The Rivals

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The Rivals












The Rivals, a comedy in five acts, established Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s reputation in the London theatre in 1775. When the first performance was not well received, Sheridan cut it by an hour, strengthened the idiosyncratic characters, and produced the new version in a highly successful second performance that proved his merit as a great comic playwright. The Rivals is one of a small handful of eighteenth-century plays that continues to be produced to this day. While the plot is complex, the characters are stock comic caricatures of human folly, aptly named.

A Comedy of Manners, the play satirizes sentimentalism and sophisticated pretensions, without the typical eighteenth-century moralizing. The dialogue crackles with wit even today, over two hundred years after it was first penned. This play is the source of the term “malapropism,” named for Mrs. Malaprop, whose delightful “derangement of epitaphs” consists of using sophisticated-sounding words incorrectly. The Rivals is an example of what Oliver Goldsmith called in his 1773 “An Essay on the Theatre,” “laughing comedy,” in contrast with the “weeping sentimental comedy” that dished out heavy handed moralizing in every act. Sheridan wrote his most theatrical works, including the more well-known The School for Scandal during the five-year period at the beginning of his career. He went on to manage the Drury Lane Theatre for nearly thirty years and to pursue a successful career in politics, becoming famous for his oratorical abilities.


Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin, Ireland, on January 25, 1751. His father was an actor and teacher of elocution, while his mother was a writer with several novels published. Richard studied at Harrow, an elite private school in Dublin, where he was initially looked down upon as a “player’s son” (at the time, actors, or players, were generally held in low esteem). When Richard was twenty-one, his father took the family to the resort town of Bath, where the would-be playwright fell in love. He fought two duels over the young and beautiful Elizabeth Linley, “the siren of Bath,” a singer and daughter of a composer who organized concerts. The couple eloped and moved to London so that Richard could pursue a career in play writing. He would remain in London the rest of his life, but his marriage would suffer from many infidelities.

The Rivals, his first work of any note, was first produced on January 17, 1775, at the London Theatre in Covent Garden. The story contains stock characters, and is based roughly on his elopement with and duels over Miss Linley. After a major revision to correct serious flaws, the second performance, on January 28, of The Rivals proved a hit, establishing Sheridan’s career. Riding on this success, he, his father-in-law, and two other investors, purchased a half-ownership in the Drury Lane Theatre in 1776, which they turned into a full ownership in 1778. Sheridan produced The School for Scandal and became manager of the Drury in 1777, a position he held until the theater burned down in 1809. Drury Lane thrived under Sheridan’s direction, despite his dissolute habits and inability to manage the financial side of the business. Sheridan preferred spending time with members of the Literary Club (established 1764), including Samuel Johnson who was the author of the 1755 English dictionary, theatre actor/director David Garrick, and statesman Edmund Burke, as well as fellow playwright Oliver Goldsmith.

In 1780, Sheridan decided to enter into politics, establishing a career in Parliament that would span thirty years until 1812 and earn him immense respect. However, his beginning was inauspicious; he essentially bought his way into a position as a Whig M. P., and then had to defend himself of the charge of bribery as his first order of business. His skills in oratory acquitted him of dishonor, and over the years, he earned a reputation as the finest orator of his time. His political interests lay in defending the French Revolution and the cause of American Colonists, trying in vain to prevent the Revolutionary War in America. A grateful American Congress awarded him 20,000 pounds for his support, but he refused it, even though he was deeply in debt.

In 1792, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis. Three years later, Sheridan married Esther Hecca, whose spendthrift ways along with his own feckless habits put him further into debt. The burning of the Drury Lane Theatre pushed him beyond the point of recovery. He was imprisoned for debt in 1813 and died destitute in 1816, although his wealthy friends gave him an extravagant funeral.


Act 1

The Rivals opens with two old friends happening upon each other in Bath. Fag, servant to Captain Jack Absolute (who is masquerading as Ensign Beverley for the sake of a love affair) catches up with David, coachman to Sir Anthony Absolute, Jack’s father, thus introducing some of the characters to come. In the next scene, Lucy returns from a trip to the local circulating libraries laden with romantic novels for her mistress, Lydia Languish. It is because Lydia wants a love affair like those in her romance stories that Jack Absolute has adopted a reduced title and new name.

Lydia reveals to her friend Julia Melville that her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, has confined her to her rooms after discovering Lydia’s secret passion for Beverley. Julia is in love with Faulkland, whom Lydia calls jealous, for his possessiveness of Julia. Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute enter and chide Lydia to forget Beverley. When she refuses, Mrs. Malaprop sends her to her room, whereupon the pair agree that severity is the best method of childrearing. Sir Anthony wants his son to marry Lydia, and he suggests locking Lydia in her room and withholding her dinner for a few days to obtain her compliance. Mrs. Malaprop, her speeches thick with misused, pretentious words, agrees to an initial visit, for she would like to be freed of her niece so she can pursue her own affair with Sir Lucius O’Trigger. Act 1 ends with Lucy, Julia’s maid, tallying up the many trifles she has earned by acting as a go-between and informer for all of the lovers.

Act 2

In parallel to Lydia and Julia, now Jack Absolute and Faulkland discuss their love affairs. Jack accuses Faulkland of being a “teasing, captious, incorrigible lover” for constantly doubting Julia’s loyalty and love. Bob Acres, spurned suitor to Lydia, enters and pitches Faulkland into yet another fit of jealous despair by relating how Julia has entertained the Bath social circle with her singing of “My heart’s my own, my will is free” and with her carefree country dancing. Acres, a provincial country bumpkin, brags to Jack and Faulkland that he shall win Lydia back from Ensign Beverley with his improved dress and hairstyle. He also takes pride in a “genteel” style of “sentimental swearing” that marks him as an oaf. Servant Fag announces the arrival of Jack’s preemptory father, Sir Anthony, who informs Jack that he intends to confer a sizeable estate upon him, conditional to accepting an arranged marriage. Jack demurs politely, saying that his “heart is engaged to an angel.” Sir Anthony leaves fuming. In a brief scene, Lucy delivers a love letter to Sir Lucius O’Trigger. She does not inform him that its real author is Mrs. Malaprop, not her niece Lydia. Before going, Sir Lucius makes a pass at Lucy. Moments later, she tells Fag of Sir Anthony’s choice of a wife for Jack: Lydia Languish. Fag goes off gleefully to inform his master of the good news.

Act 3

Now that Jack knows he is being forced to marry the girl he loves, he plays repentance and wins his father’s shocked approval. Faulkland confronts Julia with his paranoid fears and after several attempts at reassurance, she exits in tears. Too late, Faulkland recognizes his folly. Captain Absolute presents himself to Mrs. Malaprop, who does not guess his dual identity with Ensign Beverley. In a comic scene, she shows him his own letter to Lydia, and he feigns disgust at Beverley’s rude remarks about the vigilant aunt. When she then spies on his supposed first meeting with Lydia, she fails to recognize Lydia’s delight at seeing her lover in the “disguise” of his true identity. Lydia infuriates her aunt by continuing to profess her love for Beverley, in plain hearing of Jack Absolute, who calmly pretends not to be jealous of his other self.

In another scene, Sir Lucius interrupts Acres capering about in new clothes, practicing his dance lessons. Sir Lucius manages to convince Acres to challenge, but

Absolute to a duel, to defend his honor and vaguely, to “prevent any misunderstanding.” Sir Lucius has to help Acres write the challenge, but claims to have another duel to fight and so cannot attend Acres’s battle.

Act 4

Bob’s servant David tries to deflate his master’s enthusiasm for the fight with a healthy dose of reality, but Acres remains steadfast. Absolute offers his support but pleads out of acting as Bob’s second, which, of course, would be impossible since he is also Bob’s opponent, Beverley. Jack promises to warn Beverley that “Fighting Bob” is in a “devouring rage.” In another short scene, Lydia assures Mrs. Malaprop that she will give no encouragement to Captain Absolute, hoping to prolong the charade of Beverley’s “true” identity. Now the recognition scene takes place, as suddenly, Sir Anthony arrives with Jack Absolute in tow. His arrival is a volatile situation since Lydia still does not know that Absolute is Beverley. Jack approaches Lydia, who luckily sits with her face averted in an attempt to rebuff him. At first he cannot speak, then he modifies his voice to an awkward croak, which infuriates his father. Finally, he reveals himself to a shocked Lydia. At first, Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony consider Lydia mad for insisting that this is Beverley, then in a hilarious moment, Sir Anthony accuses Jack of not being his son. Lydia sulks in realization that the two are one man, and that means—no elopement; her romantic bubble has burst. Jack’s bubble has burst as well, since Mrs. Malaprop realizes that it was Jack who called her an “old weather-beaten she dragon” and Sir Anthony marvels at his son’s roguish ingenuity. He sings and dances in delight, promoting forgiveness.

Jack realizes that Lydia has not joined in the general celebration, still brooding over the death of her romantic dream. When she lashes out at him for his role in the ruse, he praises her spirit, and she begins to sob. Mrs. Malaprop thinks the couple is “billing and cooing” and Sir Anthony mistakes Lydia’s tears as evidence of his son’s impatient blood, a trait, he proudly says, runs in his family. Sir Lucius provokes a quarrel with Jack and they arrange to duel at the same location that Acres plans to meet with Jack. Faulkland receives a letter from Julia asking to meet right away, and Jack upbraids his friend for failing to understand he’s been given a second chance. Jack is correct: Faulkland decides to test her sincerity yet again, using the duel as a ruse.

Act 5

In the first scene of the final act, Julia is confronted by Faulkland claiming the necessity to leave the country for his life. True to her nature, Julia commits to accompany him, not even knowing the nature of the threat. Overwhelmed by her response, Faulkland forgets to depart, admits the ruse, and enrages Julia for trifling with her sincerity. She now sees that he will never be capable of confidence in love, so she leaves him, professing never to love again. Now, Faulkland truly understands the error of his constant doubts, and he sinks in remorse. In the meantime, Lydia’s heart has softened, and when Julia tells her sad story, Lydia seems ready to accept the new, less romantic, terms of her love affair with Absolute. Suddenly, Mrs. Malaprop and the two servants David and Fag arrive, hoping to interrupt the duel in time, although Mrs. Malaprop’s circuitous style of speaking delays their message being understood by the two young ladies. Eventually, all is clear, and they exit to find the field of battle.

In the meantime, Jack bumps into Sir Anthony, the last person he wants to see when he is on his way to a duel. His nervousness nearly gives him away, but when his sword falls from under his coat, Jack manages to convince his father that he intends to scare Lydia with a romantic threat of suicide if she will not accept him. Jack escapes, just as the others arrive and tell his father his real objective with the sword. Everyone is now on the way to King’s Mead-Fields. After a comic scene between Acres and Sir Lucius about the best shooting distances and stance, Faulkland and Absolute arrive, and Sir Lucius assumes that Faulkland is Beverley, since, of course, he already knows Jack as Absolute. Acres, in great relief, promises to bear [his] “disappointment like a Christian,” while Sir Lucius and Absolute nearly come to blows before the group of concerned ladies and parents appear. The mystery of Beverley’s true identity now disclosed, the couples all patch up their differences: Jack with Lydia, Faulkland with Julia, and Sir Lucius with Mrs. Malaprop.


A woman recites a poetic epilogue in the rhyming couplets common in the eighteenth century, reminding the audience that despite man’s presumptions to the contrary, women are the true arbiters of love, and that even the strongest soldier “droops on a sigh” because love commands him. Even knowledge, she adds, is nothing without the “Torch of Love.”


Sir Anthony Absolute

This spluttering, domineering baronet rules his son (Jack Absolute), and anyone else who gets in his way, with an iron fist. As Fag describes him at the very beginning of the play, Sir Anthony is “hasty in everything.” His method of raising Jack has consisted of issuing commands to the boy—“Jack do this”—and if Jack demurred, Anthony “knocked him down.” Now that Jack is a grown man, Sir Anthony announces his intention to bestow his £3,000 annual income on his son, only on the condition that Jack accept the bride of Anthony’s choice, prior to meeting her. His ultimatum is a test of his son’s obedience to his will. Sir Anthony gives the young man a mere six and one-half hours to decide. When Jack balks, Sir Anthony insists that his son not only must marry the woman, who is hideously ugly, but also that Jack will be forced to “ogle her all day” and “write sonnets to her beauty.” If Jack disobeys, Sir Anthony will strip him of his commission. Confident in his methods and oblivious to their actual effect, Sir Anthony advises Mrs. Malaprop to lock Lydia in her room and withhold her supper until she accepts the arranged marriage. Of course, things were different when Sir Anthony courted—he eloped with his beloved. Sir Absolute is a comic figure in the play. His blustering anger is offset by the ridiculousness of some of his commands and assertions, the irony of which he fails to see; he assures Jack, “I am compliance itself, when I am not thwarted.” At the end of the play, however, he has mellowed, becoming a more considerate father.

Captain Jack Absolute

Jack is Sir Anthony’s son, and a captain in the army. His father had prepared him for this career by enlisting him into a marching regiment at age twelve. Jack resents his father’s manner with him, but dares not resist the forceful old man. Instead, he vents his frustration on his servant, Fag. The rank of captain carries with it a reasonable commission (pay) and a great deal of prestige. It is precisely this prestige that gets in the way of his amorous intentions with Lydia, whose romantic dream is to fall in love with someone beneath her class. Therefore, Jack, a practical man at heart, woos her as Ensign Beverley, masquerading as someone with half the pay and prestige he actually has. When Lydia falls for his ruse, Jack is delighted. But he is calculating, too. He realizes that he will have to let her in on the trick gradually, so that he will win both the girl and the fortune she seems so intent on giving up for love. Jack is sophisticated in the ways of love, as compared to his friend Faulkland. Jack assures him that although he is a romantic, he does not fall victim to the “doubts, fears, hopes, wishes, and all the flimsy furniture of a country miss’s brains.” His friend Faulkland accuses Jack of treating love as a game, of having no particular stake in whether he wins Lydia or loses her. Just as he might recover from losing at dice, Faulkland suggests, Jack would merely, “throw again” and find another lover. However, once faced with the real prospect of losing Lydia, who becomes incensed when his charade is exposed, Jack falls properly in love with her.

Bob Acres

Bob Acres is a country squire who has been wooing Lydia without success. At the beginning of the play, Acres has just been rebuffed, told by Mrs. Malaprop to discontinue his attentions to Lydia. Acres is an oddball and simpleton who has invented his own form of swearing oaths that are “an echo to the sense,” an idea he seems to have picked up from the Shakespeare line in Hamlet, to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” To make himself more attractive to women, Acres takes dancing lessons from a Mr. DeLaGrace, and foolishly prances around the stage practicing his moves.


  • In 1961, The Rivals was transformed into a musical with words by Bruce Geller and music by Jacques Urbont. The show starred a then new and unknown actor named Dom Deluise. The musical script is available from Music Theatre International in New York City. A 1962 sound recording of the production is available from Mercury records.

Innocent and easily influenced, he is persuaded, against his fears and better judgment, to challenge Beverley to a duel over Lydia. Sir Lucius rouses his “valor” and courage to the point where he relishes the battle. However, with the duel close at hand, he feels his valor “oozing out.” Wavering between false hopes and dismal fear, he hopes to be able to prove his “honor” before a shot is fired, so that he will not be hurt. When he realizes that his opponent is in actuality his good friend Jack Absolute, he declines to fight and says he will “bear his disappointment like a Christian.”

Ensign Beverley

See Captain Jack Absolute


Servant to Acres, David values life over honor and tries to dissuade his master from going forward with the duel. David’s homespun language is atrocious, indicating his lack of education; however, he has far more common sense than his master. David refuses even to touch the challenge letter, and he whimpers at the thought of Acres dying at the hand of his opponent.


Fag is Captain Jack Absolute’s servant. Lucy, Julia’s maid, knows him as Ensign Beverley’s servant. Fag boasts about his master to his friend and fellow servant, David, Sir Anthony’s coachman. Jack treats Fag nearly as an equal, confiding in him about his double identity and allowing Fag to make up the lies explaining his presence in Bath. Fag is like a member of the Absolute family; when Jack vents his anger at his father upon Fag, Fag in turn vents his upon an errand-boy. As a trusted manservant, Fag has a secure spot in the elaborate social caste system of the British upper class.


Faulkland, with his overanxious heart, is a foil for Jack Absolute. Faulkland is in love with Julia, but his worries about her constancy nearly ruin their relationship. First he fears for her life and health, then when told that she is well, he grows petulant at the fact that he has worried in vain. He resents her “robust health” and calls her “unkind” and “unfeeling” as though she should have made herself ill with missing him. When in fact he learns that she has been happy enough to sing at a party, he grows jealous. And when he hears she has also participated in country dances, where he insists she must have “run the gauntlet through a string of amorous palming puppies,” he is beside himself. However, his fears are completely unfounded; he is projecting his own fickleness onto her. Jack Absolute calls him a “teasing, captious, incorrigible lover” and a “slave to fretfulness and whim” because Faulkland cannot accept that he has found a true love. Only when Julia gives up trying to reassure him, and in frustration leaves him, does Faulkland realize his grave error of judgment. Given one last chance, he is ready to embrace a trusting love.

Lydia Languish

Lydia is a provincial young lady who lives in the fantasy world of romance novels. The titles that she lists out for Lucy to procure for her at the lending library are actual titles of popular romances of the period. While enamored of the works of fancy, however, Lydia realizes that society disapproves of them, so she ferrets away the novels when she has visitors, and poses with Lady Chesterfield’s Letters. Having fallen under the influence of fictional love stories, she has taken a fancy to marrying beneath her station, a deliciously forbidden act that her aunt will not approve. She does not care that without Mrs. Malaprop’s approval she will lose her inheritance of 30,000 pounds. In fact, she enjoys going against her aunt’s wishes, and she disdains money as “that burden on the wings of love.” Lydia wants love in the most romantic terms, passionate scenes like the ones in her novels. To that end, she hopes to intensify her romance with Beverley, which has seen no quarrels, with a bit of subterfuge.

She sends a false letter to herself exposing Beverley’s involvement with another woman. Lydia confronts Beverley with his supposed falsehood to start a fight, just so that they can make up, and thereby keep their love at the fever pitch portrayed by romance novels. Her ruse fails, since Beverley does not rush to her side for forgiveness, but waits to be recalled by her. Beverley/Jack probably would have run away with her, but his father intervenes with a plot to force him to marry the wealthy young lady. Lydia is the last to know that Jack and Beverley are one and the same man. When his masquerade is exposed, and she learns that their affair is not only accepted but promoted by both Sir Anthony and Mrs. Malaprop, her ardor diminishes. She grows as sullen as a spoiled child and rebuffs Jack’s avowals of love. Finally, though, Lydia comes to her senses when she sees Jack in danger of being killed in the duel. Her romantic notions are stripped away in the face of losing her lover, and she finds true love with him, presumably dropping her infatuation with sentimental love.


Lucy is Julia’s maid, and her opposite in every respect. Lucy serves as the go-between for Mrs. Malaprop (posing as Delia) and Sir Lucius O’Trigger, between Acres and Lydia, and between Beverley and Lydia. In every case, she plays upon the sweetheart’s anxieties to increase the number of letters she can deliver—into the wrong hands. In her very first scene, she cites a long list of tangible rewards she has earned for her duplicity: money, hats, ruffles, caps, buckles, snuff boxes, and so on. Lucy represents the worst of the stereotype of the clever, acquisitive servant, who betrays her master’s confidences for personal gain.

Mrs. Malaprop

Mrs. Malaprop was probably based on Henry Fielding’s Mrs. Slipslop from his 1742 novel Joseph Andrews. Mrs. Slipslop, in turn, may have roots in the character Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Her literary pedigree aside, Mrs. Malaprop is one of the most memorable characters in the play, if not in eighteenth-century drama. She is the epitome of middle-class longing to be acceptable amongst the upper class, and her means of achieving this status is through language. She criticizes the improper language and protocol of her niece and other sentimental girls, yet she herself presents a comic representation of a failed attempt to adopt a sophisticated style of speaking. Her “nice derangement of epitaphs” reveals that she may have a passing knowledge of high-sounding words, but no idea of how to use them. Thus her name has evolved to mean words that are misused or as Julia aptly says, “select words... ingeniously misapplied without being mispronounced.” Some of her malapropisms take on an ironic second meaning due to her innocent misuse. For example, Mrs. Malaprop assures Sir Anthony that girls “should have a supercilious knowledge in accounts,” which subtly implies the kind of snobbery Mrs. Malaprop desires, and she agrees with him, too, that in child-rearing, there is “nothing so conciliating to young people as severity.” In the latter utterance, she inadvertently underscores the fact that severity often has little effect. Mrs. Malaprop tries to dissuade Lydia from her affair with Captain Beverley, and she joins with Sir Anthony to arrange a marriage for her niece with Jack Absolute instead. She is partly motivated by her own budding relationship with Sir Lucius O’Trigger, who has been corresponding with her, foolishly thinking her letters are from the niece.

Julia Melville

Julia plays the role of the ideal female lover. She remains true, tender, and steadfast to Faulkland, despite his ridiculous and unfounded fears that she does not love him adequately or for the right reasons. Her language, fitting to her quality, is precise, fluent, and rich. In each of her speeches, Julia demonstrates patient thoughtfulness and intelligence, taking a balanced viewpoint. She chides Lydia against treating Beverley capriciously, and she patiently protests that she loves Faulkland, in spite of himself. She even defends his poor behavior as stemming from his lack of experience in love; she overlooks his faults, not naively but with a true generosity of spirit. When she finally loses her confidence in him, her eloquent speech requesting that he reflect upon his “infirmity” and realize what he has lost, finally breaks through to him, making him realize the effect of his own lack of faith. She further adds to her credibility and dignity when she warmly takes him back, once he expresses true penitence.

Sir Lucius O’Trigger

Sir Lucius is an older Irish gentleman, and a devious fop and trigger-happy ex-soldier who foolishly believes his letters are going to Lydia, and that it is this seventeen-year-old beauty who writes back lovingly, not her aging aunt. He knows his correspondent as “Delia,” whose imprecision in language only endears her to him as his “queen of the dictionary.” He is too old to be playing love games. While waiting for Lucy to deliver a letter, he falls asleep in a coffeehouse and nearly misses her. He is also ridiculous in his amorous overtures with Lucy, with whom he flirts openly, not realizing that she encourages this behavior simply to increase his generosity. Sir Lucius was also a soldier, and it is his Irish propensity for quarrelling that leads him to pressure Acres into dueling Absolute. Taking no risk upon himself (for he claims to have other duties that evening), he has no compunctions against putting Acres at risk. It is he who has to tell Acres how to pace out the dueling field, and he patiently explains why Acres should not stand sideways (because of the greater likelihood that a bullet would hit his internal organs), but should face his opponent squarely. Despite, or because of, his common sense about the physics of dueling, Sir Lucius skillfully avoids having a duel with Acres by muttering, “Pho! You are beneath my notice.” Then, when a duel with Jack seems unavoidable, he rises to the occasion, but leaps at the chance of reconciliation the moment Jack makes a gesture of apology.


Thomas is Sir Anthony Absolute’s coachman. He sports a wig, hoping to look like a lawyer or doctor. Thomas has the same odd manner of talking as the country squire, Bob Acres; he uses oaths such as “odds life” and “odds rabbit it,” which belie his pretensions and reveal his humble social standing.



With the exception of Julia, each of the characters in The Rivals practices artifice, or lying, to get what he or she wants from the other characters. Beginning with David’s wig, his vain attempt to pass as a member of a higher society that has already dropped the wig from fashionable dress, and ending with Faulkland’s last attempt to trick Julia into admitting base motives for loving him, no one


  • Read one of the sentimental novels of the eighteenth century, such as Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journal through France and Italy. After reading it, identify several defining aspects of the sentimental man. You might also consider contrasting the qualities of the sentimental man with those of a sentimental woman, as portrayed in Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote.
  • At the end of the play, Lydia decides to marry Jack. Do you agree with her assessment of him as a marriage prospect?
  • What special considerations of the status of women in the eighteenth century, as opposed to that of women in the twenty-first century, might affect the female protagonist’s choices of suitable marriage partners?
  • What roles do Mrs. Malaprop and Bob Acres play in this comedy? How do their language difficulties reflect on the issues that cause conflict between the lovers?
  • Read Oliver Goldsmith’s “An Essay on the Theatre; Or, A Comparison Between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy” (1773). Define “Laughing Comedy,” and then, find evidence in Sheridan’s play that supports the interpretation that The Rivals is a “laughing comedy.”

willingly presents things as they really are. In fact, many of the characters lie outright. Fag lies to Sir Anthony for Jack about the son’s reasons for being in Bath, and Lucy lies to Sir Lucius about who is writing love letters to him. Other characters simply misrepresent themselves. Jack masquerades as Ensign Beverley in order to win Lydia’s love, while Mrs. Malaprop tries to appear more sophisticated by peppering her speech with fancy vocabulary that she neither understands nor can pronounce.

Of all the characters, Lucy stands to profit the most from her artifice, and that is because she serves as a go-between for the intrigues of the others. She tells the audience in a soliloquy, “commend me to a mask of silliness and a pair of sharp eyes for my own interest under it.” Her comment amounts to a definition of artifice: appearing innocent enough to fool others, while actively seeking one’s own selfish interests through their trust.


The Rivals puts the two common avenues to courtship—arranged marriage and falling in love—into opposition. Marriages were one important means for wealthy families to maintain or increase their dynastic power. For ambitious members of the middle class, an “advantageous” marriage of a daughter offered a means of securing a foothold into the next level of society. Girls were protected, therefore, as a kind of investment, and thus were not allowed to choose their own mates, and their public appearances were carefully planned and guarded. Places like Bath and certain public areas of London as well as parlor gatherings offered arenas for young people to view and parlay with the opposite sex without the risk of commitment on either side. The actual marriage arrangements were made by parents (usually the father) or by a legal guardian, in the case of orphans. Inevitably, young men and women disagreed with their parents, who often were motivated by other interests than those of their children. The many novels, poems, and plays concerning such conflicts attests to the centrality of courtship issues to eighteenth-century culture.

Sentimentality and Sentimental Novels

Sentiment, or the ability to “feel,” was valued greatly during the eighteenth century. The genre that responded to a rampant interest in feelings—what inspired them and how to control them—was the novel. The European novel was “invented” in Spain during the seventeenth century and, as the newcomer to literary genres, it was looked upon with circumspection if not downright disfavor. In an age that favored formality such that much of the poetry consisted of rhyming couplets, the less structured format of a novel was seen as aimless and prone to corrupt its mostly female readers. Novels rose out of a rich precedent of conduct manuals and travel literature and ultimately grew into the chronicle of a protagonist’s psychological “coming of age.”

Sentimental novels were the most popular novel type favored by women. These works described romantic intrigues with bold lovers and winsome, virtuous women who epitomize the feeling heart. When Lydia Languish recites the list of novels she wanted Lucy to procure for her, the titles represent actual works available at the time. Lydia does not buy these books but sends Lucy to borrow them from the lending library, to which its patrons could subscribe for a reasonably small annual fee. The lending library was another new phenomenon, one that put books within reach of every young lady anxious to script her life according to these fictional models. The reading of novels by young, impressionable girls was condemned by the male patriarchy on one hand, and lauded by them as a viable alternative to education on the other.

Education and Language

One of the means to social advancement is education, and the social measure of this education is spoken language. Thus, in The Rivals, it is not the content of the verbal wit that matters, but the relative quality of the rhetoric employed by each of the characters. Oratorical ability is a sign of social competence, and rhetorical blunders symbolize a character’s social inadequacies. Thus, Julia’s formal and intellectually wrought speeches stand in stark contrast to the verbal blunderings of provincial Bob Acres, whose speech is peppered with phrases such as “odds swimmings” and “odds frogs and tambours.”

At the same time, those who feign sophistication are brutally satirized. Mrs. Malaprop is a target of ridicule because her sophisticated-sounding words, used in the wrong context, expose her failure to achieve her goal of self-education. A good education would allow her to pass unnoticed among the social class she wishes to enter. Many among the audience would identify with her desire, at the same time that they mocked her inability to satisfy it.


The Comedy of Manners

The Comedy of Manners hails from the Restoration period (1660-1700), but was revived a hundred years later toward the end of the eighteenth century by Richard Sheridan and his contemporary Oliver Goldsmith. While Restoration comedy was bawdy and playfully lewd, the eighteenth-century version is refined and genteel. Both satirize the affected manners of sophisticated society. Often the plot revolves around a love affair, which takes the form of a pitched battle with words as weapons. The dialogue is witty and characters are distinguished by their ability to match wits with their partners. Characters are usually thinly drawn, representing types rather than individual personalities. Emphasis is placed on the language, such as wit and clever double-entendres, rather than the characters’ motives or actions.

The Comedy of Manners of the eighteenth century served a different audience than that of the Restoration period. Whereas the early Comedy of Manners was designed to entertain those it ridiculed—the social elite—later variations of this form of comedy served a more diverse audience, which included a growing middle class hungry to acquire the social mannerisms necessary to move up the social ladder.

Sheridan and Goldsmith revived the Comedy of Manner as a protest to the plays of sentimental comedy that predominated in the middle eighteenth century. Didactic and moralizing, sentimental comedies with titles such as False Delicacy, The Clandestine Marriage, and The Fashionable Lover portrayed tender lovers who make huge social mistakes and pay dearly for them by the last curtain. Sentimental comedies thus predicted the social reformist drama of the nineteenth century.

In the late eighteenth-century climate of puritanical conservatism, Sheridan revived the satiric bite of the true Comedy of Manners, yet in a more subdued and less bawdy form. In The Rivals, Sheridan satirized popular sentimental comedy by ridiculing his heroine’s misguided sentimental ideas instead of presenting them as caused by society’s unfairness. Lydia Languish is not to be pitied, but to be mocked. Her very name reveals the playwright’s attitude toward her mawkish desire to fulfill the fantasies of sentimental novels. Her return to her senses at the end of the play as she lets go of her foolish whimsies is Sheridan’s subtle attack on mawkish sentimentality.


High Georgian Theater

Theater in Sheridan’s time appealed to everyone who could afford to attend. Prices ranged from one to five shillings, which amounts to roughly five to twenty-five American dollars in today’s monetary terms. After the license of Restoration Theater, Georgian Theater must have seemed almost prudish. Gone were the bawdy burlesques, with their ribald humor. Instead, the plays would be drawn from the new Comedy of Manners, as well as well-known stock pieces from the Shakespeare repertoire, the latter usually representing half of the season’s offerings.

The newly revived and adapted Comedy of Manners plays contained a moral embedded in highly sentimentalized drama or comedy. It is this genre of sentimental comedy, also known as the comédie larmoyante(“crying comedy”) that Sheridan adapted and satirized in The Rivals and The School for Scandal. For this reason, his comedies, and those of Oliver Goldsmith, were known as “laughing comedies,” a term coined by Goldsmith in an essay on the theater.

The reason for the shift away from court humor to moralizing humor lay in the interests of the new middle class, hungry to gain respectability and to learn how to advance in society. Theater became a vehicle of knowledge as well as a badge of status in itself. The novel as a popular genre was born during this time to reach the same audience, who had the leisure time to read these life scripts. Theaters were expanded to accommodate the larger audiences of approximately 2,300 people, with members of the merchant class literally rubbing shoulders with landed gentry as they sat on the backless benches. Only the very wealthy sat in the raised boxes, once again on backless benches.

The theater itself was brightly lit by oil lamps and candles throughout the performance, and the audience sat close to the stage, creating an intimate acting environment. Elaborately painted scenery panels slid into place on tongue-and-groove slots. The Covent Gardens Theatre owned one such panel representing a scene of the South Parade at Bath, which was used during act five of The Rivals. The evening would last a long time, at least four hours, since besides the featured play, there would be introductory music, oratories, singing and/or dancing between the acts, and an afterpiece.

David Garrick, probably the greatest actor in British theatrical history, reigned as king of theater during the years when Sheridan was still finding his way in his chosen field. Garrick managed the Drury Lane Theatre up until the time that Sheridan and his partners took over, effecting several useful changes, such as removing the “stage loungers” who took their seats right on the stage, and encouraging actors to work together as an ensemble to portray more life-like scenes.

James Boswell attested to Garrick’s status as “the undisputed monarch of the British stage” and he hailed him as “probably in fact the greatest actor who has ever lived.” Garrick had been one of Samuel Johnson’s students; together, they had moved to London to find their fortune, Johnson in writing and Garrick in the theater. Garrick was the first to find success, and that success was stupendous. Sheridan knew Garrick, but did not revere him as did the rest of London. Boswell records Sheridan as constantly denigrating Garrick’s acting ability as shallow, contrary to popular opinion. Garrick died three years after Sheridan produced The Rivals, leaving a powerful legacy to Georgian theater.

Late Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Bath

Wigs were the height of fashion for men and women alike up until the 1770s, with special kinds of wigs worn only by physicians and judges. At the time when The Rivals was first produced, however, the wearing of wigs had gone completely out of style. Thus, the fact that Sir Anthony’s servant Thomas sports a wig marks him as a provincial, as does his countrified speech.

Swearing also became unfashionable, suggesting unwanted vulgarity; thus Bob Acres practices “sentimental swearing,” a form designed not to offend the ears. The late eighteenth century saw the beginning of the Rococo period, where art and


  • Eighteenth Century: A small group of women intellectuals, nicknamed “bluestockings,” claims to be the equal of male intellectuals, but they are both rare and resented. Samuel Johnson expresses a typical sentiment when he remarks about a female preacher, “A woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hinder legs. It is not well done; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

    Today: While women professionals and intellectuals no longer suffer such ridicule for their accomplishments, they do not necessarily command equal pay or respect compared to their male counterparts.

  • Eighteenth Century: Formal education is available only for men, and being costly, only for landed or wealthy men. A handful of daughters of enlightened fathers enjoy home tutoring, and a few philanthropists try to provide education for less affluent young men. For the middle class, an education is the marker and the passkey for entry to high society. This class of ambitious young men becomes a willing market for tutors, conduct guides, and newspaper columns aimed at educating them.

    Today: Public education is available for men and women of all socioeconomic groups. However, a growing number of non-English-speaking immigrants presents challenges to school systems to offer this group equal access to society through equal education.

  • Eighteenth Century: Going to the theater is popular and fashionable. Theatergoers have favorite actors and plays, and they pay dearly for their seats on backless benches. The tickets range from one to five shillings, which equates roughly to $25 to $50 in today’s currency.

    Today: Although the theater still thrives, it has been largely overshadowed by film and video technology. A handful of dedicated theatergoers still are willing to spend substantial amounts to experience live theater in houses that are often ten times the size of their eighteenth-century counterparts. In addition, today’s audience is both further from the stage and also separated from the action by the dimming of the house lights, which makes it possible to view the scenes on stage without being visible in return.

  • Eighteenth Century: In the later part of this century, England is entering a period of increased propriety and temperance after the bawdiness of the Restoration period. Self-restraint is a considerable virtue, a mark of men who would place themselves above the mob. Accordingly, Bob Acres in The Rivals has formulated a new manner of swearing, since “the damns have had their day.”

    Today: After a period of liberalism during the second half of the last century, the new millennium may be seeing a move toward conservatism, such that prayer in school is again under consideration, and television and film industries are anxious to serve both the conservative and liberal public by clearly announcing the level of sexual and language-related offensiveness of their products.

music departed from the heavy ornate style of the Baroque to styles that portrayed more refinement and elegance, yet were quite playful at the same time. Clothing and speaking fashions began in London and Paris, and traveled quickly to provincial towns via coach. It became fashionable to mock the provincials’ attempts to copy urbane fashions.

Swords, that marker of the gentlemen, were discouraged in the resort town of Bath. Jack mutters as he hides his sword under his coat, “A sword seen in the streets of Bath would raise as great an alarm as a mad-dog.” In addition, shops, coffee houses, and drinking establishments closed early to discourage misconduct there. Bath had been quite a sleepy town before the eighteenth century, visited only by those who wanted to partake of its medicinal waters. But more leisure time and a growing class of successful merchants combined to turn Bath into a resort town, where visitors came to ogle one another and parade their own elegance.

The quiet town of Bath grew quickly after it became the haunt of the fashionable. On the North Parade of Bath, visitors would take an afternoon stroll to show off their finery, to see what others were wearing, and to socialize. Sir Lucius reveals his lack of decorum and his obtuseness to high society when he falls asleep at this social hot spot while waiting for Lucy to bring him a letter from “Delia,” or Mrs. Malaprop. Of course, the truly fashionable elite avoided the crowds. Sir Anthony, with his coarse manners, is clearly one of the newly rich who visits Bath to rub shoulders with his betters.

Age of Johnson

Prior to the five-year period when Sheridan was managing the Drury Lane Theatre and writing plays, he befriended some of the London’s literary lions. These included Samuel Johnson, when the older man was at the height of his literary fame, James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer, and Johnson’s circle of literary lions. In 1762, Sheridan missed the witty and intelligent conversation that had been a part of his shabby genteel life in Ireland. He had spent a decade writing his famous Dictionary of the English Language(1755), and had spent approximately two years with James Boswell, who would soon produce Johnson’s biography, published in 1791.


Samuel Johnson called The Rivals and Sheridan’s The Duenna“the two best comedies of the age.” Indeed, as reported in Walter Sichel’s 1909 biography of Sheridan, Sheridan: From New and Original Material, the play “never left the stage” from its inception until a slowdown in the latter nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, revivals have been sporadic, but successful. The first night, however, was a disaster. The theater was packed; the London Chronicle of January 21-24, 1775, as noted in Sichel, proclaimed “there had not been seen so many ladies and people of fashion at a first night’s representation for a long time.” Most of the audience abhorred the play. Sichel summarizes the effect: “A whole chorus hissed disapproval.... The play itself was damned. Its blemishes—length, exuberance, and drawn-out sentiment.”

As quoted in Sichel, the Morning Post of January 20, 1775, called it “the gulph of malevolence,” while the next day’s Morning Chronicle, recalled in Richard C. Taylor’s “Rereading Sheridan’s Reviewers,” in Sheridan Studies, pronounced it too long: “insufferably tedious.” A scant number of reviewers approved of some aspects, such as the reviewer on January 27, 1775, (before the revised version; also in Taylor) who saw “some of the most affecting sentimental scenes” he could remember.

Sheridan’s satire was lost on his audience. Few of the reviewers understood his linguistic jokes: the January 18, 1775, Public Ledger found the language “defective to an extreme” with “shameful absurdities” and the same day’s Morning Chronicle pronounced Mrs. Malaprop’s lines not “copied from nature” (both reviews in Taylor). The press approved of Sheridan’s decision to withdraw the play for revisions. The overhauled play appearing on January 28, 1775, met with a completely different reaction. Although some reviewers bridled at the attack on libraries, the Morning Post of January 30, 1775, printed a verse in rhyming couplets pronouncing the play a “perfect piece,” joining a general chorus of praise (Sichel). The success was complete. Years later, when Sheridan was an old man, his son Tom arranged for a special production of The Rivals with an old flame of Sheridan’s and Tom and his wife playing key roles. Sheridan loved it.

The Rivals enjoyed consistent play during the nineteenth century, but interest in it dwindled during the twentieth century. It became a “period piece,” one that was exhumed occasionally in theaters, and more occasionally served as fodder for academic research into the eighteenth-century theater. During the 1970s, critics looked at the play through the lens of social justice, John Loftis proclaiming in 1975 that it represents a world “of social and financial practicality... in which a rich and repulsive suitor such as Bob Acres might be rejected in favor of a rich and attractive suitor such as Jack Absolute.” Twenty years later, in 1995, Jack Durant drew parallels between Sheridan’s obsession with proper language in his letters, and the valuation of “well-governed language” in his plays,

including The Rivals. Today, The Rivals still enjoys occasional production and respectable reviews.


Carole Hamilton

Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private college preparatory school in Cary, North Carolina. In this essay, Hamilton examines the construction of ethos as a central theme of the play and as a key issue in eighteenth-century British society.

In 1780, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s father, Thomas Sheridan, saw his much-awaited pronouncing dictionary, ten years in the making, come to print. The idea had come from Thomas Sheridan’s godfather, the satirist Jonathan Swift, who had dreamt of a British counterpart to the language standards of the French Academy. After Swift died, Thomas took on the task. As Swift had anticipated, this work found an immediate audience, and ran to eleven printings in its first year. Buyers wanted a reliable pronunciation guide that would help them move into a higher social class, by adopting an ethos of intellectual prowess. Ethos is the Greek term for “character.”

Aristotle had written that to be a credible person, one essentially must create the person others will see, in order to earn their respect and trust, through a combination of ethos (character), logos (vocabulary), and pathos (emotional appeal). Sheridan, a talented orator who would pursue a thirty-year career in the British Parliament, knew the importance of a person’s way of speaking in establishing credibility.

One of the most hilarious characters in The Rivals is Mrs. Malaprop, whose name has become synonymous with failed attempts at using big words correctly. The character of Mrs. Malaprop is a showcase role for talented actresses with a flair for oratory and style. Mark Auburn in his 1977 Sheridan’s Comedies recommends that “[t]he actress playing Malaprop is well-advised to emphasize each malapropism with self-satisfaction, vain pluming and preening, and conscious stress: in this way the incredible vanity will provide absurd contrast to [her] learned ignorance.” Despite her protestations that she would not want her daughter to be a


  • In Samuel Richardson’s 1740-1741 Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded, a young servant girl fights to repulse the advances of her master, eventually forcing him to legitimize his desire through marriage.
  • Frances Burney’s Evalina; Or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World(1778) is the story of a witty and plucky young girl who selects her mate from a host of admirers.
  • Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story(1791) relates the plight of a young girl who falls in love with her protector, who inconveniently happens to be a priest.
  • In Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752), a naïve female protagonist—influenced by reading too many romantic novels—persists in being completely honest, no matter what the circumstances, to the bafflement of her friends and would-be lovers.
  • London Assurance(1841), by Dion Boucicault, is a drawing room farce with aptly metaphorical character names, and it also portrays the plight of a son whose father wants to marry him off to the very girl with whom he has already fallen in love.
  • Oscar Wilde’s Comedy of Manners The Importance of Being Earnest(1895) is a spectacularly witty take on the theme of the mistaken identity of a lover.

“progeny of learning,” or to study the “inflammatory branches of learning” such as “Greek, Hebrew, or Algebra,” Mrs. Malaprop herself takes pride in her “oracular tongue,” her ability to speak in what she comically refers to as “a nice derangement of epitaphs.”

Mrs. Malaprop professes to Sir Anthony that a young girl should strive to be what she calls “mistress of orthodoxy” so that she will not “miss-spell and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do.” She does not want them to learn too much, so she disapproves of their reading novels, which she and Sir Anthony agree would corrupt them, as it has Lydia. Therefore, Mrs. Malaprop asserts, a girl’s education should be limited: “the extent of her erudition should consist in her knowing her simple letters, without their mischievous combinations.” Her own endeavor to appear educated is compromised by the very method she proposes, for her education is incomplete: she knows only enough to pronounce big words, not how to use them correctly. Her mistakes are comic, and her ethos is comic because her desires are fueled by vanity. Vanity prevents her from recognizing that Jack Absolute is reading his own letter aloud to her, and that he authored its numerous insults aimed at her “ridiculous vanity which makes her dress up her course features, and deck her dull chat with hard words—which she don’t understand.”

The letter goes on to state outright that her blindness “does lay her open to the grossest deceptions from flattery and pretended admiration.” She is duped by her own ego, and she is the only one who fails to get the joke. Mrs. Malaprop thinks that girls should attend school only to acquire “a little ingenuity and artifice,” but her own artifice is as shallow as make-up. Her attempted ethos fails because she does not fully understand the power of oration, as though she has bought the pronouncing dictionary and stopped there. She tries to get by with the surface features, never comprehending what she lacks, yet all-too-ready to prescribe her method to others. The ironies of her absurd linguistic errors and her blindness to the impression she makes is a powerful reminder of the importance of verbal skills in establishing credibility.

Bob Acres offers another role for talented comic actors. Bob exhausts every opportunity to create for himself the ethos of the country gentleman. However, it is apparent to everyone from his valet to his dueling partner that no gentrified silk purse will emerge from this country sow’s ear. From “training” his hair for the latest style and capering ridiculously across the stage as he rehearses fencing moves, to practicing his own style of “referential oaths,” Bob cuts not a suave figure, but a ridiculous and pathetic one. He rues his gracelessness, saying that although he can dance a country dance well enough, his English legs “don’t understand their curst French lingo!”

Of course, dancing is a form of communication, and one that his country bumpkin body cannot speak. Sir Lucius O’Trigger easily feeds into Bob’s pretensions and persuades him to challenge his rival for Lydia’s hand to a duel. But O’Trigger has to dictate the letter for him, because Bob lacks the decorum necessary to set the right tone of self-righteous politeness. Bob knows that words can help create an external ethos of ruthlessness to frighten his opponent. Therefore, he asks his friend Captain Absolute—actually Bob’s would-be opponent in the guise of Ensign Beverley—to refer to him as “Fighting Bob,” a ruthless opponent who “generally kills a man a week” and now is in “a devouring rage.” Bob supplies the epitaphs, but out of cowardice, he asks Jack to deliver them. Bob doesn’t trust himself to project his new ethos in person.

Bob’s valet David provides a useful foil to his master. David refuses to join in Bob’s mania, instead reminding his master that honor holds no value in the grave. David’s speech, in contrast to that of Bob Acres or Mrs. Malaprop, is simple and lacks artifice. He represents the sober voice of reason in this play of inflated egos, providing a sane view of the characters’s folly that the audience can use as a measure.

Bob desires the status of the gentry, but his ethos lacks depth, just like Mrs. Malaprop’s, because his adopted style of speech cannot mask his true state of mind at the time—fear, just as Mrs. Malaprop cannot mask her lack of education. Because they speak from a fantasy idea of themselves and not from the heart, their projects of ethos-creation fail, making them comic figures.

Unlike Mrs. Malaprop and Bob Acres, Julia always speaks from her heart. There is no disconnect between her words and her essential person, therefore, she has no need to manufacture an external ethos. Not surprisingly, Julia is a good orator. She chooses her words with care, in order to represent the truth as she sees it, not the fantasy she


wishes were true. She patiently explains to Lydia that Faulkand’s lack of trust stems from his inexperience at love. Her speech, a sermon on the topic of honest love, rings with truth. Her diction and wording portray her natural ethos of impeccable moral character. Furthermore, never do her words contradict her true feelings. Her true character shines through, and she is credible to everyone—except for Faulkland. Faulkland suffers from a “fear of ethos” engendered by living in a world full of social climbers who present an artificial exterior. Faulkland wrongly accuses Julia of not loving him but merely esteeming him, of not feeling sad enough when he is away. Not until he has tested her beyond the limits of her patient endurance does Faulkland realize his mistake. His failure to recognize a true character when he sees one is understandable, given that he is surrounded by those who present a false ethos whenever they can.

In The Rivals as in eighteenth-century society, ethos-creation goes on amongst the servant class as well, although they focus mostly on matters of dress. They seem to forget, as the audience cannot fail to do, that their language gives them away. The fashion fa§ade of Sir Anthony’s coachman Thomas is as transparent as Bob Acres’s heroic ethos. Thomas sports a wig, that symbol of strained image construction, but as Fag quickly points out, wigs are now hopelessly passé.

With or without the wig, the audience recognizes Thomas’s lower-class status as soon as they hear his heavy brogue, filled with such linguistic giveaways as “look’ee” and “Odd rabbit it.” They appear in the first act in the play, setting the stage for the series of ethos-manufacturing characters to come, whose fragile constructions also will be rent asunder as the plot unfolds. Fag dons gloves like a nobleman and generally dresses better than does Thomas, but, it is his more formal speech, and his ability to control his language when surprised, that marks him as higher in the servant pecking order than Thomas. Fag maintains his cool with a “hold—mark! mark!” in contrast to Thomas’s simplistic outburst, “Zooks!” Like their masters, these servants wish to convey an ethos of social superiority, but their failure to change their style of speaking makes it impossible for them to rise above the level of the servant class.

Not all of the characters gear their ethos toward social advancement. Lydia and Jack have an entirely different purpose in mind—they seek the higher purpose of love. Lydia’s purpose adopts the ethos of the woman who falls in love beneath her class, an idea she has gleaned from the sentimental novels that she consumes by the dozens. She also dreams of marrying against her aunt’s wishes and being forced to relinquish her 30,000 pound annuity, thus ridding herself of “burden on the wings of love.”

Unfortunately, her ethos becomes as static and fixed in her mind and heart as the print from which it derives. She is trapped in a rigid fantasy and therefore unable to respond spontaneously when Jack deviates from the script. Instead of being happy that Ensign Beverley and Captain Absolute are the same man, and that he has her aunt’s approval, Lydia sulks. In her frustration, she cannot even reply to him, but instead seems to address her internal life script when she says, “So!—there will be no elopement after all!” Mrs. Malaprop declares that “her brain’s turned by reading,” expressing a concern common in eighteenth-century society. As the reviewer for the January 27, 1775, Morning Chronicle of London exclaimed, “almost every genteel family now presents us a Lydia Languish!” The fear was growing that sentimental novels would transform impressionable young ladies into weepy maidens languishing for love.

Jack Absolute is the hero because he portrays someone who can convert a lost young lady back to proper behavior. He does so by pretending to go along with her sentimental script, masquerading as Ensign Beverley, who fits Lydia’s bill for an impoverished lover. Jack does not share Lydia’s fantasy, but he constructs an ethos that fits the mold. Of course, the imposter Beverley excels at oratory, speaking sentimental language even better than the lovers in her books. He waxes poetic as he assures Lydia that the “gloom of adversity shall make the flame of [their] pure love show doubly bright.”

He intends eventually to tell her the truth, but his plans go awry when he must appear as a “new” suitor, Jack Absolute. After calling upon “Ye Powers of Impudence”—an apostrophe to the god of imposters—he can barely croak out a few words in a froggy voice. It is an ethos crisis, and his oratorical skills desert him. He cannot utter words that will undo the damage his masquerade has caused. Jack’s ethos fails under pressure because his constructed ethos cannot adapt to the changing situation and because it does not represent his true heart.

Julia alone can speak intelligently and effectively under the pressure of changing situations. It is no coincidence that the character with the truest heart also has the best oratorical skill. Each of her speeches is an oratory worthy of a British Parliamentarian, which her creator would soon become. A good orator not only projects a credible character and speaks with eloquence, he or she also can do so spontaneously, responding to the new information while drawing on a storehouse of knowledge and wisdom. Those who masquerade under a manufactured ethos cannot do so, skewed as they are by their blind faith in their inflated, false egos.

Sheridan seems to have created Julia and her comic peers as an experiment to explore how best to create a credible ethos. Sheridan himself was a newcomer to the London theatrical world, with no credibility as of yet, but with a remarkable eye for identifying imposters around him. His success lay in his ability to hold a mirror up to the society that he wanted to join, and to convince it of his own credible ethos in the process.

Source: Carole Hamilton, Critical Essay on The Rivals, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Anne Parker

In the following essay, Parker examines Sheridan’s practice of ‘“absolute sense,’ common sense tempered by mirth and softened by good nature,” and it’s place within eighteenth-century theater.

Sheridan has frequently been accused of trying to revive a moribund dramatic tradition, namely Restoration comedy. In these terms, he becomes a kind of second-hand Congreve, and not a very good one at that. Other critics, pointing to the sentiment in his plays, accuse him of being the very thing he supposedly ridicules, a sentimentalist. Neither of these accusations, which in effect try to put Sheridan’s

comedies snugly into one of two camps, takes into account what is now starting to become a critical commonplace: the Georgian period had its own view of comedy and, in its own way, developed the laughing tradition. Sheridan is no exception. At his best, he adapted the conventions of the past to his own comic ends.

Unlike what the Scotchman (in Sheridan’s fragment of the same name) calls “Grave Comedy”, which strives to inculcate a serious moral, Sheridan’s plays reflect folly and seek to mend it. More than that, like the Restoration comedies of the past, his plays deal with artifice, though in Sheridan’s case the artifice is the sentimental pose. Comedy for Sheridan has a corrective function, directed not just at folly, which takes many forms, but also at sentimental excess. Those “things that shadow and conceal” man’s true nature can, in Sheridan’s terms, as easily be “witty” as they can be “sentimental.”

What Sheridan attempts to do in his plays is to create a balance between mirth and sentiment; he is at once benevolent and critical. What to the Restoration dramatist is a tension between the private and the public self, between appearance and reality,


becomes to the sentimental dramatist an identification. Eighteenth-century dramatists like Sheridan once again show the discrepancy between what is shown and what is concealed, but Sheridan does so by writing what Loftis calls “benign comedies with a satirical bite.”

Sheridan achieves this balance by his introduction of “absolute sense,” common sense tempered by mirth and softened by good nature. In this, he is very much a part of the eighteenth-century tradition. Auburn, in his study of Sheridan’s comedies, mentions the importance of common sense to Georgian comic writers in general. Shirley Strum Kenny also argues convincingly that “the Charles Surfaces and Captain Absolutes of later eighteenth-century drama” owe much to the good sense of earlier heroes.

Therefore, freed from both salaciousness and sententiousness, Sheridan’s best comedies reflect “flesh and blood.” In this respect, his “mix’d character,” as Congreve calls such characters in his Amendments, is a visible mixture of faults and virtues. Sheridan thereby seeks to show man’s undefaced side as well as his more knavish one. His doing so places him firmly within existing dramatic traditions and not within just one camp or another. His doing so also confirms his own stature as a comic dramatist.

In his earliest play, The Rivals(1775), Sheridan develops his comic theme of “absolute sense” and adapts the modes of the past to his own ends. Restoration playwrights dramatize the corrupting influence of the “way of the world” and frequently offer ambiguous resolutions to the struggle of the individual to survive the world and its ways. Sheridan offers the “better way” of sense at the same time that he dramatizes the excesses of the sentimental way. He mocks the absurdities of sentimental distress and delicacy of feeling. To do so, he reconciles the earlier themes of artifice and “plain-dealing” with his own treatment of virtue and sense. He reveals the folly of a world where a Puff’s cant can dupe others and where a sentimental pose leads to absurdity.

Faulkland is one such example of absurdity, and Sheridan mocks the delicate lover in the scene where Faulkland hears of Julia’s social activities in the country. Here, Faulkland claims to prize the “sympathetic heart” and the sentimental union of “delicate and feeling souls.” To be absent from his beloved is to endure an agony of mind. So, in Faulkland’s terms, Julia’s “violent, robust, unfeeling health” argues a happiness in his absence. She should be “temperately healthy” and “plaintively gay.” Such paradoxical statements point to Faulkland’s own sentimental absurdity. He wishes Julia to be a pining heroine whose only true joy comes from her soulful union with him and whose absence from him should subdue her whole being.

But Faulkland fails to see the paradox of both his language and his demands. By wishing her to be temperate and plaintive, he in effect wishes her to be unhealthy and sad. But he does not stop there. A “truly modest and delicate woman,” Faulkland says, would engage in a lively country dance only with her sentimental counterpart. Only then, he argues, can she preserve the sanctity of her delicate soul:

If there be but one vicious mind in the Set, ’twill spread like a contagion—the action of their pulse beats to the lascivious movement of the jigg—their quivering, warm-breath’d sighs impregnate the very air—the atmosphere becomes electrical to love, and each amorous spark darts thro’ every link of the chain!

Faulkland’s sexually charged speech comically undermines his role as the delicate lover.

The object of his “sentimental” ardor, Julia, refuses to play a similar role. Not only is her health robust, but she also seems to enjoy the “electrical” atmosphere of the country dance. Once branded as the “unequivocal tribute to the sentimental formula”, Julia does possess a lively spirit which, at times, is critical of the over-refined temper. Faulkland’s jealousy receives a check from Julia, who reminds him: “If I wear a countenance of content, it is to shew that my mind holds no doubt of my Faulkland’s truth.” Unlike Lydia, Julia will not create an artificial sentimental distress.

In contrast, Lydia enjoys scenes of distress. To her, wealth is “that burthen on the wings of love,” so she must create for herself an “undeserved persecution.” She delights in the “dear delicious shifts” her lover must withstand for her sake. Describing one such romantic encounter with him, she uses homely, inappropriate language. Her lover is reduced to “a dripping statue,” sneezing and coughing “so pathetically” as he tries to win her heart. They must exchange vows while the “freezing blast” numbs their joints. Such a scene, told in such language, merely accentuates the falsity and the folly of her pretensions.

In The Rivals, then, Sheridan does indeed mock the aspects of sentimentalism that lead to folly. To expose these absurdities, Sheridan effectively exploits both the witty and the sentimental modes. In contrast to the artifice practised by Lydia, and the distress experienced by Julia and Faulkland, traces of the witty comic mode appear in characters like Acres, the country fop, and Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute, examples of “crabbed age.” Acres, like many a fop before him, slavishly attempts to imitate the city gentleman, but captures only the trappings of true gentility and true wit. He, too, becomes a subject for diversion. And like the aging matrons of earlier comedy, Mrs. Malaprop fancies herself to be attractive and desirable, so much so that she is easily duped. The character of Sir Anthony Absolute, who attempts to bully his son into obedience, resembles another conventional character of the past, the obstinate father. At one point, he threatens to disown a son who refuses to capitulate to his wishes.

Foolish pretensions, like Bob Acres’s “sentimental swearing,” represent a comic “echo to the sense,” a hollow imitation of the verbal and social mastery that Captain Absolute more truly embodies. In effect, Acres foppishly distorts both sense and sound, and applies Pope’s injunction with respect to sound to a comic delivery of oaths. His swearing is also a parody of the sentiment. What should exhort others to a moral truth Acres uses to bolster his courage.

Similarly, Lydia’s romantic notions lead to falsity and absurdity, mere “echoes” of the sensibility and sentimental distress that Julia more truly represents. So, too, with Faulkland. His refusal to forgo what he calls his “exquisite nicety” and to follow the more sensible tactics of Captain Absolute also exemplifies an “echo to the sense,” for his nicety is soon found to be caprice. Therefore, both wit and sentiment fall into excess and affectation, a “Voluntary Disguise” which cloaks genuine feeling and genuine wit.

Nearly every character in the play indulges in such excess: Mrs. Malaprop with her “oracular tongue,” Sir Lucius O’Trigger with his distorted view of honor, Bob Acres with his gentlemanly pretensions, Julia with her excessive good nature, Lydia with her absurd romanticism, Faulkland with his captiousness, Sir Anthony Absolute with his penchant to be “hasty in every thing.” These excesses are nonetheless intertwined, and their interrelationship is evident in the play’s title. Contrary to the views expressed by Sen and Sherbo, the play’s dual lines of action are not anomalous, but thematically linked. Here, in his first play, Sheridan does, as Auburn notes in Sheridan’s Comedies, show himself to be a “master of comic technique.”

Wit and sentiment are “rival” modes, and the rivalry is established as early as the prologue, where the figure of comedy stands in opposition to the sentimental muse. Julia’s sweet-tempered nature, often regarded as sentimental, can be viewed only in its relation both to her lover’s “captious, unsatisfied temper” and to her cousin’s romantic caprice. As Rose Snider suggests, Julia’s sobriety cannot be treated seriously in the context of her own absurdity. Julia’s fundamental good nature “rivals,” as it were, the more pronounced excess of the other characters.

By pairing these characters, Sheridan strikes a balance between them. Lydia’s romantic indulgences lead to imagined distresses that stand in marked contrast to Julia’s own trials. While Julia’s “gentle nature” will “sympathize” with her cousin’s fanciful torments, her prudence will offer only chastisement. Lydia realizes, too, that “one lecture from [her] grave Cousin” will persuade her to recall her banished lover. Later, Julia says: “If I were in spirits, Lydia, I should chide you only by laughing heartily at you.”

Faulkland’s fretfulness also taxes Julia’s good nature and, for the most part, she allows her “teasing, captious, incorrigible lover” to subdue her: “but I have learn’d to think myself his debtor, for those imperfections which arise from the ardour of his attachment.” In this manner, Julia herself becomes the victim of excess. Her exaggerated sense of duty to her morose lover and her belabored justifications of his treatment of her are found to be immoderate.

Even though she would, no doubt, crave just such an incident to befall her, Lydia points out the absurdity of Julia’s own romantic obligation to the man who rescued her from drowning. She tells Julia: “Obligation!—Why a water-spaniel would have done as much.—Well, I should never think of giving my heart to a man because he could swim!” Once again, Lydia’s homely comparison makes the incident more comic than sentimental.

Here, Lydia’s clear-sightedness puts Julia’s sentimental expostulations into perspective. By indulging Faulkland’s every whim and by submitting to his sentimental notions of love, Julia tolerates his fretfulness and fosters her own excess. When Julia introduces the notions of gratitude and filial duty, for example, Faulkland tells her: “Again, Julia, you raise ideas that feed and justify my doubts.” He yearns to be assured that she does in fact love him for himself alone; here she raises doubts even as she tries to remove his fears.

Finally, Julia must bear the consequences. Her indulgence eventually leads Faulkland into mistaking her sincerity for coquetry and hypocrisy. Intent on using the impending duel as “the touch-stone of Julia’s sincerity and disinterestedness,” Faulkland wrongly judges Julia’s love. When she hears of the duel, Julia first responds in sentimental fashion. In terms of Sheridan’s theme of rivalry, the contrast between this scene of tender self-abnegation and the scene in which Captain Absolute plays the self-sacrificing lover is worthy of note.

As Ensign Beverley, the captain makes use of Lydia’s favorite sentimental notions. He will rescue her from her “undeserved persecution,” and he pretends to revel in their anticipated poverty. He comically rhapsodizes: “Love shall be our idol and support! We will worship him with a monastic strictness; abjuring all worldly toys, to center every thought and action there.” His “licensed warmth,” which will “plead” for his “reward,” echoes Julia’s pledge to her fretful lover. She willingly promises to receive “a legal claim to be the partner of [his] sorrows and tenderest comforter.” Jack vows to Lydia that, “proud of calamity, we will enjoy the wreck of wealth; while the surrounding gloom of adversity shall make the flame of our pure love show doubly bright.” Similarly, Julia promises to Faulkland: “Then on the bosom of your wedded Julia, you may lull your keen regret to slumbering; while virtuous love, with a Cherub’s hand, shall smooth the brow of upbraiding thought, and pluck the thorn from compunction.”

Both Jack and Julia indicate their willingness to endure hardship for the sake of love. But Julia’s sentiments, prompted by Faulkland’s feigned distress, follow Jack’s, and his scene with Lydia is highly comic. In him, artifice clearly predominates over sensibility. The captain is trying to trick Lydia into matrimony and, after his impassioned speech, he quips in an aside: “If she holds out now the devil is in it!” His sentiments are feigned—merely to utter oaths of devotion does not ensure a disinterested heart. Julia’s sentiments are more sincere and yet, because they do follow Jack’s comic ones, Sheridan here inverts the conventional technique of introducing a comic scene to parody a serious one. In The Rivals, the serious scene “imitates” the comic one, and Sheridan thereby undermines Julia’s sentiments. Faulkland likewise would trick Julia into a confession of love, unqualified by either gratitude or filial duty. Structurally and thematically, Sheridan in this way suggests the kinship between sensibility and artifice.

Soon, Julia’s sensibility itself changes. Once she learns of Faulkland’s deception, she resembles earlier heroines who, in the proviso scene, defend their individuality. Her language retains the syntax of the sentiment, but the content does not deal with a moral truth. Rather, she renounces him and soundly condemns his artifice. Delicate feelings aside, she refuses to bring further distress upon herself. To make his comic point, Sheridan prolongs Julia’s diatribe, which, in its anger, recalls the tirades of the castoff mistress. Nor can Faulkland interrupt the flow of her reproach.

At last, Faulkland’s excess is checked, but not by Julia’s language or her finer feelings. Although in the end he pays tribute to the reforming power of her “gentleness” and “candour,” here the threat of forever losing her stirs his remorse. Julia, in witnessing the extremes to which her lover will go, also comes to realize the dangers of indulgence. Like Honey wood’s in The Good Natur’d Man, Julia’s indiscriminate good nature must be checked and restrained.

The character of Captain Absolute illustrates Sheridan’s comic standard of moderation, the lesson that both Julia and Faulkland must learn. Durant remarks: “[Jack] is a sensible and practical young man; and the main thrust of the comedy comes of this practical young man’s efforts to achieve sensible aims in an utterly illogical world.” Auburn in Sheridan’s Comedies writes that Jack is mildly clever, motivated by honest, not entirely selfish desires, and he is “warmly human.” Unlike the other characters, who are “absolute” in their self-indulgent excess, the captain is “absolute” only in his sense. To Faulkland’s suggestion that he immediately run away with Lydia and thus fulfill her romantic desire for a sentimental elopement, Captain Absolute retorts: “What, and lose two thirds of her fortune?” Like the Restoration hero, he is willing enough to woo a lady with a substantial inheritance, but he is equally unwilling to sacrifice himself to a life of poverty. As he tells Lydia: “Come, come, we must lay aside some of our romance—a little wealth and comfort may be endur’d after all.” To live in an impoverished state may be romantic, but it is also needlessly foolish.

On another level, his moderation offsets Faulkland’s sensibility. At one point, the captain urges Faulkland to “love like a man,” and, at another, he chides his friend even more severely: “but a captious sceptic in loved—a slave to fretfulness and whim—who has no difficulties but of his own creating—is a subject more fit for ridicule than compassion!” Like the balance achieved through the relationship of Lydia and Julia, the Captain’s good sense also balances Faulkland’s excess.

Like Faulkland’s, Lydia’s folly must be mended, and by the captain. After Lydia discovers that Captain Absolute and Ensign Beverley are one and the same person, he initially appeals to her sensibility. Meeting with no success, he must then challenge her very pretensions to sensibility. He points out to Lydia how her reputation will suffer in a world where sentiment thrives only in the lending libraries or in whimsical imaginations. It is a point which, although critical of the sentimental mode, also modifies the earlier theme of artifice. Now, sentiment becomes just another form of affectation. Later, of course, in Joseph Surface, Sheridan will personify this kind of sentimental sham. Here, Sheridan indicates that the stage of the world and the world of the stage do not mutually influence each other. Captain Absolute brings into comic focus the illusory and ultimately absurd nature of Lydia’s attempt to transfer the fictional realm of sentimentalism into her own life.

Yet, he is also a lover, “aye, and a romantic one too,” and this aspect of his character exemplifies Sheridan’s use of convention. After his breach with Lydia, the captain agrees to a duel. Indeed, this prospect proves more successful in winning him the hand of Lydia than all his tricks, a reversal of the Restoration practice and an apparent concession to pathos. But it must be stressed that, unlike Steele’s treatment of the duet in The Lying Lover, in The Rivals the duel becomes an effective comic device. For both Captain Absolute and Faulkland, the duel is a gesture of despair, and Sheridan has clearly indicated the absurdity of it by juxtaposing their motives with those of O’Trigger, who would fight “genteelly” and like a Christian over some imagined insult. The captain here momentarily forsakes sense, and he almost meets a romantic end. In a final comic twist, Lydia’s romantic desires are almost realized, and art does indeed almost become life. It is enough to shock all the characters into sense, and pathos is thereby averted.

Therefore, the duel exemplifies the basic rivalry between the sentimental and the witty modes, and the dangers to which both are subject. Lucy capably wears a “mask of silliness” and yet, like the witty servants of the past, she possesses “a pair of sharp eyes for [her] own interest under it.” It is her self-interest that has led to such serious misunderstandings. The fop, too, has contributed. Seeking to master the art of “sentimental swearing,” Acres hopes to prove his courage. A blustering oath, delivered with “propriety,” would then achieve an effect which the cowardly “fighting Bob” could not do otherwise. But the duel shows his courage to be as suspect as his “sentimental swearing.”

More important is the dual character of Ensign Beverley/Captain Absolute. His disguise also leads to misunderstandings, but he plays the key role of the man of sense. The comic excesses of the rival modes have been checked, largely through him. The rivalry between the various suitors for Lydia’s hand reaches its climax at King’s-Mead-Field, and the concomitant rivalry between wit and sentiment, represented by the combatants, finally ends. Out of rivalry, balance finally reigns.

The balance is reflected in Julia’s concluding speech. Earlier, the actress who has played the part of Julia has delivered a prologue critical of the sentimental muse. Now, at the end of the play, she delivers a word of caution: “and while Hope pictures to us a flattering scene of future Bliss, let us deny its pencil those colours which are too bright to be lasting.” Julia’s caution highlights the folly of trusting to appearances, at the same time serving to warn against risible excess. Though couched in sentimental language, this final speech hints at the true nature of things. “Flesh and blood” as mankind is, he indulges himself in the extremes of hope or despair, wit or sentiment. The “squinting eye” of excess swivels either one way or the other.

Julia’s speech, then, is less a testament to a sentimental reconciliation than a plea for moderation. Sheridan has at last shown that only “absolute sense,” freed from excessive wit and sentiment, will ultimately triumph.

Source: Anne Parker, ’“Absolute Sense’ in Sheridan’s The Rivals,” in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer 1986, pp. 10-19.


Auburn, Mark S., Sheridan’s Comedies: Their Contexts and Achievements, University of Nebraska Press, 1977, pp. 40-52.

Boswell, James, Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle, 1950, reprint, Edinburgh University Press, 1991, p. 30.

Durant, Jack, “Sheridan and Language,” in Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 101.

Loftis, John, Sheridan and the Drama of Georgian England, Oxford, 1976, pp. 46-47.

Reid, Christopher, “Foiling the Rival: Argument and Identity in Sheridan’s Speeches,” in Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 114.

Sichel, Walter, Sheridan: From New and Original Material; including a Manuscript Diary by Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Vol. 1, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909, pp. 498-99, 502.

Taylor, Richard C., “Future Retrospection: Rereading Sheridan’s Reviewers,” in Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 50-55.


Kelly, Linda, Richard Brinsley Sheridan: A Life, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997.

Kelly presents a detailed examination of the playwright’s life, with a balanced portrayal of both his brilliance and his dalliance.

Morwood, James, The Life and Works of Richard Brinskey Sheridan, Scottish Academic Press, 1985.

Morwood’s biographical account focuses primarily on Sheridan’s plays and theater management.

Morwood, James, and David Crane, eds., Sheridan Studies, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Morwood and Crane collect ten scholarly essays on Sheridan’s plays, including one on producing Sheridan by director Peter Wood.

Porter, Roy, English Society in the Eighteenth Century, The Penguin Society History of Britain, Penguin Books, 1990.

Porter looks at the political, social, and economic world of eighteenth-century British society.

Stone, George Winchester, Jr., ed., The Stage and the Page: London’s “Whole Show” in the Eighteenth-Century Theatre, University of California Press, 1981.

Acting, stage construction, song, and the various forms of comedy and drama are discussed in the context of eighteenth-century society.

Taylor, Richard C., “Future Retrospection: Rereading Sheridan’s Reviewers,” in Sheridan Studies, edited by James Morwood and David Crane, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 47-57.

Taylor presents a collection of snippets from contemporary and later reviews of The Rivals.

Worth, Katherine, Sheridan and Goldsmith, St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Worth puts the key plays of Sheridan and Goldsmith into the context of the conventions of eighteenth-century drama and comedy, especially sentimental comedy.

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The Rivals

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