On this day in 1809 London’s Drury Lane Theatre burned down; when those watching the spectacle from a nearby pub with theater owner-parliamentarian Richard Brinsley Sheridan remarked on his composure, he famously responded, “A man may surely take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”
Sheridan was fifty-seven years old, decades past the days when such quips made his School for Scandal the talk of the town and made him a fortune — upward of a million dollars in today’s money, some historians calculate. Although he still co-owned Drury Lane, those decades had been spent in Parliament — his career in the Commons so long and distinguished that when news of the fire reached the members still sitting in debate just before midnight, he was asked if he wished the House to adjourn for the emergency. He declined, though many members stayed at the windows anyway, entranced by the spectacle later described by Sheridan’s young friend Lord Byron:
As flashing far the new Volcano shone
And swept the skies with lightnings not their own
While thousands thronged around the burning dome.
In A Traitor’s Kiss, the most recent biography, Fintan O’Toole describes the Drury Lane fire as the beginning of Sheridan’s personal ruin. Sheridan had been high-living and freewheeling for some time; the theater had drained much of his capital, but he had depended on its day-to-day operations for income. With that gone, and with his defeat in the elections of 1812, thereby removing the protection of parliamentary privilege, he was now fair game to his creditors. Several times over the next few years he would be imprisoned in “sponging houses” until bailed out; when he died in 1816 his own house had been stripped of much, from paintings by Reynolds and Gainsborough down to the carpets. The cartoonists had been at work by this time, too, giving “poor old Sherry” a bottle nose, the look of a windbag, and the views of a dinosaur. The drinking part, at least, was true: Byron liked to tell the story of trying to carry Sheridan to one pub approachable only by a corkscrew staircase “which had certainly been constructed before the discovery of fermented liquors, and to which no legs, however crooked, could possibly accommodate themselves.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.