EN2901 Comedy in English Literature

Lecture Outline


Dr C MacLachlan: R B Sheridan The Rivals


1. Theatre history from Shakespeare to Sheridan:

i. Closure of English theatres after the defeat of the Royalists by the Puritan Parliamentarians in the 1640s, thus breaking the theatrical tradition.

ii. Re-opening of the London theatres after the Restoration of Charles II, 1660, with major changes from the Elizabeth/Jacobean theatre:

a. Performances were indoors - no open-air theatres like the Globe.

b. The theatre was fashionable and closely associated with the Royal Court.

c. Plays reflected the dominance of French drama and criticism, that is, Neoclassicism; for example, the attention paid to the Three Unities of time, place and action.

d. Appearance of women on the stage.

iii. Restoration comedy was licentious and shocking to moralists, provoking a reaction at the beginning of the eighteenth century, as the theatres began to attract a more middle class audience who wished to be respectably entertained. So-called Sentimental Comedy developed; e.g., The Conscious Lovers (1722) by Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729), a play which dwells on feelings, not bawdy action. Faulkland and Julia in The Rivals are late examples of this kind of comedy.


2. Eighteenth-century theatres:

i. Not many - sometimes only two licensed in London.

ii. Plays often adaptations of earlier works, especially those of Shakespeare.

iii. It was possible to make a lot of money quickly with a successful play, but it had to please the audience, who were socially diverse, since the upper and middle class people who sat in the lower part of the theatre were accompanied by their servants, who sat in the upper galleries.

iv. The audience expected a full night's entertainment - not just a play but also songs, variety acts and an afterpiece, usually a comic sketch.

v. The auditorium was not darkened during performances. The actors therefore had to win and retain the attention of the audience, who could react vigorously. There were several riots in eighteenth-century theatres.

vi. The stage was framed by a proscenium arch, behind which painted flats set the scene. Props and stage furniture were sparse. Much of the acting was done on an apron stage projecting out into the audience, with two doors at the side for entrances and exits.

vii. By modern standards the style of acting was probably crude and 'operatic', with standard delivery of speeches accompanied by set gestures. For example, at the end of The Rivals seven main characters 'come forward' (stage direction) and each speaks in turn (like the end of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni).


3. The Rivals is a typical play of its time, with a conventional cast: two pairs of lovers; two older relatives to obstruct the course of true love; a pair of rivals to the main hero; and several servants, including a scheming maid. These types of characters are staple ingredients of comedy until Wilde and Shaw make fun of them.


4. Sheridan tries to make his play different in three ways:

i. Lydia's romantic and literary delusions.

ii. Jack's disguise as Beverley, with the complications that follow from it.

iii. The sentimental lovers Faulkland and Julia.


5. The other characters are conventional:

i. Acres is the typical out-of-towner who wants to seem fashionable; later he becomes the cowardly braggart.

ii. O'Trigger is a stage Irishman, violent and arrogant.

iii. Mrs Malaprop is the elderly virago, made interesting by her mangled English.


6. Jack stands out as the only major character who plays a part and knows it (so does a minor character, Lucy the maid). The theme of the play is self-knowledge and the rejection of pretence and illusion, but Faulkland's part in this is unconvincing since his final conversion to plain dealing is too rapid.


7. The play's strength is its high spirits and pace. Sheridan manages the climax of the duel scene brilliantly. An undertone is the play's lack of respect for the class system. The upper class characters are mainly undignified. Lydia pretends to despise her class status, and so does Jack by disguising himself as Beverley; the only character who strives to be genteel is the servant Fag (Act V, scene i). Perhaps Sheridan as an Irishman is anticipating the humorous and satirical attacks on the English class system of his fellow-countrymen Wilde and Shaw.

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