A significant influencing factor on drama of the eighteenth century was the changing nature of the audience. By the middle of the eighteenth century, a straitlaced middle class audience had imparted to drama its vision of morality and disapproval of anything immoral. Comedy had become watered down and sentimentalized. Furthermore, the audience's rejection of unappealing facts following the ugly reality of the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, made emotionalism and tearfulness the order of the day. Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan were two playwrights who saw that if comedy were allowed free reign along this path of sentimentalism, it would signal the end of mirth. Both appreciated the power of pure comedy and the spirit of joyous laughter and wrote plays with situations that had no call for showing the redeeming features of vice and folly at the end, but just good healthy fun.
The Rivals too denounces the hollow morality and hypocrisy associated with the sentimental attitude then prevailing, projecting its writer's own ideal of a spontaneous and lively light-heartedness. The plot is based on confusion over identities and multiple suitors a combination that leads to plenty of scope for truly funny situations: Absolute caught in the same room with both Mrs. Malaprop and Lydia present, having to play himself for one and Beverley for the other till the presence of Sir Anthony too prevents him from doing so successfully; Absolute humouring Mrs. Malaprop as himself and poking fun at her as Beverley in his note; Lydia's acceptance and rejection of the same man according to her romantic whims and fancies; the final duel where one man has to fight two rivals virtually simultaneously. Sheridan's skill is only underlined by the fact that in an age and the performance house in which he produced plays where spectacle, scenery and lighting had become indispensable to success, he achieved his comedy and triumph without recourse to any of it, merely on the strength of his own writing, wit and dialogue.
Sentimentalism is found largely in the characters of Lydia and Faulkland. Sheridan attacks their traits in the overall plot and theme in which he shows how a healthy deep love can be threatened by such fanciful thinking. The only redeeming' feature probably in a reversal of the trend of soppy final redemptions - he shows at the end is that both are brought with a rude shock down to earth following the very real possibility of losing the partners they come to know they love deeply. The satire against sentimentalism is found in the exchanges between Lydia and Julia and Faulkland and Absolute, as the voices of Sheridan's more practical and solid sense of love battle the stupidity of sentimental' love. Julia contrasts Lydia's immaturity by her own sensible behaviour and tells her cousin that her conduct in love is laughable and that she "earnestly entreat(s)" her not to sacrifice her sincere lover to her "caprice". Lydia sighing for an elopement that will disinherit her so that she can live a life of pennilessness with an ensign for whom she has rejected a richer suitor is as ludicrous as Faulkland's sighing and anxiousness over his love his fretting over her spirits being low and then just as readily over her spirits not being obviously low. Sheridan puts his impatience with such sighs in Absolute's words that hit the nail on the head:
a captious sceptic in love, a slave to fretfulness and whim who has no difficulties but of his own creating is a subject more fit for ridicule than compassion.
The Rivals is set in Bath, within a circle that Sheridan himself frequented. Part of that culture was the witty disparagement of Puritanical thought that had made its way in some form or the other into the social norms of the time. Sir Anthony's denouncement of reading and its effect on the minds of young girls is so absurd that it is obvious Sheridan does not believe a word of it...
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