RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN 1779
The Critic first premiered at London’s Drury Lane Theatre on October 30, 1779. As its title suggests, the play follows a day in the life of a critic, Mr. Dangle, as he is entreated by members of the theatrical world for his patronage and support; the play’s second and third acts feature Dangle (and another critic, Mr. Sneer) watching the rehearsal of The Spanish Armada, an historical tragedy written by their acquaintance, Mr. Puff. Although Puff’s play is meant to arouse pity and fear—the two required tragic emotions according to classical standards—his play is a laughable hodgepodge of bombastic language and ludicrous events.
By the time of The Critic’s premiere, Richard Brinsley Sheridan had already enjoyed great success as a playwright: his first comedy, The Rivals, had opened at Drury Lane four years earlier and was followed by The School for Scandal (1777), widely regarded as his masterpiece. Sheridan had by this time also purchased an interest in Drury Lane and eventually became its manager; his experiences with actors, playwrights, directors, scenic designers and, of course, critics, all found their way into his play about Dangle, Sneer, and Puff. (Sheridan modeled some of the play’s characters on people with whom he had worked.) The play is notable for its depiction of a playwright unable to withstand any criticism, an unscrupulous writer of advertisements, and its thorough parody of theatrical conventions. Though some may feel that mocking a bad play is Page 69 | Top of Articleeasier than composing a good one, many readers and viewers find The Critic an hilarious examination of an aesthetically terrible tragedy.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born on October 30, 1751, in Dublin to a family known for its artistic members. His grandfather, the Reverend Dr. Thomas Sheridan (1687–1738), was an author, schoolmaster, and friend of Jonathan Swift. His father, Thomas Sheridan (1719–1788), was a renowned actor, theatrical manager, and elocutionist. His mother, Frances Sheridan (1724–1766), was a novelist and playwright. Sheridan began grammar school in 1758 in Dublin while his parents pursued their careers in London; in 1759, his father relocated the family to Windsor. In 1762, Sheridan entered Harrow School, where he was often teased by other boys for being the son of an actor and for his lessthan-fashionable wardrobe.
After leaving Harrow in 1768, Sheridan lived with his widowed father in Chelsea before moving with him to Bath. While at Bath, Sheridan and a former schoolmate from Harrow wrote Ixion, a farce, and submitted it to David Garrick, one of the most popular actors and directors of the day. Garrick was unimpressed. During this period, Sheridan also experimented with verse, composing “The Ridotto of Bath” and “Clio’s Protest; or, The Picture Varnished.” The most important event in Bath, however, was Sheridan’s meeting Elizabeth Linley, by all accounts a beautiful and talented young singer. Sheridan whisked her away to Calais, ostensibly to remove her from the pursuit of Captain Thomas Matthews, a suitor. In 1772, Sheridan and Linley were married by a village priest in Calais; upon their return, Sheridan fought two duels with Matthews in defense of his bride’s honor. (Matthews was not killed during these duels.) In 1773, after a brief period of separation ordered by Sheridan’s father, the two were officially married, this time in London.
London is where Sheridan’s short career as a dramatist began and ended. His first play, The Rivals (1775), was an initial flop (partly due to bad acting) but a great success later that year after Sheridan revised it. (The play features Mrs. Malaprop, a woman whose linguistic faults have inspired the term “malapropism.”) Other successes followed: his comic opera The Duenna, also in 1775, The School for Scandal in 1777, and The Critic in 1779.
While composing these works, Sheridan became manager of the Drury Lane Theater when, ironically, David Garrick retired and sold Sheridan his interest.
Sheridan was now a celebrity, but he would soon become as famous for his political rhetoric as he was for his plays. In 1780, he was elected to Parliament as a Whig; he continued his political career until only a few years before his death. He served as an under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, secretary to the treasury, an advisor to the Prince of Wales during the Regency crisis of 1788, and treasurer of the navy. In 1812, he lost his seat in Parliament after a number of stunning performances in House of Commons debates. His famous oration against Warren Hastings, the former governor general of India, was praised as a masterpiece of political speech. While enjoying his political success, however, Sheridan was beset by sorrow: in 1777, his wife delivered a stillborn child and in 1792 delivered a daughter, Mary, thought by many to be the daughter of another man. Sheridan’s wife died later that year and Sheridan married Esther Ogle (daughter of the dean of Winchester) in 1795.
The Drury Lane Theatre burnt down in 1809 and was reopened in 1812—but without Sheridan as manager. He was arrested for debt in 1813 and never Page 70 | Top of Articleregained his seat in Parliament. Although he died a man hounded by financial worries, his death (on July 7, 1816) was mourned by many admirers, and he was given an elaborate funeral. Sheridan was buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, near the grave of his friend, Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Act I, Scene i
The play begins with Mr. Dangle, the critic, at breakfast with his wife. Dangle finds the morning newspapers too full of irritating news about politics; he therefore turns to the Morning Chronicle to find news of the theatrical world that interests him as a man with great passions for the stage. After Dangle remarks that his friend Puff’s tragedy, The Spanish Armada, is being rehearsed at Drury Lane, Dangle’s wife scolds him for taking no interest in affairs of state; Dangle counters her argument by pointing out that his various powers as “the head of a band of critics” make him an important man. Mrs. Dangle remains unimpressed.
Sneer, a fellow critic and friend of Dangle, arrives with two plays and asks Dangle to persuade one of the theatre managers to accept them for performance. The three discuss the faults of the modern theatre, specifically that it has lost its capacity to morally instruct the public and that the comedies have become too sanitized.
A servant enters and announces the arrival of Sir Fretful Plagiary, a talentless playwright who, as described by Dangle and Sneer, asks for honest criticism yet rejects any unflattering observations. As the two men discuss Sir Fretful’s most recent “execrable” work, the playwright enters. Sir Fretful explains that he has sent his recent play to the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, rather than Drury Lane, since Richard Brinsley Sheridan has his works performed there and might steal some of Sir Fretful’s work out of envy. Sneer, true to his name, mocks Sir Fretful’s worries and talents. Sir Fretful, slightly nonplussed, asks the men if there is anything they find that can be “mended” in his latest play—but, of course, he rejects all of their criticisms. Dangle and Sneer then invent a number of scathing complaints about Sir Fretful’s work that they pretend to have read in the newspapers; despite Sir Fretful’s claim that he disregards the opinions found there, he suffers “great agitation” from their words as he pretends to laugh at the imaginary critics’ complaints. Sneer asks Dangle if he can accompany him to the rehearsal of Puff’s tragedy; Dangle agrees but asks Sneer to help him judge the merits of a family of Italian singers who are seeking his patronage and who have just arrived in Dangle’s drawing room.
Act I, Scene ii
In the Dangles’ drawing room, Mrs. Dangle attempts to converse with Signor Pasticcio Ritornello, an opera singer, and his two daughters. The French interpreter who has accompanied Pasticcio explains, in a very awkward fashion, that Lady Rondeau and Mrs. Fuge, two patrons of the opera, have sent the singers. Dangle and Sneer arrive, and Dangle is beseeched—in French and Italian—to put in a good word for the singers with the theatre managers about town. When a servant announces that Puff has arrived, however, Dangle asks his wife to escort the Italians and their interpreter into the next room.
Puff arrives and becomes the focus of the scene. Puff explains to Sneer that he is “a Professor of the Art of Puffing”: an author who has taught newspapermen and advertisers how to inflate their diction so they may “enlay their phraseology with variegated chips of exotic metaphor” and “crowd their advertisements with panegyrical superlatives.” Sneer asks if he can accompany Dangle to the rehearsal of Puff’s play; Puff tells the two men that they may meet him in the green room later that day, since Puff first has to “scribble” a few paragraphs for the newspapers on a number of topics.
Act II, Scene i
Later that day, Dangle and Sneer meet Puff at the theatre, where the remainder of The Critic takes place. Puff explains that the threat of a Spanish invasion gave him the idea of writing an historical verse tragedy about the threat of the Spanish Armada faced by Queen Elizabeth in 1588. His play is set at Tilbury Fort, a stronghold at the mouth of the Thames where Elizabeth mustered her troops; the plot involves Tilburnia, the Governor of the fort’s daughter, falling in love with Don Ferolo Whiskerandos, the son of the Spanish admiral. The theatre’s under prompter enters and tells Puff that the actors are ready to rehearse; he also mentions that Puff will find the play “very short,” since the actors have cut out the parts they found “heavy or unnecessary to the plot.” For the remainder of The Page 71 | Top of ArticleCritic, Dangle, Sneer, and Puff watch the rehearsal and comment on the action unfolding before them, the two critics often calling attention to Puff’s deficiencies as a playwright.
Act II, Scene ii
The rehearsal begins with two of Tilbury Fort’s sentinels asleep at their posts; when Dangle asks Puff how the sentinels could be asleep “at such an alarming crisis,” Puff explains that they must be so in order to allow the two approaching commanders to speak freely, which they would not do if the sentinels were awake. (As the play progresses, Puff responds to Dangle and Sneer’s criticisms in a similarly defensive vein.) The characters Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Christopher Hatton (the two approaching commanders) enter. Sir Walter explains that Philip, the king of Spain, has “struck at England’s trade” with his armada. The two men also discuss the capture of Don Ferolo Whiskerandos, who has been taken prisoner and is being held at the fort. The Earl of Leicester, Commander in Chief, enters with his train and leads the other men in a prayer to the god of war, Mars. After they exit, the two sentinels rise and reveal that they were not, in fact, sleeping—they are spies of Lord Burleigh (Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister) and will report to him what they have heard.
The morning cannons sound, the spies exit, and Tilburnia (the Governor’s daughter) enters with Nora, her confidant. Tilburnia recites a ludicrous speech about the beauty of the morning and the sorrow of her heart. The Governor enters and tells Tilburnia that she cannot be wasting her time with “Cupid’s baby woes,” for the Spanish Armada is arriving. Tilburnia then employs (as Sneer calls it) “a kind of poetical second-sight”: she looks offstage and begins describing (in great detail) the sights and sounds of the approaching fleet. Tilburnia begs her father to accept Don Whiskerandos’s “noble price” for liberty, and the two engage in quick repartee, intended (by Puff) to sound like “a fencing match.” Despite his daughter’s pleas, the Governor remains unmoved and exits.
Don Whiskerandos enters in chains, accusing Tilburnia of not trying to win his freedom from her father. However, Tilburnia persuades him of her devotion with a melodramatic speech. After Puff’s interruptions concerning their acting, the two exit. When Nora asks how she is to exit, however, Puff pushes her aside, yelling, “Pshaw! What the devil signifies how you get off!” Dangle and Sneer ask if Queen Elizabeth will enter, but Puff explains that she is only “to be talked of for ever” to raise the audience’s expectations. Puff then instructs the actors involved in the second (or “under”) plot to prepare, only to be told by the under prompter that the actors have cut the next scene entirely from the script. Allowing the cut to stand but vowing to “print it every word,” Puff exits to prepare the actors for the final phase of the rehearsal.
Act III, Scene i
Puff’s play proceeds with its “discovery scene.” A justice (i.e., a judge) and constable enter and discuss the recent impression of military “volunteers”—some drunks and some prisoners—including one young man whose “clear convicted crimes have stampt him soldier.” The justice sends the constable to fetch this particular youth. Before the constable returns, the justice’s lady enters and remarks to her husband that one “prisoner youth” she has seen reminds her of their deceased son. When the young prisoner enters, he reveals (through a series of questions put to him by the justice) that he is, in fact, the justice’s supposedly dead son. After a number of ridiculous plot clarifications, the prisoner, justice, lady, constable, and a number of other “near relations” all “faint alternately in each other’s arms.” The characters all revive and then exit. Dangle calls the scene “one of the finest” he has ever seen and says that it “would have made a tragedy itself.” (“Aye, or a comedy either,” cracks Sneer.)
A lone beefeater (i.e., a yeoman of the guard) enters; after his laughably short, four-line soliloquy, he exits. Puff explains that the soliloquy would have been longer had the beefeater not been observed. Lord Burleigh enters (who presumably by now has heard the report of his spies), sits in a chair, and “thinks” without ever saying a word. He shakes his head and exits. Puff explains the significance of his shake of the head in such detail that Sneer and Dangle are astounded. Sir Christopher and Sir Walter return, lamenting the fact that both of their nieces are in love with Don Whiskerandos; when the two nieces enter, their uncles withdraw to eavesdrop. The nieces (instructed by Puff) reveal their thoughts in a series of asides before Don Whiskerandos himself enters, searching for Tilburnia. Both nieces level swords against Don Whiskerandos as vengeance for rebuffing them, but then their two uncles leap from their hiding place and state that they will avenge their nieces’ unrequited love; Don Whiskerandos, however, draws two daggers and holds them to the nieces’ bosoms, creating a dramatic Page 72 | Top of Articlestalemate. Suddenly, the beefeater returns and orders the others to drop their weapons—which they inexplicably do. The nieces exit with their uncles, leaving Don Whiskerandos with the beefeater, who removes his costume and reveals himself as the Captain of the ship that had taken the Spaniard prisoner. Naturally, the beefeater “was himself an old lover of Tilburnia,” and the two use the swords dropped by the uncles for a duel. The Captain kills Don Whiskerandos, whose dying word, cut off in mid-syllable, is completed by his killer.
The Governor enters in a panic, exclaiming that his daughter has grown “Distract” (i.e., mad) from the death of her lover. He exits, and Tilburnia and Nora enter, both mad and dressed in white satin. Tilburnia babbles in her “madness” for a moment before exiting to throw herself into the sea. Puff explains that her suicide will lead the play to its climax: the sea fight between the Spanish and English. An actor playing the Thames enters, accompanied by two actors in green, representing his banks. The battle includes a number of effects: cannon-fire, a procession of “all the English rivers and their tributaries,” and the music of Handel. After its conclusion, Puff applauds his cast before remarking, “Well, pretty well—but not quite perfect—so ladies and gentlemen, if you please, we’ll rehearse this piece again to-morrow.”
Lord Burleigh, the Lord Treasurer and chief minister under Queen Elizabeth I, appears in Puff’s The Spanish Armada as a completely silent man. His simple shaking of the head communicates the need for the English to show a greater spirit if they are to defeat their Spanish enemies.
Mr. Dangle is the critic of the play’s title. Dangle’s great love is the stage; the opening scene of the play shows him disregarding newspaper articles about important current events in favor of one that tells him about the theatre. “I hate all politics but theatrical politics,” he explains to his wife as he hurriedly reads of a new play in production. Dangle finds great satisfaction in his position as “the head of a band of criticks,” as his judgment of a play is so widely sought and revered. All members of the theatrical world seek his patronage because his word is enough to spark their careers; as he explains, there are “applications from all quarters” for his “interest.” In act 1, scene ii, for example, Dangle receives some Italian singers in his drawing room and behaves like a king at court, despite the fact that he can barely understand them (or their translator). As his name suggests, there is something silly about a man who “dangles” around theaters and greenrooms, mingling with those who often hold a less-than-respectable position in London society. His self-importance makes him, therefore, an object of gentle ridicule: a man completely caught up in the work of others and determined to tell the public what it should think about its own tastes. Even his wife finds his devotion to theatrical matters laughable and unworthy of the effort with which he peruses them.
Nothing in the play suggests that Dangle is a harsh or brutal judge, as the term “critic” sometimes connotes. Indeed, each complaint he voices against Sir Fretful is followed by “tho’ he’s my friend” to suggest that Dangle takes no joy in trouncing someone’s creative labors. When Sir Fretful arrives at Dangle’s home, Dangle takes pains to spare his feelings when pointing out what he thinks of his latest tragedy: he prefaces his criticism by telling Sir Fretful that his first four acts are the best he “ever read or saw” before stating, “If I might venture to suggest any thing, it is that the interest rather falls off in the fifth.” He furthermore calls the newspapers’ attacks on Sir Fretful’s work “illnatured to be sure,” despite the fact that Sir Fretful’s work seems to warrant such censure.
Dangle’s desire to criticize without offending is even more apparent when he watches the rehearsal of Puff’s The Spanish Armada and asks polite questions about its flaws instead of jeering at them outright (as both Sneer and the audience do). Unlike many critics who make names for themselves by tearing down those of their contemporaries’, Dangle enjoys his happy life as a man who reads plays in advance of their production and obtains the finest seats at the theatre.
Unlike her husband, Mrs. Dangle finds his devotion to the theatre childish and confounding. One of her first lines is, “Now that the plays are begun I shall have no peace”; it is this “lack of Page 73 | Top of Articlepeace” caused by the constant influx of actors, managers, and playwrights into her home that Mrs. Dangle finds irritating. She scolds Dangle for taking no interest in contemporary politics and bemoans the fact that Dangle could, if he showed “the least spirit,” have “been at the head of one of the Westminster associations.” While amusing to the audience, Dangle’s complete lack of interest in anything but the theater irritates his wife: “I believe,” she tells him, “if the French were landed tomorrow, your first inquiry would be, whether they had brought a theatrical troop with them.” Although Dangle tries to involve his wife in his theatrical pursuits, her attitude toward him is unchanging.
Early in the play, Mrs. Dangle complains that her house has become “the motley rendezvous of all the lackeys of literature” and “an absolute register-office for candidate actors, and poets without character.” While Dangle enjoys having his patronage solicited by these “lackeys,” Mrs. Dangle finds their presence unnerving. In act 1, scene ii, Sheridan offers the viewer an example of how Mrs. Dangle deals with these intrusions: after trying to understand both the Italian singer and his interpreter, she tells Dangle, “Here are two very civil gentlemen trying to make themselves understood, and I don’t know which is the interpreter.” Her frustration, however, does not deter Dangle from mingling with performers or abandoning his critical duties.
The Earl of Leicester
A favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, he appears in Puff’s The Spanish Armada as the Commander-in-Chief of the military. In one of the tragedy’s many unintentionally comic scenes, he leads the other characters in a prayer to Mars.
The Governor of Tilbury Fort
In Puff’s The Spanish Armada, the Governor is the officer in command of Tilbury Fort, where the British troops are being mustered. His daughter, Tilburnia, falls in love with Don Ferolo Whiskerandos, who is being held prisoner at Tilbury Fort. When asked by his daughter to accept a “noble price” to free her lover, the Governor refuses.
Sir Christopher Hatton
Lord Chancellor at the time of the actual Spanish Armada crisis, he appears in Puff’s tragedy based on the same. His niece eventually falls in love with Don Ferolo Whiskerandos.
Sir Fretful Plagiary
Sir Fretful is Dangle’s friend and a playwright whose work is universally dismissed by all who read it as uninspired and whose personality is marked by tremendous insecurity. Many of the names in The Critic are comically indicative of the characters, and Sir Fretful Plagiary’s fits him on two counts: he is immensely “fretful” when faced with criticism and often plagiarizes others’ works (making his work a collection of “stray jokes” and “pilfered witticisms”). Before he arrives at Dangle’s home, Dangle and Sneer discuss Sir Fretful’s faults: he “allows no merit to any author but himself,” he is “as envious as an old maid verging on the desperation of six-and-thirty,” and he “is so covetous of popularity” that he would “rather be abused” in the press “than not mentioned at all.” Of course, Sir Fretful finds none of these faults in himself, convinced as he is of his own genius. (He is so convinced, in fact, that he does not send his latest work to the Drury Lane Theatre for fear that Sheridan himself will steal his work!)
Sir Fretful’s greatest fault, however, is his tendency to solicit others to give “free” and honest opinions of his work, only to reject any negative criticism with “petulant arrogance.” Sir Fretful’s conversation with Dangle and Sneer demonstrates this habit. When Sneer, for example, tells him that his play “wants incident,” Sir Fretful remarks that “the incidents are too crowded”; when Dangle says that the “interest rather falls off” in the fifth act, Sir Fretful counters with, “Rises; I believe you mean, Sir.” Sir Fretful further shows his inability to take any criticism when he asks Dangle and Sneer to recall what a newspaper said of him; despite Sir Fretful’s laughter, he is obviously upset at having his work compared to “a bad tavern’s worst wine.”
A playwright and composer of advertisements, Puff is a friend of Dangle. His historical tragedy, The Spanish Armada, is rehearsed in acts 2 and 3. Puff calls himself a “Practitioner in Pangeyric” or “a Professor of the Art of Puffing”: a man whose ability to “puff up” ordinary language earns him a living. Puff composes false reviews for plays in order to boost ticket sales, teaches auctioneers how to use inflated language to make their wares more alluring to bidders, and even pretends to be a widow (or other charity case) in the newspaper to solicit assistance from kind (yet gullible) readers. (“I supported myself two years entirely by my misfortunes,” Page 74 | Top of Articlehe explains.) Puff has various methods of “puffing,” such as “The Puff Direct” (in which he invents a positive review for a play the day before its premiere) or “The Puff Collusive” (in which he writes a piece denouncing a book or poem as too licentious or scandal mongering, thereby inciting the public to buy it immediately). At present, Puff has turned to the theatre, where he can indulge his “talent for fiction and embellishment.”
During the rehearsal of his play, Puff exhibits all the nervous intensity one would expect from a director. Part of the humor of the rehearsal scenes lies in the way that Puff (like Sir Fretful in act 1, scene i) defends himself against every possible negative criticism of his play made by Dangle and Sneer. For example, after Sneer recognizes a line of Shakespeare’s Othello in Puff’s play, Puff explains, “That’s of no consequnce—all that can be said is, that two people happened to hit on the same thought. His shameless brand of self-defense is demonstrated throughout the play.
Sir Walter Raleigh
A soldier, explorer, poet and sometime favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, he appears in Puff’s tragedy as a companion of Sir Christopher Hatton. Like Hatton’s niece, Raleigh’s niece also falls in love with Don Ferolo Whiskerandos.
Signor Pasticcio Ritornello
Signor Ritornello possesses one of the many “outlandish throats” found in the opera. He visits Dangle’s home with his two nieces in order to secure Dangle’s patronage. Unfortunately, he only speaks Italian and brings a French translator with him; when he tries to converse with Mr. and Mrs. Dangle, the result is comic cross-communication.
One of Dangle’s friends and fellow-critics, Sneer (as his name blatantly suggests) is a man always finding fault in those around him. His first conversation with Dangle reveals Sneer’s assumptions about the theatre: feeling that the stage could be a “school of morality,” Sneer complains that “people seem to go there principally for their entertainment!” When Dangle complains of how comedies have been purged of all “double entendre” and “smart innuendo,” Sneer responds with a metaphor that reflects his judgmental mind and style of speech:
Our prudery in this respect is just on a par with the artificial bashfulness of a courtezan, who encreases the blush upon her cheek in an exact proportion to the diminution of her modesty.
Throughout the play, Sneer makes a number of similar remarks, taking swipes at authors, actors, and newspapers. While Dangle is genial and indulgent, Sneer is bitter and unforgiving.
Sneer’s chief role in The Critic is to offer a running commentary on Puff’s The Spanish Armada when it is rehearsed in acts 2 and 3. His sarcastic heckling adds to the humor of Puff’s unintentionally hilarious play and invites the audience to laugh at Puff’s awful tragedy. For example, after Dangle praises Tilburnia’s awful-sounding verse with, “O!—’tis too much,” Sneer remarks, “Oh!—it is indeed”; similarly, when Puff explains that his characters must be allowed “to hear and see a number of things” not presented on stage, Sneer mockingly pretends to agree with him and states, “Yes—a kind of poetical second-sight!” Sneer makes comments like these throughout Puff’s rehearsal; as Puff is wholly “inflated” with the false ideas of his own talents, Sneer serves as a means by which Sheridan mocks all writers of Puff’s ilk, who find their own work beyond reproach.
In Puff’s The Spanish Armada, the daughter of the Governor of Tilbury Fort, who falls in love with Don Ferolo Whiskerandos. Never without Nora, her confidant, Tilburnia is a parody of the tragic heroine, torn between love and duty. She eventually goes mad after Don Whiskerandos’s death and throws herself into the sea.
Don Ferolo Whiskerandos
In Puff’s The Spanish Armada, the son of the Spanish admiral who is being held prisoner at Tilbury Fort. He is killed in a duel over Tilburnia. He is meant by Sheridan to be viewed as a parody of the exotic, alluring, and dashing foreign lover.
Naturally, The Critic explores the issue of criticism, specifically the different ways that
playwrights respond to critiques of their work. Sir Fretful Plagiary is the epitome of one who attempts to seem gracious and able to withstand any critical judgment of his plays; when faced with even the smallest quibble, however, his “fretful” nature becomes apparent. For example, Sir Fretful tells Dangle and Sneer that he is “never so well pleased as when a judicious critic points out any defect” in his work to him and that Sneer “can’t oblige [him] more” than he would by offering his opinions. However, when Sneer tells him that the “events” in his latest play are “too few,” Sir Fretful responds that the events are “too crowded”; when told by Dangle that the play’s “interest rather falls off” at the end, Sir Fretful counters with, “Rises; I believe you mean, Sir.” When Dangle’s wife (who only defends Sir Fretful because “everybody else abuses him”) states that she “did not see a fault in any part of the play from beginning to end,” Sir Fretful exclaims, “Upon my soul the women are the best judges after all!” Of course, “best” in this context means “most flattering.”
Unlike Sir Fretful, Puff does not become upset when faced with complaints about his play, The Spanish Armada. Instead, he offers what he finds to be logical explanations for every incident and line, however contrived or ridiculous. For example, when Sneer asks Puff how Hatton could never before have asked Raleigh about their preparations for war, Puff responds, “What, before the Play began? how the plague could he?” Similarly, when Dangle observes that the Beefeater’s soliloquy of four lines is “very short,” Puff explains, “Yes—but it would have been a great deal longer if he had not been observed.”
Convinced of his own skill as a playwright, Puff becomes irritated when he learns of the cuts in the script made by the actors: although he initially calls them “very good judges” of what should be deleted, he later complains that they have cut “one of the finest and most laboured” scenes of his play. Although he lets the cuts remain, he vows to “print it every word,” assured that his readers (if not his audience) will appreciate his talents.
Publicity and Advertising
While Puff is the play’s primary playwright, Sheridan also uses him to satirize the means by which the skills of a playwright are found in the Page 76 | Top of Articleworld outside of the theater, specifically in the world of advertising. Puff explains that he “does as much business in that way as any six of the fraternity in town” and that it is his talent for “puffing” up language to extraordinary heights that helps Puff make a living from the press. For example, Puff has taught advertisers to employ “panegyrical superlatives” to create appealing images of their products and capture consumers’ interest; he has also used his talent for “puffing” to create false newspaper advertisements in which he pretended to be bankrupt, an invalid, and a widower in ordere to live upon the charity of credulous readers.
Puff’s swindles are strikingly in tune with some modern advertising practices. For example, Puff uses the press to create false (and, of course, glowing) reviews of the work of his friends. A similar device was seen in 2001 when Sony Pictures came under fire for inventing positive critical reviews for its film The Animal; that same year, the company was criticized again for having employees pose, in television commercials, as theatergoers offering great reviews of The Patriot. Puff also composes stories wherein he sneaks in advertisements that seem glaringly out of place: for example, he recites a story he wrote about George Bon-Mot “sauntering down St. James’s-street,” where he met Lady Mary Myrtle and said:
I just saw a picture of you, in a new publication called THE CAMP MAGAZINE, which, bye the bye, is a devilish clever thing,—and is sold at No. 3, on the right-hand of the way, two doors from the printing-office, the corner of Ivy-lane, Paternoster-row, price only one shilling!
This is remarkably reminiscent of the advertising practice known as “product placement,” in which corporations pay to have characters in films use their clearly marked products. Many corporations selling things such as cars, food, and clothing use product placement as a means of exposing their products to a captive audience.
Finally, Puff also reflects a twentieth-century trend among advertisers when he describes his technique “The Puff Collusive,” in which he acts “in the guise of determined hostility” to presumably warn the public about the moral dangers of a new work of art (in the case of his example, a poem): “Here you see the two strongest inducements are held forth;—First, that nobody ought to read it;—and secondly, that everybody buys it.” When one considers the furor over certain books (such as The Catcher in the Rye or The Satanic Verses), television shows (such as N. Y. P. D. Blue or South Park), or albums by artists as different as Elvis Presley and Eminem, one sees just how prescient Sheridan was in his creation of Puff and all his “various sorts” of “Puffing.”
The Critic takes place in two locations: Dangle’s house and the theater where Puff’s play is rehearsed; each setting reflects the values and assumptions of its principal character.
Dangle’s house is a place where actors, singers, writers, and other “lackeys of literature” gather to solicit his approval and patronage. Dangle is a self-professed lover of the theater and his home reflects this; for while there, he does not engage in any conversation that is not about the theater. When reading the newspapers, for example, he dismisses the threat of a possible war in order to read about “theatrical politics.” In fact, Dangle’s love of theater is so great and so ingrained in him that he often “performs” in his drawing room as if he were on stage. He finds Sir Fretful’s latest play atrocious yet calls it “finished and most admirable” once he hears Fretful entering the room. Similarly, when Mrs. Dangle attempts to tell Sir Fretful that her husband and Sneer were just laughing at Sir Fretful’s play, Dangle hides the truth from Fretful with the excuse, “My friend Sneer was rallying just now... Sneer will jest.” Dangle and Sneer’s greatest performance occurs when they invent a series of negative reviews for Sir Fretful’s work and pretend that they have read them in the newspapers. Because Sir Fretful is Dangle’s friend, Dangle tries not to offend him; it is only through Dangle’s elaborate and comic performance with Sneer that he can reveal what he really thinks about the author. As a man devoted to the theater, Dangle knows a great deal about acting on and off the stage.
Puff is, as he boldly asserts, a “Professor of the Art of Puffing,” and the theater where he rehearses his tragedy contains a multitude of “puffed up” actors and effects that revolve around Puff’s preposterous script. At the theatre, Puff is invincible: he dismisses any remark about his play, however Page 77 | Top of Articlesugarcoated, and is always confident of his authorial and directorial powers. Puff’s theatrical triumph occurs at the end of the play when his cast reenacts the defeat of the Spanish Armada: this hodgepodge of special effects, music, and actors portraying “The procession of all the English rivers and their tributaries” is laughable, rather than spellbinding, due to its highly “puffed” staging. Sheridan’s point is that these “puffy” plays are a staple of British theater; by setting most of The Critic in a theater, Sheridan calls attention to his audience’s taste—or the lack of it.
Almost all eighteenth-century plays featured prologues, recited on their opening nights by notable celebrities or writers and later reprinted in newspapers. As Mary E. Knapp points out in her 1961 study, Prologues and Epilogues of the Eighteenth Century, one purpose of the prologue was to “cajole the audience into a pleasant frame of mind so that they would be in a friendly mood before the curtain was drawn up.” Another important function a prologue served was to point out the upcoming play’s themes so that the audience could more readily identify them as the drama unfolded. The prologue to The Critic (written by Richard Fitzpatrick, a member of Parliament and lover of the theatre) is a history in miniature of the contemporary London stage and the degree to which it has decayed. Fitzpatrick begins by noting that “The Sister Muses”—tragedy and comedy—have, like earthly rulers, been misled by “evil counselors.” Tragedy has fallen, since the time of John Dryden (1631–1700), into a series of plays featuring only ranting and raving characters who “bellow” so loudly that they no longer resemble real people. Comedy likewise has suffered by a preponderance of salacious jokes that cause “female modesty” to become “abash’d.”
Fitzgerald, however, surprises the audience by explaining that the cures of these theatrical illnesses are sometimes worse than the diseases. Tragedy is no longer so histrionic, but “Now insipidy succeeds bombast.” Comedy has been cleansed of inappropriate jokes, but now “the purest morals” are “undefil’d by wit.” Fitzgerald’s goal here is to communicate to his audience what he sees as the faults of his own era’s theater—faults that will be exposed and exaggerated throughout The Critic. Fitzgerald also assists Sheridan’s cause by enlisting the audience as the playwright’s partners in satire, telling them that The Critic will “brave the critick’s rage,” enrage “brother bards,” and even “Newspapers themselves defy.” If The Critic is to succeed as a comedy, its “chief dependence” must be the “alliance” of the audience, whose support will help Sheridan deflect the outcry he is sure will come his way as a result of his satire.
The Enlightenment and The Age of Reason are alternate names used by historians and critics to identify the eighteenth century. While the eighteenth century technically, of course, began in 1700, the term “eighteenth century” when used by literary critics has come to mean the years falling between the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (the book that sparked English romanticism) in 1798. In short, the eighteenth century was a period marked by incredible enthusiasm for science, history, and literature that the English had not enjoyed since the end of the Renaissance a century earlier.
The reasons for this sudden renewal of interest in the arts and sciences are complex but can be roughly understood by considering the terrible chaos that the nation had just endured and barely survived. The seventeenth century was marked by a civil war in which King Charles I and his army of loyalist “Cavaliers” fought with an army raised by the Puritan members of Parliament, who felt that Charles had grown too corrupt, too powerful, and too belligerent. Eventually, the Puritans defeated their Royalist opponents; after a trial by his enemies in which he could never have prevailed, Charles I was beheaded in 1649. The monarchy was—so the Puritans believed—abolished, and Oliver Cromwell, the military genius and commander of the Puritan forces, became the nation’s ruler. (He was called “Lord Protector.”) After Cromwell’s death in 1658, his son, Richard, assumed the Lord Protectorship, continuing this historical period, known as the Interregnum, without a king. The citizens of England, however, found their new rulers worse than the monarch they had replaced; after a number of secret missions, negotiations, and meetings, the son of
Charles I was brought out of hiding (from Scotland) to a tremendously warm welcome in London. Charles II was crowned in 1660, when the monarchy was restored.
This terrible war, coupled with a visitation of bubonic plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666, stood in the English mind as horrible examples of the fury wrought both by man and nature. Enlightenment thinkers, therefore, sought to better understand both politics and science in an effort to ensure that similar events would never again occur. In 1662, the Royal Society (a government-funded organization of scientists working together and sharing information) was created; important books from this period include the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1768), Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774), Burke’s Reflections of the Revolution in France (1760), Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1775), and Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776).
The first great dramatist of the age was John Dryden (1631–1700), whose comedy Marriage á la Mode (1673) and tragedy All for Love (1677) were immensely popular and reveal what would become the public’s taste in both modes. Many eighteenth-century plays are “comedies of manners”: plays that feature domestic plots, quick dialogue, and an ironic examination of the behaviors (or “manners”) of the upper class. Examples of this genre include Sir George Etherege’s She Wou’d if She Cou’d (1688), William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675), William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), and Sheridan’s own The School for Scandal (1777), which cemented his fame as a comic playwright. Another popular comic form was the dramatic burlesque, in which theatrical conventions and means of productions became the subjects of satire: the Duke of Buckingham’s The Rehearsal (1671), John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), Fielding’s The Tragedy of Tragedies (1731), and the famed actor David Garrick’s A Peep Behind the Curtain (1767) are examples of this form. The Page 79 | Top of ArticleCritic is another example of dramatic burlesque, in which the audience laughs at actors playing the roles of actors struggling with their work. By the end of the century, however, drama fell into disfavor while the novel simultaneously exploded on the literary scene.
While modern critics generally applaud Sheridan’s work and a modern reader may find The Critic a very amusing yet tame burlesque, its first production in 1779 caused a minor controversy in the London press. The play’s unnamed first reviewer (in a review collected in Sheridan: Comedies (1986) edited by Peter Davison) admired the first act’s wit and satire but complained that the second and third were “heavy and tiresome.” He also scolded Sheridan for not attempting the “least originality” and called the play “an act of angry retaliation” rather than “a dramatic satire, founded on general principles.” This same reviewer even wrote that Sheridan’s satire on false advertisements for charity “may deprive some worthy objects of that relief which their distresses might otherwise receive from the benevolent.” (He further complained that Puff and Sneer both mention the word “God” onstage “without censure.”) Other eighteenth-century reviews were equally dismissive: in 1783, another unnamed reviewer (also collected in Sheridan: Comedies) called The Critic “the offspring of a pen that had in vain attempted to write a tragedy” and said that Sheridan “felt a malicious pleasure in decrying a species of composition which has been deemed superior” to Sheridan’s own. Finally, the playwright Charles Dibdin, writing in his 1788 collection, The Musical Tour of Mr. Dibdin, challenged Sheridan to “write a tragedy so as to steer clear of his own lash”—something he felt Sheridan would find an impossible task.
Audiences, however, loved the play, which has become a favorite of actors, producers, and even critics since its premiere. Many twentieth-century readers echo the sentiments of Lord Byron as quoted in James Morwood’s The Life and Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who called it the “best farce” he had ever seen. In his 1970 study “Sheridan: The Last of the Great Theatrical Satirists,” Samuel L. Macey discusses the twilight of dramatic burlesque in the eighteenth century: while the “restrictions imposed by the temper of the times” stifled some writers’ will to satire, Macey praises Sheridan for allowing theatrical satire to exit the Enlightenment stage “with a bang rather than a whimper.” In Philip K. Jason’s 1974 essay, “A Twentieth Century Response to The Critic,” he compares Sheridan’s play to what he sees as its modern counterpart: Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Like Macey, he praises how Sheridan balances the “multiple perspectives” that accompany any play while consciously calling attention to the actors within it performing their roles.
Some modern critics, however, praise Sheridan’s craft while discounting his talents as a true artist. In his introductory essay to the Modern Library’s Eighteenth Century Plays (1952), Ricardo Quintana argues that the work of Sheridan and his three chief contemporaries (Goldsmith, Fielding, and Gay) have “a depth generally lacking elsewhere” in Restoration drama. However, Quintana further remarks that Sheridan’s “spectacular career” can “blind us to the fact that his wit and his remarkable sense of theater are not balanced by the insight and intuition of drama at its greatest.” Similarly, in his book Sheridan’s Comedies: Their Contexts and Achievements (1977), Mark S. Auburn calls The Critic “the most complete satiric play about the theater yet created” yet not up to the artistic level of Sheridan’s previous (and more widely known) play, The School for Scandal:
Beside the greater comedy, The Critic seems a remnant of his youth, a brilliant utilization of his experiences as a practical dramatist perhaps, but more nearly the product of an exuberance and an adolescent cynicism which the perfection of The School for Scandal seems to deny.
Of course, critical evaluations are often as varied as the opinions of Puff and Sneer. In his 1997 work A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sheridan’s most recent biographer and critic, Fintan O’Toole, writes that The Critic allowed Sheridan to vent all the anxieties and frustrations he had amassed during his time as the manager of the Drury Lane Theatre: “Into it he poured all the vexations of the previous season, alchemically transformed into pure hilarity.” O’Toole notes that of the twelve most often staged plays in England between 1776 and 1800, four were by Shakespeare and two (The Duenna and The School for Scandal) were by Sheridan. “With The Critic holding its place as one of the most frequently performed afterpieces,” O’Toole concludes, “Sheridan the playwright continued to occupy a central place in
British cultural life.” The fact that The Critic is still performed across North America and Europe attests to the fact that Sheridan still occupies, if not a central, at least a prominent place in twentieth-century theater.
Moran is a secondary school teacher of English and American literature. In this essay, he examines the ways in which Sheridan’s play parodies a number of tragic conventions.
In 1763, sixteen years before the premiere of The Critic, James Boswell co-authored a pamphlet in which he jeered at David Mallet’s Elvira, a tragedy acted at the Drury Lane Theatre. Confessing to his friend Samuel Johnson that he felt somewhat guilty about the pamphlet, since he himself could not write a tragedy “near so good,” Boswell received another impromptu lesson from his mentor that found its way into The Life of Samuel Johnson.
Why no, Sir; this is not just reasoning. You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.
Boswell’s conscience may have been bothering him because of a trend of thought sometimes found among those faced with the critical evaluation of tragedy: the genre is so revered and taken so seriously that mocking it is sometimes regarded as aesthetically sacrilegious, like finding fault with Michelangelo’s Pieta. Comedy never tries to elicit the “pity or terror” (in Aristotelian terms) of tragedy, and its faults are therefore regarded as less damaging to the work as a whole. Along these same lines, the benchmark for a quality tragedy is often a higher one than comedy, since laughter is supposedly easier to elicit than catharsis. This is why the most improbable plot devices in comedies are accepted as part of the game, whereas the same improbabilities in tragedies are either glossed over or dismissed as unimportant in terms of the work’s total effect on a viewer. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for example, Viola disguises herself as a man and in doing so becomes completely indistinguishable
from her twin brother—so much so that she excites the mourning Olivia into thunderous passion and never once causes her new master, Orsino, to question her gender. No viewer of this play would rail against this seemingly impossible device, yet if the same kind of incident occurred in King Lear, for example, audiences would have a much more difficult time “believing” it (to the extent that they suspend their disbelief and accept the action of any play as “real”). Yet even the greatest tragedies have a number of events in them that are wholly implausible yet infrequently questioned by awestruck viewers and readers. As Puff explains to Dangle and Sneer, “a play is not to show occurrences that happen every day, but things just so strange, that tho’ they never did, they might happen.” That “might” is where plots become farcical (in the case of comedy) or awkward (in the case of tragedy).
Sheridan, of course, knew all of this from his years spent reading, attending, writing, and managing plays, and it is this central idea—that tragedies belong to a genre so exulted that anyone criticizing their creators (like Boswell) can actually feel guilty—that fuels The Critic. Sheridan made Puff’s The Spanish Armada a tragedy instead of a comedy because he knew that the humor would arise in direct proportion to the earnestness and seriousness of its performance. Had he made Puff’s play a comedy, everyone in the audience would be laughing with the characters rather than at them, and making his audience laugh at writers like Puff is crucial to Sheridan’s vision. Once the members of Sheridan’s audience start laughing at the portentousness of Puff’s tragedy, however, they can begin to consider just how silly (and worthy of any number of pamphlets) the plots and conventions of even the greatest tragedies can be. As a viewer watches The Critic, therefore, he or she is invited to share in Sheridan’s laughter at tragic conventions and, ultimately, better appreciate those playwrights who are able to deal with these conventions in a way less laughable than Puff. “I improve upon established modes,” Puff boasts, and a careful reading of The Spanish Armada reveals Sheridan’s joy in parodying the established mode of tragedy and its conventions. Unlike Boswell, Sheridan never feels the slightest compunctions about mocking the genre or its less-than-talented disciples.
The Spanish Armada can be read as a catalogue of theatrical conventions, each of which is hilariously presented but each of which also provokes a reader into recalling where similar devices occur in other, “real” tragedies. The differences are merely ones of degree. For example, the opening scene of Puff’s play features two sentinels asleep at their post. When Sneer remarks that this is odd, considering the “alarming crisis” of a possible Spanish attack, Puff explains that the guards must be asleep, for Raleigh and Hatton would not speak if they knew the guards were watching them. This is a joke for the audience, but consider the death of Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: after she awakens from her drugged sleep in the Capulet tomb and learns that Romeo is dead, Friar Lawrence advises her to “Come, come away” and live among “a sisterhood of holy nuns.” When Juliet refuses, Friar Lawrence leaves the tomb, ostensibly because “the watch is coming” but really because had he stayed, Juliet would have been denied her opportunity to commit suicide. Moments later, the conveniently absent Friar returns with the lovers’ parents and confesses his role in their attempted elopement. Like Puff’s sleeping sentinels, Shakespeare’s Friar had to engage in an inexplicable action for the sake of dramatic expediency. This is similar to Hamlet’s dragging the body of Polonius into “the neighbor room” after he kills him; Hamlet may be doing so to spare his mother the horrible sight, but Shakespeare also knew that the actor playing Polonius had to get off the stage and having the actor jump up and exit after such an intense scene might break the spell of the moment.
Another theatrical convention skewered by Sheridan is the manner in which many playwrights struggle with the problem of exposition. After Hatton asks Raleigh why there is a “general muster” and Page 83 | Top of Article“throng of chiefs” at Tilbury (although he plainly knows the answer), Dangle rightly asks Puff why, if Hatton “knows all this,” Raleigh continues telling it to him; Puff explains that Hatton and Raleigh speak for the audience’s sake. Information necessary to the plot is therefore presented but in such a way that its very presentation is laughably awkward. Jane Austen recognized the same problem and similarly parodied it in a play she wrote as a young girl, collected in her book Love and Friendship:
Pistoletta: Pray papa how far is it to London?
Popgun: My Girl, my Darling, my favourite of all my children, who art the picture of thy poor mother who died two months ago, with whom I am going to town to marry to Strephon, and to whom I mean to bequeath my whole Estate, it wants seven miles.
All playwrights face this challenge and meet it with varying degrees of success: to return to Shakespeare, consider the opening of King Lear, in which Shakespeare masterfully opens the play with the meeting where Lear divides his kingdom while simultaneously revealing his attitudes toward his daughters. Conversely, consider the opening of Hamlet, where Marcellus asks Horatio, who has returned to Denmark only two months ago, why Denmark is preparing “implements of war” in “sweaty haste.” Why Marcellus, a royal guard, would not know anything about this and need to ask a civilian student is not explained, or even considered by many viewers. Even Shakespeare nods.
Once the exposition is out of the way, a playwright still faces the problem of information: a character needs to learn some fact or secret but must learn it in such a way that seems dramatically plausible. Eavesdropping, therefore, is the dramatist’s friend; consider the number of plays in which a character learns something he or she is not supposed to by virtue of a good hiding place. In Othello, for example, the title character conceals himself so well that he can overhear Iago speak to Cassio of Bianca yet remain wholly unnoticed by Cassio, who speaks as freely as if he and Iago were on a deserted island. Similarly, Hamlet abounds in overheard conversations: Polonius and Claudius listen to Hamlet’s “Get thee to a nunnery” tirade against Ophelia, and Polonius is killed while hiding behind a tapestry in Gertrude’s room. As Puff proclaims, “If people who want to listen, or overhear, were not always conniv’d at in a Tragedy, there would be no carrying on any plot in the world.” Sheridan knew this to be true: his own The School for Scandal relies heavily on eavesdropping to propel its plot. Here, however, he takes great delight in laying bare the clumsy machinations of those who attempt to (in Hamlet’s words) “hold a mirror up to nature” but fail.
The list of conventions thus parodied continues. Tilburnia’s first speech mocks overdone pseudo-poetic language: she takes twenty lines to say, “It is morning and I am unhappy.” The tendency for playwrights to imbue their characters with (in Puff’s words) the ability “to hear and see a number of things that are not” is mocked by Tilburnia’s description of the approaching armada; again, this is a ludicrous moment in Puff’s play, but anyone who rereads Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet is faced with the same problem: from where did Gertrude get this information, and why did the person telling it not attempt to rescue Ophelia as she drowned? The playwright’s necessary manipulation of props is mocked when Don Whiskerandos and the Beefeater happen to discover two swords dropped by Hatton and Raleigh; while humorous here, the same kind of manipulation occurs at the end of Hamlet when Hamlet and Laertes unknowingly switch swords during their final duel, thus allowing Shakespeare to kill them both with the same poisoned tip. Another tragic convention—madness—is often used by playwrights to solicit the pathos of the audience; such “mad scenes,” however, often feature a character speaking in a way that cleverly reveals significant aspects of their personalities in a way that seems unlike “real” madness. (Lady Macbeth, for example, manifests her madness in sleepwalking while attempting to symbolically wash her hands of the guilt that plagues her.) This convention is ridiculed by Sheridan when he makes the mad Tilburnia babble such nonsense as:
Is this a grasshopper!—Ha! no, it is my Whiskerandos—you shall not keep him—I know you have him in your pocket—An oyster may be cross’d in love!—Who says A whale’s a bird?—
The more tragedies one has seen, the funnier Puff’s play becomes. It is important to remember, however, that Sheridan does not do all this in an effort to mock the genre of tragedy as a whole; rather, he expresses his amusement with those writers who struggle with these conventions when composing their work and can only meet these challenges in the most dramatically clumsy ways. As a playwright himself, Sheridan knew of these struggles firsthand, and it is by presenting The Spanish Armada, a play where all of these struggles prove too great for Puff, that Sheridan invites his audience both to laugh at those who cannot meet the challenges of composition and to applaud those (like Page 84 | Top of Articlehimself) who do. Puff’s play, therefore, is a guide to Sheridan’s aesthetics, albeit a guide that shows its user what not to do rather than what he or she should do. Great skill is needed to depict the work of an unskillful playwright, and, by examining the tragic conventions parodied in The Spanish Armada, a viewer can better appreciate the skills of tragedians who handle these conventions more adroitly than Puff.
Source: Daniel Moran, Critical Essay on The Critic, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Mark S. Auburn
In the following essay excerpt, the author discusses the history of Sheridan’s The Critic and evaluates its status as “perhaps the most complete play about the theatre ever written.”
The Critic, which was first presented on 30 October 1779, is perhaps the most complete play about the theater ever written. It was both occasional entertainment and burlesque, topically oriented and aimed at posterity, a local development and an echo of an eternal form. From Aristophanes’s The Acharnians to Shakespeare’s “Pyramus and Thisbe,” to Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle, to Buckingham’s Rehearsal, to Fielding’s Tragedy of Tragedies or Pasquin, the comic dramatic urge at self-reflection has surfaced brilliantly. But the examples from the 1770s which influenced Sheridan failed to achieve lasting fame largely because they are too local, too tied to contemporary situations and personalities; only Garrick’s A Peep behind the Curtain approaches the proper balance between timeliness and timelessness, yet it lacks the wit, satire, and brilliance to endure. What is surprising about The Critic, a greater play which adopted a similar form, is that it too is very local.
Consider the raw materials of The Critic: an absurd, thin-skinned playwright, a silly romantic tragedy on the subject of the Spanish Armada, a theatrical entrepreneur entranced not with literary worth but dramatic stage effects, newspapers filled with gossip and concealed advertisements, critical debates about the uses and meaning of dramatic entertainment, a theatrical world populated by actors who are selfish and managers who themselves are playwrights. Stripped of contemporary associations, these subjects will be of interest as long as artistic impulses are channeled through the medium of the stage; but in Sheridan’s play, each has purely local satiric applications which to a great extent determined the original success of The Critic, but which, it seems, would also prevent lasting fame. Both playwrights were recognized as specific individuals; the subject of Puff’s tragedy held immense contemporary concern; and the critical themes were the stuff of the day.
Parsons, who portrayed Sir Fretful Plagiary, openly imitated the dress and mannerisms of Richard Cumberland, author of The West Indian and more recently The Battle of Hastings, a historical tragedy produced by Sheridan at Drury Lane 24 January 1778. On 20 March 1779 Cumberland had given a prelude to his musical piece, Calypso, for its Covent Garden production: that prelude was commonly known as The Critic. No one failed to recognize Parson’s impersonation, and the Lady’s Magazine for October 1779 went so far as to say that Sir Fretful Plagiary “exhibits one of the most harsh and severe caricatures that have been attempted since the days of Aristophanes, of which a celebrated sentimental writer is evidently the object: a great part of what is said by his representative being literally taken from his usual conversation, but with pointed and keen additions.” Cumberland so felt the imputation that in his Memoirs (1807) he avoids mentioning the character’s name completely, but casts oblique aspersions on Sheridan by citing a conversation between himself and Garrick following the introduction of The West Indian in which Garrick supposedly counterfeited the reading of a bad review of the comedy, then revealed his joke. The implication is clear: in staging Sneer’s attack on Sir Fretful, Sheridan was merely retelling a worn-out story, Cumberland would have us believe, plagiarizing it in fact from life.
The other playwright of The Critic, Puff, was also from real life. Consider his thoughts on the subjects of drama:
What Shakespeare says of Actors may be better applied to the purpose of Plays; they ought to be “the abstract and brief Chronicles of the times.” Therefore when history, and particularly the history of our own country, furnishes any thing like a case in point, to the time in which an author writes, if he knows his own interest, he will take advantage of it; so, Sir, I call my tragedy The Spanish Armada; and have laid the scene before Tilbury Fort.
On 18 June 1779, Spain declared war on England; on 16 August 1779 the war came home to London in the form of reports that the French and Spanish fleets had evaded a British squadron and were in the Channel. Volunteer companies were formed, the militia mobilized, and not until mid-September did invasion fever die down. In the Page 85 | Top of ArticlePublic Advertiser and the Lady’s Magazine, Queen Elizabeth’s speech to the army at Tilbury before the arrival of the Spanish Armada was reprinted; theatrical entertainments were given on the subject; poems were printed in the newspapers; correspondents employing Roman pseudonyms offered copious advice; and Covent Garden produced a topical musical farce on the war preparations titled Plymouth in an Uproar.
One of the theatrical entertainments on the subject is particularly interesting. During the summer of 1779 there was produced at the theater at Sadler’s Wells a pantomime-pastiche, advertised as
A new favourite Musical Piece consisting of Airs serious and comic, Recitatives, Choruses, &c., called The Prophecy: or, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury. In the course of which will be introduced a variety of Machinery and Decorations, particularly an emblematical Frontispiece, at the top of which, in a small Transparency, will be represented the Destruction of the famous Spanish Armada, and the view through the said Frontispiece will be closed by a Moving Perspective, representing the present Grand Fleet. The Recitatives and Choruses by Mr. Olive, the Airs selected from the best Masters, and the Paintings by Mr. Greenwood. Rope-dancing by Signora Mariana and Mr. Ferzi.
Pastiches of this sort almost always were mainly the creations of theatrical managers (Sheridan, of course, was behind The Camp, a similar topical exploitation piece), so we may assume that the author-director of The Prophecy was the manager of Sadler’s Wells, who happened to be Thomas King, the great Drury Lane actor. King, veteran of Bayes in The Rehearsal and The Meeting of the Company, creator of Glib in A Peep behind the Curtain, created Puff, author of The Spanish Armada.
These local references seem by themselves enough to doom The Critic to mere topicality. But there is more in the way of local and domestic jokes. The manager who writes was Sheridan himself, and Mrs. Dangle is bothered by foreign singers because that same manager had recently assumed ownership of the opera house, as Sheridan had done in real life. Dangle was recognized by many as Thomas Vaughan, author of a farce produced under Sheridan’s direction called The Hotel (DL, 20 Nov. 1776) and a theatrical amateur and “dangler” about the Green Room. Miss Pope’s portrayal of Tilburina was a take-off of Mrs. Crawford’s tragic acting, while the younger Bannister’s acting of Don Ferolo Whiskerandos mimicked William Smith’s portrayal of Richard III. Sheridan was known for writing “puffs” for Drury Lane, and the “puff direct” of which Puff gives an example was most likely a
“puff preliminary” for Elizabeth Griffith’s The Times, a comedy to be produced little more than a month after the introduction of Sheridan’s afterpiece.
Such topicality might assure a successful, financially rewarding run. In the previous season, Sheridan’s slight pastiche, The Camp (15 Oct. 1778), had run for fifty-seven performances as an afterpiece and brought in an average of £228 a night for its first ten performances, an amazing achievement in a season for which non-benefit performances averaged only £183. The literary features of The Camp are hardly significant: a little characteristic and a little witty dialogue, a pair of national characters (Irish and French), some avaricious countrymen and their self-interested exciseman, some fine ladies, a briefly presented fop, and two minor, subordinated lines of action (one of a clever wit duped, the other the familiar boy-gets-girl sort) coexist merely to provide a theatrical visit to the military camp at Coxheath, then actually populated with soldiers and the focus of a great deal of contemporary interest. There were a few songs, some marching and dancing, and most important, splendid perspective views executed by De Loutherbourgh “which exceeds every Thing in Scenery we have ever seen.” It should not be surprising that when audiences would pay to see such drivel, Sheridan would give them more—and he did, in another pastiche, The Wonders of Derbyshire, later the same season. The Critic, in a similar fashion, has topical subjects, local and domestic jokes, songs which were popular enough to warrant separate publication, and De Loutherbourgh scenery which “seems to bring nature to our view, instead of painting views after nature.”
And yet, The Critic is obviously a great deal more than just a topical burlesque. “Whoever, delighting in its gaiety and wit, remembers that The Page 86 | Top of ArticleCritic was written in one of the darkest hours of English history” when invasion seemed imminent? We may no longer view Sir Fretful Plagiary as a caricature of Cumberland, or know that Puff is Thomas King, veteran actor and theater manager; but who fails to be delighted by timelessness encased in timeliness? The very brilliance of The Critic arises because its informing design is not topical, because its ridicule is not specific satire but general comic criticism. The Critic is clearly burlesque in its widest sense, rarely parody, the most topical form of burlesque.
Parody is a subspecies of satire, the direct mockery by imitation of a given, specific, external object. In one of the precursors of The Critic, The Rehearsal, numerous speeches, lines, and situations echo and ridicule speeches and situations from contemporary Restoration heroic plays. The viewer of that play today, or even the mid-eighteenth-century auditor, is unlikely to derive the pleasure contemporary audiences felt; even the reader of a good annotated edition will probably fail to enjoy all the literary satire Buckingham intended. The Rehearsal lasted on stage because its timeless frame permitted massive changes in its parodied content. Cibber and Garrick injected contemporary commentary, mimicked the behavior of contemporary actors, in essence made the play of their time in spite of its origins. They, and modern producers, must do so because true parody—specific satire of a specific object—is lost when the object it mocks is lost: Shamela without Pamela is not very amusing and even the early chapters of Joseph Andrews seem misleading to many who do not know Richardson’s novel. Burlesque, however, is not parody—not specific satire—but general ridicule of classes of objects. Parody takes the characteristics of specific objects, redefines them to expose their absurdity, and moves toward damnation of the whole class through damnation of the objects; burlesque creates the characteristics of the whole class by granting characteristics to an absurd imaginary individual example which in and by itself has no direct resemblance to any individual member of the whole class. Parody is particular, burlesque is general; parody is almost always highly topical; burlesque may have some topical features, but as a whole, is barely topical in itself.
The burlesque of The Critic has lasted longer than that of The Rehearsal or The Tragedy of Tragedies because The Critic chose as its objects those of a larger, less definable, less topical class. Buckingham’s play mocks a rather local group of objects, heroic plays; Fielding’s play attacks nearly the same set of rather local phenomena. But Sheridan’s play mocks a large, amorphous class: The Spanish Armada is absurd not just as heroic drama, historical drama, domestic tragedy, or romantic tragedy, but as poorly conducted serious drama of any time. Unprepared discoveries, clumsy exposition, wild coincidences, pretentious dialogue, excessive spectacle are faults not of any single genre but of any kind of wretched play. Obviously, both The Rehearsal and The Tragedy of Tragedies burlesque the general as well as parody the particular; but insofar as they ridicule the particular they remain local. The Critic, even encased in topical references, has more endurance precisely because it ridicules the general more consistently.
This is one reason why, for instance, searching for passages from other eighteenth-century plays parodied in The Critic is such a fruitless business: there are very few if any because Sheridan was not attacking specific plays. This is one reason why Puff, and not Sir Fretful Plagiary, is the author of The Spanish Armada: Sir Fretful’s association with Cumberland was too strong, and to ridicule Cumberland’s Battle of Hastings was to tie The Critic to a merely local event; the association of Puff as the author of the tragedy with King as the author of an entertainment on a similar topic is convenient, but not necessary to make the satire against bad drama effective.
Moreover, The Critic is not just an attack on bad drama, but a comic castigation of sloppy theatrical practices in general. Literature is not Sheridan’s target, as it was largely for Buckingham and Fielding; instead, his aim is to ridicule the excesses of professional, practical theater, and not just theater in production but theater in all its aspects. Dangle is every theatrical hanger-on—the amateur of dubious influence, the critic of unsure tastes, the hypocrite of uncertain loyalties. Sneer is every dramatic critic—self-interested for the two plays he brings to Dangle, but cynical concerning anyone else’s efforts. Sir Fretful is every thin-skinned author, and he became Cumberland not so much because Sheridan’s text called for it as because Parsons chose to emphasize it: later actors have played the role successfully without reference to the sentimental playwright. Puff is beyond correction, a hackneyed playwright and a spectacle-monger. The Italian visitors come unprepared, ignorant of language, naively trusting in their own talents—a perfect reflection of many theatrical hopefuls. The self-interested managers, the upstaging actors and actresses, the practical Page 87 | Top of Articledesigners and prompters are theatrical characters of all time. The aim of The Critic is clear, and the barb hits and sticks to the theatrical target.
Yet, as in The Rivals or The School for Scandal where sentimentality seems approved of as well as damned, many have doubted the aesthetic integrity of The Critic. The tacking together of the manners scenes of the first act with the more highly artificial burlesque rehearsal of the second and third acts seems a cynical attempt to utilize materials on hand, not to create a unified work capable of achieving the aesthetic integrity Sheridan sought (and failed) to give The Relapse or successfully lent to his other comic masterpieces. Early reviews remarked that Sheridan would have done better to play the first act as a prelude, or to integrate it with the second and third. It is, of course, a kind of prelude already. Yet its duration is such that it overshadows much of the rehearsal: it might have been integrated, but only at the possible expense of vitiating the effects of the rehearsal. Moreover, the attacks on newspaper puffery, on the selection of plays, on the influence of amateurs, and on the vanity and hypocrisy of authors and critics that constitute the satire of act one seem in many ways irrelevant to the attack on theater in production that constitutes the satire of acts two and three. Of course, Sheridan was attacking theater in all its aspects; his failure, if there was one, was to separate the various aspects of his target so completely that in acts two and three we lose sight of theater as a whole while we focus only on theater in production.
The serious use of spectacle might be considered a flaw; De Loutherbourgh’s scenes and effects were lavishly praised for their verisimilitude, not their mockery of theatrical effect: The Critic was in part successful for many of the same reasons The Camp was—for its magnificence, battle, noise, and procession. Clearly, the representation of the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English fleet, chorused with the popular and rousing song, “Britons Strike Home,” evoked surprise, delight, and patriotic sentiment; and the procession that followed of “all the English rivers and their tributaries” was a theatrical extravaganza matching Garrick’s Jubilee. Puff’s final “Well, pretty well—but not quite perfect—so ladies and gentlemen, if you please, we’ll rehearse this piece again to-morrow” would be hard pressed to bring things into burlesque perspective. But I suspect Sheridan was laughing at his audience and their desires, that he was saying in effect “Here you have it, and you have nobody to blame but yourselves if you fail to see the self-satisfied stupidity of your tastes.” In his time the line was his joke; in our time the joke is ours, for no modern production of The Critic fails to burlesque the final flourish with scenery and props falling and colliding. Moreover, Sheridan’s ridicule of the theater in all its aspects would be complete only if the audience, the most important constituent, received its corrective lash, too. They did, and that is yet another reason why The Critic is the most complete satiric play about the theater yet created.
The informing principle of The Critic, then, is broad burlesque of theater in all its aspects. Such a work should not be judged by standards of unity induced from works not designed according to the same principle. Students of the play would be wrongheaded to attack The Critic because some characters are drawn inconsistently or because some characters disappear from the representation or because the “plot” lacks unity of tone, just as readers would be wrong to criticize The Dunciad for ridiculing nonliterary targets like education or to fault Tristram Shandy for its failure to bring all aspects of its narrative to a probable conclusion. Pope’s work, designed to ridicule intellectual dullness in all its aspects, had neither to fulfill the demands of an allegorical satire on learning like The Battle of the Books by focusing specifically on literary matters nor to satisfy the principles of narrative coherence and characterization of an allegorical and personal satire like MacFlecknoe. Sterne’s work, designed as a uniquely personal expression employing a fictive “I” narrator burlesquing a wide variety of literary forms including the periodic essay, the novel, and the confession while telling a “story,” had neither to achieve a principle of narrative coherence similar to that of Clarissa or Tom Jones nor to create a sense of closure arising from the resolution of the instabilities in the relationships among characters similar to the sense of closure created in Richardson’s or Fielding’s novels. Just as we value Tristam Shandy though it is not a novel, or The Dunciad though it is not strictly a satire on literature, so we should value The Critic though it is not just a burlesque of theatrical literature, as are The Rehearsal or The Tragedy of Tragedies.
For what should we praise The Critic? How can we explain the unique pleasures derived from its reading or representation? The answers lie largely, I think, in the succession of comic “moments,” into which Sheridan packed all the comic techniques he had developed in his earlier works. In a manner Page 88 | Top of Articlecharacteristic of his indolent genius, he chose only the loosest of informing principles—that of burlesque of all aspects of theater—to bring them together.
As we have seen elsewhere in this study, Sheridan’s greatest skills lay in the creation of comic moments. He could unify them around and through action and character as in The Rivals, The Duenna, A Trip to Scarborough, or The School for Scandal, but even in those works problems remain. The two most unified by plot—The Duenna and A Trip to Scarborough —fail to reach the heights of great comic literature; The Rivals, though a great work of comic art, nevertheless has aesthetic problems, largely of unity; The School for Scandal is great unified comic art, but fails as “morally serious comedy.” The maker of moments could only barely bring his moments together. In a sense, Sheridan was always making parts—sketching scenes but not plots, writing dialogues to ideas, not to characters in conflict; and the sheer mass of short uncompleted fragments he left, if not the works into which he molded some of these moments, confirm that this was his method of creation. The moments of The Critic show particularly his great skill as a maker of comic dialogue. Sheridan’s comic dialogue, indeed the dialogue of all great creators of dramatic comedy, is amusing for one of four principal approaches used either separately or in combination: character, situation, manifest absurdity, or wit.
In amusing dialogue based on character, the faults or foibles of the character are displayed in a comic way, so that we smile not at what the character says but at the fact that he says it. Verbal tics, dialect oddities, and comically repetitive or predictable assertions of belief all fall into this category. To utilize a stage Jew or Irishman, to display an irascible father, a disappointed old bachelor, or a ridiculous fop is to employ dialogue based on character.
Nearly as frequently encountered among comic kinds is dialogue based on situation. We laugh through our superior knowledge of the circumstances and enjoy the dramatic irony of the concealed facts which we, and perhaps some of the other characters, share. The reiteration of belief in an adulterer manqué while the partner in his sin is to our knowledge concealed on the scene, or the imposition by means of disguise of a clever person on a stupid one, are good situational techniques which may lead to the development of amusing, ironic dialogue.
Manifest verbal absurdity is the basis for a third kind of comic dialogue. Puns, intentional or otherwise, mistakes of grammar, excessive, inappropriate or badly designed comparisons are the most commonly encountered comic verbal absurdities. Here the character need not himself be amusing—though most frequently he is—for he can be so briefly displayed as not to develop any character, he can report the words of others, or he can make mistakes which are not truly an aspect of his character as we perceive it.
Historically the most valued of amusing comic dialogue is that based on wit. Wit, that intellectual excellence which we can admire apart from character (hence our admiration for the witty speech of even those characters by whom we are not amused), employs unusual or apt comparisons and irony in obvious or subtle manners. Like manifest absurdity, wit can be an aspect of characterization; and like amusing dialogue based on character, wit can be made an aspect of situation, as when a speaker who is witty ironically comments to a butt who fails to recognize the irony. (Note that manifest absurdity is not the same thing as false wit; false wit amuses largely as an aspect of character, for it is intentional, i.e., intended as wit.)
Of these four kinds of comic dialogue, those based on character and situation are the most commonly employed, that based on manifest absurdity the least attempted, and that founded on wit the least frequently achieved. As a general principle we can say that the great and memorable scenes of comic dramatic literature employ at least three and often all four kinds of comic dialogue in concert. Indeed, the failed attempts of a good many third-rate dramatists of Sheridan’s day as well as the successes of many comic dramatists of genius in all times suggest a corollary, quantitative principle: the more aspects or different representatives of amusing character, the more ironic levels of comic situation, the more manifest absurdity, and the more striking and original wit all used in concert, the more probable the creation of memorable, amusing comic dialogue. Two scenes I have touched on frequently in this study—Jack’s imposition on Mrs. Malaprop, and the screen scene of The School for Scandal —demonstrate both the concert and the quantitative principles admirably, for both scenes depend upon widely different and striking characters, several levels of situational irony, manifest absurdity (to a lesser extent), and wit all used together. Both principles underlie the success of the dialogue in the moments of The Critic.
Take the famous roasting scene of Sir Fretful Plagiary. The scene begins with an immediate situational irony, prepared for by witty characterization, so that we await with pleasure the arrival of “the sorest man alive... [who] shrinks like scorch’d parchment from the fiery ordeal of true criticism.” Dangle’s attempt to second Sneer’s remarks on Sir Fretful are stopped by the playwright’s entrance.
Dangle. Ah, my dear friend!—Egad, we were just speaking of your Tragedy—Admirable, Sir Fretful, admirable!
Sneer. You never did anything beyond it, Sir Fretful—never in your life.
Sir Fretful. You make me extremely happy;—for without a compliment, my dear Sneer, there isn’t a man in the world whose judgment I value as I do yours.
Sneer’s cynical double entendre is answered by Sir Fretful’s so that we are led to expect a battle of wits. Mrs. Dangle’s immediate complication of the scene’s irony—“They are only laughing at you, Sir Fretful”—sparks the first of a series of amusing asides in which Sir Fretful reveals his character by revealing his irritation—“A damn’d double-faced fellow!”—and we quickly see that Sir Fretful is not capable of matching Sneer’s wit by insinuation, innuendo, and double entendre. As the scene continues, Dangle’s lack of wit contrasts with Sneer’s witty remarks. Both men are willing to discomfit Sir Fretful, and increasingly situation becomes less important than character and wit. At first Sneer’s wit is chiefly in subtle ironic one-liners or occasionally, in neatly prepared jokes. Despite the fact that the subject matter of the conversation is directed outside the immediate situation, Sneer is able to turn it back on Sir Fretful, as in this exchange: Sir Fretful fears that the manager (i.e., Sheridan) might steal something from his tragedy were he allowed to read it.
Sir Fretful. And then, if such a person gives you the least hint or assistance, he is devilish apt to take the merit of the whole.—
Dangle. If it succeeds.
Sir Fretful. Aye,—but with regard to this piece, I think I can hit that gentleman, for I can safely swear he never read it.
Sneer. I’ll tell you how you may hurt him more—
Sir Fretful. How?—
Sneer. Swear he wrote it.
Situational irony is added to wit and character as the basis for the amusing dialogue which develops as Sneer quotes the imaginary review to an increasingly discomfited Sir Fretful:
Sneer. Why, [the critic] roundly asserts that you have not the slightest invention, or original genius whatever; tho’ you are the greatest traducer of all other authors living.
Sir Fretful. Ha! ha! ha!—very good!
Sneer. That as to Comedy, you have not one idea of your own, he believes, even in your common place-book—where stray jokes, and pilfered witticisms are kept with as much method as the ledger of the Lost-and-Stolen-office.
Sir Fretful.—Ha! ha! ha!—very pleasant!
Sneer. Nay, that you are so unlucky as not to have the skill even to steal with taste.—But that you gleen from the refuse of obscure volumes, where more judicious plagiarists have been before you; so that the body of your work is a composition of dregs and sediments—like a bad tavern’s worst wine.
Sir Fretful. Ha! ha!
Sneer. In your more serious efforts, he says, your bombast would be less intolerable, if the thoughts were ever suited to the expression; but the homeliness of the sentiment stares thro’ the fantastic encumbrance of its fine language, like a clown in one of the new uniforms!
Sir Fretful. Ha! ha!
Sneer. That your occasional tropes and flowers suit the general coarseness of your stile, as tambour sprigs would a ground of linsey-wolsey; while your imitations of Shakespeare resemble the mimicry of Falstaff’s Page, and are about as near the standard of the original.
Sir Fretful. Ha!—
Sneer.—In short, that even the finest passages you steal are of no service to you; for the poverty of your own language prevents their assimilating; so that they lie on the surface like lumps of marl on a barren moor, encumbering what it is not in their power to fertilize!—
Sir Fretful. [after great agitation.]—Now another person would be vex’d at this.
Of course, we value this scene most for the wit; but the dialogue, amusing by virtue of situational irony and character as well as wit, explains why we find the scene more pleasureable than the subsequent witty exchange among Sneer, Dangle, and Puff on the art of puffery. Pleasant as this later scene is, witty and absurd as Puff’s explanations of his art are, scathing as the continued indictment of newspapers and the theater becomes, the scene does not achieve the levels of comic enjoyment possible in the roasting of Sir Fretful. It is too much like those virtuoso recitations continually attempted by the characters of Samuel Foote. Sheridan could outdo Foote in this regard, but as the juxtaposition of these two scenes shows, he could also do more in blending character, situation, and wit.
The moments of the first act of The Critic —Mr. and Mrs. Dangle’s daily jangle, Sir Fretful’s roasting, the Italian singers, and Puff’s art of puffery—are all bound together by their burlesque of the theater in Page 90 | Top of Articleall its aspects. Character largely informs the first scene between the Dangles; character, situation, and wit melds in the dialogue of the second; character to a very small extent, manifest absurdity, and situation make amusing the display of the Italian singers and their French-speaking interpreter; wit, and to a lesser extent, characterization make effective the satiric dialogue of the fourth scene. Any of these scenes could be removed from the burlesque; any could be exchanged with another and not disturb seriously the connections among them, for there is no significant development of character or action. Each is amusing basically for itself; each could have been, and I suspect was, written at a different time; and they were brought together here only by means of the loosest of informing devices.
The two rehearsal acts are moments in that the particular sections of the satirical target under attack at any given time could have been attacked earlier or later in the presentation; there is no principle of development underlying the satire. But the continuity of the unfolding play within the play provides a unity not to be found in the first act, and this, together with Sheridan’s employment of amusing dialogue constantly based on a rich interaction of character, situation, absurdity, and wit gives to acts two and three of The Critic a sustained power not to be found in act one. Puff is oblivious to the quality of his play and speaks of its absurdities as if they were excellencies; his character is further revealed by his comically unjustifiable pique at the actors’ cuts. We are amused too by the irony of the situation. Our own critical standards and the efforts of raisonneur Sneer reveal the concealed truth of the intellectual and creative aesthetic poverty of The Spanish Armada which Puff cannot recognize, Dangle only occasionally seems to notice, and Sneer sarcastically exposes. The manifest absurdities of the dialogue of the play within the play—metaphors piled upon one another with no regard to their aesthetic appropriateness, bathos where there should be pathos—are joined by the manifest absurdities of Puff’s explanations. Sneer’s ironic commentary adds a dimension of wit—wit of an obvious but nonetheless pleasurable sort.
Demonstration of this interaction in any of the various moments of acts two and three threatens to overwhelm even the heavy-handed irony of this section of The Critic. So rather than explicate a scene or two, let me point to Sheridan’s use of three other comic devices of dialogue—repetition, diminution, and what I will call accidental wit. All reinforce the complex interplay of the dialogue. In act one Sheridan had used repetition to good effect with Dangle’s tag lines, “tho’ he’s my friend!” In act two it becomes the principle upon which we find the agreement of all those present on stage in The Spanish Armada to pray to Mars amusing: “And me!” “And me!” “And me!” “And me!” Diminution—a kind of repetition for the specific effect of reduction—adds to character in act one as Sir Fretful’s responses to the imagined criticism gradually change from “Ha! ha! ha!—very good!” to a half-hearted “Ha!—”; it serves both purposes of characterization and absurdity in this stichomythic exchange between two characters of The Spanish Armada:
“A retreat in Spain!
“Your daughter’s prayer!
“Your father’s oath!
The crescendo of economic concerns completely deflates the repetition:
“A thousand pounds!
“Hah! thou hast touch’d me nearly!
But perhaps the funniest lines are built on accidental wit—a combination of character, situation, manifest absurdity, and the approximation of wit. Consider just two examples, both of them Puff’s explanations for problems in his play. Sneer criticizes the decorum of the dialogue:
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Sneer. But, Mr. Puff, I think not only the Justice, but the clown seems to talk in as high a style as the first hero among them.
Puff. Heaven forbid they should not in a free country!—Sir, I am not for making slavish distinctions, and giving all the fine language to the upper sort of people.
Or perhaps the funniest lines of the play:
Enter A Beefeater.
“Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee.
Sneer. Haven’t I heard that line before?
Puff. No, I fancy not—Where pray?
Dangle. Yes, I think there is something like it in Othello.
Puff. Gad! now you put me in mind on’t, I believe there is—but that’s of no consequence—all that can be said is, that two people happened to hit on the same thought—And Shakespeare made use of it first, that’s all.
Sneer. Very true.
Such effects make the moments of the rehearsal scenes particularly amusing. And even if the informing principle—to burlesque the theater in all its aspects—seems loose, we can be happy that Sheridan was able to cast upon it here and sorry that never again would he bring his “moments” together.
With The Critic we come to the end of Sheridan’s achievement as comic dramatist. There would be another year or two of active work in the theater, but no more literary achievement. On 12 September 1780 Sheridan was elected Member of Parliament for Stafford, and though he remained associated with Drury Lane for more than thirty years, only one major theatrical effort was to come, the pompous and absurd Pizzaro. He kept his hand in, however, and not just in the till; he participated in correcting and revising other dramatists’ work, in coaching and advising actors, and in organizing a few spectacular entertainments; he continually promised definitive editions of his own works and continually projected another play, especially when money was short. But never again would he produce a comedy. Perhaps Sheridan knew his powers were going or had gone; perhaps he felt he never would be able to focus the energy necessary to create another masterpiece.
Why have so many great English comic dramatists stopped writing for the stage at relatively young ages? Congreve had produced all his comedies by the time he was thirty; Etherege saw his last play on stage when he was barely forty, Wycherley when he was in his mid-thirties; Wilde’s best play comes from his fortieth year, Synge’s from his thirty-sixth, Jonson’s four or five best from his late thirties and early forties, Coward’s three or four from his early thirties, Vanbrugh’s from his early thirties, Sheridan’s and Farquhar’s from their late twenties. Of course, one cannot give a single answer, unless one wants to invoke so vague a term as “comic spirit” or attribute to youth an exuberance many have displayed in maturer years. Congreve was disgusted with developments in popular taste; Farquhar and Synge died young; Wilde was forbidden a public forum for his wit; and Sheridan entered Parliament to embark on a new and brilliant career. Beyond these few reasons, we can only speculate. In Sheridan’s case, particularly when a new comedy would have meant so much to his always precarious financial position, why did he fail to employ his obvious talents as a comic dramatist? Michael Kelly, a talented musician and performer, relates an anecdote that reveals much:
One evening (probably in the late 1780’s or early 1790’s) that their late Majesties honoured Drury Lane Theatre with their presence, the play, by royal command, was the “School for Scandal.” When Mr. Sheridan was in attendance to light their Majesties to their carriage, the King said to him, “I am much pleased with your comedy of the ‘School for Scandal;’ but I am still more so, with your play of the ‘Rivals;’—that is my favourite, and I will never give it up.”
Her Majesty, at the same time said, “When, Mr. Sheridan, shall we have another play from your masterly pen?” He replied, that “he was writing a comedy, which he expected very shortly to finish.”
I was told of this; and the next day, walking with him along Piccadilly, I asked him if he had told the Queen, that he was writing a play? He said he had, and that he actually was about one.
“Not you,” said I to him; “you will never write again; you are afraid to write.”
He fixed his penetrating eye on me, and said, “Of whom am I afraid?”
I said, “You are afraid of the author of the ‘School for Scandal.’”
I believe, at the time I made the remark, he thought my conjecture right.
However contrived his anecdote sounds, Kelly was correct, of course: Sheridan did not finish another dramatic comedy, though he lived on for thirty-seven years after The Critic. And Kelly was correct in another way, for though today we may value all of Sheridan’s dramatic works, he is still largely remembered as the author of The School for Scandal. Beside the greater comedy, The Critic seems a remnant of his youth, a brilliant utilization of his experiences as a practical dramatist perhaps, but more nearly the product of an exuberance and an adolescent cynicism which the perfection of The School for Scandal seems to deny. Still, The Critic is a more stageworthy work than either of its major competitors in its time and in ours, The Rehearsal and The Tragedy of Tragedies; for even Sheridan’s Page 92 | Top of Articleburlesque achieves, however artificially, a fusion of wit which only Wilde and Coward have since reached. What a pity that the greatest Georgian playwright would henceforth produce only Pizarro.
Source: Mark S. Auburn, “The Critic,” in Sheridan’s Comedies, University of Nebraska Press, 1977, pp. 157–75.
Auburn, Mark S., Sheridan’s Comedies, University of Nebraska Press, 1977, pp. 165–75.
Austen, Jane, Love and Friendship, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922, p. 167.
Boswell, James, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Penguin Books, 1986, p. 101.
Dibdin, Charles, The Musical Tour of Mr. Dibdin, in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, p. 193.
Jason, Philip K., “A Twentieth Century Response to The Critic,” in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, p. 207.
Knapp, Mary E., Prologues and Epilogues of the Eighteenth Century, Yale University Press, 1961, p. 9.
Macey, Samuel L., “Sheridan: The Last of the Great Theatrical Satirists,” in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, p. 198.
Morwood, James, The Life and Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Scottish Academic Press, 1985, p. 106.
O’Toole, Fintan, A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997, pp. 151–57.
Quintana, Ricardo, “Introduction,” in Eighteenth Century Plays, Modern Library, 1952, pp. xvi–xix.
Review of The Critic, in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, pp. 191–92.
Review of The Critic, in Sheridan: Comedies, edited by Peter Davison, Macmillan Education, 1986, pp. 192–93.
Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, Classical Literary Criticism, translated by T. S. Dorsch, Penguin Books, 1975.
This collection features Aristotle’s Poetics, his treatise on tragedy that stands as the supreme piece of criticism for tragedies of any age.
Eighteenth Century English Literature, edited by Geoffrey Tillotson, Paul Fussell, and Marshall Waingrow, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.
In addition to The Critic, this comprehensive anthology features selections from all the famous Enlightenment writers, such as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, John Gay, Henry Fielding, and Edward Gibbon. This is an indispensable book for any student of Enlightenment literature or thought.
Eighteenth Century Plays, edited by Ricardo Quintana, Modern Library, 1952.
This collection of eight plays features Sheridan’s first play, The Rivals; the volume also contains John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, two other popular Enlightenment comedies. Quintana’s introduction surveys the eighteenth-century theater.
O’Toole, Fintan, A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
This recent (and critically praised) biography examines Sheridan’s plays and political career in detail, often discussing the significance of Sheridan’s Irish roots.