Last updated on May 18th, 2022 at 11:25 am
The Comedy of Manners which had its seed sown in Ben Jonson’s A Comedy of Manners, flourished in full bloom at the hands of the Restoration dramatists. They exploited this particular genre of comedy to study and imitate in a vein of humor and satire, the social mannerisms, conventions, and artificiality of their particular age and society through delightful observation and witty commentaries on the prevalent temper, follies, and external details of the life of certain men and women who were the stereotypes of their depicted society.
R.B. Sheridan’s “The Rivals” is a perfect Comedy of Manners in the way it holds a mirror to social life, modes, and manners of the artificial, fashionable community of the 18th Century English society by making Bath, a health resort in England, the center of the action of the play. Through the characters of his play, Sheridan depicts in a very entertaining manner the gay and easy lives of the well to do people of his age that were full of intrigues, gossips, scandals, flirtations, frivolity and without any raging cares or serious problems of livelihood. Almost all the characters of the play are entangled in love affairs. They have nothing more important to do than pay social visits, learn fashionable dances, devour romances, and fight duels. The country landlords like Bob Acres came to Bath to ape the latest fashions and hairstyles. Lydia Languish represents all those girls at Bath who filled their idle days with cheap romances and dreams of romantic elopements. Mrs. Malaprop is an amusing representation of the provincial ladies who tried desperately to live up to the smartness of the fashionable city of bath. Moreover, Rivals is also filled with references to the circulating libraries of the 18th-century society that were the fond resorts and romantic haunts of sentimental girls. The orthodox view on female education prevalent at that time also comes to the fore through the conversations of Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs. Malaprop in Act.1Sc.2. The purview of Sheridan’s social life is indeed very limited, but this is in conformation with the tenets of a typical comedy of manners that focuses on a narrow slice of society.
Like any other Comedy of Manners, the plot of the Rivals is slight and built on the common stock devices of concealment, cross purposes, mistaken identity, tyrannical parents who threatened to disown upon disobedience, and so on. The dramatic effect owes not so much to the plot. Still, it is based on the weaving of finely conceived highly theatrical situations into a composite whole and well sustained dramatic suspense.
The characters of Rivals are mostly typed characters in keeping with the tradition of Comedy of manners. Mrs. Malaprop with her “nice derangements of epitaphs,” Lydia Languish with her singular taste, Sir Anthony Absolute with his “absolute temper,” Bob Acres with his foppery and foolish bravado, and Sir Lucius with idiotic chivalry are nothing but Sheridan’s delightful caricatures of some of the human deformities common to the people of his age.
Apart from all this, like a true comedy of manners, Rivals is filled to the brim with wit and intellect. The play is packed with witty repartees of wit and funny conversations that add to the fun and mirth of the play in an abundant measure. This flash of wit is especially noticeable in the conversation between Fag and his master captain Absolute in Act2.Sc.1 about the particulars of quality lying and also in Act3.Sc3, where Captain Absolute deceives Mrs. Malaprop and Lydia through his amusing double identity in the play.
Lastly, beneath the light scenes and gay inventions in Rivals lies a mild stroke of satire which forms the intellectual aspect of Comedy of Manners. Through the Julia-Faulkland episode, Sheridan has caricatured the sentimentality of the age that had also gripped the theaters. Lydia’s temperament in the play and her preference for elopement and scandals is actually a satire on the sensational loving youth of the time. Sheridan laughs at the obsession with contemporary fashion through Bob Acres, and Act5Sc3 is a delightful satire on dueling.
Owing to the true and intriguing picture of 18th Century life of Bath painted by Sheridan along with the diverting type-characters, slight but theatrical plot, abundance of wit and mirth, and the clever touch of satire, Rivals holds its appeal even in today’s times as one of the best Comedy of Manners.
Mrs. Malaprop’s Character:
Mrs. Oliphant has very rightly opined that in Sheridan, “the gift of innocent ridicule and the quick embodiment of the ludicrous without malice reaches to such heights of excellence as have given his nonsense a sort of immortality.” The truth of this comment finds perfect reflection in Sheridan’s famous and much-loved creation, Mrs. Malaprop, who with her parade of ridiculous pedantry, vulgar sociability, laughable passion, and most importantly, her ‘nice derangements of epitaphs’ is perhaps the best embodiment of the ludicrous. Still, this very virtue of nonsense makes her an immortal creation in the history of English humorous literature and makes her stand out as a marvel of Sheridan’s theatrical art. She is the humorous aunt of the play’s heroine Miss Lydia Languish, who gets caught up in the schemes and dreams of young lovers and, with her misapplied words and mannerisms, remains from the very start to the end a grand comical entertainment and the source of much fun and farce.
Mrs. Malaprop is actually Sheridan’s delightful caricature of the provincial ladies of his age who desperately tried to up to live up to the smartness and fashion of the city. The essence of this character’s caricature lies in her language and how her select words are, as Julia puts them – “ingeniously misapplied without being mispronounced.” She fancies her “oracular tongue” and “nice derangements of epitaphs” as her very prized attribute without the slightest idea of the absurdity in her language arising out of her notorious misuse of words and phrases. The peculiar mistakes of this humorous aunt with which she brightens the play with a comical fire are known as malapropisms that have passed into the rules of rhetoric. Here are some of her enjoyable misuses of words: “She’s as headstrong as an allegory (alligator) on the banks of the Nile,” “I’m quite analyzed (paralyzed) for my part,” “Oh! It gives me the hydrostatics (Hysterics) to such a degree!” and so on.
Not only this, she attempts enthusiastically to impose her superiority and wisdom on others by propagating her own theories but, in doing so, ends up making herself a pure clownish figure since all her knowledge is half-baked and inappropriately applied. Throughout the play, she gives a large catalog of all the things that do not ‘befit a young woman,’ such as violent memories, preference and aversion, caparisons (comparisons), and whatnot. In her unshrinking language, she lectures on the education of women before Sir Anthony and never suspects that her words act as raillery to her own self – “But above all Sir Anthony she should be a Mistress of Orthodoxy that she might not misspell and mispronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying.”
Mrs. Malaprop’s vanity makes her open to flatteries and pretends admiration which is why she readily brands Captain Absolute as the “The pineapple (pinnacle) of politeness” when he says kind words to her ‘elegant manners’ and ‘unaffected learning.’
In the romantic love of Lydia and Beverly, Mrs. Malaprop plays the part of a watchdog, or as Ensign Beverly writes to his lady-love, a “she-dragon.” Still, her vigilance only uncovers her continued dullness, and her strictures only reveal her ignorance and vulgarity. However, she is hardly the villain in the love story of the romantic pair. Still, she can be best viewed as an old weather-beaten lady with egoistic ideas and outdated prejudices and nothing of serious or sober understanding.
Much of the fun in The Rivals lies in the odd story of Mrs. Malaprop’s love where this old wrinkled lady poses herself as teenaged Delia and carries on a love correspondence with an Irish Knight. The whole love affair is drollery, and when her true identity is revealed, and every man rejects her, she very dismally ejaculates – “Men are all barbarians.”
The figure of Mrs. Malaprop is not entirely a Sheridan innovation, and its seeds can be found in Mrs. Slipshod of Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Tabitha Bramble of Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker. However, her character can be perceived without any reference to any source or predecessor, and in its conception, Sheridan has indeed achieved a rare work of comic art. Without this ‘Mistress of language’ as Sir Lucius calls his Delia, this play would have lost much of its charm and spark, much of its farcical liveliness and comic interest.