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the rivals

26 september 2023

I know the language and characters of Sheridan's Rivals better than almost any other play, though I might have had trouble recounting its plot till I re-read it, this past week; I am just weak on plots. Had I ever read The Rivals before? I saw the play once, off-Broadway, nearly fifty years ago. I learned it, though, from rehearsals, a few years before that, in a college theater in New Jersey. I wasn't in the cast. I ran the lighting board.

Our company brought in a guest director who was a bit of a martinet. I didn't like working with him – nobody reported liking him – but it was one of those experiences where, ever after, you realized you'd learned a lot from the discipline he imposed. That discipline must have consisted of having the lighting crew attend lots of run-throughs well before the technical rehearsal, because it seemed like I sat through The Rivals three dozen times. In my mind, its characters are still indissoluble (as Mrs. Malaprop might say) from the long-ago college actors who played them.

The rivals in The Rivals are, notably, Jack Absolute and himself. Jack, in a farcical maneuver, has pretended to be "Ensign Beverley" in order to court the beautiful Lydia Languish. Lydia will inherit a fortune if she obeys her aunt Mrs. Malaprop's wishes in regard to her marriage. Of course Lydia would much rather run away with a penniless ensign. She falls out of love with Jack when he is revealed to be the heir of the wealthy Sir Anthony Absolute – and worse, to be the husband that Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony intend for her.

Jack has other rivals too; or rather he has one (Sir Lucius O'Trigger) and Beverley has one (Bob Acres, who is Jack's close friend, so close that at one point Acres suggests that Jack could serve as his second in a duel against Beverley). A less-tricky subplot features lovers named Julia and Faulkland, who keep falling in and out of love through their sheer insecurity. Of course, all ends well for everybody.

The Rivals is a very well-constructed and glitteringly clear comedy. It is still, justly, most famous for Mrs. Malaprop. How many malapropisms does she actually utter? Twenty, thirty? Yet they are the product of a wacky verbal genius on Sheridan's part that floats in a kind of surreal dysphasia. She's a way of making fun of a learned, Latinate vocabulary in English that still constitutes a good part of our standard usage, and still invites confusion and contempt.

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. The Rivals. 1775. In The Plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. 1-103.