The Rivals was first performed at Covent Garden on January 17, 1775. It was roundly vilified by both the public and the critics for its length, for its bawdiness and for the character of Sir Lucius O’Trigger being a meanly written role played very badly. The actor, Lee, after being hit with an apple during the performance, stopped and addressed the audience, asking “By the pow'rs, is it personal? — is it me, or the matter?” Apparently, it was both. Sheridan immediately withdrew the play and in the next 11 days, rewrote the original (The Larpent manuscript) extensively, including a new preface in which he allowed:
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, in behalf of the public, at his last rehearsal. If he can dispense with flattery, he is sure at least of sincerity, and even though the annotation be rude, he may rely upon the justness of the comment.
Sheridan also apologized for any impression that O’Trigger was intended as an insult to Ireland. Rewritten and with a new actor, Clinch, in the role of O’Trigger, the play reopened on January 28 to significant acclaim. Indeed, it became a favorite of the royal family, receiving five command performances in ten years, and also in the Colonies (it was George Washington’s favorite play). It became a standard show in the repertoires of 19th Century companies in England and the U.S.
The play is now considered to be one of Sheridan's masterpieces, and is credited with popularizing the term malapropism.
The play is set in Bath in the 18th century, a town legendary for conspicuous consumption and fashion at the time. People would travel there to take the waters which were believed to have healing properties. The town was much less exclusive than London, and provides an ideal setting for the characters.
The plot centres around the two young lovers, Lydia and Jack. Lydia, who reads a lot of popular novels of the time, wants a purely romantic love affair. To court her, Jack pretends to be "Ensign Beverly", a poor officer. Lydia is enthralled with the idea of eloping with a poor soldier in spite of her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, a moralistic widow. Mrs. Malaprop is the chief comic figure of the play, thanks to her continual misuse of words that sound like the words she intends but mean something completely different.
Lydia has two other suitors: Bob Acres (a somewhat buffoonish country gentleman), and Sir Lucius O'Trigger, an impoverished and combative Irish gentleman. Sir Lucius pays Lucy to carry love notes between him and Lydia (who uses the name "Delia"), but Lucy is swindling him: "Delia" is actually Mrs. Malaprop!
As the play opens, Sir Anthony arrives suddenly in Bath. He has arranged a marriage for Jack, but Jack demurs, saying he is in love already. They quarrel violently. But the marriage arranged by Sir Anthony is, in fact, with Lydia, as Jack soon learns through the gossip of Lucy and Fag. He makes a great show of submission to his father, and is presented to Lydia with Mrs. Malaprop's blessing. Jack confides to Lydia that he is only posing as Sir Anthony's son. She annoys Mrs. Malaprop by loudly professing her eternal devotion to "Beverly" while rejecting "Jack Absolute".
Jack's friend Faulkland is in love with Julia, but he suffers from jealous suspicion. He is constantly fretting himself about her fidelity. Faulkland and Julia quarrel foolishly, making elaborate and high-flown speeches about true love - satirizing the romantic dramas of the period.
Meanwhile, Bob Acres tells Sir Lucius that another man ("Beverly") is courting the lady of Acres' choice (Lydia, though Sir Lucius does not know this). Sir Lucius immediately declares that Acres must challenge Beverly to a duel and kill him. Acres goes along, and writes out a challenge note - despite his own rather more pacific feelings, and the profound misgivings of his servant David. Sir Lucius leaves, Jack arrives, and Acres tells him of his intent. Jack agrees to deliver the note to "Beverly", but declines to be Acres' second.
Mrs. Malaprop again presents Jack to Lydia, but this time with Sir Anthony present, exposing Jack's pose as Beverly. Lydia is enraged by the puncturing of her romantic illusions, and spurns Jack contemptuously.
Sir Lucius has also learned of the proposed marriage of Jack and Lydia, and determines to challenge Jack. He meets Jack, who, smarting from Lydia's rejection, agrees to fight him without even knowing the reason. They will meet at the same time as Acres is scheduled to fight "Beverly".
At the dueling ground, Acres is obviously very much unwilling to fight, but Sir Lucius will have no shirking. Jack and Faulkland arrive. Acres learns that "Beverly" is his friend Jack, and begs off from their duel. However, Jack is quite willing to fight Sir Lucius, and they cross swords.
Meanwhile, David informs Mrs. Malaprop, Lydia, Julia, and Sir Anthony of the dueling, and they all rush off to stop it. Sir Lucius explains the cause of his challenge, but Lydia denies any connection to him, and admits her love for Jack. Mrs. Malaprop announces that she is Delia, but Sir Lucius recoils in horror, admitting that he has been hoaxed. Sir Anthony consoles Mrs. Malaprop, Julia is reconciled to Faulkland, and Acres invites everyone to a party.