When it comes to measuring time, sixty is an oddly benign number. It records the seconds into minutes and the minutes into hours indistinguishably. But when the number is used to mark the passage of years—three score can give one quite a jolt. So when the occasion crept up on me last week, I was need of rejuvenation.
An outing to the theatre would be the tonic I thought. But with the next Wilde play not until later in the month, I would need to find another balm for my (now) furrowed brow.
What then if not Oscar? Perhaps something pre-Oscar…
Which brings me, cryptically, to RBS.
But fear not if you are challenged by fiscal tedium; my allusion is not to any recent financial scandal—despite the fact that I do own the Royal Bank of Scotland, or, at least, a small part of the 82% of RBS which is in the hands of the UK government.
No. To any literate person, RBS means Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the scandal associated with him, of course, is his most famous play The School for Scandal (1777). We think also of his earlier play The Rivals (1775) which features the eponymic Mrs Malaprop who decorated so many of Sheridan’s pithy epitaphs (as she put it), although there’s no need to go into all the perpendiculars (as she also put it). Suffice to say that who better in whom to invest pre-Oscar study than his Dublin-born antecedent in the comedy of manners, to wit R.B. Sheridan.
MR COOPER GOES TO WASHINGTON
It was a Sheridan offering less well-traveled, however, that I lighted upon. Namely The Critic, which was first staged at Drury Lane Theatre in 1779. Other notable productions having been Tree’s star-studded version in 1911, and Olivier’s at the Old Vic in 1946.
The one I saw was the subject of a new production at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C. where it was cleverly coupled with a thematically similar offering from the 1960s by Tom Stoppard, meaning his farce The Real Inspector Hound—similar in as much as they both use the clichéd device of a-play-within-a-play in order to ridicule clichéd devices.
So it was to the nation’s capital to view the thing, but not without an initial complaint about the service these days on Amtrak. Gawd knows what Algy would have said about the inferior quality of the refreshments, so needless to say, I did not even bother to ask if there was any sherry.
Still, I managed to sustain my Sheridan mood on the way by an online discovery of the cartoon Uncorking Old Sherry (1805) reproduced at the head of this piece. It depicts then prime minister Pitt showering opposition benches with the puns, invective, and jokes from a bottle of old Sheridan, with the erstwhile fibster inside looking suspiciously like Oscar. If this was anything to go by, I thought, my search for Wilde ex machina may well have been presaged.
The first people we meet in The Critic are the characters Mr Sneer and Mr and Mrs Dangle—an early hint, perhaps, of a Sheridan penchant for prescience, as his quirky nomenclature seems to anticipate Dickens.
Further, he may well have prefigured Wilde, too, in the guise of our next character Sir Fretful Plagiary whose natural pose his ‘friends’ pretend to take seriously. The difference being that when Wilde in America was faced with being taken seriously he was wise enough to deflect it by asking of Whistler: what would he do if it ever happened to him?
Back in the eighteenth century, mind you, ridicule of the poseur via wordplay was no different. The original Sir Fretful (played by Daniel Terry) was a caricature of the dramatist Richard Cumberland, a man renowned for his vanity; so it’s perhaps fortunate for Oscar, but a pity for us, that Sheridan was not around a century later to note, as he might, that imitation is the insincerest form of O’Flahertie.
But these are merely labels of old Sherry.
Of more significance for the Wilde scholar is the body of the stuff. We find in the foppish Fretful—a dramatist who never means what he says, and would rather be ridiculed than ignored. A man who has a complex relationship with the press, and thinks that newspapers are an abomination, “not that I ever read them,” he protests. This is all quite Wildean, and in one exchange Sneer and Dangle pretend to be serious about press criticisms of Sir Fretful knowing them to be made up; while Sir Fretful, aghast at thinking them real, pretends to take them trivially.
FAKE IT ‘TIL YOU MAKE IT
Further parallels of the proto-Wilde can be seen with the entrance of the play’s protagonist, Mr. Puff, a theatre man who introduces himself as being “at your service—or anybody else’s”.
Such is Puff’s enthusiasm for the stage that he is far too busy writing positive reviews that he has no time to actually see the plays. But, Mr Puff is a promoter with a yen to write, and as a transducer of other authors, he lays the Wildean groundwork by surviving on deceit “until one has made a tidy sum”.
RBS BAIL OUT
The briefest word about Stoppard’s Hound is that it was clever without being satisfying, and amusing without being witty.
The Critic by Sheridan, conversely, was cerebral fun throughout. It was excellently (and necessarily) adapted, nay enhanced, by Jeffrey Hatcher’s judicial excisions, additions, and tweaking for the modern ear. There was even the added irony of a building evacuation halfway through, with the audience returning to the scene where the cast, fire-buckets in hand, attend to the pyrotechnics of an explosion in the play within a play. Life imitating art. But it would be unwise, if not farcical, to provide any more critical review of two plays that mock critical reviews.
So I take my leave of RBS with the reminder that when making a withdrawal one often loses interest—and, in speaking Chasubly, I should add that my metaphor was drawn, appropriately, from banking.