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 audiences 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 writers 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; Lydias 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.
Sheridans 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 Sheridans more practical and solid sense of love battle the stupidity of sentimental love.
Julia contrasts Lydias 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 Faulklands 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 Absolutes 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 Anthonys 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 and is actually parodying the thought, even as he comments on the popular literature of the time in the opening lines between Lucy and Lydia in Scene II of the first Act. Sir Anthony tells Mrs. Malaprop roundly all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. Had I a thousand daughters, by heaven!
Id soon have them taught black art as their alphabet! The drawing-room culture of the fashionable had a certain artificiality that Sheridans nature rebelled against. Even as the more serious minded and moral rejected theatre, the beau monde, fond of social display and enjoying the exclusiveness attached to visiting the theatre, had continued to patronize the two or three houses that plays were performed in. This class had imposed its own prejudices and traditions.
The desire to cultivate self-respect and courtesy gradually had grown into a meticulous observance of outward forms, and a condemnation of the display of natural feeling, that in its own way pushed comedy into the realm of sentiment where powerful emotion was repressed under a refined manner so that every look and gesture then became a flashpoint of feeling. Sheridan directed some of his wittiest lines against this form of artificiality. Absolute is the epitome of the refined young aristocrat, albeit as heir to a mere baronetcy he is not the highest in the hierarchy.
He moves in the fashionable circles, affects their mannerisms and is part of the new elite that Sheridan approved of: the virile and energetic class of soldiers that gained prominence in the days of the expanding British Empire. Absolutes was an aristocracy that appreciated the humanizing influence of polite learning and domestic refinement; that assiduously cultivated delicate attentions, sympathetic compliments, discernment, subtle turns of phrase and graceful manners.
This class affected no strong passions beneath a veneer of politeness, rather it preferred a superb serenity all too visible in the character of a remarkably self-assured Absolute who handles a capricious mistress, her overbearing aunt and a headstrong father with great aplomb. He is capable of feeling, as evinced by his utter devotion to Lydia and all that he does for her love and by his one and only show of despondency when she is furious with him at his charade, but the feeling is sincere and deep and has none of the show of obviously suppressed passions that escaped in exaggerated gestures.
The language and mannerisms of sentiment are left to Lydia and Faulkland, and their rejection of hitherto cultivated traits at the end is a telling comment on Sheridans own stand. The difference between the language of everyday life and the romantic language used by the characters is clear, and Sheridan uses this stark contrast, especially that provided by the cool and calculated speeches made by Absolute, to comic effect. Both Lydia and Faulkland use language appropriate to their sensibilities. Faulkland declares Ah! Jack, your heart and soul are not, like mine, fixed immutably on one only object.
I have set my sum of happiness on this cast, and not to succeed, were to be stript of all. He laments woefully and rather unnecessarily There, Jack, there. Oh, by my soul! there is an innate levity in women, that nothing can overcome. What! happy, and I way! Even when he begs forgiveness from Julia, he cannot let go of this last remnant of his sentimentality even as he confronted by an angry mistress on the verge of walking out on him How shall I plead to be forgiven this last unworthy effect of my restless, unsatisfied disposition?
He even has the normally self-composed Julia in a state of high passion when he is around, speaking the language of sentiment My heart has long known no other guardianwe will fly together. Likewise, Lydia is prone to melodramatics. She flings Absolutes miniature saying But here, sir, here is the picture Beverleys picture! which I have worn, night and day, in spite of threats and entreaties! There, sir, and be assured I throw the original from my heart as easily The futility and foolishness of such manner and speech, both of which characterize her behaviour throughout, is shown up by Absolutes calm action that immediately follows.