The Rivals was Sheridan's first play, written in 1775. At the time, he was a young newlywed living in Bath. At Sheridan’s insistence, upon marriage his wife Eliza (born Elizabeth Linley) had given up her career as a singer. This was proper for the wife of a “gentleman,” but it was difficult because Eliza had earned a substantial income as a performer.
Instead, the Sheridans lived beyond their means as they entertained the gentry and nobility with Eliza’s singing (in private parties) and Richard’s wit. Finally, in need of funds, Richard turned to the only craft that could gain him the remuneration he desired in a short time: he began writing a play. He had over the years written and published essays and poems, and among his papers were numerous unfinished plays, essays and political tracts, but never had he undertaken such an ambitious project as this. In a short time, however, he completed The Rivals. He was 23 years old.
This is a play about the comedy of courtship and duplicity in 18th-century Bath. I recently went to see a production directed by Sir Peter Hall in his 80th year. The performances of Penelope Keith as the “Queen of the dictionary” Mrs Malaprop, and Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony Absolute, a man who rumbles and thunders with rage whenever his iron will is crossed, were outstanding.
There was a mixture of hauteur, roguishness and vulnerability in Keith’s performance that is truly endearing. Mrs Malaprop is noted for what Julia calls, “her select words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced.” Bowles is terrific too, his sour, pursed face.
The dramaturgy is impeccable. Sheridan roots the play in the audience's taste for comic character: from Shakespeare (Mistress Quickly and Dogberry are Mrs Malaprop's antecedents) and Jonson (Sir Lucius O'Trigger, Sir Anthony Absolute bearing Jonsonian monikers that define type) via the Restoration.
In poking fun at poseurs, pretentious country arrivistes and snobs, Sheridan pushes the manners and stereotypes of the plays and society of the time to extremes. He is attacking attitudes to love and money, marriage and responsibilities, the battle of the sexes, and the age-old tensions between the generations.
Sheridan was satirising a new society, although he signed up to it in one chief respect: that anyone could be a gentleman through their own efforts and achievements rather than through birth or marriage. He was very American in this respect - the revolution in that country was just a year away.
The Rivals is set in Bath, a newly invigorated city: new architecture, new fashions, new intellectual curiosity avidly embraced by newcomers. Bath offered a levelling of society. There was no hierarchy to be observed in the ballrooms, for example. But it also bred snobbery from the old order. With a fondness for the new comes the posturing of the nouveau.
Bath was also where Sheridan had spent the most tumultuous time of his life on leaving school, as an employee of his father's elocution academy (there was a ready market in social climbers looking to knock the edge off their common accents).
The rivals is a comic gem in which Sheridan combines mastery of situation with an awareness of sentimental absurdity that Jane Austen went on to harpoon in Northanger Abbey.