Source of book: I own this.
It is hard to believe it has been eight years since I read The School for Scandal, in connection with the Bakersfield Symphony’s performance of Barber’s delightful overture. That play, with its wicked (and not always very nice) wit is considered Sheridan’s best work. The Rivals came first, and is less of a social satire and more of a straight up farce. Today, it is best known for the term “malapropism,” from the character Mrs. Malaprop, who is constantly using words which sound like the word she intends, but means something quite different.
Let’s see if I can summarize the plot a bit:
Young heiress Lydia Languish has read a few too many romance novels (of the 1700s), and longs for a scandalous elopement with “ensign Beverly,” who is really Captain Jack Absolute, the son of a wealthy aristocrat. Lydia’s guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, and Jack’s father, Sir Anthony, want them to marry, but Lydia refuses, citing her love for “Beverly.” When Lydia eventually discovers “Beverly” is really Jack, she scorns him.
Meanwhile, Lydia is pursued by two other suitors: the ridiculous country gentleman Bob Acres (a friend of Captain Jack), and even more ludicrous Irish soldier, Lucius O’Trigger. Lucius has been writing letters to “Delia,” who he thinks is Lydia, but Lydia’s maid Lucy has been giving them to Mrs. Malaprop instead, who thinks her mystery lover is madly in love with her.
In addition to this mess, Jack’s friend Faulkland is courting Julia, but is irrationally jealous and suspicious of her fidelity. They quarrel continually about this throughout the play.
finds out that he has a rival, “Beverly,” to his affections for Lydia. Lucius
talks him into challenging “Beverly” to a duel - although neither of them
realizes “Beverly” is really Jack. The duel goes south really fast once
everyone realizes who everyone else is, and Sir Anthony arrives with the women
to break it up and set everyone right. Well, except for Lucius, who is
horrified at being punked.
From my Heritage Press hardback: illustration by Rene Ben Sussan
The fun of the play isn’t the plot, though. It is the sparkling and witty dialogue. I was tempted to write down so many more quotes than these, but I restrained myself.
Lydia inquires of her maid, Lucy, what books she has brought back.
LYDIA: Heigh-ho! Did you inquire for The Delicate Distress?
LUCY: Or, The Memoirs of Lady Woodford? Yes, indeed, ma’am. I asked everywhere for it; and I might have brought it from Mr. Frederick’s, but Lady Slattern Lounger, who had just sent it home, had so soiled and dog’s-eared it, it wa’n’t fit for a Christian to read.
LYDIA: Heigh-ho! Yes, I always know when Lady Slattern has been before me. She has a most observing thumb; and, I believe, cherishes her nails for the convenience of making marginal notes.
Not only is this deliciously naughty innuendo, it is proof that those evil reprobates who dog-ear books have been a problem for at least the last 250 years.
Mrs. Malaprop, furious that Lydia has refused to marry Jack (not realizing he is “Beverly”), complains to his father.
MRS. MALAPROP: There, Sir Anthony, sits the deliberate simpleton who wants to disgrace her family, and lavish herself on a fellow not worth a shilling.
LYDIA: Madam, I thought you once--
MRS. MALAPROP: You thought, miss! I don’t know any business you have to think at all--thought does not become a young woman. But the point we would request of you is, that you will promise to forget this fellow--to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.
MRS. MALAPROP: What business have you, miss, with preference and aversion? They don’t become a young woman; and you ought to know, that as both always wear off, ‘tis safest in matrimony to begin with a little aversion. I am sure I hated your poor dear uncle before marriage as if he’d been a blackamoor--and yet, miss, you are sensible what a wife I made!--and when it pleased Heaven to release me from him, ‘tis unknown what tears I shed!
Sir Anthony chimes in:
SIR ANTHONY: It is not to be wondered at, ma’am,--all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. Had I a thousand daughters, by Heaven! I’d as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet!
This play was written during the early days of first wave feminism - and it is true that when women were able to gain an education, they did seem to develop ideas of self-determination. Weird how that happens. The pinnacle of the scene is Mrs. Malaprop’s monologue, complete with butchery of the language.
MRS. MALAPROP: Observe me, Sir Anthony. I would by no means wish a daughter of my to be a progeny of learning; I don’t think so much learning becomes a young woman; for instance, I would never let her meddle with Greek, or Hebrew, or algebra, or simony, or fluxions, or paradoxes, or such inflammatory branches of learning--neither would it be necessary for her to handle any of your mathematical, astronomical, diabolica instruments.--But, Sir Anthony, I would send her, at nine years old, to a boarding-school, in order to learn a little ingenuity and artifice. 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 the 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. This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know--and I don’t think there is a superstitious article in it.
Later in the play, Fag, Jack’s amusing and morally suspect servant, mentions that he has lied to cover for Jack. And has invented a whole story with characters.
FAG: And, in tenderness to my character, if your honour could bring in the chairmen and waiters, I should esteem it as an obligation; for though I never scruple a lie to serve my master, yet it hurts one’s conscience to be found out.
In a later scene, Jack and Acres are teasing Faulkland about Julia, and how she failed to act miserable while he was gone. Rather, she continued to attend dances and the like and enjoy herself.
FAULKLAND: Well, well, I’ll contain myself--perhaps as you say--for form sake.--What, Mr. Acres, you were praising Miss Melville’s manner of dancing a minuet--hey?
ACRES: Oh, I dare insure her for that--but what I was going to speak of was her country dancing. Odds swimmings! She has such an air with her.
Faulkland is horrified. But when he talks of jigs and reels, the audience knows this isn’t about literal dancing. This is a dirty pun which is, sadly, neglected these days. You can find it (among other places) in Hamlet, where Hamlet talks about “lying between maid’s legs.” Acres is clearly feeding Faukland’s paranoia with jokes about Julia sleeping around. I won’t quote all of it, but the following dialogue is just rife with naughty puns. “The action of their pulse beats to the lascivious movement of the jig--their quivering, warm-breathed sighs impregnate the very air--the atmosphere becomes electrical to love, and each amorous spark darts through every link of the chain!”
Another brilliant bit of dialogue is between Jack and his father, when Sir Anthony is pressuring Jack to agree to marry the woman Sir Anthony desires - sight unseen.
CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE: If my happiness is to be the price, I must beg leave to decline the purchase.--Pray, sir, who is the lady?
SIR ANTHONY: What’s that to you, sir?--Come, give me your promise to love, and to marry her directly.
CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE: Sure, sir, this is not very reasonable, to summon my affections for a lady I know nothing of!
SIR ANTHONY: I am sure, sir, ‘tis more unreasonable in you to object to a lady you know nothing of.
Although I could quote from every single line by Mrs. Malaprop, perhaps the one with the most malapropisms per inch is this one:
MRS. MALAPROP: You are very good and considerate, captain. I am sure I have done everything in my power since I exploded the affair; long ago I laid my positive conjunctions on her, never to think on the fellow again;--I have since laid Sir Anthony’s preposition before her; but, I am sorry to say, she seems resolved to decline every particle that I enjoin her.
CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE: It must be very distressing, indeed, ma’am.
MRS. MALAPROP: Oh! it gives me the hydrostatics to such a degree.--I thought she had persisted from corresponding with him; but, behold, this very day, I have interceded another letter from the fellow; I believe I have it in my pocket.
Also fun is the sequence of scenes with Bob Acres, after Lucius has convinced him he needs to duel with “Beverly.” Acres’ servant, David, tries to talk him out of it.
ACRES: But my honour, David, my honour! I must be very careful of my honour.
DAVID: Ay, by the mass! and I would be very careful of it; and I think in return my honour couldn’t do less than to be very careful of me.
ACRES: Odds blades! David, no gentleman will ever risk the loss of his honour!
DAVID: I say then, it would be but civil in honour never to risk the loss of a gentleman.--Look’ee, master, this honour seems to me to be a marvellous false friend: ay, truly, a very courtier-like-servant.--Put the case, I was a gentleman (which, thank God, no one can say of me); well--my honour makes me quarrel with another gentleman of my acquaintance.--So--we fight. (Pleasant enough that!) Boh;--I kill him--(the more’s my luck!) now, pray who gets the profit of it?--Why, my honour. But put the case that he kills me!--by the mass! I go to the worms, and my honour whips over to my enemy.
At the time this was written, dueling was still a common practice, but it was losing favor. Sheridan was one of those who turned it from a form of gentlemanly distinction to a mockable affectation. As Oscar Wilde would later say, violence has its fascination when wicked, but not when it is ridiculous. This is obvious in the dueling scene, where Lucius keeps trying to whip up Acres and Jack into fighting, when it is clear that Acres is too scared, and Jack has no intention of quarreling.
SIR LUCIUS: [Goes up to Captain Absolute.] With regard to that matter, captain, I must beg leave to differ in opinion with you.
CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE: Upon my word, then, you must be a very subtle disputant:--because, sir, I happened just then to be giving no opinion at all.
SIR LUCIUS: That’s no reason. For give me leave to tell you, a man may think an untruth as well as speak one.
CAPTAIN ABSOLUTE: Very true, sir; but if a man never utters his thoughts, I should think they might stand a chance of escaping controversy.
SIR LUCIUS: Then, sir, you differ in opinion with me, which amounts to the same thing.
Near the end, as everything gets sorted out, Lydia pouts and says she refuses to marry Jack.
LYDIA: Why, is it not provoking? when I thought we were coming to the prettiest distress imaginable, to find myself made a mere Smithfield bargain of at last! There, had I projected one of the most sentimental elopements!--so becoming a disguise!--so amiable a ladder of ropes!--Conscious moon--four horses--Scotch parson--with such surprise to Mrs. Malaprop--and such paragraphs in the newspapers!--Oh, I shall die with disappointment!
Of course, everything works out in the end, even if we are denied the fun of imagining Lucius O’Trigger hitched to Mrs. Malaprop.
By the way, a “Smithfield Bargain” is “a marriage of convenience in which the size of the marriage settlement is the determining factor.” Poor Lydia finds herself, despite her best efforts, marrying for money as well as love. Poor baby.
The play is intentionally silly - it’s more of a straight-up comedy than a real satire - although the pokes at the misogynist old folks remain funny. The School for Scandal is a better satire, but it is more mean-spirited than The Rivals, which more gently pokes fun at its characters. And, of course, Mrs. Malaprop never gets old.