Thursday, 29 August 2013

Joseph and Charles as Monsters in Sheridan's "The School for Scandal."


Strictures on The School for Scandal (1777) from The London Magazine (April 1783), pp. 169-172.

A Play composed by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Charles, to whom the affections of the audience are chiefly conciliated, is a young profligate spark of fashion, without Ĺ“conomy, temperance, or consideration; who having spent his all, minds nothing but how to get more, without the vulgar means of industry; who cares not how much he squanders of what is not his own, provided he can be a rogue in an honest way, or possess another's property without risquing his neck; in short, he is one of thole modern fine gentlemen, who devote their whole substance, time, and talents, alternately, to wine, gambling, and gallantry. Surely a character of this kind, endowed with so many agreeable qualities as meet in him, is the very worst spectacle our youth can behold. From such polluted and enchanting scenes the increasing profligacy of the nation mull originate. What can be a grosser prostitution of the stage, than to make the hero of a piece, that ought to breathe nothing but the purest morality, an avowed libertine? Is a motley picture of wantonness and wit proper to be exhibited as a public example? Are not the rising generation in danger enough already from the lives of their parents and the flagrant enormities they meet with every where, that the places of common diversion must be thus converted into vehicles of licentiousness? Such is the fascinating glare of luxury in this metropolis, that their hearts are inflamed almost as soon as their eyes are open. Every thing around them has the most immediate tendency to excite their desires of indulgence, and prompt prompt their passions for show. A young fellow, therefore, thus accomplished with every fashionable folly, starting so keenly in pursuit of extravagance, is a sight extremely flattering to the rising wishes of every tender heart. Generosity, gratitude, vivacity, and good-nature, are added to gild the poisonous pill; as if all the most (hiring virtues of humanity could ever be found in conjunction with indolence, injustice, and dissipation.

[...]

The character of Joseph, the other brother, strikes me at least as an heterogeneous compound of parsimony, gallantry, sentiment, and treachery: the elements that compose the universe are certainly not more dissimilar and jarring. A miserable, rakish, feeling, and perfidious villain, is a monster unknown to human nature; nor do I fee any reason at present, but one, for exposing this poor antiquated sort of hypocrisy, while it continues the taste of the times to suppress, if possible, every appearance of decency. The question with modish writers, will not be what is proper, but what will please? The ton of the public is to them precisely what the cobweb is to the spider. They literally hang on it for all they want, and instantly set about spinning another, whenever it loses the power of catching; and, trust: me, they are not such conjurors as to forego their interest for the poor, vulgar, and contemptible pleasure of one generous attempt to make the public better than they found it. The impression their productions make signify nothing to them, provided their fame circulates, and their fortune rises.

It is curious enough to observe, by what gradual progress universal depravity overwhelms society. The votaries of libertinism began first by extolling moral sentiment at the expense of religion: but now that the latter is wholly out of the question, they point all their batteries against the former. By some of this author's petites pieces, that appeared occasionally during the winter season, he certainly discovered himself to be a man of feeling. What then can have exasperated him now against qualities thus congenial to his own nature, that he exerts all his address to lay them under an universal proscription?

Source:

The London Magazine (April 1783), p. 169-172

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)