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“It wants to be read in a big voice,” Tennyson once challenged a would-be reciter of his work. “Can you make yours big enough?” The Victorian Poet Laureate was referring to a bold mode of public speaking, one that has fallen out of favor today, not only among poets, who have embraced a drab affectlessness, but also in the theater, where a more naturalistic style prevails.
However, big voices are emphatically on display in the Pearl Theatre Company’s new production of Sheridan’s Restoration comedy “The Rivals.” And while this performance style may not appeal to all tastes, it is perfectly suited to the play’s florid and beautifully cadenced language. It’s also well matched to the play’s elaborately plotted story line.
The story, though, is almost beside the point in “The Rivals.” It’s silly and convoluted, featuring two marriage plots, mistaken identities, pseudonymous correspondence, duplicitous servants, and two narrowly avoided duels. The characters’ names reflect this absurdity. The young heroine, besotted by romance novels and aching for scandalous elopement, is Lydia Languish. Earnest country squire Bob Acres hails from Clod Hall. The hero’s father, a pillar of propriety, is Sir Anthony Absolute. And a hot-tempered Irishman goes by Lucius O’Trigger.
The play’s most famous creation is Lydia Languish’s aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, whose artful mislocution introduced the word malapropism into the language. The great critic and author Max Beerbohm once wrote that Mrs. Malaprop “exasperates me to distraction,” almost driving him out of the theater. Her verbal missteps, he argued, are a cloying attempt meant to leave the audience “gratified at its own erudition.” There’s something to that observation.
More to the point today, in an era of diminished vocabularies, it seems surprising that audiences even notice when the character makes a malapropism. After all, the differences in meaning between her spoken “extirpate” or “progeny” and the intended “extricate” or “prodigy” may be lost on many theatergoers. Nevertheless, as sportingly performed by Carol Schultz, Mrs. Malaprop does provide many of the play’s most humorous moments.
The nearly complete absence of anything we would call realism in “The Rivals” prefigures Evelyn Waugh’s exquisitely crafted early novels, which share with “The Rivals” an anarchic glee, even if Sheridan’s work is far less misanthropic. Waugh later explained of his work that he saw “writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language.” The great satirist went on to say that he had “no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.”
This aspect of “The Rivals” prompted the Pearl to include an essay in its program notes called “The Art of Artifice.” In it, the theater’s dramaturg, Kate Farrington, sketches two dueling movements in Sheridan’s day. On the one hand were artists who “embraced the duality of human nature” and the idea of “an outer persona to bridge the gap between our inner life and the rest of the world.” On the other, “those who despised all such artifice as false.”
Farrington concludes that Sheridan’s play, and more broadly, the theater itself, draw strength from the interplay between the two styles. It’s an astute observation, and can be taken further by noting that in any creative endeavor, an intentional lack of artifice is the worst imaginable pretense.
Indeed, Sheridan’s adroit handling of “drama, speech, and events” gives some of the play’s most absurd moments their own peculiar beauty. Occasionally one even detects a glimmer of natural emotion. Witness the initially ridiculous scene when Lydia Languish joyfully recounts how she made her suitor wait outside one freezing night for a momentary fragment of conversation with her.
“There would he kneel to me in the snow, and sneeze and cough so pathetically!” Lydia notes, and the thought is laughable, but as she continues, remembering how “the freezing blast numb’d our joints,” prompting them to embrace each other for warmth, she belatedly realizes, quite sincerely, “Ah, Julia! That was something like being in love.”
“The Rivals,” through May 25 at The Pearl Theatre Company, 555 W. 42nd St., New York, NY 10036, www.pearltheatre.org