- Mr. MalAgitPropaganda
Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his most recent biographer have a common agenda: the use of Sheridan’s popularity as a playwright to weigh in on the issue of Irish independence.
It would have been better left to a biography of Judas Iscariot. A Traitor’s Kiss is the dreadful title of Fintan O’Toole’s finally eminently readable and largely satisfying biography of Sheridan. If you pick up this book expecting the typical theatrical bio, full of fulsome anecdotes about backstage shenanigans, you will be disappointed. O’Toole is after frying much bigger fish. His aim is no less than complete rehabilitation; he seeks to reclaim Sheridan’s atrophied Irishness.
Unfortunately the waters are a bit rough at the top. Here I call on the full privilege of my surname and my sainted mother’s maiden name, Galligan, and her sainted mother’s before her, Murphy, when I say that only an Irishman would begin such a biography: “About fifteen years after his death, Richard Brinsley Sheridan spoke to a young black boy in Baltimore. Frederick Douglass, then a house slave around twelve years old . . .” So the ghost of your man rises from the vapors of a book’s leaves to inspire the future abolitionist, don’t you know? It isn’t that the story lacks interest or credence or consequence, but that the “drama” of it is so ‘round-the-peat-fire forced. This is a lamentable thing when Sheridan’s own dramaturgy is a marvel of ease. (Indeed, his critics scoff, it is too silken to be substantial.)
Such hyperbolic engagement also calls attention to O’Toole’s relentless desire at the opening of the work to hammer home his subject’s worthiness. The quotation above comes from the “Preface to the American Edition,” which is full of agitated insistence that America really ought to care about a biography of an eighteenth-century Irish politician/playwright. Such zealous relevance busking is, at best, irrelevant. Perhaps it’s there for those browsing in Barnes and Noble, unable to decide between O’Toole’s book and Tom Clancy’s new spy yarn. “Richard Brinsley Sheridan, isn’t he the guy who wrote all those Richard North Patterson books? I’ll take it!” Come to think of it, that may explain the title, too. A Traitor’s Kiss. See the movie. Read the book.
After having told the dark, fantastical tale of the O Sioradain clan of West Cavan with their unusual passe-partout position in the Irish insurrection of 1641, O’Toole settles in to his main task. He manages to tell the story of the son of Jonathan Swift’s godson, the second son of a dour Irish actor/elocution teacher, given [End Page 128] his dead brother’s borrowed handle (RBS was christened Thomas, “so that ghosts hovered at his baptism”), bereft of a mother at age fourteen, obliged by his father to shift for himself at a British boarding school, obliged by honor and his sense of the dramatic to fight two duels for the lily white hand of an English songbird and elope with her to France and a dubious Catholic marriage ceremony despite the fact that both were Protestant (though it seems the Ulster O Sioradains of Olde were of the Faith), wise enough to use the notoriety gotten from his fighting and his wife’s career to gain entrée into the beau monde, where he wowed the crowd at Covent Garden twice in his first season out (first with The Rivals and then with the even more popular Duenna), thereby bringing himself to the notice of David Garrick, then manager of Drury Lane, who would crown Sheridan his heir apparent, giving the young man a great deal of influence in the cultural life of London and enormous incentive to write perhaps his best plays, The School for Scandal and The Critic. All this is related in not much more space than I’ve taken here. It’s a breakneck pace; by page 157 (of 472) O’Toole...