Sheridan (1751-1816) is best known for a few plays, superficially comedies of manners and morals, mainly The Rivals and The School for Scandal. O'Toole's work explores beneath the surface of these and other literary works, showing them as the products of Sheridan's personal and political life.
Widely praised in the English and American press, this biography portrays Sheridan as a passionate (and compassionate) politician. He was a major player in a struggle for various complicated and sometimes seemingly contradictory causes and parliamentary power in the era of the American Revolution, King George III's intermittent madness, the French Revolution, and troubles in the British empire.
Sheridan is shown to be a humanitarian, and, less convincingly, an Irish patriot in the guise of an English politician who happened to be Irish by birth at a time when Ireland was at times openly rebellious toward England. The family heritage in Ireland was actually Protestant, but tolerant of Catholicism to the point of having Jacobite tendencies, i.e. favoring the return of the Stuart monarchy that had ended with James II in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. Sheridan's father, Thomas, was a man of the theatre, and also a scholar, concerned particularly with propriety in matters of language and spoken discourse. Richard was not his father's favorite and his mother, herself a writer, died while Richard was still a young boy.
O'Toole's biography manages to relate the playwright's works to his family circumstances without indulging in psychological speculation. For example, the memorable character Mrs. Malaprop, in The Rivals, (immortalized by our word "malaprop" or "malapropism") is shown to be in part based on Thomas, who had pedantic tendencies. (Malaprops are best when they come from pretenders to perfection in language. An especially good one appeared a few years ago in The Smithsonian magazine when James J. Kilpatrick, a conservative political commentator and sometimes word policeman, referred to a mistake in diction as a "solipsism" instead of a "solecism".)
The many portrayals of hypocrisy and venality in Sheridan's plays are well explained by reference to the politics and society of the period, but are timeless in their effectiveness. The book is most interesting in describing the realities of theatrical performances, whether the particulars are staging details, audience characteristics, or financial exigencies. But this is a political biography of a character whose political accomplishments and enlightened ideals outshine his well known literary works.
Many of Sheridan's Irish contacts and English partisans in the intrigues within England in the years after 1789 were openly sympathetic to, or even allied with the French revolutionaries. Yet Sheridan was during this time a prominent member of the House of Commons and close to the Prince of Wales, later George IV. Some of his personal and political friends were tried as traitors during the peak of Sheridan's political prominence; he survived primarily because of his political acumen, eloquence, and insight.
To the general reader, not well acquainted with the intricacies of English history, the work will nevertheless be interesting and convincing in portraying Sheridan as a politically adroit and ingenious man, even an Enlightenment figure. Sheridan's speeches and writings were well known to the American revolutionaries, and remained popular even after his death. He eloquently advocated religious toleration, freedom from colonial oppression, even feminism, and opposed slavery so effectively as to influence the young Frederick Douglass.
Sheridan's personal flaws (he was a drunk and an adulterer), theatre life in London, political intrigues, the struggle for religious and political freedom in Ireland, and the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings for mismanagement of affairs in British colonial India, all well explained, make this book accessible and interesting. I offer three points of criticism.
First, and most importantly, characters, terms, or events not known to the general reader or history reader, should be explained briefly. The English reader may know what a "rotten" borough was, and what a "pocket" borough was, in the days before parliamentary reform, but a sentence or two would explain this and give the reader a better understanding of the electoral politics involved.
Second, an attempt at a definitive biography, published by a prestigious house such as Farar, should include illustrations. It is frustrating to read descriptions of presumably extant political cartoons of the day, some involving Sheridan's Drury Lane theatre, or major political figures, and not be able to see reproductions-surely the private collection or library would give permission. (In fact, the New York Review of Books included one cartoon in its review of this book.)
Finally, O'Toole's prose is afflicted with some of the unfortunate mannerisms of academic style. He repeatedly uses the awkward, almost always disruptive "former...latter" construction, and equally often uses the term "context" when referring to real relationships or circumstances-the term should be reserved for relationships between words. These usages may be epidemic in doctoral dissertations or in the "scholarly" journals no one reads, but that does not excuse their appearance in a work like this-the author is the drama critic of the New York Daily News. In the age of word processing, surely an editor at Farar should have caught these irritating errors of style, possibly in preparation of the American edition. Then again, a careful editor might have noticed that at the end of the "Preface to the American Edition" the date is incorrectly listed as May 1988.
If this clever and talented author had made his entertaining book more accessible, he would be open to the charge of "popularizing", anathema in academic and some literary circles. But it is a measure of his success in eliciting the nature of Sheridan that one wishes he had done so. After all, the political and religious difficulties in Ireland persist, and one could as well look beyond the Emerald Isle and argue that we too live in an age of comparably flawed, but ultimately noble political actors and causes, in need of better understanding of their human qualities.