Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

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.’’

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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.

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