May 8, 2017
On this Day in History: Sheridan’s The School for Scandal
was First Performed
Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy of manners, The School for Scandal, has delighted audiences uninterruptedly since its first production on May 8, 1777 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London because of its tightly constructed plot, its grand comedy, and its polished wit. Besides being called a comedy of manners, this type of play also is often called a drawing room comedy because so much of its action takes place in the formal rooms of fashionable London town homes, and these intimate settings have undoubtedly contributed to the play’s appeal on stage.
If you haven’t read or seen performed this classic play in awhile, here is a simple summary of its complex plot by Martin S. Day: The atmosphere of frivolous London high society binds together three plot elements: Lord Teazle is an old man married to a young and skittish Lady Teazle. Their squabbles leave her open to the advances of Joseph Surface, The Surface brothers are contrasted: Charles is open-hearted but ne’er do well; Joseph is a hypocrite who appears to be a humanitarian and a man of feeling. Their uncle, Sir Oliver in disguise, tests both brothers ad finds the apparently feckless Charles to be an honest man and the supposedly reliable Joseph a sneaking scoundrel. The two plots come together in the famous screen scene of Act Four, when Charles discovers lady Teazle at a, ahem, tryst, as they used to call it, with Joseph. The scandalmongers—Snake, Lady Sneerwell, Mrs. Candour—represent that part of society which relishes killing a reputation with each word.
Here a few notes on the stage settings for an essay I once published for Salem Press years ago:
Lady Sneerwell’s Dressing Room. Despite the fact that the stage direction indicates that the first scene of the play takes place at Lady Sneerwell’s dressing table, the room in which the scene takes place is a large room used by fashionable ladies for waiting on their most confidential guests. Thus Lady Sneerwell uses her dressing room to converse with Snake in much the same way the men of the house would use his library.
The Drawing Room. Other scenes in Lady Sneerwell’s house are set in the typical drawing room of a fashionable house. For example, In Act Two, Scene two Sheridan presents the famous school for scandal in attendance in the drawing room. Drawing rooms were used purely for public purposes. It was here that a hostess would receive guests or where guests would gather before and after dinner. Usually they were among the larger rooms of the house and certainly the room in Lady Sneerwell’s must be large enough to handle her rather large group of scandal mongerers.
The Library. The most famous scene in the play occurs in Joseph Surface’s library. Like women’s dressing rooms, libraries for men were where they met their friends for personal visits. Usually, however, it was where they met their male friends, so the scene in which Joseph meets intimately with Lady Teazle has a special significance in its being set in the library.
Now, with all this in mind, you need to know that The School for Scandal will run throughout the summer from May 15 to October 30 this year at the Stratford Festival of Canada for over 50 performances. This will be by far the premier production of Sheridan’s play in the world for this year. For information click https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/WhatsOn/ThePlays
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March 4, 2017
The Premier of The Way of the World
The premier of what many consider the greatest comedy of manners in English theatre history occurred sometime in March of 1700 when William Congreve’s (1670-1729) The Way of the World first took the stage at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. It was to be the last of Congreve’s plays. After the poor initial reception Congreve abandoned theatre for more profitable ventures.
If you don’t remember the details of the plot, nobody can blame you. It’s complicated even by Restoration comedy standards. Here’s a short synopsis from Martin S. Day:
Lady Wishfort, in addition to her own estates, controls the property of Mrs. Fainall, her daughter, and Millamant, her niece. Mrs. Fainall’s former lover, Mirabell, is now interested in Millamant. Mirabell disguises his servant Waitwell (already married) as a nobleman, hoping for his marriage to Lady Wishfort. Then, on the threat of telling the world how he was duped, Mirabell can blackmail Lady Wishfort into giving him Millamant and her property.
Learning of his wife’s former relations with Mirabell, Fainall threatens full revelation unless all property is signed over to him. The sweethearts, Millamant and Mirabell, come to an agreement, but it appears that their fortunes are ruined. Mirabell, however, produces a deed from Mrs. Fainall before her marriage that conveys all her property to Mirabell. Triumphant in law and in the ways of the world, Mirabell is united to Millamant.
Maggie Smith with Jerermy Brett, “The Way of The World”, Stratford, Ontario, 1976.
Here is a short piece I wrote for Salem Press years ago about the physical world of The Way of the World:
William Congreve’s The Way of the World is the quintessential English comedy of manners. As such, the world of this play revolves around the values of fashionable seventeenth-century London.
London, England. The world of the play is a world of coffee-houses and periwigs and elaborately formal dress. It is an upper-class world of gallants, fine ladies, and would-be gallants and attractive ladies. The world of trade and agriculture surrounds this world but is not a part of it except by way of contrast.
A Chocolate-house. Act One takes place at a chocolate house. Such houses as Will’s near Covent Garden and White’s near St. James Park were fashionable meeting places of young gallants and wits. Often gaming was associated with them.
St. James Park. Act Two occurs out of doors in the fashionable Mall area of St. James Park. The Mall was a long tract in St. James that was formerly used for playing paille-maille, or pall-mall. By the time of this play it was known as a fashionable park used for walking, for meeting lovers, and for displaying one’s fashion. It is often confused with Pall Mall, another park close by to the north.
The Country. Although no scene in the play occurs in the country, the country always is in the background. Sir Wilful Witwoud is a country booby who serves as a butt of ridicule for all. His half brother, Witwoud, has done all he can to eradicate traces of the country from his manners, dress, and speech, but without success. No character in the play is associated in a positive way with the country. Millamant, perhaps the most normative character of the play loathes the country, saying, “I loathe the country and everything that relates to it.”
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September 15, 2016
David Garrick as Hamlet
On this date in 1763 the famous English actor David Garrick began is celebrated “World Tour” of western Europe. He returned to England on April 27, 1765.
The following is an essay that I published in a different format in Salem Press’s series Great Events from History: The Eighteenth Century.
By 1763 David Garrick, actor and manager of the Drury lane Theatre, was firmly established as the greatest English actor of his day, the most important figure of English theatre. His European Tour spread his reputation throughout Europe and proved to be one of the great celebrity events of the century.
Garrick was at the height of his career in 1763 but the 1762-1763 theatre season had been particularly difficult. Together the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres attempted to end the longstanding but unprofitable practice of reducing ticket prices by half after the third act. An organized audience riot at Drury Lane forced Garrick with a personal stage appearance to acquiesce to the mob’s demand. Thus Garrick and his wife Eva Marie, with whom he had never been apart for more than twenty-four hours, set out for Paris and the continent for a long deserved rest from professional duties.
Garrick’s timing was fortuitous, as his reputation had preceded him and all things English were in style. His first night in Paris he was given the freedom of the theatre of the Comédie Française where he made numerous acquaintances among the Paris theatre establishment. Again, in the next two years when returning to Paris he was welcomed further by eminent writers and thinkers. In particular Garrick enjoyed the regular hospitality of the celebrated salon of Baron Paul Henry d’Holbach, the philosopher, best known today for his famous refutation of human free will in his essay “Are We Cogs in the Universe?”
D’Holbach’s salon along with other social functions allowed Garrick the pleasure of developing lifelong acquaintances with such figures as Jean François Marmontel, Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Baron Friedrich-Melchior Grimm, all prominent writers and critics.
The Garricks spent only three weeks initially in Paris before proceeding to Italy, passing through Lyons, over Mount Cenis to Turin, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Rome, and ultimately Naples where they spent Christmas. The journey truly was a triumphal tour as notables throughout Europe vied for time spent with the great actor. At one point, passing near Ferney, Voltaire, author of Candide, sent Garrick an invitation, which Garrick however smugly rejected due to Voltaire’s well-known disdain for Shakespeare. This rejection was taken as quite an insult.
Throughout his tour Garrick also was searching out of the way sources for rare books to add to his extensive collection and also, evidently to sell for a profit upon his return to England.
Along the way Garrick made the most of his acting reputation on his visits. In Naples, accompanied by Lord and Lady Spencer and Lady Oxford he was asked by the King to the Royal theatre to test the Italian acting company by developing a scenario for a plot which they were to undertake and perform within twenty-four hours. In Parma while dining with the Duke of York and the Prince of Parma, Garrick performed his famous dagger scene from Macbeth, for which the Prince gave him a snuff box which Garrick added to his collection of many snuff boxes given out as gifts on his tour.
Upon another occasion at the private residence of Mlle. Clairon, a leading French female actor, Garrick performed the dagger scene along with the Ghost scene from Hamlet and the mad scene from King Lear. Mlle. Clairon, enraptured, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, and then, embarrassed, turned to Mrs. Garrick and apologized.
Once when riding in the countryside with another French actor, Préville, the Frenchman began pretending to be drunk. Garrick praised him on the performance but also showed him some of problems with the routine by himself demonstrating drunkenness. In doing so he fell from his horse and lay unconscious. The performance was so convincing that the veteran French actor truly thought Garrick to be dead and turned to seek help. Garrick then sat up and laughed.
Misfortune extended the length of the tour considerably. After especially difficult travel to Naples, in which the coach had broken down during severe weather, Eva Marie caught cold and developed rheumatism in one of her hips. She was forced to keep to her bed for many days, though amusingly she did attend a masquerade during Carnival in which she dressed as a lame old woman dragging her leg behind her. Nevertheless the illness persisted until near the end of the tour when Garrick himself grew severely ill with what might have been some form of typhoid fever.
Meanwhile back in London fears that the Drury Lane theatre might suffer with Garrick’s absence proved unwarranted. Garrick had left the theatre in the hands of his partner William Lacy who maintained operational matters and with George Colman Senior who maintained creative interests. Colman was to prove himself as a major figure in London theatre as he later managed Covent Garden and the Haymarket theatres successfully while composing some of the best comic drama of the period. The major acting roles were taken over by Garrick’s young protégé William Powell who developed a significant following due to his absence.
While Garrick began the lengthy preparations to London he thus began to develop concerns about his reception back home. Throughout the tour, while he had moderately kept up with Drury Lane matters, he really had missed the actors and audiences very little. Concerned that his detractors might undermine his homecoming, Garrick attempted to circumvent criticism by having Colman distribute a poem broadside titled “The Sick Monkey” which was humorously to be self-deprecating.
The effort proved unnecessary, as Garrick was welcomed back to London, renewed in health and spirit, by devoted audiences with enthusiasm. While the European Tour had caused him briefly to consider retirement, David Garrick continued an incredibly successful career on the London stage until finally retiring in 1776. He died in 1779.
David Garrick’s European Tour was perhaps the best-known celebrity tour of the eighteenth century. As a result of the tour by the distinguished actor, English theatre, and indirectly English culture gained a new respect that had been missing for decades throughout Europe. Further, Garrick’s absence from the English stage allowed new talent to develop out from under the shadow of the great actor.
Soon after his returned he assisted George Colman Senior in writing The Clandestine Marriage, a play that still holds the stage and the play that essentially initiated Colman’s distinguished literary career. William Powell’s reputation as one of the century’s great actors was to increase even upon his mentor’s return. And Garrick’s reputation itself obviously increased. Among other things, he was elected into Samuel Johnson’s Literary Club, thus validating his intellectual character.
Without question, as a result of his European Tour David Garrick came to be considered one of the great figures of the eighteenth century and brought worldwide respect and acclaim to the English stage.
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