Hypocrisy rules in Sheridan’s ‘School For Scandal

The Actors’ Shakespeare Project is closing out its season with the masterful comedy of manners, “The School for Scandal.” From the pen of Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (adapted by Steven Barkhimer), the play weaves a witty tapestry examining the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of British high society in the 1770s. 

Filled with intrigue, lust, and the perils of social climbing vs. reputation, “School for Scandal” plays at the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge from April 13 to May 8.

Directed by the award–winning actress, writer, and teacher Paula Plum, the production features Sarah Newhouse, Omar Robinson, Richard Snee, Bobbie Steinbach, Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, Gabriel Graetz,  Rebecca Schneebaum, and Michael Underhill.

In today’s world of immediate access, privacy has become nonexistent while the public has developed an almost insatiable appetite for the latest juicy tidbits about Kim and Kayne. “School for Scandal” shows that our obsession with gossip began long before Gawker and TMZ.

The witty plot swirls around wealthy Sir Peter Teazle and his extravagant, free-spirited, and much younger wife, Lady Teazle.  Her personal attributes alone cause local tongues to wag.  But when whispers suggest the good lady may be involved in an indiscretion with the duplicitous Joseph Surface, the toxic tendrils of scandal begin to slither into every smart drawing room in London.

Add characters with names like Snake and Lady Sneerwell and you’ve got an idea of the embarrassing train wreck that lurks behind every fluttering eyelash.

“In this play, scandal is like a poisonous apple,” said Plum in an interview with the BIR. “They’re biting into it, and it’s delicious, but it really rots you from the inside out.”

For Sheridan’s cast of characters, acquiring information about secret transgressions and being the first to drop the bombshell involves skill and competition.  “It’s status. Who has the most scandalous story to tell?” said Plum.

“What is it that sells newspapers?  It’s not the good news,” she said. “We want the truth exposed.  But then we also want to see people exposed for what they truly are . . . There’s a certain schadenfreude that exists –(enjoying) seeing other people fall.  So there’s a double instinct being satisfied here.”

As one of Boston’s most respected artists, Paula Plum has appeared on virtually every stage in New England.  With multiple Elliot Norton and IRNE Awards to her credit, she has fascinated audiences in everything from “Savannah Disputation” at SpeakEasy Stage, to “Miss Witherspoon” at Lyric Stage, “Molly Sweeney” at Gloucester Stage, and “Mother Courage” at the ART. 

Plum, who traces her heritage back to her great grandfather in Co. Roscommon, has also served as artistic director of Brian O’Donovan’s “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” for the past 14 years. Additionally, in 2004 she was one of the founding members of Actors’ Shakespeare Project.  Because the company’s work is not exclusively bound by Shakespeare, she was intrigued by the prospect of directing “School for Scandal” this season.

“Every year we read a bunch of plays as a company,” she said. “We get together and we toss the plays around and we read them and we laugh and we try to figure out what’s the best fit. I had another play in mind, but this one was more suited to us as a company in terms of language and style.”

The language of “School for Scandal” has been singled out by scholars as being very “muscular.” Plum agrees. “That’s a very good description. It’s challenging for actors. Shakespeare is easy to memorize because there’s a tempo and a rhythm.  You know, the iambic rhythm.  It makes it much easier to memorize than one would think because you’ve got something to hang your hat on as you’re going. You know you’re missing a syllable somewhere if you’ve gotten to the end of a line and you’ve still got a foot left.”

She adds that “School for Scandal” is more complex and keeps the actors on their toes.  “The vernacular is – it’s a sentence with ten dependent clauses.  You’ve really got to think very, very, very fast.  You’ve got to think ahead of the line. The words have got to be completely inside of your body. It is very, very challenging, because it’s not the way we speak in everyday life.”

In many ways, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s life was grounded in language and the arts right from his birth in Dublin in 1751.  His mother was an author and his father an actor who later became an educator.  

After the family relocated to England, Sheridan himself was thrust into the headlines when a newspaper article defamed the character of Elizabeth Ann Linley, daughter of the composer Thomas Linley and the young lady who was soon to become Sheridan’s bride. As societal rules dictated, Sheridan challenged the author to a duel to defend Miss Linley’s honor.  The experience reportedly provided him with the kind of character assassination plot points he would later explore in “School for Scandal.”

Sheridan ultimately earned a solid reputation as a playwright with “The Rivals,” “The Critic” and “St. Patrick’s Day, or the Scheming Lieutenant,” among others.  Developing a real affinity for the theater in London, he purchased a partial interest in the historic Drury Lane Theatre.  He later acquired the theater outright.  Many of his plays, including “School for Scandal,” debuted there.

Not content to limit his spotlight to the arts, Sheridan entered politics in 1780 as a Whig member of the British House of Commons.  With his robust command of language, he proved himself a gifted orator.  When he died in 1816, he was buried in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Centuries after its debut, Sheridan’s “School for Scandal” still stands as one of the most enduring of all classic theater comedies. 

Scandal, deception, and scuttlebutt “are just as potent (now) as they were for 18th-century audiences,” said Plum. “But even as scandal reveals the unseemly hypocrisy of human nature, we all savor that moment when the hypocrite is exposed and truth triumphs. That sense of victory helps ‘The School for Scandal’ remain as topical and sharply funny today as it was in Sheridan’s time.”

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“The School for Scandal,” from Actors’ Shakespeare Project, April 13 - May 8, Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second Street, East Cambridge.  Information: 866-811-4111 or actorsshakespeareproject.org.