- Thomas Sheridan’s Career and Influence: An Actor in Earnest
In his witty and engaging introduction, Conrad Brunström rehearses the reasons why Thomas Sheridan (1719–1788) is not better known. As an actor, theater manager, public lecturer, lexicographer, and educationalist, Sheridan realized his achievements in a multiplicity of fields in a way that challenges our current academic disciplinary boundaries. In addition—and unfortunately for Sheridan, as least as far as posterity is concerned—he was also completely surrounded by talented family members more attractive than himself and by whom he has been occluded: his father, also Thomas, a poet and cherished friend of Jonathan Swift; his wife Frances, a highly esteemed and successful novelist and dramatist; and his children, among whom the most famous was the dramatist, orator, and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Finally, Thomas Sheridan possessed an outstanding ability to “lose friends and alienate people” (2), among them such influential figures as Samuel Johnson. Some aspects of Sheridan’s diverse career have received detailed attention, but Brunström can correctly claim to offer “the first full-length study of Sheridan to consider his life and works in its totality” (12).
In the context of Sheridan’s unjust neglect, it is perhaps ill advised of Brunström to contend quite so cheerfully that his subject’s publications are devoted to the repetition of just two main ideas: first, that Dublin could support [End Page 453] only one theater and that he, Thomas Sheridan, should run it; and second, that the cultivation of oratorical technique was essential to national well-being. That the first idea vanishes from Brunström’s book early on might make the situation even more perilous, but in fact this study does demonstrate in a satisfying way that Sheridan’s conceptions of oratory, and the fields of cultural endeavor in which he elaborated them, not only give his career coherence and “continuity of purpose” (108) but also allow him to contribute significantly to important eighteenth-century cultural concerns.
Following a biographical survey of Sheridan’s life, the book devotes chapters to examining three main areas of his life’s work: his efforts as a theater manager and reformer, mainly in Dublin in the late 1740s and early 1750s; his publications in the field of education, most notably British Education (1756), A Course of Lectures on Elocution (1762), and his Dictionary of the English Language (1789); and finally, Sheridan’s edition of Jonathan Swift’s works (1784), which Brunström represents as an example of patriotic biography. Sheridan’s tenure as manager of the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin was marked by two incidents that have received a good deal of attention in histories of the Irish stage: the Kelly riots of 1747 and the “Mahomet” riots of 1754. In the first instance a drunken Edward Kelly, who had assaulted actresses backstage and then returned to disrupt the performance, was confronted by theater manager Sheridan, whose assertion that “I’m as good a gentleman as you are” instigated the riot. The second event, which essentially ended Sheridan’s tenure as manager, came from the frustration of an audience’s desire for an encore of a speech in Voltaire’s Mahomet which was understood to have a patriotic application.
Whereas such scholars as Helen Burke have seen Sheridan’s behavior as evidence of his toadying to Dublin Castle and the English administration in Ireland, Brunström is eager to minimize this accusation and to emphasize instead Sheridan’s contribution to the evolution of “player gentility” (31). By protecting his actresses, evicting audience members from the stage, and effecting sundry other reforms, Sheridan contributed to the development of the stage as a separate space in which actors could most persuasively speak and most effectively serve as educators. More speculatively, and somewhat outlandishly, Brunström also argues that Sheridan’s theater reforms and subsequent championship of the career of Sarah Siddons contributed significantly to the development of the spectator’s “gaze” that would be the defining characteristic of twentieth-century cinema. A...