February 22, 2018

Drury Lane, Sheridan Go Out

On this day 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. Although he still co-owned Drury Lane, those decades had been spent in Parliament -- his career in the Commons so long and distinguished that when news of the fire reached the members still sitting in debate just before midnight, he was asked if he wished the House to adjourn for the emergency. He declined, though many members stayed at the windows anyway, entranced by the spectacle later described by Sheridan's young friend, Lord Byron:
    As flashing far the new Volcano shone And swept the skies with lightnings not their own While thousands thronged around the burning dome.
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. Several times over the next few years he would be imprisoned in "sponging houses" until bailed out; when he died in 1816 his own house had been stripped of much, from paintings by Reynolds and Gainsborough down to the carpets. The cartoonists had been at work by this time too, giving "poor old Sherry" a bottle nose, the look of a windbag, and the views of a dinosaur. The drinking part at least was true: his friends, Byron and others, liked to tell the story of trying to carry him to one pub approachable only by a corkscrew staircase "which had certainly been constructed before the discovery of fermented liquors and to which no legs, however crooked, could possibly accommodate themselves."

The best of Sheridan's glory days came from his Parliamentary career rather than Drury Lane. This was his "Begums speech" in 1787, advocating the impeachment of Warren Hastings, governor-general of India. 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. 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 grovelling 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."

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