By Whitney Eggers, Production Dramaturg
Above all else, The Rivals is pure entertainment. Larger-than-life characters share the stage with
deliciously outlandish language and preposterous plotlines. Mrs. Malaprop’s verbal contortions,
Faulkland’s sentimental sighing, and Lydia’s wildly romantic imagination constitute not just
a period comedy of character, but a comedy about the character of an entire period.
When Sheridan wrote The Rivals in 1775, the “sentimental” comedy of manners shared the English stage with a rotating repertory of Shakespeare plays, established dramas, and inoffensive comedies. In decided contrast to the theatrical vogue that preceded it—the bawdy, willfully licentious Restoration comedy—Georgian theater prized gentility and sentiment. Plays emphasized grace and restraint in distress, and tear-jerking performances that Oliver Goldsmith, an 18th-century playwright who preferred audience’s laughter to tears, called a “species of Bastard Tragedy.” Goldsmith ridiculed the
“Sentimental Comedies… [which] have had of late great success, perhaps from their novelty, and also from their flattering every man in his favourite foible. In these Plays almost all the Characters are good, and exceedingly generous… and though they want Humour, have abundance of Sentiment and Feeling.”
The continued pursuit of this line of morality led to plays of such unbearably fine feeling that one critic called them “oppressively genteel.” This newly sentimental attitude presented itself as a symptom of the changing values of English society—even manifesting in the political sphere, where Members of Parliament were observed to openly weep or faint, caught in the grip of legislative passion.
With the recently ended Seven Years’ War, the initial stages of the Industrial Revolution, and looming conflict with the American colonies, life in 1775 England resembled anything but the light fare depicted on its stages. But the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 had placed severe restrictions on what could be produced, nearly eliminating the presence of current events—or more precisely, satires of the government—on the stage, and decreeing that new plays had to meet the approval of a government censor, who kept an eye out for any possible controversy. The Act also limited the number of theatrical venues where plays could be seen: only two playhouses, the Theatre Royal Covent Garden and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, were licensed theaters.
Granting licenses to only two theaters had palpable effects, on both the style of acting and the style of play seen on London stages. As the audiences of closed theaters began to crowd the remaining legitimate venues, house sizes increased to accommodate them. This in turn created a greater physical distance between audience and performers, necessitating bigger, less specific choices by actors simply in order to be seen. Larger audiences also required wider appeal in play choices in order to cater to the largest possible percentage. The resulting seasons relied on a broad swath of Shakespeare, alternating with established dramas and inoffensive comedies. Few new plays debuted; those that did adhered to
tried-and-true plots and characters.
Dulling of detail in both performance and writing meant that stock characters such as the country bumpkin, the irascible Irishman, the wily servant, and the falsely learned woman became a go-to in contemporary drama, along with predictable plotlines—for example, “a rich heiress fends off advances from an odious suitor,” or “a love match between youths faces the disapproval of parents scheming for children’s advancement.”
Sheridan, in his first-produced play, seized on these familiar structures and character archetypes and lampooned them. Favorite romantic plotlines twist into absurdity; character foibles soar into hilarity; and even contemporary morals receive their due. Lydia Languish, the girl whose head is turned by reading romance novels, and Mrs. Malaprop, her phrase-mangling aunt, let Sheridan deride the widely held belief that learning was downright dangerous for a girl: a 1773 magazine warned guardians that a novel, “when a young woman makes it her chief amusement, generally renders her ridiculous in conversation, and miserably wrong-headed in her pursuits and behavior.” Not one but two central couples help Sheridan mock the ludicrous endpoint of overwrought sentimentality, and country bumpkin Bob Acres illustrates the folly in going too far for fashion.
The immediate, wild success of The Rivals showed Sheridan’s skill at burlesque. That the play still, 236 years after its premiere, delights audiences points to Sheridan’s greater comic mastery. For in The Rivals, Sheridan did not just create a clever parody of the literary fads of his day, sending up romance novels and sentimental comedies; he also managed to write a burlesque that was itself a brilliant version of precisely what he parodied, and offered an enduring dissection of some very universal foibles. Grinning at the delightfully performative veneer coating 1775 England, Sheridan extends an invitation to unparalleled entertainment that still lives and breathes today.