Literary Daybook, May 8

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
May 8, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On May 8, 1945, Mr. Roberts throws the captain's palm tree over the side.
-- "Mister Roberts" (1946)
by Thomas Heggen

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1777, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The School for Scandal" opened at Drury Lane Theatre. Sheridan was just 25 years old, and just two years a dramatist, but his skewering of the upper classes was a huge hit, and it is now widely regarded as the best of the British comedy of manners. In just a few more years Sheridan would give up playwriting for a career in Parliament; here he became as famous for his oratory as he had been for his witty dialogue.


Sheridan was introduced to language and satire early, by way of his father's aborted plans to establish an Academy of Elocution at the spa city of Bath. Since the upper classes were not really at Bath for any sort of cure, the last thing they wanted was instruction from an underemployed Irish actor on how to speak proper English. This miscalculation released Sheridan from his father's mysterious plan to employ him as a "rhetorical usher." A friend later summarized the results: "He danced with all the women at Bath, wrote sonnets and verses in praise of some, satires and lampoons upon others, and in a very short time became the established wit and fashion of the place." Sheridan persuaded one of the most sought after -- teenage singing sensation Elizabeth Linley, already painted by Gainsborough and much written about -- to elope with him to France and later marry.

Out of his father's failures at language and his own prowess at using it in the field, Richard Sheridan shaped his most famous plays. In "The Rivals," Mrs. Malaprop does to language what a spectacular dropout from a school of elocution might: When her fancy turns to reptiles, she imagines not an alligator but an "allegory" basking by the Nile; she compliments another not for his fine arrangement of epithets but "fine derangement of epitaphs." In his masterpiece, "School for Scandal," Sheridan turns his father's academy on both its ears, demonstrating that there is no behavior too outrageous or lie too bold that it cannot be covered up by a phrase nicely turned.

Almost. In his memoirs, one Frederic Reynolds describes not seeing but hearing the opening night of "School for Scandal." On May 8, he was walking in a narrow lane outside Drury Lane Theatre when he heard a noise that seemed to his 12-year-old ears to be so like a theater collapsing that he covered his head and ran. The next morning he discovered that it was not the falling of the theater he had heard, but the falling of the screen in Act IV -- revealing, before thunderous applause, and all previous protestations to the contrary, Joseph Surface and Lady Teazle exchanging more than words.


-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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