Friday, May 15, 2015

Playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, once rich and powerful, died in poverty

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, celebrated author of The Rivals and The School for Scandal, popular owner of Drury Lane Theatre, and longtime Member of Parliament, died in abject poverty shortly after a sheriff’s officer tried to drag him out of his deathbed to debtors’ prison. Sheridan’s descent from fame and fortune to squalid misery was the result of his election defeat after thirty-two years in office, the destruction of his theatre in a fire, and his own prodigal lifestyle.

Born to a middle-class family in Dublin in 1751, Sheridan moved with them to London when he was seven. His mother was a playwright and novelist and his father, at one time an actor-manager, was an author on educational topics.  Young Richard attended the prestigious Harrow School, then was privately tutored in academics, fencing, and horsemanship.

At age twenty-one Richard fell madly in love with Elizabeth Ann Linley, fought a duel that nearly killed him in defense of her honor, and then eloped with her.  Although nearly penniless, the couple set up housekeeping in London in grand style among a fashionable crowd. To support them, Sheridan turned to playwriting. After a disastrous opening-night of his comedy The Rivals at Covent Garden, he replaced one cast member, reopened the next night, and found he had a smash-hit on his hands. His reputation was secured. 

Sheridan rode a wave of popularity, which was enhanced by his next play, the even more successful School for Scandal. With several partners, including the actor David Garrick, he bought the Drury Lane Theatre, which he also managed before becoming its sole owner.

Deciding to enter politics, Sheridan stood for Parliament and was elected in 1780, allying himself with those who favored the upstart American colonists who had revolted and formed a new nation. Years later, when Sheridan was deeply in debt, the American Congress thanked him for his support by offering him £20,000—an enormous sum, which Sheridan proudly refused to accept. During his Parliamentary career, Sheridan lived grandly, hobnobbing with royalty, nobility, and powerful politicians, spending money freely, and engaging in some questionable business ventures. His wife, Elizabeth, died, and in 1795 he married Hester Ogle, daughter of the Dean of Winchester.

In 1809 the Drury Lane Theatre was destroyed by fire, and Sheridan went deeply into debt trying to rebuild it. In 1812, after thirty-two years of continuous service in Parliament, he was defeated for re-election. Creditors closed in on him, and he fell ill, suffering circulatory problems and an undiagnosed stomach ailment. At the same time Hester developed a cancer from which she would suffer for several years.

Sheridan retreated to a house at 7 Savile Row in the posh Mayfair district of London—but it was soon depleted of any elegant furnishings and bill-collecting bailiffs took possession of the premises.

The Irish writer Thomas Moore gave this account of Sheridan’s final days: “The disorder with which he was now attacked arose from a diseased state of the stomach, brought on partly by irregular living and partly by the harassing anxieties that had for so many years without intermission beset him. His powers of digestion grew every day worse… his stomach was completely worn out, and he could no longer bear any kind of sustenance…Connected no doubt with the disorganization of his stomach was an abscess, from which, though distressingly situated, he does not seem to have suffered much pain. In the spring of the year, however, he was obliged to confine himself amost entirely to his bed.”

Not long before his death, a sheriff’s officer arrested Sheridan in his bed and was about to carry him off, wrapped in his blankets, to a debtor’s jail, when his physician, Dr. Bain, intervened and warned the officer of the blame he would incur if his prisoner died on the way. The officer backed down.

Sheridan began to suffer shivering fits, then fell into a state of complete exhaustion. The Bishop of London read prayers at his bedside, and two days later, on Sunday, July 7, 1816, Sheridan died at the age of sixty-four.

On Saturday afternoon, July 13, a procession on foot carried his corpse from the home of a friend on Great George Street to Westminster Abbey, where Sheridan was laid to rest near David Garrick in the only remaining available spot in Poets’ Corner. His wealthy, highly placed friends, who had abandoned him in the poverty-stricken months before his death, now turned out in force for his funeral. The pallbearers included three dukes, two marquises, eight earls, the Lord Mayor, and the Bishop of London. An anonymous wag wrote this sharply satirical lament:

            Oh it sickens the heart to see bosoms so hollow
            And friendships so false in the great and high-born—
            To think what a long line of Titles may follow
            The relics of him who died, friendless and lorn!

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