Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Beneath his luminous eyes, people were troubled by Sheridan's face

The man who stepped out onto the street
was of medium height, broad-shouldered,
and well-built, giving the impression
of being large but not fat. His face,
though not very handsome, had an ambigu-
ity which people found fascinating.

Lord Byron said of him that 'the upper
part of Sheridan's face was that of a
god - a forehead most expansive, an eye
of peculiar brilliancy and fire; but be-
low he shewed the satyr.'

The brilliant Irish patriot and Parlia-
mentary nemesis of that deity of twits
on the American Right, Edmund Burke, was
probably afflicted by what his biographer,
Fintan O'Toole, diagnoses as a strepto-
coccal infection affecting the face. He
was certainly inflected by wit, which in
his early 20s he bestowed on the English-
speaking stage as The School for Scandal,
The Rivals, and The Critic (1775-79).

But possibly his greatest contribution
to his time and to the history of ideas,
in fact, lay in his resort to the theatre
to check the morbid absorption of social
climbers in the myths of the marketplace.
This gracious intervention of satire at-
tained a climax in his time which was the
natural reflex to the exposed lecheries
of "the invisible hand" of money interest.

Our domestic wits have been flaying us
all again this week with the nostrums of
Thatcherism. Let them be met critically.

Jean-Christophe Agnew
Worlds Apart: The Market
  and the Theater in Anglo-
  American Thought, 1550-1750
Cambridge University Press, 1986©

Fintan O'Toole
A Traitor's Kiss: The Life of
  Richard Brinsley Sheridan,
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998©

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