Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775)

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Lydia’s romantic designs are blamed by her relatives on the novels borrowed for her by her chambermaid from the circulating library, such as The Mistakes of the Heart, The Delicate Distress, and Humphry Clinker.

Sir Anthony affirms that “a circulating library in a town is an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge” (I.II)

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Sheridan’s The Rivals
A production of Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) by the Royal Shakespeare Company (August 2000).
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The lady upstage with Sir Anthony is Mrs. Malaprop, Lydia’s aunt, whose name refers to her mal à propos choice of words, as when she says “I don’t think so much learning becomes a young woman. For instance I would never let her meddle with ... fluxions.... But above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mispell” (I.II)
The double meaning of the words she confuses reveals her intentions:

  • “fluxions” is a term of mathematics, a useless science for girls, but she also means “changeable mood”;
  • “orthodoxy” is her error for “orthography” but she actually wants her niece to be morally orthodox.



In present-day productions, fans are used in scenes of disguise and quid pro quos.

Here (IV.II), Lydia Languish has been promised by her family to Captain Absolute (the son of Sir Anthony Absolute, upstage); but as she insists on a romantic runaway marriage, she loves Ensign Beverley, who is actually the same Captain Absolute courting her in disguise (an Ensign being a lower rank, she is happy to favour a poor young soldier, whereas the Captain is in fact as rich as she is).

This scene takes place when he fears she might discover his real name and asks her not to reveal his identity (for her) as Ensign Beverley, since his father introduces him as Captain Absolute.

The intrigue between these two lovers is parallel to that between Julia (Lydia’s friend) and Faulkland.

The stage set represents the Bath setting of the plot, indoors and outdoors.

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Bath setting of the plot

In the opening scene, Fag, Captain Absolute’s servant, speaks to a coachman about life in Bath:

In the morning we go to the Pump Room, though neither my master nor I drink the waters. After breakfast we saunter on the Parades or play a game at billiards. At night we dance. But damn the place, I am tired of it. Their regular hours stupefy me. Not a fiddle or a card after eleven!

Later (II.I), Fag relates that Sir Anthony, angry at his son’s disobedience, vents his anger on the turnspit dog.


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Map of Bath
King’s Mead; Parades; Orange Grove; Crescent; New Rooms
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  • Several scenes with Bath characters -beaux, the chambermaid bribed by Lydia’s suitors- and between Sir Anthony and his son, take place in the Parades which were fashionable places.
  • Sir Anthony Absolute tests his son’s obedience by asserting that he will force him to marry the bride he has chosen for him, even if she is “as crooked as the Crescent” - a new architectural design.
  • In the last scene, to celebrate the announcement of the weddings, “fiddles” (violins) are ordered to the Assembly Rooms (called “the New Rooms”).