The Rivals: an anti-sentimental comedy
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In the Restoration period England witnessed the emergence of ‘comedies of manners’ showing the confused and sanctimonious lifestyles of the rising middle class and upper class then “during the 18th century, ‘sentimental comedies’ encouraged audiences to uphold virtue and avoid vice, chiefly by stirring their emotions.” Next Goldsmith and Sheridan, in the form of sentimental comedy, attempted a revival of the Restoration comedy of manners without its coarseness and immorality, and satirize sentimental tradition.
Sheridan’s ‘The Rivals’ is regarded as an anti-sentimental comedy. Because it is a comedy packed with wit, laughter, and mirth provoking scenes, while the sentimental comedies move the audience to tears not to laughter. Sheridan portrays sentimental characters and situations in such a way that they arouse in the audience funny feelings. Thus he ridicules their sentiments.
At the very first, Sheridan informs us about the sentimental heroine of the play through the dialogue between Coachman and Fag. She is so wealthy that if she wanted she could pay the entire national debt as easily as Fag can pay his washerwoman’s bill. Yet she is so sentimental that she has an ‘odd taste’.Moreover she does not change her notion to marry, without her anti consent, a low paid man even after knowing the penalty of losing her property. She deliberately makes a quarrel with her lover just for pleasure and making fun, because lovers always quarrel in sentimental novels.
There are of course some sentimental and over sentimental scenes in The Rivals, but they are actually parody of sentimentality. If we examine the scenes of Faulkland-Julia, we will understand the writer’s intention to laugh at the sentimental comedy of the time. Absolute describes Faulkland as the “most teasing, captious, incorrigible, lover,” having in his head a “confounded farrago of doubts, fears, hope, wishes.”
We notice another absurd sentimentality regarding the mental situation of two lovers separated from each other. Having heard from Acres that Julia is in good position even in absence from him, he becomes angry and thinks that she does not love him really. He says that – “A little trifling indisposition is not an unnatural consequence of absence from those we love.”
Sentimental drama contains characters who dissect relationships excessively with other people, who have a tendency of self-abnegation, who are concerned with the feelings of others that they suppress their own desires. Sheridan has injected these characteristics in Faulkland in order to ridicule sentimental drama.
There are also some other characters who serve Sheridan’s anti-sentimental purpose. Mrs Malaprop, a widow, is looking for another husband. But she does not allow Lydia love. Lydia says – “Since she has discovered her own frailty, she is become more suspicious of mine.” Her name has become a word in the language for her “ludicrous misuse of word, especially for one resembling it.” Sir Lucius is insistent on fighting duels. Though he does not want to fight duel for his sentiment, dueling itself is treated in an anti-sentimental way. There is Bob Acress, awkward and good-natured, who has developed “an odd kind of a new method of swearing.” Captain Jack Absolute shows simple common sense. He pretends to be low paid Ensign Beverley to cater Lydia’s weird romantic notion. But he intends to marry her only under all proper auspices. Yet Sheridan shows: when they meet, they both justify the family name.
From the above discussion, we have seen that Sheridan’s The Rivals ridicules and attacks the sentimental comedies. Therefore it is an anti-sentimental comedy, as Allardyce Nicoll says, “in the main, the comedy presents a direct challenge to the sentimentalists.” But he adds that “in the Julia-Faulkland portions, there are evident features of Cumberland style.” (British Drama) Nettleton also comments – “Like Goldsmith, Sheridan could not at once rid himself wholly of the contagion of the sentimentality which he attacked consciously or not, he allowed the Faulkland under plot to retain, in some measure, the conventional phrasing of sentimental drama.” (English Drama of the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century) But we can say, if he had retained the convention to sentimental drama, what was his necessity to
revolt against it? Actually, he exaggerates the sentimentality of some characters just to mock at the sentimental tradition.