Prologue on the play’s first night. For the performance of the play on its first night, a prologue was performed by the actors playing Absolute and Acres. This prologue portrays a brief scene between an attorney and a court official, the serjeant-at-law, in which the attorney bribes the serjeant-at-law to read a brief to the court on behalf of the poet. The serjeant then presents the play to the judgment of the court of public opinion (i.e. to the audience), saying that if they do not like the play then his client’s crime was nothing worse than attempting to please and failing.
In the prologue on the first night, Sheridan once again shows that he saw writing The Rivals as a means to an end. He wished the play to be well-received and earn him praise and renown. At the same time, he suggests that it is no fault of his own if the play is not well-received and, by showing the serjeant-at-law as a bribe taker, suggests that there is no such thing as a fair and honest reception.
Prologue for later performances of the play. After its disastrous opening night performance, the play was quickly re-edited. When it returned to the stage, it had an entirely different prologue. In this prologue, the actress playing Julia comes onstage and comments that it is no longer necessary for the serjeant to appear, because while he advocated for the playwright, she, as a woman, is better suited to serve the Muse. First, she addresses the figure of Comedy, saying it is too young and flirtatious to teach moral precepts. Then she addresses the figure of Tragedy, whose guidance would have all the actors and actresses in the play murder one another. The playwright hopes to avoid this, and instead to use comedy to teach a moral lesson. She admits, however, that very severe moralists will certainly find the play inadequate in doling out the punishment for guilt that Tragedy would dictate.
Sheridan’s second version of the prologue is less blatantly self-serving and at least attempts to aim at loftier ideals of art and morality. The play is a Comedy (it’s funny, and the main characters get married at the end), but Sheridan suggests that he at least wants some of the moral weight that comes with Tragedy to inform the work. Note also that Julia, as a woman, is seen as more of an “art object” than the male deliverer of the original prologue.