Book Review: The School For Scandal

The School For Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

The restoration drama of the reign of Charles II of England, of which this play is one of the more notable representatives, has gotten a bad reputation for its cynicism.  Intriguingly enough, the way that this drama often attacked the middle class sensibilities of Puritans and other like-minded folk [1] led to a long-lasting decline in the fortunes of English drama, which were seen as antithetical to the decent and upright morality of the ordinary English person.  When looking at this play, those critics have a point, as this is definitely a play with a cynical worldview.  Yet it is precisely that cynical worldview of the play that makes it so current for today and makes its revival rather unsurprising, given that we too live in a cynical age where morality and those who seek to present a public picture of rectitude are themselves viewed as hypocrites in disguise, similar to the way that Moliere was writing in France during this same period.  I happen to believe that not all apparent virtue is a cloak for vice, but our day and age shares a lot with the cynical immorality of the restoration era, not least in corrupt government and a widespread mistrust of institutions.

In less than 100 pages this play presents two or three hours of sparkling drama that is both of its time and relevant to our own.  The play is divided into two acts.  In the first act, we are mostly presented with the goings on of a group of untrustworthy people with allegorical names that could have come out of the morality plays of the early 16th century English stage.  At the heart of the play is the rivalry of two brothers, the generous-hearted but dissolute Charles and the superficially upright but deeply corrupt Joseph.  This rivalry is for the heart of certain women in their circle, not the least of which is Maria, whose father is pressuring her to marry Joseph but who loves Charles, although plenty of other ladies of somewhat dubious moral virtue are involved as well.  In the second act their uncle plays a trick on both of them and sees both of them in all of their glory, bidding for the paintings of Charles that show family members while pretending to be a poor relation in need of money to Joseph, who is overwhelmed by trying to hide an awkward situation with someone else’s wife from public knowledge.  In the end, the lesser of the immorality prevails in a suitably cynical conclusion which promises no moral reformation but an exposure of the most wicked among the group of cynics.

In looking at this play, it is remarkable that almost all of the first act of the play goes by before we even meet the main character of the play in Charles.  It seems as if this is a setup, in that the playwright is content to have his reputation thoroughly blackened by the conventional types before exposing him as the lesser of the evils.  Yet the framing of the play is obviously manipulative in that it seeks to incriminate the audience as well for being too quick to judge in the absence of evidence, and the fact that there are no good options presented is more than a little bit disconcerting for the place of this play in drama as a whole.  The most noble characters are a drunken spendthrift, a somewhat deceptive older man who has spent a great deal of time engaged in imperialism in India, and an older gentleman whose marriage to a young woman has not gone as well as he would have hoped and who would be viewed especially negatively today on the grounds of his fondness for much younger ladies.  The rest of the characters are still more disreputable, and this play stands as a reminder that while it is witty and funny it does not go down well and is precisely the sort of drama that brings disrepute on the theater itself.  Make of that what you will.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/07/13/on-the-morality-of-the-dramatic-arts/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/08/20/book-review-becoming-shakespeare/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2013/07/24/book-review-samuel-pepys-a-life/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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One Response to Book Review: The School For Scandal

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Complete Greek Drama: Volume Two | Edge Induced Cohesion

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