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the serious parts of The Rivals are certainly not among his most felicitous efforts.
By some critics the incident of the screen has been censured, as a contrivance unworthy of the dignity of comedy.* But in real life, of which comedy must condescend to be the copy, events of far greater importance are brought about by accidents as trivial; and in a world like ours, where the falling of an apple has led to the discovery of the laws of gravitation, it is surely too fastidious to deny to the dramatist the discovery of an intrigue by the falling of a screen. There is another objection as to the manner of employing this machine, which, though less grave, is perhaps less easily answered. Joseph, at the commencement of the scene, de. sires his servant to draw the screen before the window, be cause “his opposite neighbour is a maiden lady of so anxious a temper;" yet, afterwards, by placing Lady Teazle between the screen and the window, he enables this inquisitive lady to indulge her curiosity at leisure. It might be said, indeed, that Jostph, with the alternative of exposure to either the husband or neighbour, chooses the lesser evil ;-but the oversight hardly requires a defence.
From the trifling nature of these objections to the dramatic merits of the School for Scandal, it will be seen, that, like the criticism of Momus on the creaking of Venus's shoes, they only show how perfect must be the work in which no greater faults can be found. But a more serious charge has been brought against it on the score of morality, and the gay charm thrown around the irregularities of Charles is pronounced to be dangerous to the interests of honesty and virtue. There is no doubt that in this character only the fairer side of libertinism is presented, that the merits of being in debt are rather too fondly insisted upon, and with a grace and spirit that might seduce even creditors into ad
• "In the old comedy, the catastrophe is occasioned, in general, by a change in the mind of some principal character, artfully prepared and cautiously conducted ;-in the modern, the unfolding of the plot is effected by the overturning of a screen, the opening of a door, or some other equally dignified machine."--GIFFORD, Essay on the Writings of Massinger. miration. It was, indeed, playfully said, that no tradesman who applauded Charles could possibly have the face to dun the author afterwards. In looking, however, to the race of rakes that had previously held possession of the stage, we cannot help considering our release from the contagion of so much coarseness and selfishness to be worth even the increased risk of seduction that may have succeeded to it; and the remark of Burke, however questionable in strict ethics, is, at least, true on the stage,-that “vice loses half its evil by losing all its grossness.”
It should be recollected, too, that, in other respects, the author applies the lash of moral satire very successfully. That groupe of slanderers who, like the Chorus of the Eumenides, go searching about for their prey with “ eyes that drop poison,” represent a class of persons in society who richly deserve such ridicule, and who like their prototypes in Æschylus trembling before the shafts of Apollom are here made to feel the full force of the archery of wit. It is indeed a proof of the effect and use of such satire, that the name of “ Mrs. Candour” has become one of those formidable byewords, which have more power in putting folly and ill-nature out of countenance, than whole volumes of the wisest re. monstrance and reasoning.
The poetical justice exercised upon the Tartuffe of senti ment, Joseph, is another service to the cause of morals, which should more than atone for any dangerous embellishment of wrong that the portraiture of the younger brother may exhibit. Indeed, though both these characters are such as the moralist must visit with his censure, there can be little doubt to which we should, in real life, give the preference; -the levities and errors of the one, arising from warmth of heart and of youth, may be merely like those mists that exhale from summer streams, obscuring them awhile to the eye, without affecting the native purity of their waters; while the hypocrisy of the other is like the mirage of the desert, shining with promise on the surface, but all false and barren beneath.
In a late work, professing to be the Memoirs of Mr. Sheridan, there are some wise doubts expressed as to his being really the author of the School for Scandal, to which, except for the purpose of exposing absurdity, I should not have thought it worth while to allude. It is an old trick of Detraction,and one, of which it never tires, to father the works of emi. nent writers upon others; or, at least, while it kindly leaves an author the credit of his worst performances, to find some one in the back-ground to ease him of the fame of his best. When this sort of charge is brought against a cotemporary, the motive is intelligible ; but, such an abstract pleasure have some persons in merely unsettling the crowns of Fame, that a worthy German has written an elaborate book to prove, that the Iliad was written, not by that particular Homer the world supposes, but by some other Homer! Indeed, if mankind were to be influenced by those Qui tam critics, who have, from time to time, in the course of the history of literature, exhibited informations of plagiarism against great authors, the property of fame would pass from its present holders into the hands of persons with whom the world is but little acquainted. Aristotle must refund to one Ocellus Lucanus-Virgil must make a cessio bonorum in favour of Pisander—the Metamorphoses of Ovid must be credited to the account of Parthenius of Nicæa, and (to come to a modern instance) Mr. Sheridan must, according to his biographer, Dr. Watkins, surrender the glory of having written the School for Scandal to a certain anonymous young lady, who died of a consumption in Thames Street
!!! To pass, however, to less hardy assailants of the originality of this comedy,-it is said that the characters of Joseph and Charles were suggested by those of Blifil and Tom Jones; that the incident of the arrival of Sir Oliver from India is copied from that of the return of Warner in Sidney Biddulph; and that the hint of the famous scandal scene at Lady Sneerwell's is borrowed from a comedy of Moliere.
Mr. Sheridan, it is true, like all men of genius, had, in addition to the resources of his own wit, a quick apprehension of what suited his purpose in the wit of others, and a Power of enriching whatever he adopted from them with such new grace, as gave him a sort of claim of paternity over it, and made it all his own. “ C'est mon bien,” said Moliere, when accused of borrowing, “ et je le reprens partout où je le trouve ;” and next, indeed, to creation, the re-production, in a new and more perfect form, of materials already existing, or the full developement of thoughts that had but half blown in the hands of others, are the noblest miracles for which we look to the hand of genius. It is not my intention therefore to defend Mr. Sheridan from this kind of plagiarism, of which he was guilty in common with the rest of his fellow-descendants from Prometheus, who all steal the spark wherever they can find it. But the instances, just alleged, of his obligations to others, are too questionable and trivial to be taken into any serious account. Contrasts of character, such as Charles and Joseph exhibit, are as common as the lights and shadows of a landscape, and belong neither to Fielding or Sheridan, but to nature. It is in the manner of transferring them to the canvass that the whole difference between the master and the copyist lies ; and Charles and Joseph would, no doubt, have been what they are, if Tom Jones had never existed. With respect to the hint supposed to be taken from the novel of his mother, he at least had a right to consider any aid from that quarter as “son bien” talent being the only patrimony to which he had succeeded. But the use made of the return of a relation in the play is wholly different from that to which the same incident is applied in the novel. Besides, in those golden times of Indian delinquency, the arrival of a wealthy relative from the East was no very unobvious ingredient in a story.
The imitation of Moliere, (if, as I take for granted, the Misanthrope be the play, in which the origin of the famous scandal scene is said to be found) is equally faint and remote, and, except in the common point of scandal, untraceable. Nothing, indeed, can be more unlike than the manner in which the two scenes are managed. Célimene, in Moliere, bears the whole frais pf the conversation ; and this female
La Bruyere's tedious and solitary dissections of character would be as little borne on the English stage, as the quick and dazzling movement of so many lancets of wit as operate in the School for Scandal would be tolerated on that of the French.
It is frequently said that Mr. Sheridan was a good deal indebted to Wycherley ; and he himself gave, in some degree, a colour to the charge, by the suspicious impatience which he betrayed whenever any allusion was made to it. He went so far, indeed, it is said, as to deny having ever read a line of Wycherley (though of Vanbrugh's dialogue he always spoke with the warmest admiration); and this assertion, as well as some others equally remarkable, such as, that he never saw Garrick on the stage, that he never had seen a play throughout in his life, however strange and startling they may appear, are, at least, too curious and characteristic not to be put upon record. His acquaintance with Wycherley was possibly but at second-hand, and confined, perhaps, to Garrick's alteration of the Country Wife, in which the incident, already mentioned as having been borrowed for the Duenna, is preserved. There is, however, a scene in the Plain Dealer (Act II.), where Nevil and Olivia attack the characters of the persons with whom Nevil had dined, of which it is difficult to believe that Mr. Sheridan was ignorant : as it seems to contain much of that Hyle, or First Matter, out of which his own more perfect creations were formed.
In Congreve's Double Dealer, too, (Act III. Scene 10.) there is much which may, at least, have mixed itself with the recollections of Sheridan, and influenced the course of his fancy-it being often found that the images with which the memory is furnished, like those pictures hung up before the eyes of pregnant women at Sparta, produce insensibly a likeness to themselves in the offspring which the imagination brings forth. The admirable drollery in Congreve about Lady Froth's verses on her coachman