PCPA Theaterfest has wrapped up its run of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s first comic masterpiece, The Rivals, at the Marian Theatre in Santa Maria, and will open Thursday in the Solvang Festival Theater, where it will play through July 22. Patricia M. Troxel directs, with sets by Heidi Hoffer, costumes by Frederic P. Deeben, lighting by Tamar Geist and sound by Noelle Hoffman.
The Rivals stars Eric Stein as Sir Anthony Absolute, Quinn Mattfeld as Capt. Jack Absolute/Ensign Beverly, Stephanie Philo as Lydia Languish, and Kitty Balay as Mrs. Malaprop; with Tony Carter, Evans Eden Jarnefeldt, Peter S. Hadres, Jeffrey Parker Boyce, Sean Peters, Paul Henry, Andrea Hilbrant, Jacqueline Hildebrand, Chrissi Erickson and Toby Tropper.
In our zeal for arranging literature under tidy headings, most of us nonspecialists lump Sheridan and Goldsmith under the general heading “Restoration Comedy.” In fact, we are 100 years off in time, and a quantum leap in social consciousness. Unfortunately for the labeling convenience, between Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700) and Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan (1892), the English stage was, except for the plays of Goldsmith and Sheridan, a wasteland of mediocrity. Rather than turn those two 18th-century worthies into their own genre, we tend to slip them back into the Restoration era.
The house of Stuart, in the person of Charles IIhttp://www.britroyals.com/stuart.htm, was “restored” to the English throne in 1660, and by 1700, the masterworks of Restoration comedy and tragedy had all been written. Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart line, died in 1714. The Rivals opened in 1775, the year of our Battles of Lexington and Concord. The king of England was George III of the House of Hanover — later, he of the “Madness” — who was in the process of losing his American colonies.
The character of Restoration theater was precisely reflective of the singular character of Charles II. When he was crowned, he had spent the previous 11 years in France, at the court of Louis XIV, where he and his brother, James, became Catholics. Although upon coming to the throne he became head of the (Protestant) Church of England, he remained a Catholic and even took a few half-hearted steps to bring Catholicism back to England. Charles’ duplicity with respect to religion was typical of most aspects of his reign. His court was swarming with upper-class ruffians and noble drunks — talented, cynical, witty and arrogant. The plays they saw tended to mirror the tastes of the court. When Fainall tells Mirabell in The Way of the World, “I’d no more play with a man that slighted his ill fortune than I’d make love to a woman who undervalued the loss of her reputation,” he is channeling the very spirit of the Restoration.
Moreover, for the first time since the Middle Ages, the female characters were played by actual women, who quickly became the center of attention — certainly the center of Charles’ attention, for he took several actresses as mistresses.
Nothing that we know about that royal bourgeois, George III enables us to imagine him taking an actress as a mistress. His court was staggeringly respectable — and as a result, had no influence on the theater whatsoever. What did influence 18th-century English theater was the rise of sentimentality. Goldsmith and Sheridan took every opportunity to lampoon the weeping, fainting sentimentality of their age, and yet She Stoops to Conquer and The Rivals are both steeped in it. Capt. Absolute may be the protagonist of The Rivals, but it is Faulkner who is the sentimental hero. In a Mozart opera, Absolute would be the baritone, Faulkner the tenor. Sheridan is much more inclined to tease the “man of feeling” or Mrs. Malaprop, but he would not dream of humiliating them, or making scars.
And speaking of Mrs. Malaprop, here we have a new character on the stage, and consequently, a new linguistic concept. It is a mark of Sheridan’s genius that he not only invented the character, he defined within the dialogue the particular form of mangling the language that has come to be known as “malapropism.”
“I’ll take another opportunity of paying my respects to Mrs. Malaprop,” says Julia, “when she shall treat me, as long as she chooses, with her select words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced [italics mine].”
The Rivals plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday at the Solvang Festival Theater, 420 Second St. For single tickets and show times, call the box office at 805.922.8313, or click here for more information.