The Screen Scene in the School for Scandal
The screen scene in The School for Scandal is valuable in every way. Firstly, it marks an important stage in the progress of the plot. Secondly, it throws some more light on the various characters involved in it and reveals the changes that take place in some of them. Thirdly, it provides rich comedy, comedy both of situation and dialogue. From the comic point of view, the humour and wit of this scene, stamp it as one of the greatest scenes.
Description of the Screen Scene
In the screen scene two important strands of the plot meet each other and become closely interwoven. One strand is the rivalry of Joseph and Charles for the hand of Maria, Joseph’s efforts, in collaboration with Lady Sneerwell to hinder Charles’s marriage with Maria, and Joseph’s side-tracking his mian object and trying to seduce Lady Teazle. The second strand is the con life of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle.
The scene opens with Joseph Waiting impatiently for Lady Teazle with whom he has a secret appointment at his own house. Lady Teazle arrives a little late and explains her discontent with Sir Peter who has become extremely peevish because of his suspicion that she is carrying on a love-affair with somebody. Joseph uses insidious arguments to prevail upon Lady Teazle to bid good-bye to her wifely chastity and to accept him as her lover.
Lady Teazle is on the brink of surrendering herself to Joseph when the servant unexpectedly announces a visit by Sir Peter. Lady Teazle, in a state of panic, hides herself behind a screen. Sir Peter now takes Joseph into his confidence with regard to his suspicions about his wife. He tells Joseph that, according to rumours, Lady Teazle is carrying on a love-affair with Charles. Sir Peter’s suspicion of the relationship between his wife and Charles comes as welcome news to Joseph because it is he who, aided by Lady Sneerwell, has been slandering Charles’s character.
Charles’s falling into disrepute would lower Charles’s chances with Maria and brighten Joseph’s prospects with her. Then, equally unexpectedly, Charles comes on a visit to his brother, and now Sir Peter hides himself in a closet). However, Sir Peter urges Joseph at the same time to ply Charles with questions in order to find out whether the rumour about Charles’s love-affair with Lady Teazle is true. Joseph has no choice but to interrogate Charles on this point, with Lady Teazle and Sir Peter overhearing the conversation from their respective hiding-places. This cross-examination of Charles leads to an exposure of Joseph’s own intentions with regard to Lady Teazle though all the time he had been declaring himself as a suitor for Maria’s hand.
Sir Peter is now dragged out of his hiding place in the closet, and he shakes hands with Charles because Charles is perfectly innocent with regard to Lady Teazle. In the meantime Lady Teazle has also learnt the double game that Joseph has been playing. Now comes Lady Sneerwell on a visit to Joseph. As Joseph goes out for a couple of minutes in order to get rid of Lady Sneerwell, Sir Peter tells Charles that the French milliner, who is a sweetheart of Joseph’s, is hiding behind the screen. Charles throws down the screen just when Joseph re-enters. Great is the astonishment of both Sir Peter and Charles when they find that the person hiding behind the screen was no French milliner but Lady Teazle herself.
Screen Scene in the Pattern of the Plot
It is evident that in this scene the destinies of four persons are decided. Charles is exonerated from the guilt with which Sir Peter had charged him. Lady Teazle discovers, to her shame, the truth about the character of Joseph whom she now addresses as “Mr. Hypocrite” and whose intention to seduce her she now reveals to her husband. At the same time, Lady Teazle learns the fact that Sir Peter is genuinely devoted to her. As for Charles, he discovers the reality of all the other three persons involved in this scene. This scene thus marks the climax of the first movement of the action which deals with
(1) the relationship between Sir Peter and Lady Teazle;
(2) the failure of Joseph’s efforts to discredit Charles in the eyes of others, especially in the eyes of Sir Peter;
(3) the complete unmasking of Joseph’s hypocrisy, double-dealing and villainy; and
(4) the abortive love-affair between Joseph and Lady Teazle.
The interweaving of the various interests in this scene is almost complete.
Importance of Screen Scene on Characters
This is a highly illuminating scene from the point of view of character portrayal. Sir Peter, who never believed that he could be in the wrong about anything, discovers to his dismay what a fool he has been with regard to his assessment of Charles and Joseph. His eyes have been opened and he will, most probably, never again be deceived by appearances.
Lady Teazle also undergoes a transformation in this scene. Having over heard her husband talking about his plan to settle a large sum of money upon her and feeling convinced that Sir Peter is truly in love with her, she feels highly repentant of her past attitude towards him, and laments her credulity with regard to Joseph’s declarations of love to her when all the time he has been pursuing Maria.
As for Charles, he too becomes a much wiser man by the discoveries he makes in this scene. He has something to say to each of the three characters. To Lady Teazle, he says: “Shall I beg your ladyship to inform me ? Not a word !” To Joseph he says: “Brother ! Will you please to explain this matter? What, morality dumb too !” To Lady Teazle’s husband he says: “Sir Peter, though I found you in the dark, perhaps you are not so now.” And when Charles makes his exit, he flings two more sarcasms at his brother and Sir Peter. Joseph finds himself in a predicament from which there is no means of escape. He stands exposed before Lady Teazle, before Sir Peter, and before his own brother.
The Humour of the Situation in this Scene
This screen scene is one of the most memorable in English comedy so far as the humour of the situation is concerned. The humour here arises chiefly from the use of what is known as dramatic irony. Sir Peter does not know that Lady Teazle is hiding behind the screen. When he catches a glimpse of a petticoat, Joseph hastily invents an excuse that it is a French milliner hiding herself from Sir Peter. Sir Peter accepts this plea in a good-natured way. The irony of the situation thus continues. It is when the screen is thrown down that the reality becomes manifest. This is the culminating point of the comedy of the situation in this scene.
Some Possible Flaw in the Screen Scene
In spite of the great success of the screen episode on the stage, some critics have found fault with it. In the first place, it is improbable that Sir Peter, Charles, and finally Lady Sneerwell, should all visit Joseph’s house one after the other at the very time that he is having a secret meeting with Lady Teazle. Secondly, it is difficult to believe that Sir Peter had a glimpse of a petticoat and did not see or at least suspect that the wearer of that petticoat was his own wife. But we should not regard it as a defect that the falling of a screen leads to the discovery of a love-intrigue.
Witty Dialogue in the Screen Scene
We find a number of epigramatic statements coming from the hypocritical Joseph Some of these remarks are as follows:
(1) “Prudence, like experience, must be paid for.”
(2) “The heart that is conscious of its own integrity is ever slow to credit another’s treachery.”
(3) “When ingratitude barbs the dart of injury, the wound has double danger in it.”
(4) “The man who can break through the laws of hospitality, and attempt the wife of his friend, deserves to be branded as the pest of society.”
The Moral Value of the Screen Scene
This is undoubtedly the most entertaining and hilarious scene in the whole play. In spite of that, it also conveys a wholesome moral to the audience. It shows how virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, and the moral is conveyed to us in an unobtrusive manner. When we find Joseph exposed and unmasked, we can imagine his discomfiture and his sense of humiliation though apparently he remains almost indifferent to what has happened.
According to Allardyce Nicoll, no single scene possibly has won so much fame as the screen episode in Act IV of this play. According to another critic, apart from the dialogue, the pride of the play is doubtless the perfect manipulation of the intrigue leading inevitably to the thrilling resolution in the famous screen scene. Another critic points out that the theme of attempted seduction was not new but that Sheridan in this scene gives it greater significance and spirit. In view of all the above arguments by critics, it would be no exaggeration to say that the screen scene is one of the most outstanding and most triumphant in the entire range of English comedy from the time of Ben Jonson to the present day.