Sheridan, The School for Scandal, and Aggression


James Thompson


For a canonical play, one that was extremely successful from the start and has occupied a regular place in the repertory ever since, Sheridan’s School for Scandal elicits no consensus from playgoers or readers about what it means or even how it works. Indeed, response is divided down the middle, endorsing one of the two separate plots that Sheridan grafted together, the Teazles or Slanderers, and the Surface brothers. But what if Sheridan’s play parallels to Goldsmith’s “Essay On The Theatre; Or, A Comparison Between Laughing And Sentimental Comedy”? School for Scandal repeatedly, even obsessively asks in scene after scene, What’s funny? What is the relation between comedy and ridicule, comedy and aggression? Given the nature of much late eighteenth-century literature, it is not surprising that most readings of the play find their resolution in the domestic portions of the plot—those elements that formally repudiate the public sphere and its addiction to gossip, slander, and competition. The Teazles’ reconciliation, the union of Maria and Charles, along with the humiliation of the Slanderers, Joseph Surface, Lady Sneerwell and Snake, all point to a privileging of the private and familial over the public and social, much as in sentimental fiction where the public sphere is too cruel for the sensitive soul. If comedy of manners involves two modes of life and protagonist who spans them both, in the late eighteenth century, almost inevitably they endorse the simple, retired and rural over urban sophistication and wit. School for Scandal does not simply dramatize the usual triumph of the heartfelt and simple, but rather it repeatedly stages an indecisive contest between sophistication and simplicity, scandal and sentiment.

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