The play begins with a preface by Richard Sheridan. He discusses the fact that, usually, a preface is unnecessary, but that in this case, he wants to tell the audience about the fact that the play was edited after its first performance given the fact that people did not like it. He apologizes for his inexperience as a playwright—it was his first play and he was just 23 when he wrote it. He writes, “I flatter’d myself that, after the first trial, I might with safer judgment proceed to remove what should appear to have been most dissatisfactory.”
The preface becomes an explicit apology when Sheridan writes, “With regard to some particular passages which on the First Night's Representation seemed generally disliked, I confess that if I felt any emotion of surprise at the disapprobation, it was not that they were disapproved of, but that I had not before perceived that they deserved it.” He then discusses the importance of an audience, saying, “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.”
Sheridan than dismisses critics “who scatter their peevish strictures in private circles, and scribble at every Author who has the eminence of being unconnected with them, as they are usually spleen-swoln from a vain idea of increasing their consequence, there will always be found a petulance and illiberality in their remarks, which should place them as far beneath the notice of a Gentleman as their original dulness had sunk them from the level of the most unsuccessful Author.”
He writes about the fact that much of the audience’s objections to the first performance of the play had to do with his characterization of Sir Lucius O’Trigger, thanking the audience members who objected to the character for encouraging him to rewrite it. Finally, he thanks the performers “for the exertion of their several abilities.”
A Prologue follows, spoken by Mr. Woodward, the original actor playing a Sergeant at Law, and Mr. Quick, another other original actor playing an Attorney. They discuss the fate of a poet and the fact that Mr. Quick is trying to give Mr. Woodward money so that he can present a speech on behalf of the poet. Woodward delivers a brief monologue about the blamelessness of the writer, writing, “His faults can never hurt another's ease,/ His crime at worst —a bad attempt to please:/ Thus, all respecting, he appeals to all,/ And by the general voice will stand or fall.”
Another Prologue follows this one, spoken by Mrs. Bulkley, the original actress. She tells the audience that she represents the Muse, saying, “Like him, I’ll try to merit your applause,/A female counsel in a female’s cause.” She explains that the play will be a comedy, and that the play's more difficult truths will be lightened by satire. She compares the comedy to the sentimental play, a much more serious and respected genre. She says, “…moral truth disdains the trickster’s mask,” and wonders if comedies can represent moral lessons.
The play proper begins, with Act 1, Scene 1, on a street in Bath. As a coachman, Thomas, crosses the stage, Fag, the servant to Captain Absolute, enters. They know each other from both being servants and are excited to see one another. When Fag asks what brings the coachman to Bath, Thomas tells him that his master, Anthony Absolute, was worried another fit of gout was coming on, so they came to town hastily.
Thomas asks Fag how working for Captain Jack Absolute, Anthony’s son, is going, but Fag tells him that he is working for Ensign Beverley. Shortly after he reveals that Ensign Beverley is Jack Absolute in disguise, and confides to Thomas that Absolute is in disguise because he is in love. When Thomas asks why he has disguised himself as an ensign and not a general, Fag explains that the woman with whom he is in love prefers poor men and would not approve if she knew he was “a baronet with three thousand a-year!”
The preface to the play is unusual in that it marks a moment in which the playwright, Sheridan, is directly addressing his audience. While contemporary plays are typically stand-alone texts, without apology or addendum, this comedy of manners includes a special note of apology, an explanation of the fact that the play was not ready for its first audience. This gives us not only a window into Sheridan’s process, the fact that he took negative feedback to heart and was a young and inexperienced writer, but also a window into historical conditions of playwriting, and the fact that, in 1775, the relation between playwright and public was more open.
Sheridan alludes to his philosophy about the connection between audience and writer, and the fact that he holds the opinion of his audience in high regard. He writes, “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.” In effect, he invents the concept of a “preview,” the term in contemporary theater for when a company uses a certain number of performances to fine-tune the production before the critics arrive.
Following the Preface is yet another preamble, a prologue in which an attorney representing a poet, asks a sergeant about the moral standing of poetry. It serves almost as a dramatization of the preface that precedes it. In it, the two lawmen discuss the fact that poetry is at worst “a bad attempt to please”—i.e., not so bad at all. Thus, Sheridan begs his audience yet again to be gentle with his play, and to understand that it is not meant to arouse dissent, but rather to create enjoyment.
The second prologue marks the entrance of a feminine influence, the Muse, who discusses the virtues of comedy. This serves as yet another humble annotation from the playwright, as the Muse ponders questions about genre and wonders whether a comedy is able to bear the same moral weight as a sentimental play or a drama. She lightheartedly considers the fact that this play is satirical, that its comedy contains some sharp truths within it, before philosophizing about whether the genre of comedy can contain moral lessons in its narrative.
After a great deal of prologue, the action of the play begins quickly. No sooner have the two servants, Coach and Fag, arrived onstage, than we know that have learned about the mischievous exploits of their masters. Fag reveals to Coach that his master, Jack Absolute and the son of Thomas’ master, has disguised himself as Ensign Beverley for the purpose of pursuing a woman who prefers men who are poor to men who are rich. A number of complications—disguise, love, and class—are thrown together rather quickly and set the stage for the action of the play.