The Rivals, a play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, is a comedy of manners in five acts. It was first performed on 17th January 1775.
The Rivals was Sheridan's first commercially produced play. At the time, he was a young newlywed living in Bath. At Sheridan’s insistence, upon marriage his wife Eliza (neé Elizabeth Linley) had agreed to give up performing in public as a singer. This was a proper course for the wife of a “gentleman,” but it was a difficult one because Eliza was able to earn a substantial living as a performer. Instead, they lived beyond their means as they entertained the gentry and nobility with Eliza’s singing (in private parties) and Richard’s wit. Finally, in need of funds, Richard turned to the only craft that could gain him the remuneration he desired in a short time: he began writing a play. He had over the years written and published essays and poems and among his papers were numerous unfinished plays, essays and political tracts, but never had he undertaken an ambitious project such as this. In a short time, however, he completed The Rivals. He was all of 23 years old.
The Rivals was first performed at Covent Garden on January 17, 1775. It was roundly vilified by both the public and the critics for its length, bawdiness and the character of Sir Lucius O’Trigger, a meanly written role played very badly. The actor, Lee, after being hit with an apple during the performance, stopped and addressed the audience, asking “By the pow'rs, is it personal? - is it me, or the matter?” Apparently, it was both. Sheridan immediately withdrew the play and in the next 11 days, rewrote the orignal (The Larpent manuscript) extensively, including a new preface in which he allowed:
Sheridan also apologized for any impression that O’Trigger was intended as an insult to Ireland. Rewritten and with a new actor, Clinch, in the role of O’Trigger, the play reopened on January 28th to significant acclaim. Indeed, it became a favorite of the royal family, receiving five command performances in ten years, and also in the Colonies (it was George Washington’s favorite play). It became a standard show in the repertoires of 19th Century companies in England and the U.S.
The play is now considered to be one of Sheridan's masterpieces.
The play is set in Bath in the 18th century, a town legendary for conspicuous consumption and fashion at the time. People would travel there to take the waters which were believed to have healing properties. The town was much less exclusive than London, and provides an ideal setting for the characters.
The plot centres around two characters: Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute. Lydia is obsessed with the romantic ideals of love she reads in popular novels of the time , and is drawn into a relationship with Captain Absolute, who pretends to be a poor soldier called Ensign Beverly. Lydia finds the idea of eloping with a poor soldier romantic. In reality, Captain Absolute is a rich gentleman, the son of Sir Anthony Absolute. Both Sir Anthony and Mrs Malaprop, Lydia's aunt, want to prevent their secret romance. Mrs Malaprop wants Lydia to marry for financial reasons.
The marriage arranged by Sir Anthony is, in fact, with Lydia, but when Lydia finds out who Ensign Beverly really is, she refuses to marry him, clinging to her romantic notions of eloping with a poor soldier.
Faulkland, who is a close friend of Jack, falls in love with Julia, Sir Anthony's ward. However, he has irrational doubts about Julia's love for him and eventually decides to test her love. Julia, tormented by his constant suspicions about her devotion, finally rejects him.
Bob Acres, a longtime suitor of Lydia (and somewhat buffoonish country gentleman and coward) has come to woo her has well and enlists the aid of his friend, Jack Absolute, as a "go-between" against his new rival, "Ensign Beverly." Acres ultimately decides to fight a duel against the fictional Ensign Beverly.
Meanwhile Sir Lucius O'Trigger, a down-on-his fortunes Irish noble, has been trying to woo Lydia as well in order to gain her fortune, and wants to duel against any and all rivals, including Jack Absolute.
In the end, Acres, learning that his rival is actually his friend Jack, happily withdraws his suit to Lydia. Lydia stops the fight at the prospect of Jack's death and admits that she loves him while Julia forgives Faulkland.
The Rivals is a play of stereotypes. The main source of comedy is that the characters conform so perfectly to our expectations. The lack of depth of character allows for a complex plot.
Lydia is one of the most clearly stereotypical characters. She has become carried away with her romantic ideas of love, so much that she quarrels with her "poor Beverly" just because they had never done so before. Her speech involves passionate use of poetry, but she can also be witty, indicating that she has assumed this form of speech to fit with her romantic notions.
Jack Absolute, in contrast, is a less stereotypical character; however, he is also not a natural character but somewhat heroic. He is courageous but thinks that money is important, as well as love, in marriage. He is also manipulative, and many characters including Lydia and Mrs Malaprop are taken in by this, but Sir Anthony, his father, is not.
The other pair, Julia and Faulkland, are similar, in that Julia is reasonable and intelligent (like Jack), whereas Faulkland worries and idealises about love (like Lydia).
Sir Anthony and Mrs Malaprop have in common that they both try to prevent the romance between Jack and Lydia, whilst at the same time have distorted perceptions of themselves. Sir Anthony believes himself to be a lenient father, whereas in fact he is angry, comically so, and Mrs Malaprop believes herself to be "Queen of the dictionary" but she uses long words incorrectly, contributing the word 'malapropism' to the English language. One of the best examples of this is "headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile".
The play is considered a masterpiece despite the stereotypical nature of the characters and the somewhat fragmentary scenes. The audience of 1775 would have wanted more natural characters, but its subsequent success comes from its extraordinary wit and self-conscious fulfillment of the expectations of the audience.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Rivals, (New Mermaids 1979, Elizabeth Duthie, Ed.)