One of the greatest political cartoons of the 18th century is Gillray’s “Uncorking Old Sherry” (pictured). It shows William Pitt opening a bottle containing the easily recognisable features of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and an explosion of fibs, puns, stolen jokes, and invective erupting from it. Pitt and Sheridan confronted one another regularly in the House, and according to those who knew Pitt well he thought Sheridan a far more formidable opponent than Fox. On March 6, 1805 they had clashed with particular intensity. In a debate on the Additional Forces Bill Sheridan had attacked Pitt for what he presented as his betrayal of the Catholics. Having failed over Catholic emancipation, Pitt had returned to office in harness with a set of politicians determined to resist it, and in consequence his character was, said Sheridan, “degraded by the violation of a solemn pledge”.
According to Creevey both the accusation and Pitt’s furiously indignant rejection of it had trembled on the very edge of what was permissible in the House. However, in the later parts of his speech Sheridan had meandered off into digression and sarcasm, raising laughs but dissipating the moral force of his indictment. Sheridan’s inability to resist the beckonings of his own wit and fancy had given Pitt the opening for an effective retort, in the course of which he threw off this memorable sketch of Sheridan’s oratorical mode:
No subject comes amiss to him, however remote from the question before the House. All that his fancy suggests at the time, or that he has collected from others; all that he can utter in the ebullition of the moment; all that he has slept on and bottled up, are combined and introduced for our entertainment. All his hoarded repartees — all his matured jests — the full contents of his common-place book — all his severe invectives — all his bold and hardy assertions — all that he has been treasuring up for days and months — he collects into one mass, which he kindles into a blaze of eloquence, and out it comes together, whether it has any relation to the subject of the debate or not.
Pitt’s words clearly supplied the hint for Gillray’s cartoon. But the metaphors of wine and maturation which flit through Pitt’s reply also mischievously remind his hearers of Sheridan’s prodigious fondness for drink.
Sheridan’s ability to function without impairment after consuming vast amounts of alcohol astonished his contemporaries even in that hard-drinking age. Someone going to hear the debates in the House of Commons called in on his way at the Exchequer Coffee-House, where one of the other customers was studying a parcel of papers. Pushing the papers aside, he ordered a decanter of brandy, drank it off neat, and then walked away. The spectator followed soon after, and went up into the gallery of the House. He was astonished to hear the man he had seen drinking in the coffee house — who was Sheridan — give a long and brilliant speech. In the end, of course, even Sheridan was not invulnerable to such a course of conduct. His looks coarsened, and his second wife Hecca came to detest his drinking. Over the years her own health was undermined as a result of interrupted nights; for apparently Sheridan would never agree to sleep in a separate bed.
If wine was a constant presence in Sheridan’s life, it also could play an important role in his plays. The Duenna (1775), a comic opera-play, is now not often put on, although Byron, an immense admirer of Sheridan, thought it finer by far than Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. Set in Seville, The Duenna centres on the family of the wealthy Don Jerome. His son, Ferdinand, is in love with Clara, whose father is determined to send her to a nunnery. Jerome’s daughter, Louisa, is in love with Antonio, a man of honour but no fortune. Jerome intends to marry Louisa to the wealthy Jew, Isaac Mendoza, who is both avid for money and convinced of his skill as a schemer. However Mendoza is tricked into marrying Louisa’s duenna (that is, her guardian or chaperon), the aged but witty and resourceful Margaret.
The structural elements of the plot — two pairs of young lovers, obstructive parents, clever servants, fools who believe themselves wise, and the role of mistaken identity in frustrating the oppressive plans of the older generation — all have deep roots in the Western comic tradition. But an ingredient that Sheridan adds to this familiar mixture is the role of wine as an index to a character’s sanity. The play opens with Ferdinand’s servant, Lopez, wondering aloud at the very different behaviour of the upper classes when they fall in love:
. . . my love and my master’s differ strangely — Don Ferdinand is much too gallant to eat, drink or sleep — now, my love gives me an appetite — then I am fond of dreaming of my mistress, and I love dearly to toast her — This cannot be done without good sleep, and good liquor, hence my partiality to a feather bed, and a bottle —
Sheridan himself had a foot in both these camps. His courtship of his first wife, Elizabeth, was marked by the high romantic trappings of duels, elopement, and implacable parents. But he seems never to have followed Ferdinand down the path of abstinence — when it came to drink, he was firmly on Lopez’s side. The famous trio sung at almost the pitch of comic complication in Act II by Jerome, Isaac, and Ferdinand praises the power of wine to compose differences:
A bumper of good liquor,
Will end a contest quicker,
Than justice, judge or vicar.
So fill a cheerful glass,
And let good humour pass.
But if more deep the quarrel,
Why, sooner drain the barrel,
Than be the hateful fellow,
That’s crabbed when he is mellow.
This was certainly Sheridan’s personal philosophy, and the denouement of the play gives it a surprising human depth. His plans for his children foiled, Jerome ceases to struggle against the natural and inevitable: “Egad, I believe I shall grow the best humour’d fellow in Spain.” He opens his doors to all comers, promises an evening of “wine and dance”, and expresses the wisdom of accepting what has occurred in a final metaphor of drinking: “Our children’s weddings are the only hollidays that age can boast, and then we drain with pleasure, the little stock of spirits time has left us.”
In The Duenna wine produces a natural intoxication in which a temporary forgetfulness of the self can console us for, and occasionally rescue us from, the much more deadly consequences of infinitely more dangerous intoxicants of our own manufacture — that is to say, those delicious but conceited delusions which whisper to us that we are really much better looking, more intelligent, wittier, more subtle, and in a word simply better, than our fellowmen.