After reading too many serious books in a row, I needed some comic relief, and got more than I bargained for in this
hysterically funny play by Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Known for his comic masterpiece,
The School for Scandal, this one was Sheridan's first attempt for stage. According to
was a failure the first night, but then Sheridan re-cast the part of O'Trigger for the second performance, and it was a hit. Sheridan lived from 1751 to 1815,
and seems to have had a rather colorful life. In addition to being a playwright, he also was a long-time owner of the London's Drury Lane Theatre,
and was a Whig member of Parliament for 32 years. After his failure to be re-elected in 1812, he found himself in serious debt, and died in poverty. Sad,
isn't it? Such a talent. See the above Wikipedia article for more information on Sheridan's life and works.
I really liked The Rivals more than The School for Scandal (although I liked them both), because it was easier to understand. The plot of the latter is quite complex, with more characters and more twists and turns. I had to study it and do research to appreciate the humor, and I'm sure multiple readings would be beneficial. The Rivals is straightforward, and will have you bursting out laughing every few lines. I'm not sure if the language was "modernized" for the Dover edition, either, but it did not seem as archaic as The School for Scandal, where part of the difficulty seemed to lie in comprehending the English itself.
One of the characters, Mrs. Malaprop, delightfully butchers the English language every time she opens her mouth. Thinking she is impressing others by using important words, she unfortunately uses all the wrong ones! The lady could mess up one's sense of good grammar!! I found myself pondering each sentence, trying to figure out the word she meant to use, and kept a dictionary close by. It is from her that the term "malapropism," was coined, which, according to my old Webster's means: "humorous misapplication of a word; the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context." Sheridan named his character from the word malapropos, which means "inappropriate."
The play takes place over a period of five hours, and the place is Bath, England. Two couples are in love, Julia and Faulkland, who quarrel because he is jealous and can't accept the fact that Julia loves him, and Lydia Languish, who is in love with the poor Ensign Beverly, and wants to elope against her guardian's (Mrs. Malaprop's) wishes. Lydia is very wealthy, and likes the idea of running away with someone poor. What she doesn't know is that Beverly is actually the well-off Captain Jack Absolute, who is pretending to be much less than he is. His father, Sir Anthony Absolute is a wealthy baronet. Julia is related to the Absolutes.
Bob Acres, a rich country bumpkin (who has perfected the new trend in swearing) is also in love with Lydia. He is friends with Jack, and thinks his rival is Beverly. Mrs. Malaprop is in love with Sir Lucius O'Trigger, an Irish baronet, but Lucy, Lydia's trouble-making maid leads him to believe it is the young Lydia that he is courting (whom he thinks is Delia) through correspondence. But Delia is actually the fifty year old Malaprop.
Mrs. Malaprop also demands Lydia give up Ensign Beverly for someone more suitable for her. Sir Anthony Absolute suggests his son Jack. He visits Jack and informs him he has a wife picked out for him, not telling him it is Lydia, who, of course, he is already in love with. Jack refuses until he realizes who it is, then feigns to obey his father.
Meanwhile O'Trigger urges Acres to challenge Beverly to a duel, which he doesn't want to do, and of course has no idea that Beverly is actually his friend, Jack. Nor does O'Trigger realize it is the same woman he believes he has been courting through letters conveyed by Lucy.
Whew! Get it? In any case, the mistaken identities, along with the comic quirks of the characters, and Mrs. Malaprop's atrocious English provide a laugh—no, really a guffaw—a minute. To entice you to read this play, here are a few choice lines (and it was hard to choose because there are so many!).
The first quote comes when Mrs. Malaprop prepares to enter the room. Lydia has sent out Lucy to all the libraries to find the juiciest romances, but unfortunately, they are all checked out and one was barely readable—The Memoirs of Lady Woodford—because Lady Slattern Lounger "had it so soiled and dog-eared, it wa'n't fit for a Christian to read." As Mrs. Malaprop approaches, Lydia urges Lucy to hide the books she has brought:
Here, my dear Lucy, hide these books. Quick, quick.—Fling Peregrine Pickle under the toilet.—throw Roderick Random into the closet—put The Innocent Adultery into The Whole Duty of Man—thrust Lord Aimworth under the sofa—cram Ovid behind the bolster—there—put The Man of Feeling into your pocket—so, so—now lay Mrs. Chapone in sight, and leave Fordyce's Sermons open on the table.
Next, we encounter Captain Jack Absolute with his father, who has chosen a bride for him, first lured by promises of great wealth. He won't say who the bride is, and Jack has no idea it is Lydia, whom he already plans to marry. Jack want to know more about this woman, but his father says it doesn't matter because he intends Jack to marry her whether he likes it or not.
Zounds! sirrah! The lady shall be as ugly as I choose: she shall have a hump on each shoulder; she shall be crooked as the crescent; her one eye shall roll like the bull's in Cox's Museum; she shall have skin like a mummy, and the beard of a Jew—she shall be all this sirrah!—yet I will make you ogle her all day, and sit up all night to write sonnets on her beauty.
Bob Acres shows off his new method of swearing, beginning with "Odds," and pertaining to the subject: "odds minims and crochets" when speaking of music; "odds triggers and flints" when referring to fighting; "odds balls and barrels" when referring to the militia—a new one with each sentence. Jack notices and comments. Acres replies:
Ha! ha! you've taken notice of it—'tis genteel, isn't it!—I didn't invent it myself, though; but a commander in our militia, a great scholar, I assure you, says that there is no meaning in the common oaths, and that nothing but their antiquity makes them respectable;—because, he says, the ancients would never stick to an oath or two, but would say, by Jove! or by Bacchus!or by Mars! or by Venus! Or by Pallas, according to the sentiment: so that to swear with propriety, says my little major, the oath should be an echo to the sense; and this we call the oath referential or sentimental swearing—ha! ha! —tis genteel, isn't it?
And of course I couldn't end this review without a quote from Mrs. Malaprop, but choosing one is so difficult!. See if you can figure out what words she means!
There, sir, an attack upon my language! what do you think of that?—an aspersion upon my parts of speech! was ever such a brute! Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!
Hint: (Sure, if I recommend any thing in this world, it is the use of my vernacular tongue, and a nice arrangement of paragraphs! Perhaps?)
In any case, if you're looking for something to tickle your funny bone, this one fits the bill.
Incidentally, the picture on the book cover above is an illustration by Edwin Austin Abbey, 1895, called Bob Acres and His Servant. The Rivals was first performed at Covent Garden Theatre on January 17, 1775.
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