The preface was not included in the original production of the play, but was included in the first printed edition. In the preface, Sheridan notes that plays only receive printings if they have been well-received in the theatre and even then usually need no preface, but that the success of The Rivals was unusual and requires some explanation.
Sheridan meant for The Rivals to secure his position in high society. The Preface tells us more about these aspirations than it does about the play itself.
Sheridan notes that the play’s initial performance on its first night was badly received, after which the play was withdrawn and thoroughly edited. He admits that the first version that he submitted to the theater was twice as long as was appropriate, and that although the manager edited it, he did not edit it enough for fear of wounding Sheridan’s pride. Sheridan said that he made this mistake because The Rivals was the first play he had written and because he had not studied plays thoroughly, in an effort to avoid inadvertently plagiarizing the plays he read. Looking back, he is not surprised that there were elements in the first version of the play that the audience disliked, but he is surprised at himself for not having foreseen that these elements were objectionable.
Even as he introduces his play, Sheridan tries to distance himself from the ungentlemanly world of the theater. Sheridan grew up in a theatrical family, so his claim to be unfamiliar with theatrical norms is false, as is his claim to have avoided imitating other plays. The Rivals draws on an unpublished play written by Sheridan’s mother, among other works.
Sheridan notes that some people have suggested that the play was at first poorly received because many people felt malice towards him personally, but he thinks this is unlikely, as he doesn’t believe people view him that way. In any case, if someone did feel malice towards him, that person is now sorely disappointed, having witnessed the play’s eventual success. Indeed, he is grateful to the audience who booed the first version of the play for its sincerity and for guiding him toward improving the work.
On the other hand, Sheridan professes disdain for critics who write unkind reviews for authors who are not their personal acquaintances, and whose acquaintance he could not possibly be because he is a gentleman and they are not gentlemen. He then addresses those critics who thought his portrayal of Sir Lucius O’Trigger reflected anti-Irish sentiment, saying that he hopes that their feeling of offense deepened their attachment to Ireland. Finally, he thanks and praises the actors and management of the theatre, who have helped him so much to improve as a writer.
Sheridan derides theater critics who wrote negative reviews as both his social inferiors and corrupt, saying they only write favorably about their friends. In fact, Sheridan himself was a corrupt critic: he wrote a glowing review of The Rivals under a pseudonym.