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The School for Scandal

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

By Justin Hayford

When Richard Brindley Sheridan's The School for Scandal--that seemingly tissue-thin comedy about hypocritical aristocratic scandalmongers--premiered in London in 1777, it was a bona fide theatrical sensation. It enjoyed a lengthy run at the 2,300-seat Drury Lane, prompting the Gazeteer to gush that Sheridan "has happily restored the English drama to those rays of glory, of which it was long shorn by a tedious set of contemptible scribblers." One 12-year-old boy walking in the alley beside the theater on opening night reportedly mistook the sound of the crowd's ovation for the rumble of the building about to collapse.

Of course, London was a theater town: some 12,000 of its 750,000 inhabitants attended each week. Meanwhile, back in puritanical America, theater was not only morally suspect but prohibited by a resolution of the First Continental Congress. Although the British staged several of Sheridan's plays for their own amusement during the revolutionary period (a curious choice given the playwright's procolonialist stance), it wasn't until 1786 that a professional American troupe presented The School for Scandal in New York. And to the moral outrage of some of the nation's new leaders, General George Washington attended--more than once.

What could have attracted a man as studiously political as Washington to Sheridan's folly? To modern eyes--including those of director Brian Bedford in his current staging of the play for Chicago Shakespeare Theater--The School for Scandal appears a trifling gem in which members of London's idle upper crust scheme and deceive their way to social prominence, gleefully assassinating the character of anyone within spitting distance. But to audiences in Sheridan's day the play was radical and dangerous, carrying a coded seditious message in the characters of brothers Joseph and Charles Surface. Joseph appears a strict moralist, convincing half the town he's above reproach even as he connives his way into the bed of a married woman. Charles, on the other hand, is denounced for his life of open debauchery but in private moments is unfailingly generous and good-hearted. In these portraits Sheridan's audience would have clearly perceived Benjamin Hopkins and John Wilkes, two politicians competing for the office of city chamberlain. Hopkins, loyal to the crown, was an esteemed banker and merchant held in high regard, like Joseph, despite rumors that he lent money at an outrageous interest rate to a minor. Wilkes, the radical pro-American whom Sheridan supported, was an openly promiscuous philanderer and pornographer akin to Charles. By exposing the paragon of virtue as a hypocritical self-promoter and elevating the self-indulgent sot to a "loveable rake," Sheridan was stirring a volatile political pot. In fact, the night before The School for Scandal opened, the state censor threatened to shut the show down because of its references to Hopkins.

The play's veiled prorevolutionary message might have delighted Washington, but it seems inadequate to explain his love of the play. After all, by 1786 the war was over and the Hopkins/Wilkes contest was a dead issue. It seems more likely that Washington found an appealing kind of moral instruction in The School for Scandal. Eighteenth-century culture had been steeped in the cult of sensibility or sentiment, which valued deep, honest, simple emotion and considered authenticity of feeling a sure sign of morality. In a Europe increasingly overtaken by an ambitious middle class lacking traditional markers of social rank, such signs were urgently needed--and the situation was even more acute in America, which burst to life as a classless society (at least among propertied white males). Yet as Sheridan delightedly pointed out, sentiment is no true marker of a man's worth; after all, Joseph acts the part of the man of sentiment to near perfection. For Sheridan, a man's actions, informed by his native generosity, are the only true indicators of character. Charles may indulge his passion for wine and women, but when he falls into money he immediately dispatches a good portion of it to a poor relation he's never met. For Washington--the consummate man of action tutoring a fledgling nation to distance itself from European pretension--The School for Scandal must have provided affirmation of his beliefs.

These days, questions of reputation and character might seem quaint. Few of us are surprised when a supposed pillar of rectitude turns out to be a moral reprobate. And in our era of instant E-wealth, what relevance can virtue have? Still, given the eye-opening events of the last few weeks--when two well-polished, overly handled presidential candidates exposed themselves as maniacally ambitious, self-serving schemers hell-bent on being "right"--the time is perfect for The School for Scandal. Or at least for a production that imagines its audience to be engaged with the world. This, sadly, is not that production.

This School comes from the Stratford Festival of Canada--or rather is "based upon" the production mounted by the festival's artistic director, Richard Monette. Director Bedford is a longtime Stratford star who appeared as Sir Peter Teazle in that staging and reprises his role here. It's difficult to say what a director does when basing his production on someone else's production in which he starred. From the looks of things, Bedford told his actors to speak up and look sharp.

One striking feature of this production is its volume. For the most part, the actors spend the evening bellowing, as though they were in a much larger theater. You hear all the vocal effort, the great gasps for air, the exploding final ps, which send fine mists of saliva onto the stage. But you don't hear much in the way of nuance--and there's no surer way to flatten comedy, especially comedy as sprightly and verbal as Sheridan's. As Teazle, a man saddled with a social-climbing wife who insults him at every turn, Bedford maintains a state of such uniform perturbation he can do little but caterwaul for two and a half hours. Most of the rest of the cast follow suit, turning nearly every line into a blaring declaration. On occasion this assaultive approach works to great effect, especially when a supposedly genteel character drops all pretense of nicety and unleashes some angry invective in an aside to the audience. But more often Sheridan's wit is bulldozed, and long stretches of the play, especially during the first three acts, seem overworked dead space.

The production's second striking feature is the cast's general lack of investment in the play--or, more accurately, in anything below its surface. For that surface is dazzling, from Ann Curtis's elaborate period costumes and austerely elegant set to the admirably polished acting. Everyone here looks and behaves just right: Patricia Collins's cadaverous Lady Sneerwell, Timothy MacDonald's ultrafoppish Sir Benjamin Backbite, Donald Carrier's archly duplicitous Joseph Surface. But despite all the perfectly articulated brows and pointed toes, it seems the actors are mostly just going through the motions. And if their aristocratic characters don't live and breathe scandal, the play has no real stakes.

Take the opening scene, in which Lady Sneerwell presides over her clutch of gossips. One by one they enter her court--Mr. Snake, Mr. Surface, Mrs. Candour, Mr. Crabtree, Sir Benjamin Backbite--in an outrageous parade of eloquent malice. It's all giddy fun for a while, until it becomes disappointingly clear that the tales they tell are of no particular importance to them: they're merely passing the time, as though playing a few hands of whist rather than drawing sustenance from the destruction of others' reputations. These scandalmongers don't even seem convinced that what they're discussing is truly reprehensible. Whether elaborating upon the machinations a certain woman goes through to conceal her age or the impending marriage of a great lady to her footman, the dirt they dish is pale. But it should be pitch-black--or they should believe it to be--in order to give their gossip the kind of influence it apparently has.

Similarly, the tribulations Teazle faces from his wife are amusing enough but rarely rise above the level of a bachelor-party joke. And what should be the play's central ethical concern--the vying of Joseph and Charles for social prominence--seems something of an afterthought. When their wealthy uncle Sir Oliver goes to each of them incognito to test their moral worth, it seems an academic exercise. As Sir Oliver, James Blendick is a jovial cipher whose dealings with his nephews are most charitably described as cute--despite the fact that they are his sole heirs, and one will inherit his vast fortune.

If you can make it past intermission, the play starts to turn around, in large part because Sheridan's brilliantly orchestrated fourth act forces the main characters into a precarious farce. But the spontaneity the actors achieve in the final two acts only makes the preceding three seem all the more inert. And if you're going to produce a School for Scandal so resoundingly irrelevant, the least you can do is fill it full of life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Cooper.

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