The screen scene

The action of Richard Sheridan’s play The School for scandal culminates in the screen scene, where the screen as a dramatic device becomes the momentum for action and reveals the hidden background of behaviour, set of values and the way of speech. It is set in the library of Joseph Surface’s house, where Joseph Surface meets Lady Teazle in order to compromise her and later Sir Peter Teazle and Charles Surface, two entirely different representatives of the London society of 1777, appear on the stage. Sir Peter’s and Joseph Surface’s conversation is about Lady Teazle who can overhear every word behind a screen. This scene forms the climax of the play because several streams of actions come together here.

As Lady Teazle is the focus of interest in this scene and as an obvious development of her character and attitude can be observed here, it is advisable to analyse her person and behaviour first as it is shown in the play before the screen scene. On the one hand Lady Teazle is a member of the School for Scandal. It is a club, which lives on the assumption that all its members are not obliged to earn money as they are in a social position, which allows them to do so. It is a club, which mirrors the aristocratic society in Europe towards the end of the 18th century. Lady Teazle achieved such a position through her marriage with Sir Peter. She is now in "precious circumstances " (p.15), which in her eyes give a guarantee for the "tenacious reputation" (p.15) of her acquaintances and their manners. But she is all too fascinated and tempted by the amusements of this society and loses all sense of proportion. In fact the moral set of values of the club around Lady Sneerwell is quite opposite to that commonly accepted: truth is perverted and false sentiment propagated. Lady Teazle soon gets accustomed to this style of fashion and derives pleasure from it. She quickly commands the new rule of "fashion" (p.14), which raises wit and slander to a status of art. The various forms of scandal-mongering or better to say "the murder of characters" (p.22) are considered to be characteristic of high culture and wit. The so-called "freedom of speech" (p.15) is to Lady Teazle something different from what it means to her virtuous husband. It is the same with Lady Sneerwell, the president of the club, who finds pleasure to employ her "envenomed tongue" (p.2). Tongue defined "as the principal organ of taste" (OED 1a) normally ensures that "the quality of things" is discerned (OED 4a). This is not given if it is envenomed. It is rather paralysed in its function. The members of the school for scandal lack proper judgement about the use of words.

On the other hand Lady Teazle is also outlined in her former appearance. Sir Peter recollects her as "…in a humbler style: - the daughter of a plain country squire" (p.14), who lived far away from "a woman of fashion, of fortune, of rank". She had to work so that there was no time for idleness and a fashionable life. This juxtaposition of the two characters of Lady Teazle - one in the past and one in the present after the marriage - makes the transformation in Scene IV, 3 credible. A screen of prosperity, morality and wit temporarily blinds Lady Teazle, so that she cannot realize the world beyond her society. This metaphorical screen works throughout the play up to the screen scene.

In scene IV, 3 the screen is visible as a material thing and prop to everyone for the first time. In Joseph Surface’s library, a suitable setting of the witty scene, the spectators perceive a screen, which is a piece of furniture typical in that time, but even more assumes an obvious double function: It hides and protects, but as soon as it is moved it can show or betray the person behind it. It is now important how the theme of hiding and betraying, which is implied throughout the play, can be referred to the screen and gives this piece of furniture a metaphorical meaning. The spectators’ attention is drawn to the screen when Joseph Surface orders his servant to move it towards the window in order to evade his neighbour’s curiosity. The screen’s function is firstly to protect Joseph, but at the same time it also shows that Joseph Surface wants to hide something from the public. He needs a room of his own in which he will not be observed when pursuing his plan. The screen excludes natural light at least to a certain extent so that artificial light becomes necessary.

Movement, hiding and possible revelation, the artificial against the natural are three ideas, which help to shape the witty scene and bring together the different streams of action. At first there is the secret plan of gallantry. Lady Teazle has a fancy to follow the fashion of having a lover (p. 21) and Joseph Surface tries to take advantage of her weakness. Without telling her that he solely intends to use her as a means to win over Maria, he makes up the paradoxical doctrine that she "…must part with virtue to secure her reputation" (p.48) and is just about to persuade her, when Sir Peter interrupts this tête-á-tête unexpectedly. The screen remains the only chance for Lady Teazle to hide, for Joseph Surface "as a man of sentiment"(p.55) a means not to be compromised by an affair with the lady. In the subsequent part of this scene a new situation develops due to the screen. Beginning with Sir Peter’s appearance the screen does no longer only hide things but reveals things. Sir Peter who does not suspect his wife listening behind the screen tells the truth about his life in marriage so that Lady Teazle finds "a source of knowledge"(p.49) in the screen. She becomes aware of Lady Sneerwell’s and Joseph Surface’s intrigue and even more important, she hears Sir Peter telling his false friend Joseph how he cares for his young wife. For Lady Teazle the motif of blindness, which it is behind the screen also in the figurative sense, is turned into its opposite. She begins to see her husband’s true character. The announcement of Sir Charles’ arrival gives the action a new turning point concerning all persons already present on the stage. A second hiding-place has to be found at once for Sir Peter in order to keep up the screen’s function of protection for a while. He hides in a closet as "inquisitor" and "to take evidence incognito"(p.54), while Lady Teazle behind the screen can "hear it out"(p.52).

A masterpiece of comedy acting, the peeping out of two hidden persons, is made possible by the doubled screen, namely the screen and the closet. This leads towards the question of relationship between Charles Surface and Lady Teazle (2nd plot), which is closely related to the relationship of Joseph Surface to Lady Teazle (1st plot) as well as the relationship of Sir Charles and Maria (3rd plot). Now the screen only hides the identity of the woman behind. Everything else has been revealed with help of the screen. The man of sentiment has lost control of his manipulation of truth. His web of lies is torn apart by his brother Charles, who moves the screen ("throws down the screen"). The play of "hide and seek" (p. 55) finds an end and Joseph Surface has to admit that he has lost the power over "his difficult hand to play" (p.47). Charles instead remains a man of truth and leaves the persons to themselves.

This screen-pattern of hiding and revealing can also be observed in the use of language. Quite striking in connection with the leitmotif of hiding and revealing are the stage remarks concerning Joseph Surface. He conceals from the others what he actually thinks. That he is a double-dealer can already be seen in the number of ‘asides’ in the screen scene, but also what he utters during the dialogues and conversations follows the rules of wit, logic and sentiment. According to the same rules Joseph Surface addresses people. After calling Lady Teazle derogative "wife" in an aside, he addresses her in a dialogue as "my dear madam"(p.48). When he is in a predicament and needs her support he calls her "angel" and "life"(p.52), but after being unmasked his words are "The woman ‘s mad"(p.56); which she answers in her own way. Furthermore the untrustworthiness is indicated through the striking device of repetition and variation, as it is shown in several remarks within the dialogue between Lady Teazle and Joseph in the passage about the lady’s innocence and her consciousness of it. The accumulation of the terms "consciousness" and "innocent" (p.46) in this situation point to the opposite and make the audience suspect that such a kind of innocence cannot be true. Another example that is intended to veil and not to explain things can also be seen in the frequent use of words and phrases which claim reliability such as "upon my word", "to be sure", "undoubtedly", "This is very true", "exactly", "certainly" (p.45-47). That one needs to be careful with persons who do talk in such a manner is already shown in the names themselves: Lady Sneerwell, Miss Candour, Joseph Surface. The latter being an example of paradoxical logic wrapped in eloquence, such as in the following: "When a husband entertains a groundless suspicion of his wife, and withdraws his confidence from her, the original compact is broken, and she owes it to the honour of her sex to endeavour to outwit him."(p.44-45). Joseph Surface shows command of eloquence and grammatical correctness, but the conclusion that is drawn is based on the unacceptable values of the School for Scandal. His language is entirely separated from content. This pattern of argument prevails in his conversations, but crumbles when the truth is brought to light and he realizes he is going to be discovered. He starts uttering incomplete sentences: "she, sir, I say – called here – in order that - I might explain these pretensions (p.56). Similarly work the two kinds of irony of the play. When Sir Peter confidently praises Joseph with the words "The goodness of your own heart" (p.50) the ironical situation is obvious to the spectators and the person addressed, not to the speaker. But when Sir Charles leaves the stage saying "…there’s nothing in the world so noble as a man of sentiment"(p.55), he hides some truth; he has found out by pronouncing the opposite. These hidden literal ironies and ironies of hiding add a lot to the comic effect of the play, cumulating in Lady Teazle’s transformation in the screen scene.

Lady Teazle is for the first time excluded to a certain extent from society by the screen. She cannot behave as she is used to, she cannot speak freely or argue, she is forced to listen to everything that is said from a distance. In her husband’s words she perceives something that has been concealed to her up to now, so that "tenderness…penetrate[s] … [her] heart" (p.56). When looking back from this point to the part of the comedy, which has already been performed, some words uttered by the lady before get a particular meaning because they prepare the turning point. During the introductory conversation with Joseph Surface about malice and consciousness of innocence Lady Teazle speaks of "the integrity of (her) own heart"(p.47). At this stage of the play the heart does not seem to be a probable motif, but the lady herself mentions it. Also, when going behind the screen she realises how dangerous it is to follow fashionable manners blindly. She knows that she is going to act differently in future. She does not finish her sentence "- and if ever I’m imprudent again-" (p.49) because she has to hide quickly. A further indication that she might be transformed is the way she addresses Joseph as "Mr. Logic"(p.49) shortly before she is separated through the screen. Though she does not define a new set of values against Joseph’s values it seems already to be a beginning of growing doubts and her consequent transformation. Finally, Joseph Surface also explicitly mentions the danger that Lady Teazle might fall back to the "ill effects of [her virtuous] country education" (p.48), i.e. the former Lady Teazle.

After the whole truth has been revealed – symbolically shown in the overthrow of the screen – Lady Teazle is determined to continue her original way and reset her values. She does not say many words but what she says is like a confession. She has gained some critical distance from herself which is evident in her words:"…She has recovered her senses" (p.56). Not much later she even says, underlined by the change of perspective in the pronoun: "…that tenderness …has so penetrated to my heart"(p.56). The set of values Lady Teazle accepts now is the same as appreciated by Sir Peter and Sir Charles, contrasting those of Joseph Surface and the School for Scandal. The play shows two entirely different attitudes: on the one hand values like "truth", " heart", "tenderness, "sense", "sincerity"(Lady Teazle), "conscious"(Sir Peter), on the other hand the characteristics of Joseph Surface being "a man of [false] sentiment"," Mr. Logic", "being despicable" and "a smooth-tongued hypocrite"(Lady Teazle). Through the screen, a common piece of furniture at that time, the entangled world is put in order again.

When analysing the play from the point of view of its time of origin Sheridan’s play The School for Scandal must be called witty, amusing and convincing. The leitmotif of the comedies of manners in the late 18th century was not love, but fashionable society. If love were the leitmotiv Lady Teazle’s transformation would in fact not be cogent. But neither Lady Teazle nor her husband expect such a relationship. Sir Peter’s statement "I can’t make her love me" (p.15) still exists, but both will show more understanding for each other in future. The characters of that society remain types to a certain extent and follow traditional patterns of manners and motives, which Sheridan linked together in a skilful way providing amusing entertainment.


Works Cited

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. The School of Scandal. 1st Ed. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. London: Constable, 1991.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2000. Oxford University Press. November 12, 2000.