By the 18th century, the healing springs that had encouraged the Romans to settle in Bath, England had dwindled to little more than an excuse. The spas provided the well- and nothing-to-do of with a focus for their promenades and balls and liaisons, but the only medicine was social. As Horace Walpole quipped, the rich "went there well, and returned home cured."
For the father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Bath was almost a last resort. He left Ireland after a political riot touched off by one of his plays destroyed his theatre and his reputation. His tour of Europe had been, in the popular fashion, a flight from creditors. He had arrived at Bath in 1770 to pursue, for a third try, his dream of founding an academy for elocution.
To say that Thomas Sheridan, father to the man who would later create Mrs. Malaprop, had a passion for the spoken word would be an understatement. In 1756 he had published a book entitled, British Education: Or, The Source of the Disorders of Great Britain. In it he found the glory and liberty of ancient Rome to be based upon virtue; and virtue to be dependent on wisdom; and wisdom "unless communicated with force and perspicuity, [was] useless to the state." To begin the speech revolution in Bath, site of Roman ruins, was an idea that apparently struck Mr. Sheridan with some force. He had already tutored young James Boswell in how to tame his Scottish burr; what Boswell's Samuel Johnson had done for dictionaries, Sheridan himself would do for diction. The new age wanted linguistic healing.
Neither the nation nor the tongue-tied were to find relief at the Sheridan Academy of Elocution. Not being at Bath for any sort of cure, high society was unenthusiastic about receiving instruction in how to speak proper English from an underemployed Irish actor. Without opening its doors, the Sheridan Academy became victim of, rather than ally to, snobbery.
This released Richard Sheridan from his father's mysterious and frightening plan to employ him as a "rhetorical usher." For a twenty year-old with wit and good looks, this meant he was now free to enjoy rather than save the young ladies. 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." One of the most sought after -- teenage singing sensation Elizabeth Linley, already painted by Gainsborough and much written about -- Sheridan persuaded to elope with him to France and eventually, two duels with a rival suitor later, marry.
Out of these experiences -- his father's failed school for language, and his own prowess at using it in the field -- Richard Sheridan would shape not one but two famous careers.
In Sheridan's first play, The Rivals, Mrs. Malaprop does to language what a spectacular drop-out from a school of elocution might: she imagines not an alligator languid on the banks of the Nile, but an allegory; she compliments not another's 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: instead of the well-bred promoting virtue through good language, they demonstrate that there is no behaviour too outrageous, or lie too bold that it cannot be covered up by a phrase nicely-turned.
Sheridan aimed to lampoon the general hypocrisy of the time; his Joseph Surface and Sir Benjamin Backbite and Lady Sneerwell were intended as types. That a contemporary politician saw himself specifically targeted, and demanded that the play be cancelled, is another way of saying that School for Scandal has been popular for all of its two hundred and thirty years.
In his memoirs, Frederic Reynolds describes not seeing but hearing the opening night of School for Scandal. On May 8th, 1777, he was walking in a narrow lane outside Drury Lane Theatre when he heard a noise that seemed to his twelve year-old ears to be the theatre collapsing. He covered his head and ran for his life, to find out next morning that it was not the sound of the theatre falling he had heard, but the screen falling in Act IV -- revealing, before thunderous applause, and all previous protestations to the contrary, Joseph Surface and Lady Teazle exchanging more than words.
Sheridan's career as playwright was over by the time he was thirty, given up for politics. There too he would bring the House down: at the end of one five and a half hour speech, he collapsed into the readied arms of a friend, to a cry of "My Lords, I have done!" and, apparently, the first cheering and applause in Parliamentary history.