The Rivals was Sheridan's first play. At the time, he was a young newlywed living in Bath. At Sheridan's insistence, upon marriage his wife Eliza (born Elizabeth Linley) had given up her career as a singer. This was proper for the wife of a "gentleman", but it was difficult because Eliza would have earned a substantial income as a performer. Instead, the Sheridans lived beyond their means as they entertained the gentry and nobility with Eliza's singing (in private parties) and Richard's wit. Finally, in need of funds, Richard turned to the only craft that could gain him the remuneration he desired in a short time: he began writing a play. He had over the years written and published essays and poems, and among his papers were numerous unfinished plays, essays and political tracts, but never had he undertaken such an ambitious project as this. In a short time, however, he completed The Rivals.
The Rivals was first performed at Covent Garden, London, on 17 January 1775, with comedian Mary Bulkley as Julia Melville. 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 apologised 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 28 January to significant acclaim. Indeed, it became a favourite of the royal family, receiving five command performances in ten years, and also in the Colonies (it was George Washington's favourite play). It became a standard show in the repertoires of 19th-century companies in England and the US.
The play is now considered to be one of Sheridan's masterpieces, and the term malapropism was coined in reference to one of the characters in the play. She was first played by Jane Green.