The temperature below zero, the wind whipping around outside and the Dr Johnson Reading Circle stayed tucked up in their cosy homes to perform Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals over video call.
His first play, written in 1775, The Rivals is one of relatively few eighteenth-century plays to be performed, read and studied today. Most of us had dimly remembered run-ins with the text, some nonsense about lovers and being forced into pretending Mrs Malaprop’s wrong word choices were amusing. However, in performing the play for each other, we discovered that it was far funnier than we remembered and the humour came from characters we had not expected.
The action takes place in Bath. Captain Absolute is pretending to be a poor ensign in order to woo Lydia Languish, a woman who has enough money to ‘pay the national debt as I would my washer woman’. She’s very aware of the attraction of this money and so is determined to run away without her aunt’s approval and forfeit the fortune. She is also being unsuccessfully pursued by Bob Acres (who likes his swears to match the subject) and an Irish peer called Lucius O’Trigger. Unfortunately for Trigger, Lucy, Lydia’s unscrupulous maid has been giving his letters to Lucy’s aunt, Mrs Malaprop, who thinks he’s courting her. To add complications (of course) the Captain’s overbearing father has arranged a marriage between him and Lucy, something which should be ideal if it wasn’t for Lydia’s distaste for ‘humdrum marriage’. Then there’s Lydia’s friend Julia who is trying to manage the emotions of her overwrought lover, Faulkland.
It’s strange that this play has a reputation for being something of a Mrs Malaprop show, as every character has a clear personality and funny lines. Particularly funny were the servants, the only people who really know what’s what in this play, but they enjoy the spectacle too much to clear anything up. The coachman at the beginning goes into a vigorous defence of the fading practice of wearing wigs. The servant Fag complains about how unfair it is for his master to take his anger out on him, before mercilessly beating an errand boy. The maid Lucy gets many funny moments, whether it’s totting up how much money she is getting to deliver love letters and her joy of misdelivering them; or a conversation with Lucius O’Trigger, in which she excites his amorousness to kissing in the street - or into the camera in the case of our Zoom meeting. Those lips will haunt our dreams for some time.
This is a play where none of the scenes drag and each one stands out in its own way. Even two characters talking about books becomes a funny takedown of careless library users, a Lady Slattern-Lounger has ‘a most observing thumb’ and she dog-ears pages. These books, all of them real and many from authors we have read, including Smollett and Elizabeth and Richard Griffith, were then hidden in the covers of more sober works, many of which had been used as curl papers.
This reading is a clear danger as far as Sir Anthony Absolute, the Captain’s father, is concerned. He’s a Squire Western-esque figure of loud, enthusiastic praise which can quickly be turned into wild, enthusiastic abuse as he is ‘compliance itself when I’m not thwarted’. He discusses reading with Mrs Malaprop ‘the old she-dragon’ as they set up the marriage between the Captain and Lydia. Mrs Malaprop (famously) thinks she is something of an intellect although she often gets the wrong word - when has Captain Absolute read her a letter he has (unbeknownst to her) written, it’s the nasturtiums cast on her learning that upsets her more than being called an old she-dragon.
Then there’s Faulkland… oh Faulkland. He’s a man of feeling and nothing will stop him being so. First he’s deeply upset that his beloved, Julia may have been ill or upset without him. Then he’s in pieces because she’s been jolly in his absence. There is no winning with him, his love keeps him in permanent misery and he’ll twist everything to maintain this misery. There’s a wonderful detail where Julia walks out on her and he sits, listening at the door, thinking that he hears her returning, then not, then returning again, then not.
A play really does come to life with performance and The Rivals is very willing to give lots of pleasure and laughs. With some in hydrostatics, this was one of the funniest evenings of the Reading Circle and there’s another evening to go.