When Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals opened on January 17, 1775, it was declared a dismal failure, immediately dashing the very high hopes that the young playwright had expressed in a letter to his father-in-law. In that document, he noted that those to whom he had shown the play predicted that it could not possibly be anything other than a huge success. After two performances, the show closed and Sheridan immediately set to work, like a surgeon cutting out the cancerous parts and rewriting and reshaping the parts that worked well, but not brilliantly.
Less than two weeks after its first disastrous premiere, the new and improved version of The Rivals opened with an entirely new actor taking on the role of Sir Lucius O’Trigger. This revisions managed to transform a wholesale disaster halfway to being forgotten forever into an overnight sensation whose success has continued through the centuries.
The story behind the story became part of the story when the Preface to the printed version addressed the issue of necessary revisions, in part by admitting that the imperfections in the original versions were simply too magnificent in scope to avoid recognition. Also immediately recognized in a far more positive fashion were the delightful idiosyncrasies of not just the most famous character in The Rivals, but one of the most famous characters in the history of the stage: Mrs. Malaprop. Indeed, her very name has become part of the common vernacular in the form of the "malapropism," in which a similar sound but inappropriate word is substituted for the right word, as in “He died of a stroke after having a brain hemorrhoid.”
The Rivals was the first success for Sheridan and effectively created his career. He would go on to produce another comedy whose enduring success has rivaled the success of this one: The School for Scandal.