Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Lifting our spirits in a summer of woe

Sheridan's reworking has kept his comedy fresh in our hearts

Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play, The Rivals, which opens at the Abbey Theatre on Tuesday, promises some rich humour to lift our spirits in a summer of discontent, with politics in confusion, the weather turned against us and a sea of further troubles lying ahead.

The play was the opening of a career that embraced great theatrical success as playwright, manager and theatre owner, and a career that then went on to decorate, in an impressive way, the political stage. Sheridan's life was turbulent and ended sadly, but nothing was more glorious than its opening.

He was 23 when he wrote his first comedy, The Rivals. The first night in 1775 was a disaster. Sheridan had expressed high hopes for it among his friends, talking of the £600 he would earn from its success, confidently forecast by Thomas Harris, manager of the Covent Garden Theatre where it was put on. On the strength of this, Sheridan brought his friends from the fashionable world in to see it.

Critics and the general public, however, viewed it in a hostile way. The character of Sir Lucius O'Trigger gave offence, particularly to the Irish section of the audience, and Lee, the first actor in the part, was quite unsuitable. The critic of the Morning Chronicle said that his playing "scarce equals the picture of a respectable Hottentot; gabbling in an uncouth dialect neither Welsh, English or Irish".

The theatre was in some uproar, with much heckling -- at one stage an apple was thrown, which hit Lee on the head. He stopped acting and stepped forward to ask: "By the powers, is it personal, is it me or the matter?" Sheridan said later that it was the only time in the evening that Lee's Irish accent was perfect.

The second performance of the play was put off for 10 days. Lee was replaced. The text was dramatically altered by Sheridan, Sir Lucius O'Trigger's part 'softened' and the play was re-presented. Sheridan made a comment on this unfortunate opening set of experiences that was wise beyond his years.

He wrote in a preface to the revised edition: "For my own part I see no reason why the author of a play should not regard a first night's audience as a candid and judicious friend attending on behalf of the public at his last rehearsal." One might wish for second thoughts with first productions of plays now.

Sheridan also apologised to the Irish critics in the first-night audience and their sense of hurt at the shameful mockery contained in the bullying Irish fortune-hunter, Sir Lucius, who was later transformed into a poverty-stricken figure, more poignant and appealing.

This was a first instance of the spin-doctoring capabilities of Sheridan which were to prove highly successful at later stages in his career, notably when he handled, on behalf of his political colleagues -- Fox and Pitt -- difficult issues over the madness of King George II and the regency of the future King George IV.

The early public relations skills in the preface and the fundamental changes made in the play worked a miracle. The Rivals was virtually rewritten. It was an immediate and lasting success. It has kept its place in the hearts and minds of theatre-goers ever since. It has been said of it that it accounted for half Sheridan's status as a celebrity.

The Rivals was to be later outclassed as a work for the stage by The School for Scandal, Sheridan's masterpiece, and critics have found fault with its lack of unity of tone, of severity and focus. It is a rag-bag of attractions gathering support from all kinds of people in the audience at the time, and hanging on to it ever since.

The plays lacks true satire and depends instead on making fun of sentimental comedy. In the harsh world of today, with all that has changed in theatre, this is hard to achieve since Sheridan relied on stage types -- like his blustering Irishman -- and this led to a comedy of humours rather than a comedy of manners.

One critic writing half a century ago said of it: "The play is just sufficiently well-bred, it smacks just enough of the drawing room, to avoid (what actually it might attempt better) the full flavour of farce."

We shall see. I look forward to it as one does when meeting an old friend.

The latter part of his life was beset with problems, not the least of them his addiction to drink. Byron once found him in the street, the worse for wear. They were friends and Byron asked him: "Who are you, Sir?" No answer. "What's your name?" A hiccup. Again, "What's your name?" The answer, in as slow, deliberate and impressive tone: "Wilberforce!!!"

Byron then wrote a note about it to Thomas Moore: "Is not that Sherry all over? And, to my mind, excellent." On another occasion Byron told of how: "It occasionally fell to my lot to convey him home -- no sinecure -- for he was so tipsy that I was obliged to put on his cocked hat for him. To be sure, it tumbled off again and I was not myself so sober as to be able to pick it up again."