Friday, November 23, 2012

The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

This volume may well have been the most enjoyable for me thus far.  It has also been the quickest read in quite some time (I find that play scripts read almost as quickly as watching the plays).  It is called "Modern English Drama," and by "Modern" it strictly means "not ancient."  The closest to present-day offering in the volume comes from Lord Byron.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the works of the ancients are less alien to us than works of comedy of manners. And just saying that makes me feel as if cultural evolution derailed somewhere along the track.

I enjoyed reading this play tremendously.  My two major recurring thoughts throughout the reading were:
1.)  Here is a progenitor of the work of P.G. Wodehouse.
2.)  I would love to produce this play today (in the back of my head I still dream of having a theater company which produces classic works of theater.  Some dreams don't fade, you just give up, at some bleak point in your life, trying to make them into a reality).  But would a contemporary audience accept it?  Am I overly cynical about contemporary audiences?
To the latter question: Probably.  To the former question: Perhaps.  We have this dismissive image of the comedy of manners as a genre of Restoration era filigree.  Men in powdered wigs are about as alien to today's audience as fungus on Neptune.  But the truths about human nature revealed in this play are eternal, which I suppose accounts for its endurance. 

The matter of the play deals with a group of people who gossip mercilessly and to the destruction of many.  Some have proto-Dickensian names like Sir Benjamin Backbite.  There is the usual course of intrigues, turn arounds, and comeuppances, which season our delight in observing people behaving badly in a manner to make it more palatable (a bit of a lost aspect of the art in my humble opinion).  It becomes a study in human nature and a mirror held up to the audience.  My favorite scene was the one where Charles Surface auctions off portraits of his ancestors to his disguised uncle Sir Oliver Surface.  Sir Oliver's series of reactions are hilariously true and, in the end, we see how far the apple lies from the tree.  I would want to play Sir Oliver (the old rascal).

Next up is another comedy of manners.  Here is Samuel Barber's Ouverture for The School for Scandal: 

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