That now famous play was premiered at the Drury Lane Theatre on May 8, 1777 and the extraordinary success it enjoyed led to an immediate demand for copies that could be used for both performance and reading.
However, though pirated versions were issued in Dublin in 1780, perhaps even earlier, Sheridan was unable to satisfy himself as to what was to be his final, authorised version and, as a result, there was for many years only a very limited circulation of manuscript copies made by persons associated with the theatre.
Transcripts continued to be made until the early 19th century, during which period Sheridan carried on revising his play, and it was not until 1821 that the first authorised version finally appeared – five years after the writer’s death in 1816.
Written in a neat hand to rectos only, the manuscript sold in South Cerney, Gloucestershire on September 6 extends to 278pp overall and includes, said the saleroom, ‘A Portrait to Mrs Crewe’ and a ‘Prologue’ by David Garrick at the start, together with an ‘Epilogue’ by George Colman at its end.
The catalogue entry provides no further information on these additions, but Sheridan had succeeded the actor and playwright Garrick as manager of the Drury Lane Theatre in 1776 and Colman too was a fellow dramatist.
On the occasion of Sheridan taking over as manager, says his Dictionary of National Biography entry, Colman wrote for performance a prelude that contained “a neat complement to Garrick”.
Some leaves of the manuscript are close-trimmed at the head, clipping some of the manuscript page numbers and there is some light dampstaining at the lower right corner of the pages and occasionally to the gutters towards the rear.
In a now slightly dampstained and worn but once handsome contemporary binding of red straight-grained morocco gilt, it bears the armorial bookplate, dated 1777, of a Martha Saunders.
Now though neither I nor the English dealer who secured the lot against some strong trade opposition feel is any more than a curious coincidence, the catalogue entry for a mezzotint portrait of a lady of that name that is held by the National Portrait Gallery is perhaps worth noting.
A mezzotint by Francis Edward Adams, published in (May?) 1775, it bears the legend ‘Martha Saunders Aged 104’ and describes her as resident at No.2 Magpye Alley, Grays Inn Lane. What caught my eye, though, was that under the sub-heading Arts & Science in the ‘Events of 1775’ timeline part of the NPG description, the very first note was: “First performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals at the Covent Garden Theatre in London”, not the birth of JMW Turner.
However unlikely, one cannot help but wonder if this centenarian lived another couple of years and saw the premiere of ‘School for Scandal’?