Places Discussed

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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

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.

Historical Context

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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 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,...

(This entire section contains 1058 words.)

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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 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.

Literary Style

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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 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.

Compare and Contrast

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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.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES 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.

FURTHER READING 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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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 Sheridan. New York: Twayne, 1960. The chapter on The Rivals covers production history, the initial failure of the play, and Sheridan’s revisions, which led to the play’s later success. Includes a brief discussion of the play’s effect on Sheridan’s career as a playwright and theater manager.

Worth, Katharine. Sheridan and Goldsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Treats Sheridan and Goldsmith as two Irish dramatists whose work is firmly rooted in the eighteenth-century English theater. Discusses The Rivals in the context of the pantomime tradition.


Critical Essays