The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VIII. Nineteenth-Century Drama

§ 2. Richard Lalor Sheil

Richard Lalor Sheil, who is more famous, perhaps, as politician than as dramatist, first came before the public with Adelaide; or, The Emigrants, a tragedy of the French revolution, which was produced in Dublin in 1814 and at Covent garden, where it occupied the stage for one night only, in 1816. The savagery of Hazlitt’s attack upon this tragedy in The Examiner may be due, in great measure, to his resentment of the author’s endeavour to “drench an English audience with French loyalty” to the house of Bourbon. In spite of this, Hazlitt’s condemnation is scarcely excessive, though there are passages of modest merit in the verse. Sheil’s second tragedy, The Apostate, produced at Covent garden in 1817, met with more success. A tragedy of the Moors in Spain, this piece pleased Hazlitt a little better, because it contained a passage on the horrors of the inquisition; but he is just in his strictures, that the tragic situations are too violent, frequent and improbable, and that the play is full of a succession of self-inflicted horrors. It is effective stage-work, if far from being fine tragedy; and the versification has an appearance of vigour which, possibly, might conceal from the hearer, though it cannot from the reader, its essentially commonplace character. There are lines in it which amused even its first hearers—notably the heroine’s exclamation: “This is too much for any mortal creature!” Sheil’s next tragedy, Bellamira; or, The Fall of Tunis (produced at Covent garden in 1818), is the best of his original plays. The language is purer and less extravagant, though by no means free from sound and fury; but Leigh Hunt, in The Examiner for 26 April, 1818, was right in censuring

  • the tendency to mistake vehemence for strength, the impatience of lowness for the attainment of height, and excessive tragic effect physically overpowering for real effect at once carrying away and sustaining.
  • In other words, Bellamira is, again, a telling piece of stagework, and an inferior piece of dramatic art. Sheil was more successful as dramatic artist in his next play, Evadne; or, The Statue, produced in 1819; but, here, he had the advantage of a foundation taken from Shirley’s play, The Traytor. It may seem strange that a play of 1631 connected with the Italian renascence should be able to steady a dramatic author of the early part of the nineteenth century; but so it was. Sheil altered the plot, dispensing, among other things, with the slaughter at the close of The Traytor; and, in adapting the play a little more closely to the tragic ideals of his own day, indulged less freely than was his wont in extravagance of incident or language. Hazlitt took Evadne for the text of the last of his lectures on the dramatic literature of the age of Elizabeth; and Leigh Hunt found the “truly feminine and noble character” of Evadne “a delightful relief from the selfish and extravagantly virtuous wives who have been palmed upon us of late for women.” The Huguenot, written in 1819, but not produced till two or three years later, shows a return to the aim at violence of effect, and an appeal through strangeness of scene and incident to emotions which the nature and sufferings of the characters could not arouse by themselves. And that its failure on the stage was ascribed by the author and others to the absence of Eliza O’Neill from the cast shows how dependent the drama had become upon the popularity of this or that player. After the failure of The Huguenot, Sheil gave up play-writing; but previous to its production he had written Montoni (produced in 1820), a poetical drama founded on the French, and remarkable for some of Sheil’s wildest extravagance in incident and for some of his best verse; had adapted Massinger and Field’s The Fatall Dowry; and had revised Damon and Pythias, a tragedy by John Banim, which turned out a better piece of work than any play written by Sheil alone.