Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 968
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 language in honor of Sheridan’s character, and her abuses of the language are still hilarious. Sheridan, however, does not reduce Mrs. Malaprop to the one affectation of commanding a vocabulary that she does not, in truth, command. Her speaking “not to the purpose” is only symptomatic of a much deeper affectation; she is not to the purpose. Mrs. Malaprop favors the wrong suitor, Acres, for Lydia; she presumes, incorrectly, that the letters Sir Lucius O’Trigger has been writing are intended for her when they are in fact directed to Lydia; and, finally, at the end of the play, she blames her own willful and deluded misconceptions on the opposite sex. She is malapropos in more than diction; it is her human condition. Sheridan is careful not to pickle her in the brine of absolute ridicule. In her weakness lie the seeds of her vitality; by refusing to adhere “to the purpose” of her age and limited intellect, she achieves a touching transcendence that seems to turn the heart of Sir Anthony at play’s end. There is hope for her.
Sheridan’s fascination with human weakness led him to create a character that many critics feel is at odds with his avowed purpose in the play, which is essentially a broad attack on the sentimental in literature and life. The character in question is Faulkland. On the surface, it is clear that Faulkland’s excessive concern with the pitch and nuance of his feelings for Julia, and hers for him, is so laden with anxiety that it is meant to be ridiculous. As such, Sheridan must have intended Faulkland’s misplaced sentiment in life to complement Lydia Languish’s misplaced sentiment in art. Lydia models her love-in-life on the sentimental romances she has read, and Faulkland constantly measures his relationship with Julia against an unrealistic idea of bliss in an imperfect world. Lydia’s sentimental values are wrecked by the empirical fact that the man she loves turns out not to be the penniless Ensign Beverley but the rich and titled Captain Absolute. What sentimental art had decreed acceptable—the poor but dashing suitor—turns out to be the thing reality withholds. The revenge of life on a superficial idea of art is absolute. In Faulkland’s case, the comic exposure is not as brilliant. As one critic has noted, while Sheridan laughs at Faulkland, he also identifies with his tortured sensibility.
Faulkland’s constant anxiety is too serious a thing to dismiss categorically with laughter. His doubt is of the kind that a true awareness of reality implies. He may seem ridiculous in questioning his Julia’s right to be healthy and happy in his absence, but his anxiety over the authenticity, as well as sincerity, of her love is the fate of his kind of mind.
Almost as if Sheridan senses that Faulkland does not completely succeed as an attack on the sentimental, the playwright creates another character in whom those anxieties are clearly absurd—namely, Acres. Acres’s cowardice is finally ridiculous because it is dehumanizing; he is less a person for falling prey to O’Trigger’s theatrical overdramatizing of dueling. Faulkland’s anxiety, although uncalled for, is finally metaphysical; Acres’s is completely venial and selfish.
Sheridan wrote this play at the age of twenty-three. It is a work of youthful genius and, together with The School for Scandal (pr. 1777), easily confirms his reputation as the outstanding dramatist of the eighteenth century. In Sheridan’s work the wit of Restoration comedy and the best of sentimental comedy—its gift for feeling characterization—come to full fruition.