edited by Tiffany Stern
The Rivals is a witty, pleasant and satirical comedy about love and foolishness.
Lydia Languish, whose view on life is shaped entirely by the romantic novels she reads, has fallen in love with a penniless soldier, Ensign Beverley. Beverley is in fact Captain Jack Absolute, son of a baronet, disguised to satisfy Lydia’s desires for an impoverished romantic hero. Enraged at this attachment, Lydia’s linguistically anarchic aunt, Mrs Malaprop, has arranged a match with an eligible bachelor: Captain Jack Absolute. He is thus his own rival; a sticky situation for Jack, but a brilliantly comic one for the play’s audience.
The various entanglements, fights and confusions of Lydia’s other suitors – the country bumpkin Bob Acres and the belligerent Irishman Sir Lucius – combined with the subplot of troubled romance between the earnest Julia and the flighty Faulkland, make The Rivals a delightful satire of manners and a supreme comedy.
Unlike other contemporary sentimental plays, The Rivals recalls Restoration theatre, though with an added whimsicality, charity and moral tone; whether it constitutes a complete rejection of sentimentality is a debate prolonged by the contrasting tones of the main plot and subplot.