Thomas Sheridan - Actor and Teacher of Elocution

18th century engraving of Thomas Sheridan reproduced from Roger Ingpen's 1907 edition of The Life of Johnson

Thomas Sheridan

Born 1719 in Dublin, Ireland
Died Aug 14, 1788
Biography: 

Irish actor, theatre-manager and a teacher of elocution. Born in Dublin, Ireland, the son of Rev. Dr. Thomas Sheridan (1687-1738) and Elizabeth Macfadden. Father of Charles Francis Sheridan (b. 1750) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (b. 1751). Married Frances Chamberlaine in 1747. Sheridan's godfather was author Jonathan Swift.

Thomas Sheridan was sent to be educated at Westminster School, London in 1732-3, however, due to his father's financial difficulties he had to return and finish his initial education in Dublin. In 1739 he graduated BA from Trinity College, Dublin, and he probably got an MA from Trinity at some time before 1743.1

In 1743 Sheridan made his debut as an actor, playing the title role in Shakespeare's Richard III at Smock Alley, Dublin. In the next year or two he became immensely popular, and was, at the time, the most popular actor Ireland had ever seen. Also in the 1740s he became manager of the Dublin theatre.

Sheridan and his family moved permanently to England in 1758, where he established himself as an educator and teacher of elocution. He lived in London for a number of years, until, in 1770, he moved to Bath, where he founded an "Academy for the regular instrustion of Young Gentlemen in the art of reading and reciting and grammatical knowledge of the English tongue".2 The academy apparently was not too succesful, and in the fall of 1771 he again acted at the theatre in Dublin. In 1776 Thomas' son Richard became a part owner of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London, and in 1778, Thomas Sheridan himself was appointed manager of the theatre, a position which he held until 1781.

Among his numerous writings are the farce The Brave Irishman or Captain O'Blunder, which premiered in Dublin about 1738, and the books British Education (1756),3 his influential A Course of Lectures on Elocution (1762), A Plan of Education for the Young Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain (1769) as well as a new dictionary with a special attention paid to the pronounciation of words (rather than the meaning). Ca. 1784 he also edited and published the multi-volume Works of Jonathan Swift, to which was appended the Life of Swift (Swift's private journal, as far as can be discerned).

  • 1. Although he is only described as BA in Burtchaell and Sadleir's Alumni Dublinenses, Esther Sheldon conjectures that he had most likely graduated MA by 1743, as he had described himself as such publicly in Dublin Journal in March, 1743. In Sheldon's words "[I]f Sheridan had falsely assumed the M.A. in a public notice of the sort cited above, his Trinity College colleagues would hardly have given him the support and respect they invariably did.", an argument which seems plausible enough to me.
  • 2.  This quote as well as other information in this article can be found in Rhodes, R. Crompton. (1933) Harlequin Sheridan, the Man and the Legends: With a Bibliography and Appendices. Blackwell.
  • 3. "a tiresome, long-winded work, stuffed with quotations chiefly from Locke and Milton, in which he called for the standardising of English spelling, pronunciation, diction and idiom, and advocated the study of English rhetoric, the encouragement of public speaking and of the art of reading", according to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, vol. XIV. (1907-1921), paragraph 13
Life with Boswell: 

According to BiH Boswell had "adopted Thomas Sheridan as his mentor in Edinburgh in 1761, where Sheridan had come to give a series of lectures."1. In Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763 we first hear of Sheridan on November 28, 1762, when Boswell goes to visit him. On this occasion Sheridan airs his newly found dislike for Dr. Johnson.2 He also frequently criticized David Garrick.3 Boswell often went to see the Sheridans, especially during the first part of his stay in London.

On New Years Eve, 1762, Boswell spends the evening at Sheridans in the company of Mrs. Sheridan, Mrs. Cholmondeley, Capt. Jephson and Colonel Irwin. They had tea and listened to a reading of Frances Sheridan's new comedy The Discovery.

Sheridan also helped out Boswell when he had a gambling debt in 1761, and JB promised Sheridan that he wouldn't play cards again for 5 years,4 or at least that he wouldn't "lose more than three guineas in one sitting".5 Sheridan disappeared almost entirely from Boswell's writings during his tour of Europe, 1763-1766, although Boswell in a memo on May 11, 1764 reminded himself to write to his former mentor.

On January 18, 1763 Boswell visited the Sheridans to enquire about a prologue he had written for a new play by Mrs. Sheridan. Apparently Mr. Sheridan didn't care much for it, and a new prologue had been written by Mrs. Sheridan herself. This caused Boswell to consider not seeing them again, but (resembling a problem he had with James Love) he reconsidered, and decided to keep enjoying their company without caring about their opinions of him.

Literature: 

Esther K. Sheldon's (1967) Thomas Sheridan of Smock-Alley, recording his life as actor and theater manager in both Dublin and London; and including A Smock-Alley Calendar for the years of his management is a great biography of his youth and his life as an actor and theatre manager. The author, Sheldon, recommends Wallace A. Bacon's Elocutionary Career of Thomas Sheridan (1964) as a biography of his life a an elocutionist. Most of the titles mentioned in this article can be found (some in original 18th century first editions) via used bookstores online and other premium online libraries.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.