Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 2000
His first three plays were produced when he was 24. By age 28, he’d penned two timeless classics (The Rivals, The School for Scandal) and had given up writing for good.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) wrote bitingly funny social satires, filled with affairs and betrayals, amorous and other assorted (and sordid) adventures, misadventures and mishaps. His life was equally rife with excitement and intrigue.
Sheridan turned from writing to politics, becoming a Member of Parliament and an eminent orator. He was known for his profligate lifestyle and his serious penchant for inebriation. Through it all, he continued as principal manager of London’s historic Drury Lane Theatre — until he watched (from an armchair!) as it burned to the ground in 1809, just a few years before his death.
At about the same time, unbeknownst to many, he had a fleeting friendship with a much younger man, one no less acclaimed or notorious. George Gordon, Lord Byron, was nearly 40 years Sheridan’s junior. The life of the Romantic poet was filled with fireworks and scandal. The meeting of these two minds was too delicious for New York-based playwright David Grimm to ignore. When he discovered a Byron diary entry about Sheridan (“Poor fellow. His very dregs are better than the first sprightly runnings of others”), that clinched it.
“It was the end of one age and the beginning of another,” says the contemplative Grimm. “They were from different worlds; Sheridan was the Old Guard, giving way to the Romantic period. I’ve always loved the late 18th century. Its society and politics laid the groundwork for the world we live in. And here was this older man, who’d seen life and the world, who’d been a firebrand in his youth, now a horrible old drunk, passing the torch to this beautiful, sexy, vital young man. I’ve always been fascinated by the mentor relationship.”
And that’s how it all began, eight years ago, when Grimm started writing Sheridan. But it was a large-cast (15-character) play in these small-cast, fiscally conservative times, and so he shelved it. This didn’t stop him from writing another historical drama, Kit Marlowe, which is about to be produced at the New York Shakespeare Festival/ Public Theatre. In the meantime, Anne Hamburger read Sheridan and chose to produce its world premiere as part of her first season as artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse. “I love his ability to carve out vivid characters within a swashbuckling story about big issues: morality, hypocrisy and the meaning of friendship,” Hamburger said. “And Grimm does all this with … great wit.”
At the time of his initial work on the piece, the ‘NEA-4′ debacle (the controversial governmental rescinding of artists’ grants) was in full swing.
“It made me think about the role of art in society,” says the playwright. “Does the government have a part to play in the world of art?”
In his comic drama, Grimm presents a governmental Ethics Committee which, in his hands, clearly smacks of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee (that’s another of his favorite eras).
“There was a major judicial crusade against homosexuals at that time in England,” Grimm explains. “A real moral persecution. One thinks of the late 18th century as flamboyant and permissive, but actually, it was a very conservative political environment, and out of that burst forth these revolutions [in America and France].
But the overarching theme of the play, according to Grimm, is the choices one makes in one’s life, and the impact they have on other people and on society.
“I was looking at what guides people’s lives. For all their glorious intents, people are often motivated by their basest desires — especially the lust for power, money and sex.”
This merry (and eternally intriguing) triumvirate is transformed by Grimm into something larger than life.
“I hate naturalistic theater,” he avers. “People don’t write tragic heroes any more.”
Sheridan qualifies as tragic, in the Aristotelian sense of being a great man whose errors in judgment and character flaws bring about his downfall. But the play is really a social satire, much like the work of Sheridan himself, wherein Grimm gets to take playful potshots at politics and religion, royalty and the rich, poets, actors, playwrights and pretension. And he’s thrilled to be premiering it in San Diego.
“There’s something very disappointing about New York audiences,” Grimm admits. “They have a very jaded outlook toward theater. ‘Oh, we know what theater is, so we won’t let it touch us.’ I want to write for an audience who’ll listen and respond, whether they agree or not. It’s like a discourse over dinner. If it’s all ‘Been there, done that,’ what’s the point? Discourse is more visceral, more real, more exciting.
“This isn’t about writing a play that presents historical fact. It’s weaving together historical fact and historical fancy, to achieve deeper insight into these people and people in general. I believe in the potential to make things better — and trying to make people laugh. Sheridan is a drama, but structurally, it’s a comedy. Life is so easy to cry about; the real hard work is to be able to look at it and smile. That’s where the real bravery lies.”
Sheridan continues through August 20 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre of the La Jolla Playhouse; 858-550-1010; www.lajollaplayhouse.com
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.