Richard Brinsley Sheridan was a famous Irish-born playwright and poet, best known for his stage plays The School for Scandal and The Rivals. For many years he owned and managed the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, located in London’s West End. In addition to his literary pursuits he also found time to be a Member of Parliament, serving the Whig party in three different constituencies over a period of thirty two years.
He was born Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan on the 30th October 1751 in Dublin. It was a comfortable home environment and he grew up on the fashionable Dorset Street. His early school days were spent at the English Grammar School in Dublin but, by the time he was seven, the family had moved to London and took up permanent residence there from 1758 onwards. Richard’s schooling was completed at the prestigious Harrow School.
His parents were from a theatrical background so it seemed inevitable that their son should follow into the business. Mother, Frances, wrote novels and plays that were performed on the London stage while father, Thomas, had been an actor manager of a theatre in Dublin. After Richard had completed his studies at Harrow he was then given home tuition which included, almost fatefully, instruction in fencing along with horsemanship.
His life might have been cut tragically short when he challenged a man to a duel for besmirching the honour of the woman that Sheridan planned to marry. Although the first sword fight was uneventful and bloodless, a second challenge was taken up a short while after and Sheridan came out of this badly. He was severely wounded but, fortunately, recovered from his injuries. At the age of 21 he eloped with the lady in question, Elizabeth Ann Linley, and the pair were married, setting up home in London. Sheridan now had an urgent need to make some serious money if their now lavish, social lifestyle was to be maintained.
His first effort at writing plays was The Rivals, a production not well received at first when staged at the Covent Garden theatre. Sheridan had the ability to spot an obvious flaw – the leading actor needed replacing and, having done that, the play was a great hit from then on. This play is still read and performed today and it was the piece of work that established his name in London literary society. He went on to write more plays, and poetry.
Even more famous than The Rivals was his great comedy of manners The School for Scandal and this was first performed at Drury Lane on the 8th May 1777. Inspired by the success of his writing, Sheridan took up a half share in the Drury Lane Theatre, eventually becoming sole owner, but tragedy struck when it burned down in February 1809. It was, perhaps, a measure of Sheridan’s ready wit when he was spotted outside the burning building quaffing a glass of wine. He was reported to have said:
Here is another example of his humour, a short and jaunty two-verse poem called If a Daughter You Have:
Sheridan lived a comfortable and prosperous life as a writer and politician and, in fact, he filled a number of high profile government appointments such as Receiver-General of the Duchy of Cornwall (1804–1807). He was, simultaneously the Treasurer of the Navy (1806–1807). Despite this he probably lived beyond his means and when his political career came to an end in 1812 he found himself in debt and constantly harassed by creditors. Perhaps his income was not quite enough to support himself and his family in addresses like Savile Row, Mayfair. Incredibly, he refused a generous offer of £20,000 from the American Congress which could have solved all of his financial worries. They were grateful for his efforts in attempting to prevent the American War of Independence.
From December 1815 onwards he became ill and spent the rest of his life virtually bedbound and very much in a state of poverty.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan died on the 7th July 1816 at the age of 64, and was buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey. Such was his fame that the ceremony was attended by the Lord Mayor of London and a good number of dukes, lords and earls.