Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Bath. Resort town in western England; it and its surrounding area would have been as familiar to London theater audiences as similar well-known resort areas would be to modern readers, and Sheridan capitalizes on well-known facts of the leisure lifestyles of the fashionable in Bath. For example, it was well known that dueling was forbidden in the city yet there were convenient places outside the city where duels were common. Sheridan refers to familiar places in the city such as the North Promenade and the New Rooms. Especially does he laugh at the well-known fashion of circulating libraries in the town. So, in order to do the play justice, audiences must see the world of the play as that of fashionable, leisure society removed for the summer to Bath.
North Parade. Fashionable promenade in Bath that is a place of leisurely walks and fashionable encounters between lovers.
King’s-Mead-Fields. Location of the duel, a place well known for its duels outside the town walls on the Avon River.
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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 wellknown 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...
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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...
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Compare and Contrast
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...
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Topics for Further Study
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 con- flict 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.’’
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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.
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What Do I Read Next?
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.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Auburn, Mark. Sheridan’s Comedies: Their Contexts and Achievements. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977. Treats Sheridan’s comedies as exemplary manifestations of the comic aesthetic. Discusses The Rivals as a practical play, designed to appeal to a specific audience, and attempting no innovations or departures from popular stage practice.
Mikhail, E. H. Sheridan: Interviews and Recollections. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. A biography composed of excerpts from the writings of those who knew Sheridan. Includes contemporary accounts of The Rivals, opinions on the play from Sheridan’s friends, relatives, and other contemporaries. Shows the range of opinion that accompanied the initial run of the play; reveals the nature of Sheridan’s audience.
Morwood, James. The Life and Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985. Reassesses Sheridan’s political career and his management of Drury Lane for thirty-two years. Section on The Rivals comments on Sheridan’s use of autobiographical allusions, his revisions of the play after opening night, and his debt to William Shakespeare. Discusses the two plots and their equation of moral judgment with common sense.
Sherwin, Oscar. Uncorking Old Sherry: The Life and Times of Richard Brinsley...
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