Sheridan, Thomas (1719–88), actor, theatre manager, and orator, was third son of Thomas Sheridan (qv), schoolmaster and essayist, of Dublin; nothing is known of his mother. He was educated at home by his father until the age of 13. The Sheridan household on Capel St., Dublin, was a well known venue for plays and readings, and it was in this highly cultured environment that he developed an interest in classical literature and Shakespeare. His godparent, Jonathan Swift (qv), another early influence, taught him the importance of correct English and elocution. In 1733–5 he attended Westminster School, London. Though he was academically bright and a king's scholar, his tutors complained that he was often lured away from his studies by theatrical performances in Covent Garden. In 1735 he returned to Ireland and studied at TCD, where he was awarded a scholarship (1738) and finished his studies in 1739. It was expected that he would follow his father into schoolteaching but he decided to go into the theatre instead.
He made his debut as Richard III in early 1743 at the Smock Alley theatre, Dublin. In the same year he performed his own play ‘The brave Irishman, or Captain O'Blunder’, in which the ‘stage Irishman’ concept is turned on its head (mocking those who mock the Irish). As an actor he was well received by Dublin audiences but it was noted that he was a little short in stature for lead roles and had a low voice. He was also plagued by a stomach disorder during the whole of his career. Spurred on by early success at home, he spent two seasons (1743, 1744) acting in London, where he worked alongside David Garrick. At first Garrick and Sheridan, who were considered to be of equal ability in the 1740s and early 1750s, seemed very close, but petty jealousies soon cooled their friendship. The two men worked together for much of their lives but kept relations on a strictly professional footing. In 1745 Sheridan took over the management of the debt-ridden Smock Alley theatre. His early career was marred by a riot in 1747 triggered off by a drunken student. While still on stage he beat the troublemaker with his walking cane and this led to a bitter feud.
The 1751–2 season was a high point for Smock Alley. The new lord lieutenant, Lionel Sackville (qv), duke of Dorset, was a theatre-lover and Sheridan put on plays with the top actors of the day, including Peg Woffington (qv) and Garrick. Takings from the playhouse rose from £3,400 in 1743 to over £9,000 by 1750. But disaster struck in March 1754 when he staged a performance of Voltaire's ‘Mahomet’ against the backdrop of fierce parliamentary debate about the Irish treasury surplus. The play was used as political propaganda by some disruptive ‘country’ party supporters, and a riot ensued. Sheridan was devastated by events and left for England, vowing to quit the stage; but he was soon tempted back into the theatre while in London. In 1756 he returned to Smock Alley for two years as sole manager and was appointed deputy master of revels and masques by the government, but was unable to revive the fortunes of the theatre. The situation was exacerbated by the construction of a new rival playhouse in 1758. He always maintained that there was not a large enough audience to support more than one theatre in Dublin, and advocated that there should be a single Irish national theatre, owned and supported by the government.
From 1758 to 1777 he concentrated on acting and lecturing; performed regularly in Dublin at Smock Alley and Crow St., and in London at Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and the Haymarket; and appeared in Edinburgh, Bath, Cork, and Limerick. He attempted to reform the education system in England and Ireland, set up new academies, and improve the standard of spoken English, but none of these plans came to fruition. His published works include British education, or the source of disorder in Great Britain (1756), A course of lectures on elocution (1762), A view of the state of school education (1787), and a Life of the Rev. Dr Jonathan Swift (1784). In 1778–80 he worked as a manager at Drury Lane, London, alongside his son Richard Brinsley Sheridan (qv). Thomas had tried in vain to teach his eldest son, Charles Sheridan (qv), to be a great orator and yet ironically it was his neglected younger son, Richard Brinsley, who turned out to have a gift for language and drama.
Thomas Sheridan was the first truly professional theatre manager and stage director in Ireland. Many of his reforms at Smock Alley were highly unusual in mid eighteenth-century England and Ireland. He insisted on a well disciplined stage, prevented patrons from encroaching on the acting space, strongly discouraged ad-libbing, and taught actors to speak with greater clarity. Audiences were introduced to plays with loftier themes, such as Shakespeare's tragedies, and the theatre was transformed into a much more gentlemanly profession. However, his enthusiasm for spending money on actors, seating, sets, and costumes meant that Smock Alley was always heavily in debt. He was vain and highly sensitive to criticism and this limited his ability to manage fellow actors.
He married (1747) Frances Sheridan (qv), daughter of the Rev. Philip Chamberlaine, a talented novelist and playwright. Their eldest surviving son, Charles Francis (1750–1806), became a writer and politician; Richard Brinsley (1751–1816), a dramatist and politician; and Alicia (1753–1817), a dramatist and novelist. Thomas and Frances had a second daughter, and two other sons died during infancy. Thomas Sheridan died on 14 August 1788 in Margate, Kent, a resort town where he had come to recover from poor health. An oval portrait shows him leaning on a folio of Shakespeare (private collection, reproduced in Thomas Sheridan of Smock-Alley).