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South Atlantic Modern Language Association

The Moral Focus of "The School for Scandal"


Author(s): Jack D. Durant
Source: South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Nov., 1972), pp. 44-53
Published by: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3197365
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THE MORAL FOCUS OF "THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL"

JACK D. DURANT
North Carolina State University

In a long footnote to his Memoirs of the Life of


Thomas Moore writes about the Reverend Mr. O'B, who had come
for the weekend to Sheridan's country house near Osterley and was
persuaded by a "gay party," including John Burgoyne, Richard
Tickell, and the beautiful Frances Crewe, to deliver the sermon
next day at the village church. Sheridan insisted on writing the
sermon himself, and when Mr. O'B awoke the next morning he
found it at his bedside, a sharp discourse on "The Abuse of
Riches." He read it over, corrected some "theological errors" in it
(such as "it is easier for a camel, as Moses says," to pass through
the eye of a needle), and delivered it forcefully at the church-
only to learn much later that Sheridan had written it as a personal
attack upon one of the parishioners, a certain Mr. C---, who
at that time, according to Moore, had "rendered himself very
unpopular in the neighborhood by some harsh conduct to the
poor."'
The Reverend Mr. O'B might have sensed something amiss
when he saw Sheridan's saucy benediction at the close of the
sermon: "The grace of Crewe which passeth [all understanding],
8cc." But apart from this touch of innocent irreverence, the piece
is everywhere moral earnestness. It condemns the "pride of wealth"
and insists emphatically that "the situation of the rich man is
critical in proportion to the power he has of doing good." It is
"not sufficient in him that he abstains from evil: every day, every
hour of his existence has some duty of benevolence annexed to it,
the omission of which is a reproach and crime in the eyes of the
Lord, who has entrusted him with the means of procuring bless-
ings on his providence."' The sermon concludes that poverty prop-
erly enough plagues the indolent and wasteful, but it affirms yet
again that charity owes universally to the deserving poor and the
oppressed.
Certainly Sheridan was no kind of moral systematist, but his
serious moral utterances hew steadily, as does this sermon, to a
basic benevolistic line. He obviously warmed to the cause against
Warren Hastings because he saw Hastings as a man of "indurated
sensibility," a man who "assiduously cultivates" the "energy of
vice" and who therefore remains unshaken by "the cries of afflic-
tion," the "claims of charity," and the "complaints of justice."3

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South Atlantic Bulletin 45

And Sheridan's Pizarro is much the same kind of creation, a


benighted tyrant struggling in the throes of greed and powerlust
and other encumbrances of vice which have "driven every just and
worthy feeling from his mind"-as the sermon aptly describes such
afflictions.4 It may be said of Pizarro and Mr. C - , as of
Hastings and his lieutenants, that they have denied the influence
of "divine intelligence and benignity," that they are "aliens to
feeling" and "apostates to humanity." And we learn in Sheridan's
epilogue to Semiramis (1776) and his prologue to Sir Thomas
Overbury (1777) that a major remedy to such apostasy is the
generous exercise of pity, pity which expands the heart and
broadens the resources of benevolence.

In criticizing The School for Scandal Louis Kronenberger com-


plains that Sheridan's "sense of the theatre wins out in the end
over his knowledge of the world,"") but my point thus far is that
Sheridan roots his knowledge of the world in an earnest benevolism,
that he chafes the more at evil for seeing it as a deliberate contra-
vention of basic human good nature. I mean eventually to suggest
that The School for Scandal aptly reflects Sheridan's knowledge of
the world. But en route to that point, let me also emphasize that
benevolistic principles seriously affect his understanding of his own
art and his attitude to literature generally.
Without question he was a satirist of redoubtable gifts. His
little afterpiece St. Patrick's Day lashes human folly with a fierce
judgmental fervor. But despite his satiric gifts he seems really to
have mistrusted satire, or at least to have thought it inappropriate
to the higher forms of art. Thus in 1774, in his "Familiar Epistle"
to William Mason, he charges Mason with a kind of hateful surli-
ness of mind, both for writing satire in the first place and for
thinking it carries any real corrective force. He characterizes the
muse of satire as "the fiend of baneful Spite," and he foredooms
the satirist to oblivion while assuring the gentle lyrist an im-
mortality in the affections of mankind. "When Churchill shall be
quite forgot," he says in the poem, such poets as Shenstone, Gray,
and Hammond, who take for their muse "a feeling heart," will
grace Fame's page "without a blot."7 Two years earlier, in 1772,
he had argued to his friend Thomas Grenville that Arcadian
romances better deserve reading than the novels of Fielding and
Smollett, for "Why should men have a satisfaction in viewing only
the mean and distorted figures of Nature? tho', truly speaking not
of Nature, but of Vicious and corrupt Society."8 And in formu-
lating his project on female education-sometime between 1772
and 1774-he recommends romances for the curriculum rather than
novels, for "The Latter is false[ly] called Nature, it is a figure of

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46 School

depraved and corru


Therefore I would exclude all Novels that show Human Nature
depraved."9
Of a piece with this thinking is the fascinating tenth-night
prologue to The Rivals, in which Sheridan outlines the provinces
of comedy. He suggests that the best comedy dulls the sharp edge
of satire (1. 12), that it attempts no fierce corrective cruelties. Its
proper spirit, he holds, is mirth and youthful vitality (1. 15-18);
its proper source is the cleverly imagined situation (1. 9); and its
proper object is "half-triumphant" laughter, i.e., laughter never
strongly derisive. (1. 10) The prologue goes on to condemn senti-
mental comedy, especially its heavy moral preachments, and it
offers as its most arresting argument that sentimental comedy is
simply unnecessary, that legitimate comedy (as Sheridan views it)
stands already fully equipped to supply the best properties of the
sentimental play: "To charm the fancy and yet reach the heart."
(1. 20) 10
If we take together, then, Sheridan's serious moral comment
(i.e., some parts of it) and these few of his remarks on literary art,
we develop the impression that he was (1) a benevolist certainly
aware of the prevalence of evil, (2) a satirist strangely contemptu-
ous of satire and its motives, (3) an artist reluctant to see or show
human nature depraved, and (4) one eager to affirm the basic
good nature of mankind. It is tempting (and somewhat traditional,
I think) to see Sheridan as a victim of external forces, an audience
forcing restraints upon his art. But I am suggesting that the re-
straints upon his art were internal ones, that his ethic and aesthetic
(both so intimately bound to benevolistic principles) led him
inevitably to the intricate problem of deploring the prevalence of
evil while at the same time affirming man's basic good nature. If I
read his artistic commitment aright, he emerges in the history of
Georgian drama much more a revisionist than an antisentimentalist.
What he resented in sentimental drama, I think, was the system
of dramatic conventions-such conventions as the moralistic set
speech-which ultimately obscured or destroyed the basic benevo-
listic premise of the play. Consequently his little burlesque play
The Critic attacks flawed dramaturgical principles more than any-
thing else-after first establishing its own charity motif near the
end of Act I (where Mr. Sneer, obviously taking Sheridan's part
just here, promotes the cause of true charity and defends "the
most useful channels of benevolence").
In causing comedy to reflect his knowledge of the world-his
impatience with evil but his faith in benevolence-Sheridan of
course encountered awkward problems of comic form. In The

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South Atlantic Bulletin 47

Rivals he tried a rather cumbersome dual plot


benevolistic affirmation in the heroine of the
Melville, who recalls the ideal of womanh
theory of education." In A Trip to Scarboro
fatuous sentimental reformation device, and
But in The School for Scandal he at last found
his ethical and aesthetic commitment. Not at
ous, if supercivilized, farce critics usually read
the mere theatrical tour de force which "teaches no lesson and
points no distinctive moral,"12 The School for Scandal defines
through form and action a vital paradigm of Christian benevolence.
It is in effect a comic charity sermon.
Critics are right who remark of it that it succeeds more in
generating illusions of wickedness than in confronting wickedness
itself.'3 They are right in saying that Joseph Surface seems not
greatly worse than Charles, that both brothers seem basically sym-
pathetic characters.'4 But these properties, together with other
distinctive properties of the play--e.g., that it allows no active love
interest between Charles and Maria, that it looks to complex
embarrassment scenes for its major comic dynamis-assist the
dramatization of the charity doctrine. And while the play makes
its people seem more wicked than indeed they are, it does not
therefore minimize the brooding threat of evil; for evil in The
School for Scandal is dangerously imminent, as the characters
engage in practices certain to corrupt their essential good natures.
To instance the controlling theological premise of the play,
perhaps it is satisfactory to draw upon Professor Crane's famous
"Suggestions Toward a Genealogy of the 'Man of Feeling.' "1s The
charity sermons excerpted in that article date from the Restoration
and earlier eighteenth century, but they serve us especially well
here because they specifically illustrate main doctrines of benevo-
lence dominant in Georgian England, doctrines rooted in Lati-
tudinarian pulpit theology and in time reinforced by other strains
of benevolism. Vigorously propagandizing against Hobbesian, Puri-
tan, and Stoic views of man, these doctrines emphasize two points
repeatedly: (1) that vice is an acquisition of discipline and art
and (2) that virtue asserts itself through simple, direct, and spon-
taneous charitable conduct.

Professor Crane quotes one charity sermon, for example, as


arguing that while "Nature inclines us to Humanity, yet Custom
and bad Principles may give us another Bias, and make us uncon-
cern'd what others feel. But Nature, without Art and Force used
upon it, seldom proves cruel."'6 Another sermon holds that "A
Man must be disciplin'd into hardness of Heart, and neild [pre-

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48 School

sumably 'annealed']
positive view, insist
in Circumstances of
mechanically incli
follow Nature in those tender Motions of it, which incline them
to Acts of Kindness and Charity, they will not be easy, except they
lay hold of the proper Occasions of exerting them."18 The ethical
position of The School for Scandal accords perfectly with these
sermons. Charity and basic human benevolence relate themselves
in the play to spontaneity, directness, simplicity. Malice and un-
charity relate themselves to deviousness, deceit, complexity. As an
acquisition of discipline and art, a quality to be learned in the
school for scandal, evil implies complex contrivances. Through the
conflict between complexity and simplicity, then, Sheridan controls
in one dramatic strategy the comic and moral implications of his
play.
In a general way, I think, the correlation between complexity
and evil in The School for Scandal attacks the dramaturgical con-
ventions of sentimental comedy. "Sentimental drama," writes
Arthur Sherbo, "is almost always sophisticated and deliberately
calculated; simplicity and sincerity seldom have a place in it."
And Sherbo amply demonstrates that dialogue in sentimental plays
is characteristically intricate and complex, an extravagant tissue of
painted passions, moral explanations, and reassessed motives.19
Such complexity belies the spontaneity of truly virtuous conduct;
and in effort to restore benevolence to a proper dramatic perspec-
tive (acting as a revisionist, not as an antisentimentalist) , Sheridan
turned tables upon the sentimental convention, making complexity
an agent of vice. In numerous more specific ways he identifies com-
plexity with vice throughout the play.
At the very outset, for example, Snake congratulates Lady
Sneerwell for the special "delicacy of hint, and mellowness of
sneer" distinguishing her scandal.z0 In effect he admires the art
whereby she disciplines herself to vice, her skill in translating
simple truth into complex falsehood, simple innocence into com-
plex imputations of treachery. All the stratagems of the scandal
college involve such processes of complication, identifying com-
plexity with vice.
Wit in the play also certainly serves the ends of vice. Both Sir
Peter Teazle and his ward Maria insist that true wit really derives
from good nature; but the play allows little such good natured wit.
It favors extravagant similitudes born of ill nature and conceived
to polish cruelty. Of the marriage of wit and benevolence Lady
Teazle, before reforming, sees the partners as "so near akin that

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South Atlantic Bulletin 49

they can never be united" (II. ii. 183)., and Sir


refines on the figure by supposing them al
"because one so seldom sees them together.
in the play Lady Sneerwell had argued that
"the barb that makes it stick." (I. i. 195) And
this premise, the complicating force of wi
Scandal consistently rallies to the cause of ma
close kinship between complexity and vice.
In many other ways, of course, complexity
in the play: in Mrs. Candour's candor, which
insult, in the marvelous circumstantial lies (e
the screen scene) which sacrifice truth to com
Joseph's crafty management of sentimental mo
his own hypocrisy, and in his larger resource
the whole art of appearances, whereby he see
benevolence "without incurring the expense
at last is the correlation between complexit
plexity, as an agent of evil, becomes a force a
acters generating it. Once set in motion, it th
touches, especially the characters who motiva
they perceive, as Joseph does in Act II, that i
by its own force, rendering them the more v
out of control. "Sincerely," says Joseph, "I
never made such a point of gaining so very g
it has led me into so many cursed rogueries
be exposed at last." (II. ii. 300-304)
Certainly no scene in The School for Scan
gantly prepared as the one in which Sir Oliver
as Premium the moneylender, confronts his ne
of Act III scene i is spent schooling Sir Oliver i
instructing him what clothes to wear, what in
to justify unconscionable terms by claiming to
man, a mere agent for some vicious scalpe
Charles's house he receives final instruction in
colleague Moses. But all this elaborate scaff
mediately in Act III scene iii when Charles me
Premium," he says, "the plain state of the ma
extravagant young fellow who want[s] mon
take to be a prudent old fellow, who ha[s] got
blockhead enough to give fifty per cent soone
and you, I presume, are rogue enough to take
could get it. Now, sir, you see we are acquaint
proceed to business without farther ceremo
ously, Sheridan designs much of Act III to

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50 School

characteristic sponta
opening scene of Ac
thentic man of bene
First, by having Ch
cancels the complicat
seems a facile tactic o
to the basic charity
complexity-and it
affirmation of vir
"Filial piety," he say
that gratitude which
is eager to own the v
is the primal bond of
One who lacks filial
any effective degre
auction scene Charles
ments threatening
humiliation in the fi
Sheridan obviously s
establish Charles's be
of dramatic functions.
But he broadens the dimensions of Charles's benevolence by
having him rush with great eagerness to the aid of his indigent
relative Stanley. "While I have, by heaven I'll give," says Charles
to old Rowley (IV. i. 230), and through his spontaneity and
urgency he dramatizes the doctrine that people "will not be easy,
except they lay hold on the proper Occasion" to exercise charity
and kindliness. So forceful is Charles's benevolence that it even
outstrips the limitations of justice. He declares to Rowley that he
has tried observing the maxim "Be just before you're generous"
but has always found Justice to be "an old lame hobbling beldame"
who cannot "keep pace with Generosity" (IV. i. 225)--and thus
he identifies himself with another doctrine from the charity ser-
mons: "Compare the Characters of the Just and Good Man ....
That indeed strikes us with Awe and Reverence: This attracts our
Love and Admiration . . . Will not he, that is only guided by
Justice, be led to many hard and cruel Things? And is not Ex-
tremity of Justice proverbially call'd the utmost Injury? Let us
then learn indeed, and study to be just; but let us at the same time
love Mercy, and hearken to the softer Dictates and Whispers of
Humanity."22 In spontaneity, directness, and compulsive charity
Charles is an exemplar of benevolence, and as he rushes back to
the hazard table at the close of the auction scene we accept him in
the spirit of the Latitude men, who, according to Joseph Glanvill,

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South Atlantic Bulletin 51

"cared for no mans wit, that wanted good


mans weakness, that had it."23 Of course Charles has some reform-
ing to do; and in Act V he must yet suffer some embarrassment for
having misrepresented Sir Oliver's state of health to Mr. Premium.
But as he suffers the unjust suspicions of Maria and Sir Peter it
is proper to say of him (in the words of yet another charity ser-
mon) that his detractors-i.e., Joseph and Lady Sneerwell-"are
forc'd to belye him before they can dishonour him; they must first
maliciously hide the Vertue, before they can obscure those Beams
of Glory that arise from it."2'4 So it is with the benevolent man.
By the end of the auction scene (Act IV scene i), the abstract
issues of the play stand clearly drawn. Vice has emphatically allied
itself with all kinds of complexity; virtue with simplicity and
directness. It remains then for the screen scene, which follows soon
after in Act IV, to give form to the basic charity doctrine, to
transcend the limits of mere comic embarrassment and assume
symbolic importance in the presiding conflict between simplicity
and complexity.
Of all the complications of the screen scene, none is more
revealing than Joseph's extravagant polemics on reputation. He
seizes upon Lady Teazle's annoyance at the scandal circulated
against her-an annoyance aggravated by her own self-consciou
innocence-to argue that self-conscious innocence in itself cause
her to neglect forms, to "run into a thousand little imprudences,
to grow "impatient of Sir Peter's temper, and outrageous at hi
suspicious." (IV. iii. 83-88) Insisting then that her character i
"like a person in a plethora, absolutely dying from too much
health," he provokes her famous query: "So, so then I perceive
your prescription is, that I must sin in my own defence, and part
with my virtue to preserve my reputation?" (IV. iii. 99-101) Moore
writes that throughout the long development of The School for
Scandal Sheridan had kept this splendid quip fresh in his mind.25
He had jotted it along the margins of his memorandum book,
holding it ready for the proper moment, and he could not have
found a happier place for it than here at the structural heart of
the play. The specious reasoning it displays reflects in turn the
ultimate complexity of Joseph's deviousness, a complexity by which
vice parades as the primary agent of virtue. Walter Sichel calls
Joseph a comic lago; and the appellation holds especially well
here, where sound reason yields to intellectual subversion. Al-
though dazzling and hilarious, Joseph's arguments are also serious
and dangerous; for they threaten truth with its own defensive
weapons.

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52 School

With his argumen


cations he can neith
astonishment at La
the screen scene dev
charge. "A very na
I'm in, to part man
hiding Lady Teazle
closet. (IV. iii. 315-
tions he keeps tenta
pears, the screen of
directness will not
deceit. The informin
represent the chara
hypocrisy and unna
spontaneity, Sir Pet
Lady Teazle's prete
more comprehensiv
in the play, here ass
Even in the afterm
disciplines of unchar
pity for his misfortu
rich man-as Sherida
His empty, "specula
in motion the comp
in the throes of th
victim than a villain
him. As Sheridan w
is only "half-triump
Indeed, the play de
one. It rather imp
those who cultivate the arts of malice. But it does not, as critics
quite universally hold, avoid moral issues. Indicating that people
must discipline themselves to vice, that evil derives from art and
industry, it cites the complexities born of vicious industry as the
real villains of the piece. Thesc complexities, which outstrip the
control even of the people who generate them, do incalculable and
indiscriminate damage, and they open no real opportunities for
gain. In the case of the scandal college, and especially of Lady
Sneerwell, the play suggests that vice can become habitual, that
the arts of malice can gradually stifle basic good nature. Through
Lady Teazle's experience, however, it also suggests that in regain-
ing virtue one needs chiefly to decline the disciplines of vice, in
effect returning one's diploma to the scandal college. From its
basic premise of Christian benevolism, then, The School for

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South Atlantic Bulletin 53

Scandal makes cogent statements about the self-c


erties of hypocrisy, about false sentiment, malici
insinuation. It exposes the wide-ranging threat o
affirming the ultimate good nature of mankind;
sents-more efficiently, I think, than anything el
his understanding of the world and of his own c
NOTES
1. Memoirs of the Life of the Rt. Hon. Richard Brinsley Sheridan (
rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1968), II, 92-93.
2. I quote a copy of the sermon reprinted from the London New Mon
Magazine in Waldie's Select Circulating Library, Part II, No. 26 (Dec. 26, 1
pp. 415-416. I am indebted to my colleague Professor Ward Allen for m
this text available to me.
3. "Sheridan Against Warren Hastings," in Select British Eloquence, ed.
Chauncey A. Goodrich (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), pp. 411-412.
4. Ibid., p. 416.
5. Ibid., pp. 425-432.
6. The Thread of Laughter (New York: Knopf, 1952), pp. 200-201.
7. In The Plays and Poems of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. ed. R. Crompton
Rhodes (1928; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962), III, 186.
8. "To Thomas Grenville," 30 Oct. 1772, in The Letters of Richard Brinsley
Sheridan, ed. Cecil Price (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), I, 61-62.
9. Fragmentary Letter "To the Queen," Letters, I, 55.
10. Plays and Poems, I, 27-28.
11. The case is argued in a forthcoming article called "Sheridan's Royal
Sanctuary: A Key to The Rivals," scheduled for publication in Forum.
12. Ashley Thorndike, English Comedy (1929; rpt. New York: Cooper Square,
1965), p. 435.
13. Kronenberger, p. 196. Also see David A. Nelson, "The Laughing Comedy
of the Eighteenth Century," Diss. Cornell 1965, 244-267. Nelson discusses these
features in relation to the larger convention of laughing comedy.
14. See Andrew Schiller, "The School for Scandal: The Restoration Unre-
stored," PMLA, 71 (1956), 703; Prosser Hall Frye, Visions and Chimeras (Boston:
Marshall Jones, 1929), p. 13.
15. ELH, 1 (1934), 205-230.
16. William Clagett, Of the Humanity and Charity of Christians, 1687.
Crane, p. 224.

17.5Knightly
April Chetwood,
1708. Crane, p. 225. A Sermon Preach'd before the Lord Mayor . . .
18. Richard Fiddes, Fifty-two Practical Discourses on Several Subjects, 1720.
Crane, pp. 225-226.
19. Arthur Sherbo, English Sentimental Drama (East Lansing: Michigan
State University, 1957), p. 123; pp. 58-63; 132-137.
20. "The School for Scandal," ed. G. H. Nettleton and A. E. Case, in British
Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan, 2nd edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin,
1969), p. 840. All references to the play cite this edition.
21. "Sheridan Against Warren Hastings," p. 432.
22. George Stephens, The Amiable Quality of Goodness, 1731, Crane, p. 213.
23. Essays on Several Important Subjects, 1676. Crane, p. 209.
24. Francis Squire, Universal Benevolence: or, Charity in its Full Extent,
1714. Crane p. 213.
25. Moore, I, 155.

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