Friday, December 9, 2016

The Great Sheridan

In 1809, London's Drury Lane Theatre burned down. When those watching the spectacle from a nearby pub with theater owner-parliamentarian Richard Brinsley Sheridan remarked on his composure, he famously responded, "A man may surely take a glass of wine by his own fireside."  

Sheridan was fifty-seven years old, decades past the days when such quips made his School for Scandal the talk of the town, and made him a fortune -- upwards of a million dollars in today's money, some historians calculate.
Most biographers view the Drury Lane fire as the beginning of Sheridan's personal ruin. Sheridan had been high-living and free-wheeling for some time; the Theatre had drained much of his capital, but he had depended on its day-to-day operations for income. With it gone, and with his defeat in the elections of 1812, thereby removing the protection of Parliamentary privilege for such things, he was now fair game to his creditors.

Sheridan is also included among the great British speeches. This was his "Begums speech" in 1787, advocating the impeachment of Warren Hastings, governor-general of India. Before Parliament sitting as a High Court in Westminster Hall in 1788, Sheridan spoke--without notes for five and a half hours--with such skill and feeling that both sides of the House, reportedly for the first time in its history, jumped to their feet with cheering and applause. Imagine speaking for five and a half hours without notes. 
As biographer Fintan O'Toole has pointed out in A Traitor's Kiss (1997), Sheridan not only showed his mastery of rhetoric but of characterization, turning Hastings into a politician's version of Joseph Surface from The School for Scandal. Bad enough are his deeds, and that "In his mind all is shuffling, ambiguous, dark, insidious, and little"; worse is what Hastings does to words: "Nay, in his stile and writing there is the same mixture of vicious contrarieties; -- the most groveling ideas are conveyed in the most inflated language; giving mock consequence to low cavils, and uttering quibbles in heroics; so that his compositions disgust the mind's taste, as much as his actions excite the soul's abhorrence."
When Sheridan had spoken the final word, “My lords, I have done,” he was caught by Burke in his arms and “hugged with the energy of generous admiration.” So says Macaulay, but Macaulay represents that Sheridan “contrived with a knowledge of stage effect which his father might have envied, to sink back, as if exhausted, into the arms of Burke.” 
Only one of Sheridan’s speeches has been preserved in anything approaching an adequate report.

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