by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
THE AUTHOR Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) was born in Dublin to a mother who was a playwright and a father who was an actor. He thus came by his talents honestly, though he far exceeded the modest accomplishments of his parents. Already one of the most brilliant and witty dramatists of the English stage before the age of thirty, he gave up his writing and went on to become the owner and producer of the Drury Lane theater, a well-regarded Whig member of the English Parliament, and a popular man-about-town. Despite his family’s poverty, he attended Harrow, a famous prep school, though he appears to have been unhappy there, largely because the rich boys at the school looked down on him because of his humble origins. The bitter taste of his school years drove his later ambitions, both for literary and political success and for acceptance in the highest strata of society. He used his profits from his writing to buy the theater and his profits from the theater to finance his political career and socially-active lifestyle. Sheridan was a tireless lover and a man who, no matter how much he earned, always managed to spend more. In 1772, he married a lovely young singer named Elizabeth Ann Linley; she had already, before her twentieth birthday, attracted the attention of several wealthy suitors twice her age, but she and Sheridan eloped to France without the knowledge or permission of either set of parents. Though she loved him deeply, he was not a one-woman sort of man, and his constant infidelities led to a temporary separation in 1790. She died of tuberculosis shortly thereafter, and Sheridan married Hester Jane Ogle, a girl half his age, three years later, though again he was frequently unfaithful to his long-suffering wife. As a writer, Sheridan leaped to the attention of the theater-going public in 1775, when The Rivals and The Duenna, a light opera, reached the stage. In 1777 he produced his most famous comedy, The School for Scandal. After the debut of The Critic in 1779, he gave up writing and turned to producing, politics, and high living. As a result of a complete inability to handle money or follow a budget, a lifestyle that far exceeded his income, and lifelong bouts of drunkenness and debauchery, when Sheridan lost his seat in Parliament, he was left as a sick old man, carted off to the poorhouse by the local constabulary. His second wife stayed by his side to the end, and he died in poverty in July of 1816, but was buried with honors in Westminster Abbey.
The Rivals is a comedy of manners, a farce of mistaken identity that has much in common with Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, which came out two years earlier. Like Goldsmith’s comedy, a main character masquerades as someone of a lower class to gain romantic advantage, the young lovers must overcome the interference of a country bumpkin and an elderly rich aunt, and a second couple provides a subplot and foil to the main romance. Perhaps the most memorable character in The Rivals is the elderly aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, who consistently butchers the English language, taking her name from the solecism in which she so frequently engages. After the first performance of The Rivals, it was panned by the critics, and Sheridan hastily revised it in less than two weeks, shortening it by over an hour, making some of the characters more sympathetic, and cleaning up the language, after which it was praised enthusiastically. MAJOR CHARACTERS • Sir Anthony Absolute - A wealthy country gentleman who assumes that those around him will naturally obey his wishes, he has a terrible temper but is also quick to forgive. Captain Jack Absolute - Sir Anthony’s son, he is enamored of Lydia Languish, and has disguised himself as Ensign Beverley in order to win her hand. Despite the revelation of his deception, he and Lydia wind up together. Fag - Jack “gentleman’s gentleman,” he often carries messages and transmits information. Julia...
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