The Rivals and Epic Theatre: How Verfremdungseffekt Creates Satire of Sentimentalism

Categories: Plays

The Rivals has been considered a comedy “dependant on the ‘language of humour as opposed to the more admirable ‘language of wit’” (Hogan, 278) when in fact it is dependent on neither. The linguistic humour of The Rivals is the comedy of rhetoric as a whole: language games, puns, and misuse of words for comic effect. However, whilst linguistic dynamism plays an important part in the comedy of this play, I believe its most significant role is as a device that achieves the Brechtian verfremdungseffekt.

Brecht defines verfremdungseffekt as “turning the object of which one is to be made aware, to which one’s attention is to be drawn, from something ordinary, familiar, immediately accessible, into something peculiar, striking and unexpected” (Brecht, 143) and this description is perfectly applicable to the ‘dazzling degree of unnatural and absurd dialogue’ (Hogan, 276) found in Sheridan’s The Rivals. Considering verfremdungseffekt with relation to The Rivals encourages a reading encompassing the technique of Epic Theatre, defined by Brecht as ‘appealing less to the feelings than to the spectators’ reason.

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’ (Brecht, 23) This definition could be describing Sheridan’s desired effect of The Rivals on an audience used to sensibility, as for the satire to be effective the audience must employ reason over feeling.

Within the play, there are several devices designed to appeal to reason, predominantly the use of verfremdungseffekt, but also through other devices that fall under the banner of “Epic Theatre”. For example, use of absurd dialogue subverts the reasoning of the characters, malapropisms being the most prominent example from the play, forcing the audience to employ their own reasoning to deduce the meaning of the piece.

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However, within the discourse of Sir Anthony, and the relationship between Julia and Faulkland, it is clear to see that the technique of verfremdungseffekt is used, and the audience is made extremely aware of the fictitious world it is in. The purpose of alienating the audience from The Rivals, is a further strand of the commonly held theory that the play satirises sentimental comedy. The Rivals succeeds in portraying a sentimental plot to an audience that, through devices of Epic Theatre, has been distanced far enough away that none of the intended effects of sentimentalism may occur- thus appealing to reason, not emotion. 

The ‘Queen of the Dictionary’ (Sheridan, 2.2, 76) Mrs Malaprop, delivers the most critically observed examples of Sheridan’s absurd dialogue and is defined by her mangling of language, both by the characters within the play, and by critics external. Whilst at first glance, Mrs Malaprop may be received as a burlesque of the aging madam, clinging to her command of sexuality and intelligence, and failing on both accounts. Once the intricacies of he linguistic faux pas are examined, this reception becomes redundant. Whilst there is some use of antonyms within her malapropisms, such as “you forfeit my malevolence forever”, (Sheridan, 1.2, 222) predominantly the humour that comes from Mrs Malaprop is her misapplication,’ her words so “ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced.” (Sheridan, 1.2, 132) The other characters drawing attention to Malaprops linguistic failures, as Julia does here, simultaneously undermine and heighten the abstraction of her dialogue. That the language of Mrs Malaprop doesn’t alienate her peers within the play, serves to deepen the alienation of the audience, as they are not only removed from understanding Mrs Malaprop, but they are also distinct from the other characters in the scene. That their own reaction is not reflected on the stage forces the audience into an uncomfortable position, and further heightens their awareness of the fictitious nature of the dialogue. As Double and Wilson point out: ‘This kind of comic incongruity exactly fits Brecht’s description of the Verfremdungseffekt.’ (49) The laughter at Malapropisms is genuine in many cases, but in some it is an expression of the tension that arises from feeling isolation, ironically the audience member may relate more to Mrs Malaprop and her unconscious ignorance than they would be prepared to admit. The failure of the other characters to correct her posits her in an almost childlike state of oblivion, comparable to the regression of Anthony Absolute in Act Two, Scene One. 

Sheridan’s play extends past sentimental response as he transcends traditional character tropes. Sir Anthony follows the caricature of the “stock father, who would be the repository of wisdom, reason and tolerance (and yet) is shown to be dense, irrational and splenetic.’ (Hogan, 278) Sheridan goes beyond this reading, as he is building on a character stereotype that is familiar to the audience, as Hogan mentions, but it is his characteristic language – that of “Zounds sirrah!’ (4.2, 56) which pushes Sir Anthony from simply ‘dense, irrational and splenetic’ into a ‘parody of reasoning.’ (Hogan, 280) This can most clearly be seen in the aforementioned Act Two, Scene One. Here Anthony becomes entirely incoherent with anger, seemingly unjustifiably, as Jack’s preceding dialogue is reassurances of ‘I have never been cooler in my life.’ (Sheridan, 2.1, 410) Sir Anthony responds to this:

“So you will fly out! Can’t you be cool, like me? What the devil good can passion do! Passion is of no service you impudent, insolent, overbearing reprobate! There you sneer again! Don’t provoke me! … I give you six and a half hours to consider this… If not, zounds, don’t enter the same hemisphere with me! Don’t dare to breathe the same air, or use the same light with me; but get an atmosphere and sun of your own!…”(2.1, 415-427)

This monologue winds up in ‘the depths of infantilism’. (Hogan, 280) The use of language to demonstrate regression of a character, further alienates the audience, as an example of absurd dialogue. Much like the child like indulgence of Mrs Malaprop, the positing of Sir Anthony into the subverted role of the child within the Father/Son dynamic, further ridicules both the characters and the plot. The traditional figures of authority within the family dynamic have been reduced to tantrums and nonsensical language, whilst the servants – namely Fag and Lucy – control the narrative. This monologue of Sir Anthony’s also explores another element of epic theatre- that Brecht terms ‘gestus’. He defines this as dialogue being intended to “conveys particular attitudes adopted by the speaker towards other persons.” (Brecht, 104) Within Sir Anthony’s speech we see him curse Jack as an “impudent, insolent, overbearing reprobate!” clearly an unflattering trio of adjectives. Just as his language becomes apoplectic, he regresses not only from man to boy, but from coherent language to the broad language of gesture, and the Brechtian language of gestus. As Blakmur asserts: “Words are made of motion, of action or response, at whatever remove; and gesture is made of language… when the language of words fails we resort to the language of gestures”. (3)

The relationship between gesture and gestus, is an interesting one, and is especially apparent in this text. Through resorting to language peppered with exclamation, Sheridan guides the actor into a portrayal of Sir Anthony as highly physical, gesticulating wildly as words and reason fail him- just as a child would. The same dialogue that inspires such gesture, is also an example of Brechtian gestus- as it ‘produces through language… an aesthetic image of the functional laws of a society.’ (Brecht, 99) Sir Anthony and Jack switch roles in this scene, with Jack acting in the ‘cool’ manner that Sir Anthony believes himself to be representative of, and Sir Anthony ‘flying off’. The focus on aesthetic that Brechtian gestus encourages, works well in tandem with the description of the language of gesture offered by Blakmur. If the actor ‘resorts to the language of gesture’, as the dialogue of Sir Anthony is encouraging them to do, then this not only reflects the regression of character, but furthers the aesthetic tone of the scene. The subversion of traditional Father/Son relationship dynamic also expands the appreciation of gestus within the scene, as “the social gest is relevant to society, the gest that allows conclusions to be drawn to the social circumstances.” (Brecht, 104)

That the socially traditional hierarchy of Jack and Sir Anthony’s relationship has been broken down, pushes the audience further away from the realism of the piece, instead allowing for appreciation in the objective of puns such as ‘get an atmosphere and sun of your own’. This use of both gestus and gesture, and techniques of epic theatre such as verfremdungseffekt- specifically through the subversion of the typical relationship- to further one element of comedy whilst withdrawing from the almost slapstick overt element, highlights the effectiveness of these techniques within the play. Whilst gestus is useful in both appreciating the lack of societal tradition depicted within this scene, and analysing the relationship between Jack and his father, it is the use of verfremdungseffekt- in shifting the dynamic to one that is not only uncomfortable but unrealistic- that heightens the satirical nature of this scene.

Hogan claims that The Rivals utilises the effects of Epic Theatre as “Sheridan places his characters into dynamics where one must play the role of the critic.” (282) The relationship in which this is most apparent is between Julia and Faulkland. Whilst this plot arc is occasionally considered true, non-satiric sentimentalism, I would nuance this further – saying that whilst it is a genuine sentimental plot, it remains a satiric representation. The satire lies not in the over exaggerated sentimentalism and “caprice” of Faulkland, but in the character of Julia. It has been noticed that Julia, whilst attempting to converse with Faulkland in the high, sentimental discourse he perpetrates, in fact fails to be convincing, appearing instead awkwardly written. Whilst Hogan believes this is a failing on Sheridan’s part, I would argue that it is the effective employment of a Brechtian technique that creates this lack of verisimilitude. Brecht states that in Epic Theatre: “the actors refrained from going too wholly into their role, remaining detached from the character they were playing and clearly inviting criticism of them.” (Brecht, 71)

The character of Julia goes even deeper into this criterion- not only does the actor fail to wholly commit to the role, the character herself fails to. By creating lines such as “If ever, without such cause from you I will not suppose possible, you find my affections veering but a point, may I become a proverbial scoff for levity and base ingratitude.” (Sheridan. 3.2, 50) Julia appears not false of sentiment, but awkward and forced of delivery. Whilst this may be an honest miscommunication by an actress, the original text leaves no room for such gratuity. Sheridan forces the audience to recognise Julia’s critique of Faulkland not only through what she says, but how she says it. Whilst Julia plays the critic in her dynamic with Faulkland, the audience is aware of her insincere sentimentalism, which removes any room for empathy or sentimental reaction to this plot. 

Just as the detachment of Julia’s language from the “tempestuous love relationship…in the so-called “high plot”” (Wiesenthal, 311) engages with the audience from a position of reasoning over emotion, as does the overarching narrative of disguise and deceit. One of Brecht’s key differences between Dramatic Theatre and Epic Theatre is the relationship the audience has with the human being. In dramatic theatre “the human being is taken for granted” (Brecht, 37) whereas in epic theatre “the human being is the object of inquiry.” (Brecht, 37) Within The Rivals, the main character who is under scrutiny, both by the other characters and the audience, is Captain Jack Absolute. In the very first section of dialogue we are told that “Captain Absolute and Ensign Beverley are one and the same person” (Sheridan, 1.1, 24), a comment which both intrigues the audience, and puts them on guard. The character of Fag we see lying to everyone he encounters, including lying about lying about lying. This introduction into the world of The Rivals foreshadows the sinister undertone of the play as an exercise in deception. Whilst other characters fail to notice the Jack Absolute/Ensign Beverley dualism, the audience is of course aware of it from the start, in a move that encompasses both dramatic irony and verfremdungseffekt. Whilst the relationship between Julia and Faulkland removes any potentially sentimental reaction from the audience by being deliberately detached from its own realism, the relationship between Lydia and Jack is distanced from audience emotion through absurd melodrama. The audience is told in scene one that the character of Jack Absolute is involved in deception, and this posits him as an object of inquiry and mistrust. This layer of reasoning, juxtaposed with the melodramatic and ridiculous dialogue and plot surrounding himself and Lydia Languish, for example: 

“I am convinced my little Lydia would elope with me as Ensign Beverley, yet I am by no means certain that she would take me with the impediment of our friends’ consent, a regular humdrum wedding and the reversal of good fortune on my side” (Sheridan, 2.1, 66) encourages the audience to view this relationship dynamic as insincere. The easy acceptance of deception, and happy ending afforded to this couple, rather than endearing the audience to them, serves to exacerbate the overtly fictitious nature of their characters. As Thomas Moore noted upon first criticising the play: ‘The characters of the rivals… are not such as occur very commonly in the world; and, instead of producing striking effects with natural and obvious materials… he has here overcharged most of his persons with whims and absurdities, for which the circumstances they are engaged in afford but a very disproportionate vent.’ (Moore, 141)

It seems that if there had been a term for verfremdungseffekt in 1826, Moore would have used it here to describe the surreal nature of the characters, and the reaction to this lack of realism by the audience- the fact that this play is defined a satire and not a sentimental comedy lies in the reaction of the audience to the ‘whims and absurdities’ of the text. As Twark asserts: “verfremdungseffekt can lead the reader to re-evaluate or re-think circumstances… this distancing or objectification plays an integral role in the production and consumption of satire.” (157) Had the verfremdungseffekt not been so clearly employed, particularly in the portrayal of relationships, then certainly the Julia and Faulkland plotline, but potentially also the story of Jack and Lydia, may have encouraged the very sentiment it is believed to mock.

Deceit and disguise are introduced as elements of importance in Act One, Scene One, but even before this Sheridan instructs the audience in where attention should be directed. The use of dialogue in the prologue draws attention immediately to the arena of discourse, intimating that it is within language and dialogue that the action of the play takes place. The importance of the prologue in relation to the rest of the play should not be underestimated, both as a Brechtian technique and as a device of foreshadowing. Bentley observes on Brecht’s use of prologues that: “it might also be assumed that once the prologue is played you can’t forget it, and everything that happens for the rest of the night is in relation to it.” (Bentley, 115) Sheridan in fact begins The Rivals with two prologues, the first a dialogue between two characters who are never seen or referenced again, and the second a monologue delivered by Julia, the character who most encompasses the verfremdungseffekt. It is also relevant to note that Julia and Faulkland are the only two ‘main’ characters who are only given one name, in a discussion of devices of foreshadowing, the names of characters in this play are significant. More intelligent than Auburn’s reading of ‘The Rivals as, simply, a comedy of character not a comedy of plot’, (35) the surnames of ‘Malaprop’, ‘Absolute’, ‘Languish’ and ‘O’Trigger’serve not as an easy laugh, but as an element of verfremdungseffekt. Just as Brecht would hang name cards over actors, Sheridan provides verbal descriptors of the characters, further disabling the audience from any sentimental connection.

The moniker “Lydia Languish” is readily accepted as a humorous nod to her character as a caricature of sentimentalism, but nothing is mentioned of the (presumed) change from “Languish” to “Absolute” after their marriage, nor is the irony of “Absolute” being a liar. It is useful to consider the relationship between the audience and the characters as filtered through their names as Sheridan stereotypes his characters and forces the audience to interact with them as though they are labelled. This imposition of characteristics onto characters before the beginning of the text means that when Act One, Scene One begins, impressions have already formed. The audience already views the characters as “objects of inquiry”, (Brecht, 37) and are therefore able to see them as the objects of satire that they are.

The impact of The Rivals as a satire of Eighteenth Century sentimental comedy is obvious purely in the fact that it still being performed and analysed three hundred years later. The creation of both character and plot that so entirely encompasses the techniques of Epic Theatre over a hundred years before Brecht was to coin the term, shows the depth of Sheridan’s skill as both a playwright and satirist. Reading The Rivals as a piece of Epic Theatre is the most comprehensive way to understand why the popularity of the piece has not diminished, as the employment of verfremdungseffekt creates a satire that is exceptionally sophisticated, and far ahead of its time.

Bibliography 

  1. Auburn, Mark. Sheridan’s Comedies: Their Contexts and Achievements. University of Nebraska Press. 1977.
  2. Bentley, Eric. Bentley on Brecht. Northwestern University Press. 2008.
  3. Blakmur, Richard P. Language as Gesture: Essays on Poetry. Greenwood Press. 1977.
  4. Bowman, David. “Sheridan’s Comedy of Rhetoric.” Interpretations. Vol.6, No.1. Scriptorium Press. 1974. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23239895
  5. Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama; 3rd revised edition. 2014.
  6. Double and Wilson, “Brecht and Cabaret” The Cambridge companion to Brecht. Edited by Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks. Cambridge University Press. 2006.
  7. Moore, Thomas. Memoirs of the life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan. London Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green. 1826.
  8. Hogan, Robert. “Plot, Character, and Comic Language in Sheridan” Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan: Change and Continuity in the English and European Dramatic Tradition. Edited and intro by A. R. Braunmiller and J. C. Bulman. Associated University Press. 1986.
  9. Sheridan, Richard. The Rivals. OUP Oxford. 2008. Twark, Jill. Humor, Satire, and Identity: Eastern German Literature in the 1990s. Walter de Gruyter. 2007.
  10. Wiesenthal, Christine S. “Representation and Experimentation in the Major Comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.” Eighteenth-Century Studies. Vol. 25, No. 3. 1992. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2739338

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The Rivals and Epic Theatre: How Verfremdungseffekt Creates Satire of Sentimentalism. (2021, Sep 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-rivals-and-epic-theatre-how-verfremdungseffekt-creates-satire-of-sentimentalism-essay

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