Sheridan, Thomas

, son to the preceding, by his wife Miss Macpherson, daughter of a Scotch gentleman, was born at Quilca in Ireland, the residence of Swift, in 1721. Swift was one of his sponsors, and treated him with kindness as long as he lived. The early part of his education he received from his father, who in 1734 sent him to Westminster school, at a time when he could very ill afford it. Our author was there immediately taken notice of upon | examination, and although a mere stranger, was by pure merit elected a king’s scholar. But this maintenance sometimes falling short, his father could not add fourteen pounds to enable his son to finish the year, which if he had done, he would have been removed to a higher class, and in another year would have been elected to Oxford or Cambridge. Being thus obliged to return to Dublin, he was sent to the university there, and took his master’s degree in arts. In 1738 he lost his father, and at that time intended to devote himself to the education of youth, and would immediately after taking his degree have entered upon this office, had he not now conceited that high opinion of the art of oratory from which he never afterwards receded, and in the restoration of which art (for he considered it as lost) he laboured with an uncommon degree of enthusiasm. In order to qualify himself for this undertaking, he fancied that he must himself learn the practice of oratory, and that the stage was the only school. With this last strange notion, he appeared on the theatre in Smock- alley, in January 1743, in the character of Richard III. and met with the greatest encouragement. His career, however, was soon interrupted by a petty squabble, the first of many in which it was his fate to be involved, with Gibber about Cato’s robe. The abusive correspondence which passed on this important occasion was printed in a pamphlet entitled * The Buskin and Sock, being controversial letters between Mr. Thomas Sheridan, tragedian, and Mr. Theophilus Gibber, comedian," 12 mo.

In Jan. 1744, Mr. Sheridan accepted an engagement at Covent-Garden, and came over to England accordingly. During his residence here, he published proposals, dated Oct. 16, 1744, for printing in 4to the works of his father, but from warn of encouragement or some other reason, the volume never appeared; and when, a few years before hi* death, he was asked where the Mss. w^re, could not recollect their fate. He played in 1744 at Covent-Garden, and in 1745 at Drury-Lane. During this latter season, some injudicious friends endeavoured to set up a rivalship between Sheridan and Garrick, which occasioned a quarrel between them, which was not made up when Sheridan left London. It is curious to observe how Sheridan treated Garrick on this occasion. Having on his return to Dublin undertaken the management of the theatre there, he, wrote to Garrick, informing him, “that he was then sole manager | of the Irish stage, and should be very happy to see him in Dublin: that he would give him all advantages and encouragement which he could in reason expect.” He also made an offer to divide all the profits with him, from their united representation, after deducting the incurred expences; but told him at the same time, that he must expect nothing from his friendship, for he owed him none: yet that all the best actor had a right to command, he might be very certain should be granted. Soon after the receipt of this letter Garrick arrived in Dublin, and had a meeting with Sheridan, who repeated the offer, and taking out his watch, which he laid on the table, said he would wait a certain number of minutes for his determination Such was Garrick’s situation at this time, that he accepted the terms, which, as well as his acquiescence in the arrogant manner of proposing them, he probably did not recollect with much pleasure, when his own merit and public favour had placed him on a vast height of superiority above his manager.

Mr. Sheridan appeared to much more advantage afterwards as a reformer of the manners of the Dublin audience, which he attempted with great spirit. The young and unruly among the male part of the audience, had long claimed a right of coming into the green-room, attending rehearsals, and carrying on gallantries, in the most open and offensive manner, with such of the actresses as would admit of them, while those who would not were perpetually exposed to insult and ill-treatment. These grievances Sheridan determined by degrees to remove, and at last happily effected, though not until he was involved in contests with the most tumultuous audiences, both at the hazard of losing his means of subsistence, and even of losing his life, from the resentment of a set of lawless rioters, who were at length, through an exertion of justice in the magistracy of Dublin in the support of public decency, convinced of their error, or at least of the impracticability of pursuing it any farther with impunity. During the space of about eight years, Mr. Sheridan possessed the office of manager of the theatre royal of Dublin, with all the success both with respect to fame and fortune that could well be expected; till at length he was driven from the stage and its concerns by another of those popular tumults by which managers and performers are daily liable to suffer. In the summer of the year 1754, in which the rancour of political party arose to the greatest height that it had almost ever | been known to do in Dublin, Mr. Sheridan unfortunately revived a tragedy, viz. Miller’s “Mahomet.” In this play were many passages respecting liberty, bribery, and corruption, which pleased the anti-courtiers as expressive of their own opinions in regard to certain persons at that time in power, and therefore they insisted on those passages being repeated, a demand which, on the first night of its representation, the actor in whose part most of them occurred, complied with. The absurdity, however, of such repetitions, merely as destroying the effect of the tragedy, having occurred to the manager, the same speeches, when again called for by the audience on the succeeding night, were refused by the actor, and he being obliged to hint the cause of his refusal, the manager became the object of their resentment. On his not appearing to mollify their rage by some kind of apology, they flew out into the most outrageous violence, cul the scenery to pieces with their swords, tore up the benches and boxes, and, in a word, totally despoiled the theatre; concluding with a resolution never more to permit Mr. Sheridan to appear on that stage.

In consequence of this tumult he was obliged to place the management of his ravaged playhouse in other hands for the ensuing season, and come himself to England, where he continued till the opening of the winter of the year 1756, when the spirit gf party being in some degree subsided, and Sheridan’s personal opponents somewhat convinced of the impetuous rashness of their proceedings, he returned to his native country, and having preceded his first appearance on the stage by a public apology for such parts of his conduct as might have been considered as exceptionable, he was again received with the highest favour by the audience. But now his reign, which had been thus disturbed by an insurrection at home, was yet to undergo a second shock from an invasion from abroad. Two mighty potentates from England, viz. Mr. Barry and Mr. Woodward, having found means to sound the disposition of the people of Dublin, with whom the former, exclusive of his allowed theatrical merit, had great interest by being their countryman, and finding it the opinion of many that a second theatre in that city would be likely to meet with eocouragenaent, if supported by good performers, immediately raised a large subscription among the nobility and gentry, set artificers to work, erected a new play-house in | Crow-street during the summer season, and, having engaged a company selected from the two theatres of London, were ready for opening by the beginning of the ensuing winter. And now, at a time when Mr. Sheridan needed the greatest increase of theatrical strength, he found himself deserted by some of his principal performers, who had engaged themselves at the r>ew house and, at the same time, some valuable auxiliaries which he had engaged from England, among whom were Mr. Theophilus Gibber and Mr. Maddox the wire-dancer, lost their lives in the attempt to come to Ireland, being driven by a storm and cast away on the coast of Scotland. This completed that ruin which had begun to take place, and had been so long impending over his head. He was now compelled entirely to throw up his whole concern with that theatre, and to seek out for some other means of providing for himself and family.

In the year 1757 Mr. Sheridan had published a plan, by which he proposed to the natives of Ireland the establish^ ment of an academy for the accomplishment of youth in every qualification necessary for a gentleman. In the formation of this design he considered the art of oratory, his favourite hobby, as one of the principal essentials; and in order to give a stronger idea of the utility cf that art, by example as well as theory, he delivered in public two or three orations calculated to give the highest proofs of the abilities of the proposer, and his fitness for the office of superintendant of such an academy, for which post he modestly offered his service to the public. His biographer, however, gives us no further account of this plan, but proceeds to relate more of his theatrical disputes, in which he always appears to have been unfortunate, although with a shew of reason on his side. In 1759 we find him again in England as a lecturer on his darling elocution. Four years before he had published a volume in 8vo, called “British Education the source of the Disorders of Great Britain. Being an essay towards proving that the immorality, ignorance, and false taste which so generally prevail, are the natural and necessary consequences of the present defective system of education; with an attempt to shew that a revival of the art of speaking, and the study of our own language, might contribute in a great measure to the cure of those evils.” In confirmation of this opinion, he fiad composed a course of lectures on elocution^ and | began to deliver them in London, Oxford, Cambridge, and other places, with the success which generally attends novel plans; and in one instance with very extraordinary success, for at Cambridge, March 16, 1759, he was honoured with the same degree he had received in Dublin, that of M. A. In the winter of 1760, he again appeared at Drury-lane theatre, and again had a quarrel with Garrick, which put an end to his engagement.

On the accession of his present majesty a pension was granted to him, and for some few years after this he appears to have been employed in delivering his lectures in different parts of the kingdom. In Scotland he was Ikh noured with so much attention, that a society was formed under the title of “The Society for promoting the reading and speaking of the English language in Scotland/' This was to be done by procuring a proper number of persons from England, duly qualified to instruct gentlemen in the knowledge of the English tongue, to settle at Edinburgh: and Mr. Sheridan,” whose ingenious and instructive lectures in this city first suggested the idea of establishing the society proposed, not only engaged to find out teachers and masters, and to communicate to them his ideas concerning the proper method of performing their duty, but also offered to visit Edinburgh as often as the situation of his affairs would permit,^ &c. In a long list of directors, ordinary and extraordinary, of this society, we find the names of Drs. Blair, Robertson, and Ferguson, with other men of learning, and some noblemen and gentlemen of rank, but of the further progress of the society we have no account.

But Mr. Sheridan was not yet discouraged, and after sone occasional engagements on the stage, published, in 1769, his “Plan of Education for the young nobility and gentry of Great Britain,” addressed to the king: in which he made a tender of his services^ and offered to dedicate the remainder of his days to the execution of the plan which he then proposed, which he considered as absolutely necessary to the plan itself; for he tells his majesty, “if the design be not executed by myself, it never will be by any other hand,” so strongly was his imagination possessed by this project. But unfortunately the novelty of the plan had worn off, its usefulness was disputed, its necessity had been doubted, its reputation had suffered not a little by ridicule, and its patrons had cooled much in their zeal for its propagation. The proposal, therefore, made to his | majesty in the above address passed without notice. The author, however, whose enthusiasm was increased rather than weakened by neglect, determined to persevere in spite of every obstacle. By writing, by conversation, and by public lectures, he endeavoured to support his plan; and when he saw himself unattended to, was not sparing of his invectives against the taste of the times. From this period his disappointment led him frequently to express himself with asperity, even against his royal benefactor; and it is remembered that on the declaration of American independence, in a moment of vexation and resentment, he declared a resolution of benefiting the new world with the advantages ungratefully neglected by his own country.

In 1769, 1770, and 1776, he performed at the Haymarket and Covent-garden theatres, after which last year he appeared no more as an actor. Though still willing to contribute to the public amusement, it was his misfortune to find the theatres shut against him by an influence which he always complained of, although unable to conquer it. On the retirement of Garrick in 1776, the purchasers of the share in Drury-lane, of which his celebrated son was one, agreed to invest our author with the powers of a manager; but here his usual ill luck attended him, for in about three years he relinquished his post, as not tenable but on what he thought ignominious terms.

The theatres being shut against him as a performer, he now returned to his literary avocations, and produced his 11 Dictionary of the English Language,“and his” Life of Swift," the only two of all his list of publications that are likely to^erpetuate his name. In 1784 and 1785, in conjunction with Henderson the actor, he read select passages from various authors, which was his last public exhibition. The following year he visited Ireland, where he is said to have been much consulted on certain improvements to be introduced in the modes of education in that kingdom. During his residence there he found his health deciine, and in hopes to re-establish it, came to England in the summer of 1788, and went to Margate, intending to proceed to Lisbon if he found no amendment. His strength however, rapidly failed, and he died at Margate, Aug. 14, 1788, in the sixty-seventh year of his age.

Mr. Sheridan’s biographer asserts that “his talents were more solid than brilliant, and his genius inferior to his industry.” If this opinion refers to his merit on the stage, | we are not enabled to appreciate its justice: if to his writings, we perceive very little that is either solid or brilliant, or. that deserves to be called genius. He set out in life with absurd and wild notions of the utility of oratory to cure the moral and political evils of the world, and he persisted in them to the last. His biographer allows that he had no mean opinion of himself, and might have added that this opinion of himself, with its concomitant, envy, his preposterous schemes, and his lofty sense of superiority, became the bane of his life, marked as it “uniformly” might be “with uprightness and integrity.” In his biography of Swift, he was fortunate in obtaining the best materials, but peculiarly unfortunate in a want of judgment to make use of them, and in not seeing, what every one else saw, that although they might furnish an impartial account of that.extraordinary man, they could by no art support a continued panegyric. Sheridan’s early attachment to the stage, where he was to learn his wonderworking oratory, proved of lasting detriment to him. It disturbed his imagination, threw his mind out of a regular train of thinking, and, with the distresses which his repeated quarrels and failures brought upon him, led him to the quackery of itinerant lectures, which were neglected after the first curiosity had been gratified.

Mr. Sheridan’s wife, Frances, was born in Ireland about the year 1724, but descended from a good English family which had removed thither. Her maiden name was Chamberlaine, and she was grand-daughter of sir Oliver Cham* berlaine. The first literary performance by which she distinguished herself, was a little pamphlet at the time of the political dispute relative to the theatre, in which Mr. Sheridan had newly embarked his fortune. A work so well timed exciting the attention of Mr. Sheridan, he by an accident discovered his fair patroness, to whom he was soon afterwards married. She was a person of the most amiable character in every relation of life, with the most engaging manners. After lingering some years in a very weak state of health, she died at Blois, in the south of France, in the year 1767. Her “Sydney Bidclulph” has been ranked with the first productions of the novel class in ours, or in any other language. She also wrote a little romance, in one volume, called “Nourjahad,” in which there is a great deal of imagination, productive of an ad­Vol. XXVII. H H | mirable moral. And she was the authoress of two comedies; “The Discovery,” and “The Dupe.1


Life prefixed to his Dictionary, fourth edition, 1790, 2 vols. 8vo. Biog. Dram. —Boswell’s Life of Johnson, &c.