The Rivals is a Comedy of Manners by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an Irish-born dramatist and statesman. The five-act play, first premiered in 1775, marking Sheridan’s work as a standout piece of 18th century theater. The comedy was not always so well-received, however. After its initial premier, it was roundly criticized and dismissed as subpar craft. Needing funds and intent on his writing, Sheridan learned from his mistakes with the initial premiere. He cut the work by an hour, strengthened the characters and premiered a practically new comedy, which was well-received, and which is the version now performed and read.
Comedies such as The Rivals are a product of their time, often infused with the prevailing thought of the day. As such, one would expect Sheridan’s play to be filled with the moralizing sentimentalism that much of eighteenth-century theater produced. Sheridan departed from this didactic form of comedy, however, creating what Oliver Goldsmith himself labeled as “laughing comedy.” This new type of comedy trumped the dismal sentimental comedy, providing audiences with a fresh take on morals and a new manner of viewing life.
The characters in The Rivals are stock caricatures. As such, they represent various aspects of human folly. For an eighteenth-century play on morals, however, Sheridan’s play is still as fresh and funny today as when it brought audiences to laughter in Sheridan’s day. Indeed, the term “malapropism,” which is still in use to this day, was actually coined from one of the characters in the play, Mrs. Malaprop. As the term suggests, Mrs. Malaprop is known for using sophisticated words—or fancy-sounding ones—in the wrong context.
The play itself makes good work of satirizing the pretensions of its day. The larger tropes of false identities and romantic entanglements, along with parental disapproval, are played out against laughable sentimentality. In addition to Mrs. Malaprop, the characters include Lydia Languish, whose head has been inundated with nonsense from her penchant for romantic novels; Captain Jack Absolute, who is in love with Lydia; Sir Anthony Absolute, Jack’s father; Sir Lucius O’Trigger, a rambunctious Irishman; and Bob Acres, who is Jack’s neighbor and somewhat of a simpleton in love with Lydia.
Captain Jack wishes to woo Lydia, and so attempts to do so by pretending to be a penniless ensign named Beverley. This ruse almost causes Bob Acres and Captain Jack to fight one another in a duel. The deception also causes a number of other comical turns. Captain Jack is also rejected by Lydia’s aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, who provides much of the comedy with her misuse of words. Things are eventually resolved in true dramatic form, but not before the caricatures of human folly weave their tale of comical farce.
Sheridan’s The Rivals provides many themes both in its creation as a work and its reception as a well-liked piece of literature. Sheridan’s own struggles with failing and then succeeding show just how important it is not to give up on one’s dreams. Had it not been for Sheridan’s tenacity, “The Rivals” would not exist as it does, and more likely than not, would have been lost to time like many other plays of the eighteenth-century. The work itself shows how deception and attempts to be other than what one is can often have poor consequences. Instead of duping others with one’s character or words, it is best to approach situations with the truth. It is the truth that is eventually revealed at the end of an ordeal, and it is the truth, at least according the “The Rivals,” that furthers the plot of one’s life in the direction it is meant to go.