The School for Scandal as a Comedy of Manners

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The name ‘Comedy of Manners’ is applied to the comedies of the late 17th century of the restoration dramatists, and revived in the 18th century by Sheridan and Goldsmith, where the emphasis is laid upon the social follies of the characters rather than on humours of plot and situation. The comedy of manners is almost wholly intellectual. It is also wholly aristocratic; the manners displayed being not those of men in general, but the affectations and the cultures veneer of fine society. For these people a manner was not a trait native to an individual, but a quality acquired by him from social intercourse. This comedy mirrors the pleasure and the amorous intrigue of this fine society. But Sheridan in his comedies purged the elements of indecency and licentiousness. In these plays, the sole aim was to display the fashionable life of their time and not to indicate the superior moral qualities of a past nor to prophecy things of future.

Nettleton says: “The dramatic work of Sheridan marks at once the height of the reaction against Sentimental Comedy and the most finished achievement of the English comedy of Manners.” Wit rather than humour, brilliancy rather than depth, satire rather than sympathy, art rather than nature are the characteristics of Sheridan’s comedies. The ceaseless sparkle of its dialogue inevitably recalls Congreve. It is true that the sources of his plot are to be found in the comedies of Congreve and Wycherley. However, the spirit that animates is the spirit of Wycherley’s Love in a Wood and Congreve’s Love for Love, without, of course, the moral liberty which characterises all the works of the Restoration writers. Like the comic dramatists of the Restoration, Sheridan was indebted to Moliere. One of the lines applied to Mrs Crewe in his address to her may well be taken to characterise the spirit of this comedy – “not stiff prudence nor uncouthly wild.”

Even then the play shows some lapses – as in the sentimental speech of Charles to Maris at the end – “but here shall be my Monitor – my guide – ah! Can I leave the virtuous path those eyes illumine?”

When in the words of the Prologue “Again our young Don Quixote takes the road,” and “seeks the hydra, Scandal, in his den,” Sheridan is armed well to attack the follies of the society. The sententious moralising of the ‘weeping sentimental comedy’ is held up to ridicule in the person of Joseph, the hypocrite. The exposure of his hypocrisy is anticipated by Sir Peter’s iteration of the words, “he is a man of sentiment.” When Joseph finally disappears in the last Act, he is still “moral to the drop.’ With him, moralising sentiment retires baffled discountenanced.

Sheridan has some of the failings of the earlier masters of the comedy of manners. His plot is so involved, that only a brilliant tour-de-force in the Screen scene – so brilliant that it has become a kind of locus classicus for comic invention – enables him to unweave the web he has so closely entangled round his characters. The wit, too, colours all of the dialogues and, scintillating as it is, it seems to obscure the personalities of the various dramatic figures. Everyone, in this world of refined manners, is able to say something that is brilliant. Never for a moment the sparkle disappears, so that sometimes we are surfeited too much of these intellectual fireworks.

Reasons for Sheridan’s Popularity: 1. Decency 2. His characters are all drawn directly from life, thus giving a realistic touch. Even Horace Walpole praised this. 3. The fable is well conducted, the situations are powerfully conceived, that little is left for the performers to do anything to produce stage effect. The discovery of Lady Teazle in Joseph’s room is a masterpiece of art. We are told that passers on the street near Drury Lane during the evening of the performance were astounded by the tremendous noise. It was reverberating applause for this masterly scene of dramatic tension and surprise. Only less noteworthy are the picture scene in the house of Charles, the scandal scenes, and the conversation between Sir Peter and his lady. 4. The dialogue is another chief pleasure. 5. Fine opportunities for good actors – there is no subtle characterisation to bother about. (Joseph is a villain, and that is all what the audience want). The characters are types: Lady Teazle, the country girl dazzled by fashion, Howley, the faithful servant; Sir Oliver, the greatest of stage-uncles; Maria, the Virgin who is not allowed to meet her lover till the last Act. The professional verdict of the modern stage is well expressed by Sir Henry Irving: “Sheridan brought the comedy of Manners to the highest perfection and The School for Scandal remains to this day the most popular in the language.”