The Critic: or, a Tragedy Rehearsed is a political and literary satire, following in the vein of George Villiers’ The Rehearsal (1671), which takes jovial aim at the vanities of authors and politicians and at the foibles of the theatre itself. It was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (which Sheridan owned and managed) in 1779.
The play is Sheridan's response to the threat of a Franco–Spanish invasion in the summer of 1779. In 1778, France had acknowledged US independence and subsequently declared war on Britain. In 1779, Spain followed suit, and by August of that year, both countries’ fleets were in the English Channel. Britain’s military preparations may have been somewhat excessive, but they did encourage an ‘Armada spirit’ of nationalism. In June 1779, the theatre at Sadler’s Wells had put on an ‘Armada piece’, Thomas King’s The Prophecy; or, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury. Sheridan’s play caricatures this trend to rouse patriotism by highlighting glorious moments of past English victory, through his portrayal of a fictional ‘tragedy’, The Spanish Armada, penned by the amateur Mr. Puff. The play-within-the-play, needless to say, is more akin to farce than tragedy.
Sheridan’s first act introduces several figures who embody all that is reprehensible about the theatre. Mr Dangle is an amateur theatre critic, delighted to have his house filled every morning with declaiming aspirant players and warbling opera singers all seeking advancement from him. Mr Sneer is a fellow critic famed for his acerbic pen. Sir Fretful Plagiary is a playwright of doubtful quality. Sneer and Dangle visit the final rehearsal of Puff’s play to offer their valued opinions on the ‘Art of Puffing’, peppering the long-suffering actors with comments, suggestions and protestations in a hilarious theatrical parody. Puff’s work culminates in a bombastic spectacular set to ‘Rule Britannia’, bringing the play to a laughably patriotic close.