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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XII. The Georgian Drama

§ 6. Richard Brinsley Sheridan: The Rivals

The Rivals (1775) is a comedy of incident, the excellence of which is partly to be found in the action. Its characterisation is, in essence, conventional and shows less knowledge of human nature than does Goldsmith’s work. Captain Absolute the generous, impulsive youth, Sir Anthony the testy, headstrong father, Fag and Lucy the menials who minister to their employers’ intrigues, are as old as Latin comedy; Bob Acres, the blustering coward, is akin to Sir Andrew Aguecheek and had trod the stage in Jonson’s learned sock; Sir Lucius O’Trigger is related to Cumberland’s O’Flaherty; Mrs. Malaprop has a long pedigree, including Dogberry, Lady Froth, Mrs. Slipslop and Tabitha Bramble. Yet, apart from the actual business on the stage, these characters are irresistibly effective. As in the case of Goldsmith, Sheridan’s importance is found in the new wine which he poured into old bottles. The Georgian public expected in their plays a certain piquancy which should remind them of their social or domestic life. But, whereas authors of the sentimental school flavoured their work with emotions pertaining to woman’s affairs, Sheridan perceived that there was another element of good breeding, quite different but equally modern. The expansion of the British empire had called into existence a virile and energetic governing class of soldiers and politicians. This aristocracy felt, as deeply as any “jessamy” or “macaroni,” the humanising influence of polite learning and domestic refinement, yet with a difference. As society set a value on delicate attentions, sympathetic and discerning compliments, subtle turns of phrase and gracefulness of manner, these arts were cultivated as an accomplishment in order to maintain social supremacy. The class in question, did not, like sentimentalists, affect strong passions beneath a veneer of politeness, but, rather, a superb serenity which rose superior to all emotion. Drawing-room diplomacy had often appeared in letters and memoirs; but Sheridan was the first writer to make it the essence of a play. Despite the conventionality of the character-drawing and of some of the situations, The Rivals has an atmosphere which satisfies this ideal. As each figure moves and speaks on the stage, the reader is conscious of a coterie whose shibboleth was distinction—a coterie whose conversation regarded the most commonplace topics as worthy of its wit, which abhorred eccentricity and smiled at all those who, like Fag, Sir Anthony, Faulkland, Mrs. Malaprop and Bob Acres, fell short of the rule of easy self-possession.

After some initial difficulties, The Rivals proved a complete success and Sheridan was launched on his career as a dramatist. The opportunities of quick returns which the theatre now offered had their full influence even on an author of his literary taste and dramatic sense. His next production, St. Patrick’s Day, is a trifle composed with no other object than to make money by amusing the public. The Duenna (1775) is an adaptation of old material to suit the fashion for operas. We meet again the stage old man; his name is Don Jerome, instead of Sir Antony, but he is just as obstinate, irascible and well-bred. Then, we have the victim of ignorance and self-complacency, this time a Jew and not a garrulous and affected old woman, but his end is dramatically the same as Mrs. Malaprop’s. Comic situations, as in The Rivals, arise out of mistaken identities, which are admissible only in the make-believe of a musical farce. The plot was taken from Wycherley’s The Country Wife, and, though the dialogue has much of Sheridan’s brilliant phrase-making and whimsical humour, the chief literary merit of the play must be sought in the lyrics, with their vigorous directness and touch of classical culture.