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istering in the chamber of sickness to mustering at
The splendid sorrows that adorn the hearse,' I say life and succor against Westminster Abbey and a funeral.”
The Irony of Fate. But it was too late. Sheridan died on July 7, 1816. And then came a touch of dramatic irony which was like the studied effect of a play.
play. No sooner was he dead, than those who had neglected him in his evil days hastened to honor his memory. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and was followed to his grave by men who represented all that was noble and powerful in the land. It was a fine thing that this occurred; yet one must ask with Moore: “Where were they those royal and noble persons who now crowded to 'partake the yoke' of Sheridan's glory; where were they all while any life remained in him? Where were they all but a few weeks before, when the zeal now wasted on the grave might have soothed and comforted the deathbed ?”
His Achievement. Sheridan is remembered to-day as the writer of the only old plays since Shakespeare which really give pleasure. To his contemporaries he was not only a great dramatist but a great orator. He was, moreover, brilliant in conversation, charming in society, and sincere in friendship. His career was diversified by flashes of the most extraordinary genius and descents into the lowest depths. He stepped aside at the highest period of his political life to squander his wonderful powers in a friendship with the Prince Regent and his school. His greatest work was all done while he was still young; his later life
“bound in shallows and in miseries,” without the power to “ take the current when it serves.”
SOME FEATURES OF LONDON LIFE IN THE
The City. The Comedy of Manners, the type to which belong the three plays in this book, reflects the conditions of its time. A brief glance at eighteenth-century London will therefore help us to appreciate these plays. The city may be thought of as containing about 500,000 inhabitants, extending for several miles along both sides of the river, and embracing within itself the extremes of riches and poverty. In its narrow streets the gilded chariot of the nobleman splashed mud on the tradesman or the country fellow who had come in to see the sights. Alongside the docks below London Bridge lay ships freighted with merchandise from all the world. Out of the city ran roads to every part of the kingdom; roads that were hub-deep in mire and infested with highwaymen.
Contemporary Pictures. The life of the time is vividly pictured in the essays of Addison and Steele, and London in particular is the subject of Gay's Trivia, a poem which should be read by anyone who would know how men lived then and what they did. The great novels, too, contain many descriptions of the vanished period. In Pamela, Tom Jones, Humphrey Clinker, and The Vicar of Wakefield the strange contrasts of the day are faithfully recorded.
Amusements. Life was full and vigorous. Among the amusements were cricket and football, rowing and ballooning, cock-fighting, bear-baiting, and prize-fighting. Huge fairs were held in or near the city. On the outskirts lay the great resorts of Vauxhall and Ranelegh Gardens, much frequented by the wealthier classes. For the use of the general populace there was a kind of “ vast metropolitan gymnasium " in Finsbury Fields. It was the
” centre of attraction for runners, boxers, archers, wrestlers, and athletes of all sorts.
Gambling. Gambling was carried on to an almost incredible extent. It was a national passion. “Society was one huge casino. On whatever pretext and under whatever circumstances half a dozen people of fashion found themselves together whether for music, or dancing, or politics, or for drinking the waters or each other's wine the box was sure to be rattling, and the cards being cut and shuffled." That fashionable lounger and well-known man of the world, Horace Walpole, says in one of his letters that Whist“ has spread a universal opium over the whole nation; it makes courtiers and patriots sit down to the same pack of cards." There were great gaming clubs — White's, Brooks's, Almack's. At the card tables in these places fortunes were won and lost. One of the “deepest" players was the famous Charles James Fox. * Charles Fox,” runs a letter of the period,“ sat down to cards last Tuesday after dinner, played all night and next morning, and in that time lost 12,000 pounds : by five that afternoon, he had lost 11,000 more.'
Outside of London the principal center for gambling was Bath, whither speculators of all sorts flocked during the summer. A few of the more strong-minded players were able to overcome the fascination of deep play. George
Selwyn, an intimate friend of Horace Walpole, thus shook himself free; “it was,” said he, too great a consumer of four things — time, health, fortune, and thinking.” William Pitt used to join in “ with intense earnestness," but" perceived the increasing fascination," and presently abandoned gaming for ever. The custom was by no means confined to gentlemen of fashion. The ladies, too, played heavily; the references in The School for Scandal and The Rivals would find a ready echo in the minds of the audience for whom the plays were written.
Dueling. Dueling and hard drinking were prevalent. The former practice is referred to by a contemporary writer as the reigning curse of the age. Duels were fought upon the slightest pretext; the excuse made by Sir Lucius O’Trigger in The Rivals is scarcely an exaggeration :
“Pray, sir, be easy; the quarrel is a very pretty quarrel as it stands; we should only spoil it by trying to explain it.” In fact, the whole duel episode in this play owed its success to its faithful portrayal of a familiar custom. The offense, real or imaginary, once taken, "satisfaction" must be
“ given; a false code of honor (but a very strict one) made no other attitude possible.
A very interesting defense of the custom is found in some remarks of Dr. Johnson. He was dining on one occasion, in company with Goldsmith and Boswell, with the “brave old general ” Oglethorpe, the founder of the colony of Georgia. The subject of dueling came up, and the general said that “undoubtedly a man has a right to defend his honor." Johnson's views show so well the best opinion of the day that they may be quoted in full: