Together with that other masterpiece of late eighteenth century comedy, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer: Or, The Mistakes of a Night (pr., pb. 1773), Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals represents a successful reclaiming of the essential spirit of English comedy. Too long subject to “the goddess of the woeful countenance—the sentimental muse” (as Sheridan addresses her in his prologue to The Rivals), English comedy had forgotten its boisterous heritage; a theater nurtured in the rich buffoonery of a Falstaff and the satirical malice of a Volpone had dissipated its energies in moralizing and saccharine “genteel” comedies. Although reluctant to return, and perhaps incapable of returning, to the cynicism of Restoration comedy, Sheridan was anxious to rescue the healthy psychological realism traditional not only to English comedy but also, ever since Geoffrey Chaucer, to English literature generally. Sentiment was a French value. Sheridan’s insistence on steering a middle course between sentiment and wit, between morality and reality, puts him at the center of the English literary tradition.
At the heart of all comedy is the ridicule of affectation. People may not all be fools, but all are, at times, foolish. Sheridan exploits the inevitable tendency in people to be foolish, regardless of their accomplishments in life. He does not resort to flat or stock characters, amusing only because they represent totally unrealistic or exaggerated foibles. His people are always human, and their foolishness often makes them more so.
Despite the stock-character aspect of their names (Absolute, Languish, and Malaprop), these characters are all larger than the epithets. Captain Absolute may be absolute about refusing his father’s choice in a wife, but he is forced into a profound relativity when he has to be two people at the same time. When Absolute is at last revealed as having masqueraded as Beverley, he is, in any case, no longer absolute. Lydia Languish is ridiculed for languishing over sentimental novels, but she overcomes her foolishness when she refuses, finally, to languish in wounded pride for being duped by her Beverley.
Mrs. Malaprop’s name was coined by Sheridan from the French malapropos, which means “not to the purpose.” The word “malapropism” entered the English...
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