Friday, 18 June 1999

Richard Brinsley Sheridan: The Rivals (1775)

Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1994
Review number: 276

Sheridan's play is a classic of English language theatre, and the characters have even entered the language (malapropism is derived from Mrs Malaprop, continually trying to impress with long words but using the wrong ones). It is, in form, a parody of a conventional romance, having two pairs of young lovers rather different from the norm.

To take the less important pair first, Faulkland is an exaggeration of the sensitive, jealous lover. His girl, Julia, is fairly insipid, but this is necessary because the audience should instantly appreciate that his fears spring entirely from his own mind, and have no basis in her behaviour or inclinations. (An example of this: when Julia returns to her country home briefly and he remains in Bath, Faulkland is at first made unhappy by the thought that her life will be unhappy without him; but when, to reassure him, he is told that she continues to enjoy herself, he is tormented by the thought that this proves her indifferent to him.)

In contrast to Faulkland and Julia, in the other pair of lovers it is not the man who is of interest but the woman. Jack Absolute is a typical young hero, rather in the mould of Fielding's Tom Jones. Lydia Languish, however, is not just the more interesting of the two of them, but the play's main character. (Having the major character in the play female is unusual for the period.) She is a hopeless romantic, addicted to the novels frequently condemned by contemporaries as responsible for the corruption of the morals of young ladies. (The absurdity of that idea is one of the targets Sheridan is attacking.)

In her desperate search for romance, Lydia rejects the fate of marriage to a young nobleman which is the allotted fate for a young lady of fortune. She wants to elope with a penniless man, forcing Jack, who would be the sort of suitor of whom Lydia's family would approve, to disguise himself as a poor army officer. Enjoying her clandestine meetings with "Ensign Beverley", Lydia is enraged when she discovers that he is, in fact, a gentleman - and is only mollified when Jack persuades her that he is only pretending to be rich to trick her family so that he can spend more time with her. (This is of course agreeably dangerous and romantic.)

The Rivals is a delightful play, even more so than Sheridan's other well known work, The School for Scandal. It does not really have a serious side, unless poking fun at the things young lovers take seriously counts as one.

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