Are you looking for some new ways to insult your friends (or unfriends)? Then look no further. This play contains 75 pages
of choice one-liners, perfect for everyone on your list. In addition, plan to laugh out loud at the endless gossip spread about by such aptly-named characters
as Lady Sneerwell, Lady Teazle, Mrs. Candour, and Sir Benjamin Backbite, and of course the Surface brothers, Charles and Joseph.
Amongst the endless lines of wit and slander, there actually is a plot, or rather many little plots. A number of characters have their own agenda, and will smear the reputation of whoever seems to be in the way, and there are others who simply enjoy spreading rumors for entertainment. Put it all together, and it becomes one hilarious tangle.
The play begins as the widow Lady Sneerwell creates some little deceptions with the help of Snake in order that the future may bring her what she desires, and that would be Charles Surface. Charles, however, is devoted to Maria, but he is a bit of an irresponsible slacker, deeply in debt, and on the bad side of Sir Peter Teazle, guardian of both Surface brothers. Sir Peter will not allow Maria to marry Charles, but instead insists she marry Joseph, who appears to be honest, upright, and responsible. We shall see. In any case, since Lady Sneerwell wants Charles for herself, her plot is to spread the rumor that Charles is attracted to Sir Peter's new and very young wife. Joseph Surface wants Maria for her money, so he agrees with the plan to eliminate his brother as a suitor.
Lady Sneerwell is joined by Maria and Joseph, then by Mrs. Candour who claims she doesn't spread ugly rumors, yet from the time she enters, she never shuts her mouth:
Joseph: "The license of invention some people take is monstrous indeed."
Maria: "'Tis so,—but in my opinion, those who report such things are equally culpable."
Mrs. Candour: "To be sure they are; tale-bearers are as bad as the tale-makers—'tis an old observation, and a very true one: but what's to be done, as I said before? How will you prevent people from talking? Today, Mrs. Clackitt assured me, Mr. and Mrs. Honeymoon were at last become mere man and wife, like the rest of their acquaintance. She likewise hinted that a certain widow, in the next street, had got rid of her dropsy and recovered her shape in a most surprising manner. . . "
And so she continues. Meanwhile, Sir Benjamin Backbite and his uncle Crabtree have entered, and they happily join the muckraking:
Crabtree: "No, ma'am, that's not it—Miss Nicely is going to be married to her own footman."
Mrs. Candour: "Impossible!"
Crabtree: "Ask Sir Benjamin."
Sir Benjamin: "'Tis very true, ma'am; everything is fixed and the wedding liveries bespoke."
Crabtree: "Yes—and they do say there were pressing reasons for it."
Then they begin to discuss how a scandal only affects those who have a pure reputation. The ones who behave imprudently are not bothered by scandal at all. (But once you give the world reason for scandal, it ceases to be effective, as spoken by Lady Teazle: "For even Scandal dies if you approve"—the last words of the play).
Nevertheless, Crabtree continues on how rumors can become truth under "the most whimsical circumstance:"
"Why, one evening, at Miss Ponto's assembly, the conversation happened to turn on the breeding of Nova Scotia sheep in this country. Says a young lady in company, 'I have known instances of it—for Miss Letitia Piper, a first cousin of mine, had a Nova Scotia sheep that produced her twins.'—'What!' cries the Lady Dowager Dundizzy (who you know is as deaf as a post), 'has Miss Piper had twins?'—This mistake as you may imagine, threw the whole company into a fit of laughter. However, 'twas the next morning everywhere reported, and in a few days believed by the whole town, that Miss Letitia Piper had actually been brought to bed of a fine boy and a girl; and in less than a week there were some people who could name the father, and the farmhouse where the babies were put to nurse."
And sometime the gossip gets downright cruel, as in a later scene with the same nosy people:
Mrs. Candour: "She has a charming fresh color."
Lady Teazle: "Yes, when it is fresh put on."
Mrs. Candour: "O fie! I'll swear her colour is natural: I have seen it come and go."
Lady Teazle: "I dare swear you have ma'am: it goes off at night, and comes again in the morning."
Sir Benjamin: "True, ma'am, it not only comes and goes, but, what's more—egad, her maid can fetch and carry it."
Honestly, the men in this play are worse cackling hens than the women. . .
In any case, remember, there is a primary plot, and we're getting to it now: The Surface brothers have a wealthy
uncle, Sir Oliver Surface, who has been away for years in India—and who has been their benefactor. Now he needs to decide which of the brothers is worthy
as his heir. Sir Peter tries to convince him of Joseph's upstanding qualities, but others say Charles
is the better, more honest and charitable person, despite his totally irresponsible lifestyle.
So Sir Peter, Sir Oliver, and Rowley set up a test for both the brothers. Along with a helpful Jew named Moses, Sir Oliver is introduced to Charles as the moneylender Mr. Premium, since Charles is desperate for money. Charles does not recognize Sir Oliver, and he is brutally honest, saying that he knows he is the favored one, and as soon as his uncle dies, he will be able to pay back the debts. Yet he also says that he has no wish for his uncle to die, because he has been very generous to him. Sir Oliver discovers Charles has sold his father's library and other heirlooms, and is now selling all the family portraits. Aghast, Sir Oliver offers to buy them, one by one, until his own portrait comes up, and Charles refuses to part with it. And after the transaction is complete, Charles sends money to "Stanley," a relative who has asked for financial help.
Well, Stanley, it turns out, is also Sir Oliver, and in that guise, he approaches Joseph, (who is quite well off), and begs for help. Joseph tells him has no money and sends him away. He also mentions that his uncle has been very stingy with him, which of course is not true.
Confused? There's a lot more going on, too, including a little tiff between Sir Peter and Lady Teazle. But through a series of hilarious and embarrassing mishaps, it eventually all comes out in the open.
The School for Scandal was first performed at Drury Lane Theatre on May 8, 1777. It has continued to keep audiences in stitches to the present day.
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