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Theatre / The Rivals

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The Rivals is a comedy of manners by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, first performed in 1775.

Several men are seeking the hand of Lydia Languish, a romantic young woman. Her favourite is Ensign Beverley, an impoverished officer — actually Jack Absolute, son of a wealthy baronet, who is pretending to be an impoverished officer because he figured out early on that Lydia is the type who would always prefer the poor suitor in a Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor situation. The plot kicks off when Jack's father arrives and announces that he's arranged a marriage for him — with Lydia Languish. Jack is keen enough, once he finds out the identity of the bride-to-be, but how will Lydia react when she learns the truth about him? And how will the other suitors react to an apparently victorious rival?

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The play is now remembered mainly for the character of Mrs. Malaprop, Lydia's straitlaced aunt. Her habit of trying to use big impressive words and always getting them slightly wrong inspired the coining of the word "malapropism" and the name of our trope Malaproper (though she's arguably more an example of Delusions of Eloquence).

This play contains examples of:

  • Arranged Marriage: Sir Anthony Absolute announces to his son Jack that he's arranged for him to be married to a wealthy heiress. Jack refuses to go along with the arrangement, since he already loves Lydia. Then he finds out that Lydia is the wealthy heiress in question, and makes a show of allowing himself to be reluctantly persuaded.
  • Cock Fight: At the climax of the play, Jack goes to fight duels with the other two main rivals, Bob Acres and Sir Lucius O'Trigger, who have each independently challenged him.
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  • Delusions of Eloquence: Mrs. Malaprop's famous attribute. She keeps using big words that aren't quite right.
    Mrs. Malaprop: Then, sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in accounts; and as she grew up, I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries; but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying.
  • Dirty Coward: Bob Acres.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Mrs. Malaprop's declaration to Sir Anthony that every properly educated woman should "reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying."
  • Love Letter: One of Lydia's admirers, Sir Lucius O'Trigger, has only expressed his feelings to her in letter form. There's quite a busy correspondence going on — but little does he know that Lydia's maid has played a prank on him and he's actually corresponding with Mrs. Malaprop.
  • Meaningful Name:
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    • Sir Anthony Absolute expects to be absolutely obeyed.
    • Mrs. Malaprop's name comes from "malapropos", meaning "inappropriate".
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Lucy, Lydia's maid, is introduced as seeming none-to-bright, being confused by the various popular novels requested by Lydia or Lydia's use of fashionable language. At the end of the first act, after both Lydia and Lydia's aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, have both referred to Lucy as being simple and/or stupid, Lucy addresses the audience and mocks them, describing how through pretending to be simple and deferential, she's profited by acting as a go-between and playing Lucy and Mrs. Malaprop and their suitors against each other.
  • Pair the Spares: Subverted. By the end, all the major characters but two are already paired; this leads another character to suggest that spares Sir Lucius O'Trigger and Mrs. Malaprop pair up, but Sir Lucius responds with disdain.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Parodied. Lydia dreams of a romantic elopement with the impoverished Ensign Beverley, and rejects her aunt's attempt to marry her off to the wealthy Captain Absolute — but Beverley and Absolute are the same person.

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