The Rivals

From Academic Kids

This page is about the play by Sheridan. For the Welsh hill, see Yr Eifl.

The Rivals, a play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, is a comedy of manners in five acts. It was first performed on 17th January 1775.


The Rivals was written quickly, and Sheridan hoped to make at least six hundred pounds. Its first performance was a failure, mainly due to the casting of the character Sir Lucius, a stereotypical Irishman; it is said that in the third act an apple thrown from the audience hit Lee, the actor playing Sir Lucius, and he cried out, "By the pow'rs, is it personal? - is it me, or the matter?". The manuscript from this original version (The Larpent manuscript) was revised by Sheridan for the second performance, and another actor was cast for Sir Lucius. This newer edition is known as the First Edition, and includes changes to some characters and language; although it was shortened due to some audience criticisms, it was also added to. Other possible reasons for the play's failure include echoes of Sheridan's own life in the plot: the play includes an elopement (similar to his with Elizabeth Linley) and a duel.

The play gradually became more popular and is now considered to be one of Sheridan's masterpieces.


The play is set in Bath in the 18th century, a town legendary for conspicuous consumption and fashion at the time. People would travel there to take the waters which were believed to have healing properties. The town was much less exclusive than London, and provides an ideal setting for the characters.

The plot centres around two characters: Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute. Lydia is obsessed with the romantic ideals of love she reads in popular novels of the time, and is drawn into a relationship with Captain Absolute, who pretends to be a poor soldier called Ensign Beverly. Lydia finds the idea of eloping with a poor soldier romantic. In reality, Captain Absolute is a rich gentleman, the son of Sir Anthony Absolute. Both Sir Anthony and Mrs Malaprop, Lydia's aunt, want to prevent their secret romance. Mrs Malaprop wants Lydia to marry for financial reasons.

The marriage arranged by Sir Anthony is, in fact, with Lydia, but when Lydia finds out who Ensign Beverly really is, she refuses to marry him, clinging to her romantic notions of eloping with a poor soldier.

Faulkland, who is a close friend of Jack, falls in love with Julia, Sir Anthony's ward. However, he has irrational doubts about Julia's love for him and eventually decides to test her love. Julia rejects him.

Bob Acres decides to fight a duel against the fictional Ensign Beverly, and Sir Lucius O'Trigger wants to duel against Jack Absolute. Lydia stops the fight at the prospect of Jack's death and admits that she loves him and Julia forgives Faulkland.


The Rivals is a play of stereotypes. The main source of comedy is that the characters conform so perfectly to our expectations. The lack of depth of character allows for a complex plot.

Lydia is one of the most clearly stereotypical characters. She has become carried away with her romantic ideas of love, so much that she quarrels with her "poor Beverly" just because they had never done so before. Her speech involves passionate use of poetry, but she can also be witty, indicating that she has assumed this form of speech to fit with her romantic notions.

Jack Absolute, in contrast, is a less stereotypical character; however, he is also not a natural character but somewhat heroic. He is courageous but thinks that money is important, as well as love, in marriage. He is also manipulative, and many characters including Lydia and Mrs Malaprop are taken in by this, but Sir Anthony, his father, is not.

The other pair, Julia and Faulkland, are similar, in that Julia is reasonable and intelligent (like Jack), whereas Faulkland worries and idealises about love (like Lydia).

Sir Anthony and Mrs Malaprop have in common that they both try to prevent the romance between Jack and Lydia, whilst at the same time have distorted perceptions of themselves. Sir Anthony believes himself to be a lenient father, whereas in fact he is angry, comically so, and Mrs Malaprop believes herself to be "Queen of the dictionary" but she uses long words incorrectly, contributing the word 'malapropism' to the English language. One of the best examples of this is "headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile".

The play is considered a masterpiece despite the stereotypical nature of the characters and the somewhat fragmentary scenes. The audience of 1775 would have wanted more natural characters, but its subsequent success comes from its self-conscious fulfillment of the expectations of the audience.



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