography.” This is of course speculative, yet suggestive.
Another wonderful example of his theatricalised politics can be seen in the reaction of the audience. Again, when Sheridan returned to the fray in 1788, the public clamoured to hear him speak. The opportunity to hear his oratory “was met by the metropolitan public with near-hysterical anticipation”. Some slept in coffee-shops to ensure that they would be on time to line up for tickets, which were said by Horace Walpole to have sold for fifty guineas. At Westminster, he offered his audience “a vicarious theatre of the exotic”, and delivered in spades.
As he was making speeches in parliament, Drury Lane staged once again, in June 1788, The School for Scandal. A simple explanation might be a financial one – Sheridan may simply have wanted to maximise the material benefits to be gained from public interest. Taylor however believes that the decision to stage the play “at such a crucial point in Sheridan’s intervention in imperial crisis was itself a political statement”. Moreover, “Presented at precisely the same cultural moment, speech and comedy offered a Manichaean portrait of imperial power which set the ‘eastern liberality’ of Sir Oliver [Charles Surface’s “little honest nabob”] against the destructive and anti-familial ‘British rapacity’ of Hastings”. Again, while suggestive, this juxtaposition of play, theatre management, and political oratory is guesswork.
Taylor is forced to even greater speculation in examining Sheridan’s work as manager and in arguing for a political interpretation of his management. While working within a system of government censorship, the theatrical manager did (normally) enjoy a powerful position. On paper, Sheridan was the proprietor of Drury Lane, the theatre of the opposition. The problem with analysing Sheridan’s management lies in the fact that he was a capricious owner – it is not always easy to determine who was making the decisions. Moreover, Drury Lane was a commercial venture, which means that financial motives must also have been important. And the audience, if displeased enough, was certainly capable of destroying a theatre, so an eye had to be kept on the potential reaction of the mob. These realities stand in the way of Taylor making his points convincingly.
In seeking to develop his analysis, Taylor sometimes touches on Sheridan’s motives without any support apart from imaginative supposition. In 1796, for instance, Vortigern, a play purportedly written by Shakespeare but in reality a forgery, was acquired by Drury Lane and staged. Taylor argues that Sheridan was aware that it was a forgery but went ahead with the production anyway. Financial reasons alone would suffice by way of explanation, but Taylor argues that, as with The Critic, the decision was “a means of engendering an interrogative spectatorship aware of their right to dissent from the cultural and political constructions naturalized by loyalism” and that “his purchase of the play can be seen to have used one ‘conscious fraud’ to expose another”. He continues, “Staging the problem of defining and locating the identity of an author [Shakespeare] that had been fashioned as the icon of British supremacy and counter-revolutionary ideology, Vortigern’s performance generated uncomfortable questions about established totemic constructions of nationhood entirely consonant with those Sheridan was asking with such ferocity in Parliament”. Taylor’s reading may indeed be the correct one, but he has no evidence for it – it is again speculative.
From 1793 to 1800, Great Britain experienced a wave of Francophobia. Taylor shows that Covent Garden was much more likely to stage jingoistic pieces than Drury Lane. It is in the contrasting “strategies” of the two theatres, he claims, “that the covert agenda of Sheridan’s management can perhaps be uncovered”. Well yes, but then again perhaps not.
Another idea Taylor pursues is the use of the prison or prison cell in Drury Lane plays. Although he talks of “representational grammars of incarceration” and “the scenographies of oppression and pain through which carceral space and Drury Lane was constructed”, language guaranteed to send some readers to sleep, he does again have some interesting insights. “Drury Lane repeatedly provided the stage for Gothic dramas that centred on spectacles of incarceration – conceived and calibrated through an astonishing variety of scenographic effects – that presented complex images of the architecture of the prison and posited carceral space as the site of extreme pain, deprivation and violence”. Plays that dramatised incarceration or featured scenographic representations of the prison can be seen as “anti-government discourses seeking to articulate and critique the apparatus of state repression”. It would be nice if we could show that this was characteristic of Drury Lane alone, but sadly, from autumn 1789 to summer 1801, eighteen new plays at Drury Lane featured the prison; at Covent Garden, twenty. Here at least the two theatres representing the two sides of politics seem to be in agreement.
“In this book”, Taylor writes, “I hope to bring a new critical energy and theoretical vocabulary to these revisionist discussions of Sheridan, registering the ways in which his dramatic writings, playhouse management, and political rhetoric were equally involved in negotiating issues of patriotic identity, colonial governance, and parliamentary reform.” Later he adds: “This book has only begun the work of rehabilitating Sheridan as a political thinker and activist, and of recovering the precise and complex interfaces between theatre and opposition politics that his career reveals.” He has achieved his aims. One might criticise the convoluted prose of the book, the heavy sentences burdened with a profusion of adjectives and terminology, but that would not be entirely fair – this is the fault (if fault it be) of a generation of tertiary-educated academics, not just of Taylor himself. And whatever one might think about the cluttered and complicated style, his book does succeed in forcing his readers to rethink the life, thought, work and times of Sheridan, and to acknowledge the limits of analysing the plays in isolation.
David Askew is an Associate Professor of Law at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. Recent works include David Askew (with P Close and X Xin), The Beijing Olympiad: The Political Economy of a Sporting Mega-Event (Routledge, 2006), and chapters in BT Wakabayashi ed, The Nanking Atrocity, 1937-8: Complicating the Picture (Berghahn, 2007).