Like typical comedy of manners, “The Rivals” has a complicated plot. There are three love-affairs in it – the Absolute-Lydia love-affair, the Faulkland-Julia love-affair, and the Mrs. Malaprop-Sir Lucius love-affair. All these love-affairs have a parallel development, so that the interest keeps shifting from one love-affair to the other quite rapidly. Again, like a typical comedy of manner, “The Rivals” abounds in wit. We have the wit of Captain Absolute, the wit of Sir Anthony, the wit of even Sir Lucius and Acres who are otherwise the targets of the play’s satire.
“The Rivals” is an amusing satire on the fashionable upper-class of Sheridan’s time. The scene of this play is set in Bath. In the second half of the eighteenth century, Bath was a famous centre of fashionable life. The manner in which Fag dwells upon this life is quite amusing.
The Faulkland-Julia love-affair is undoubtedly a parody of the sentimental comedy of the eighteenth century. Julia is portrayed as an excessively sentimental girl, while Faulkland is portrayed as the most whimsical and eccentric lover. Faulkland greatly amuses us by his account of the anxieties that fill his mind regarding Julia. Every hour he is alarmed on Julia’s account. If it rains, if the wind is sharp, he feels afraid. All this is very funny. Similarly, Faulkland’s feeling upset on hearing about the gay life that Julia has been leading also amuses us. Julia’s over-sentimentality in idealizing her lover and repeatedly forgiving his faults and silly suspicions is also funny.
The portrayal of Lydia is a satire on the romantic notions which young, fashionable girls of upper-class families of the time entertained. She is fond of reading romantic novels and stories. Fed on such stories, she does not want a conventional and routine kind of wedding. When Captain Absolute’s real identity is revealed to Lydia, she feels terribly disappointed at the collapse of her romantic dreams and hopes. The manner in which she recalls her secret meetings with her lover during the cold nights of January is very amusing to us.
The most amusing scenes in the play are those in which Captain Absolute comes face to face with his father, Sir Anthony. Sir Anthony is portrayed as a self-willed, dictatorial kind of father who demands implicit obedience from his son. He threatens to disinherit his son, to disown his son in case his son does not carry out his wishes. Sir Anthony in his own prime of life was a gay fellow.
Sheridan also makes us laugh at some of the contemporary fashions. When Bob Acres comes to Bath, he decides to discard his country clothes and to dress himself according to the fashion prevailing in the city. Then he tries to practice some French dancing steps and discovers to his disappointment that his are “true-born English legs” which can never learn French dancing steps. He is also fond of swearing and has developed a new way of swearing. We find him swearing, by “Gods’ balls and barrels”, by “God’s bullets and blades”, by “God’s levels and aims” and so on. Then there is a satirical treatment of dueling. The manner in which Sir Lucius instigates Acres to send a challenge to Beverley is most amusing. Sir Lucius gives the following argument absurdly in favour of Acre’s sending a challenge to Beverley:
Can a man commit a more heinous offence against another than to fall in love with the same woman?
The portrayal of Sir Lucius is also satirical. Sir Lucius is an Irishman, easily duped by the maid-servant Lucy, who tells him that the love-letters which she brings for him have been sent by the seventeen-year old niece of Mrs. Malaprop. This wrong impression ultimately leads him to challenge Captain Absolute to a duel and the manner in which Sir Lucius picks up a quarrel with Captain Absolute is itself very funny.
The portrayal of Lydia’s “tough old aunt” is also satirical. We laugh at the contradiction in this elderly woman who puts restrictions on her niece, while herself falling in love with a tall Irish baronet and writing letters to him under the assumed name of Delia. Beverley’s description of Mrs. Malaprop as an “old weather-beaten, she-dragon” is most amusing.
One of the most striking features of “The Rivals” is witty dialogue. The manner in which Sir Anthony snubs and scolds his son for disobeying his wishes, the manner in which Captain Absolute deals with Mrs. Malaprop when he meets her first, Sir Lucius manner of dealing with Acres when he instructs Acres in the rules of dueling is also witty.
Humorous and farcical situations are also generally found in a comedy of manner. Captain Absolute’s disguising himself as Ensign Beverley and then unmasking himself when finally he has to face Lydia in his true character are such situations. Then there are two more farcical situations. One is that in which Captain Absolute tricks his father into believing that his is going to make up his quarrel with Lydia when his is actually going to fight a duel. The second is when David shouts to Sir Anthony to stop Absolute because there is going to be fight, murder, bloodshed and so on.
Instead of moral sentiments, Sheridan gives quick and witty dialogues, fast moving actions with its highly comic situations and above all the absence of any serious complication or conflict. Right from the beginning to the end, the play sends the audience into peals of laughter. The criticism that elements of sentimentality have penetrated into the play is based on misunderstanding.