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The lack of self-respect in particular characters in the play, like Lady Sneerwell and Joseph, sends the message that some people have higher priorities than self-respect. Lady Sneerwell's deep desire to gain Charles to marry her leads her to a chain of unrespectable acts of intrigues and backbiting, in the process, conspiring with equally dubious characters like Joseph and Snake who also follow selfish and destructive agendas of their own. Forming a derogatory School for Scandal all alone speaks against self-respect as against all of those perpetuating that School. While it seems outwardly pleasurable to prey on other people's mistakes, misfortunes and weaknesses, perpetrators of scandals and hypocrisy do not gain the superiority they want among themselves. Lady Sneerwell, Sir and Lady Backbite, Mrs. Candour and Joseph may share a common objective of destroying relationships and reputation but this destructiveness does not build them up in the real sense, but creates distrust in one another, aware of one another's insincerity.
Still another message is the overwhelming influence of society towards its members. Lady Sneerwell's School has been founded on luxury and a false sense of superiority before Sir Oliver comes into the scene to smash the illusion. For some time, her School was the direction to take in order to feel accepted. Lady Teazle is misled by the School into thinking that the way to be "in" is to have illicit relationships, hence her affair with Joseph, which is soon revealed and to her shame and at a price. Lady Sneerwell's hypocrite friends may have little or better work to do than seeking out the frailties of others or assign these frailties to those who obstruct their intents. And because it seems easier to join the established flow than go against it, other mentors in this School yield to the policy of character assassination in indoctrinating their trainees and others socially weaker than themselves.
The play also brings to light the power of money, as in the case of Snake, whose previous loyalty to Lady Sneerwell in producing false testimony on a relationship between her and Charles is tested and defeated by bribery in a latter Act and Scene. This suggests that Snake must be financially vulnerable to the point of recanting his earlier witness. The same message on the influence of money is transmitted in the case of Charles who auctions the family heirloom to the disappointment of his disguised uncle. At the same time, Charles reveals his fidelity to his unknown uncle by retaining the latter's portrait. Thus, he inadvertently shows his loyalty and gratitude to him. The message is that we can never utterly know who are truly loyal to us in open situations, because true loyalty is spontaneous and in many cases, unexpressed or hidden.
The most important message of the play is the power that words have over human affairs, lives and decisions, even destiny. The School abuses that power and subjects it to the mean objectives and wiles of its members. Tales, suspicions, and judgments are often formed, transmitted and endure verbally. The injurious words of the School have defamed Charles as a spendthrift and Lady Teazle as an adulteress. At the same time, the tongues of Lady Sneerwell and company have consistently deified Joseph as a paragon of virtue. In time, repeated gossips become accepted as people become careless with their speech. The play warns that gossips and false judgments produce much unhappiness or influence people to commit more mistakes to gossip about. Lady Teazle's experience illustrates this. Sir Peter, instead of confronting his wife or Charles directly, is driven by gossips to approach Joseph in the quest for truth. In the process, Sir Peter is led to that truth but not in the way he intends.
In the time of Drury Lane Theater where the play was a clamoring success (Matthews 1987) in its first presentation on May 8, 1777, characters like Lady Sneerwell and her friends sat in 18th century salons where they sipped scandal-broth and perused "scandal-sheets" or newspapers for juicy gossips. This scenario has persisted into the 21st century with its classy version of scandal sheets. In 1988, Paul Marcus' California production had Lady Sneerwell and Sir Benjamin Backbite reading the National Enquirer. Peter Wood presented Joseph Surface in 1990 (Matthews).
The contemporary 21st century School for Scandal is located in a glass-blocked, sophisticated penthouse with its fashionably costumed (Rodriguez 2000) mentors and students and top-of-the-line equipment, appliances, tools and gadgets installed and operating in optimum efficiency. They no longer put on powdered wigs but high-punk fashion and trendy songs that relate to the current era. Whatever props and costumes have been applied through the centuries, the presentation of Sheridan's appealing comedy has remained strong and amusing (Rodriguez). Other productions interpret Lady Sneerwell as the owner of an upscale salon whose prime objective is to gossip. Lady Teazle is a modern and young wife of a rich but gullible businessman, Peter Teazle. She is cajoled into the gossip circle, which influences her into overspending. These latter-day productions depict Sir Oliver as returning from Calcutta and testing his nephews' characters. In Sheridan's time, a sense of morality was high, but in present-day presentations of the play, the berated and beleaguered Lady Teazle's contrition is not as profound as Sheridan's play presented at first. The modern Lady Teazle wears a baby doll dress and tights and expresses just enough remorse for her indiscretion to get her husband back (Rodriguez).
At the Trinity Repertoire Conservatory, the set designer featured outrageous apparel for the gossipers from the concepts of RISD students (Rodriguez 2000). Its directors Baron and Savage retained the lavish penthouse setting and its rogue elevators for easy and convenient entrances and exits. They also used a walker around the sweeping stairs, a balcony bridge and a white shag carpet for the central space. The elevator had lighted buttons and its aerial view provided a "screen scene" to the fourth act. In this scene, Lady Teazle wore a polka-dotted Twister game-board cape in setting the stage for Joseph's seduction. On the other hand, Director Fred Sullivan, Jr. had a great time dressing the disguised Sir Oliver up as Mr. Premium and as the poor relative, and more particularly in presenting Charles' refusal to part with his uncle's portrait.
Other productions expressed Lady Sneerwell in the midst of gossipers who wore turbans, bangles, and leotard with a "nouveau riche" air and faces (Rodriguez 2000). The School of Scandal of Sheridan's time has undergone lots of changes in presentation according to production intents and interpretations.
Director Jeffrey Jones translated the bawdy version in Sheridan's time to an elegant, tasteful presentation that resembled a minuet (Creasey 2000). He added a modern prologue, written by Todd Hearon, and an improved epilogue of the repentant Lady Teazle by Maggie Dietz, in combination with David Bell's original and classical "French" score and a visible experience of backstage events. In addition to the "screen scene," there was the delayed appearance of a principal character in Sir Oliver
These modern-day presentations featured ingenious and creative, even outlandish, costumes of infinite variety and fancy. High hairstyles to produce wicked effects have been used along with modern fashion to bring the streamline spectator into an experience with Sheridan's creation. Whatever the scenery and costumes utilized to create these effect and impact, Sheridan's peculiar circumstances were not unique to his day when he went through disappointments and felt victimized by these. His first attempts at presenting a play with speed, the lord chamberlain's refusal to license his play and the huge debts that hounded him later in life got incorporated into his enduring comedy and today's production outfits are bringing these realities out in the most current manner possible (Wikipedia 2004). The idea of a "scandalous college" had already occurred in him five years before his sister suggested it and in response to his experiences in Bath. He experimented with more than plot to fully dramatize the incidents already in his mind. In the process, he produced the most natural and so brilliant dialogues, especially in the auction scene and the screen scene that, even in his time, his first presentation was generally hailed. Today's interpreters continue to declare that nothing in Sheridan's time or experience is unique or extinct (Wikipedia).
Cordner, Michael, editor. The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Oxford World Classics: Oxford University, 1998. http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0192825674/026-9
Creasey, Beverley, reviewer. Charming "School for Scandal." The Theater Mirror, 2000. http://www.theatermirror.com/sfsbtber.htm
Lipfest, David. The School for Scandal. CurtanUp Review, 2004. http://www.curtainup.com/school.html
Matthews, Julia. The School for Scandal Notes. The Fine Print, 1998. http://www.gashakespeare.org/plays/1997/scandl-notes.html
Sommer, Elyse. The Metaphors of Richard Brinsely Sheridan. CurtainUp…[continue]
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