Imagine, if you will, that it's an evening in May 1896. You're in a 4th-row-center seat of an aging theater, perusing the souvenir program for the new production of The Rivals, as you eagerly anticipate the appearance of this stellar cast of ten.
You are aware, of course, that this play was the first written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 - 1816) when he was but 23 years old. A comedy in five acts (in just under 5 hours), The Rivals was first performed 121 years earlier — January 17, 1775 — at Covent Garden, London. For the first 100 years, revivals appeared numerous times in many countries — not as frequently as the ubiquitous Shakespeare, but definitely in good company with Goldsmith and Moliére. Sheridan was the earliest English playwright whose works were presented in America while they were still new to the London stage, and that have retained their popularity.
Over those first 121 years, The Rivals had been trimmed a bit by various producers. However, the production you are about to see has been professionally trimmed, tightened and lightened by none other than everyone's favorite comic actor, Joseph Jefferson, known never to shy away from rewriting dialogue or adding or cutting business in order to breathe new life into a well worn piece. Jefferson wore three hats equally well: actor, writer, and producer; operating under all three, he produced a comedy with fewer acts (down to 3), fewer characters (down to 10), in a shorter time-span (under 3 hours), with cutting-edge humor for the modern audience (after all, it's almost the 20th Century).
The Rivals is set in the 18th century in the town of Bath where fashionable people went to "take the waters." The plot centers around two young lovers, Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute, who is courting her not as himself, but as a poor officer named Ensign Beverley. She falls in love with the poor Ensign, but when she discovers he's really a wealthy Captain, she falls out of love immediately! Meanwhile, Sir Anthony Absolute, Jack's father, gives him the news that he's arranged a marriage for him. Jack refuses to even consider an arranged marriage, telling his father that he loves another, but not telling him who. Jack soon discovers that the arranged mate is actually Lydia! O'woe is Jack, who worms his way back into his father's good graces, claiming he has seen the error of his ways, and accepts the arrangement. And so it goes, while other characters — Bob Acres, Sir Lucius O'Trigger, as well as Jack's friend, Falkland, — each also fancies himself as Lydia's suitor.
Lydia's guardian is Mrs. Malaprop, a moralistic widow who is one of the play's chief comic characters because of her continual misuse of words that sound like the words she intends, but mean something completely different. (Yes, this is where the term "malapropism" originated.) Mrs. M strings her pearls of wisdom throughout the play (forget about the fellow — illiterate him from your memory! . . . Few gentlemen nowadays know how to value the ineffectual qualities in a woman! . . . He is the very pineapple of politeness! . . . I thought she had persisted from corresponding with him; but, behold, this very day, I have interceded another letter from the fellow . . . ) until, in the final act, everyone winds up on the dueling ground where misunderstandings eventually get sorted out before any blood is shed.
I've read enough of Joseph Jefferson's autobiography to strongly suspect that the wonderful bios that appear opposite the photos in the souvenir program were written by him. I have included each one here, in its entirety, beneath the appropriate character's photo. Bios and photos are in the order they appear in the program. (Be sure to click on the bios to see them in larger text.)
I hope you've enjoyed this little bit of theatrical history. To have seen Mrs. Drew and Mr. Jefferson on the same stage would have been the epitome of my viewing pleasure. They had played Mrs. Malaprop and Bob Acres several times before and after this revival. In fact, it has been said that Mrs. Drew would travel any distance to play Mrs. M. — especially in Mr. Jefferson's productions. Well, who could blame her? I have a bit of a crush on him, too!
Stage Whispers is published by carlacushman.blogspot.com/