Archive for March, 2012

A Woman of No Importance was commissioned by the actor-manager of London’s Haymarket Theater, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, after the success of Lady Windermere’s Fan. Wilde wrote the play during the summer of 1892 and it opened in April 1893.

The play, as it is usual for Oscar Wilde’s plays, is about the decadent and cynical leisured aristocrats who gather for amusement in a country house. Among them is a clever and witty dandy Lord Illingworth,who takes a shining to a young man, Gerald Arbuthnot, and hires him to be his secretary. Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald’s mother, a pious and seemingly respectable widow, is invited to the house to hear the good news about her son’s new position. However, on arrival, she realizes that the man who offered her son this post is also the man who seduced her and is Gerald’s father. Lord Illingworth is delighted to find out that he has a grown son and decides that this is the perfect time to start caring about him.

MRS. ARBUTHNOT. Stop, Gerald, stop! He is your own father!

Mrs. Arbuthnot wants to prevent her son from going with Lord Illingworth but finds herself in a hopeless situation realizing that because of his moral upbringing and upright character,  if she were to reveal to her son that Lord Illingworth is his father, Gerald would be the first to condemn her. The irony of this is not lost on Lord Illingworth. But when Mrs. Arbuthnot all but gives up,  Lord Illingworth makes a grave mistake. He makes a pass at Hester Worsley, a young, idealistic and opinionated American heiress. This young ‘puritan’ is outraged by this behavior and Gerald, who is in love with her, challenges Lord Illingworth.

MRS. ARBUTHNOT. There is no room in my boy's life for you. He is not interested in YOU.

Bloodshed is prevented by Mrs. Arbuthnot, who admits that  the man is Gerald’s father. After everyone has cooled off a bit, Gerald tries to persuade his mother to marry Lord Illingworth, since that is the only way she can reclaim respectability, but Mrs. Arbuthnot flat out refuses. Hester  sides with Mrs. Arbuthnot and asks them to come with her to America where they can start a new life. The play ends with Lord Illingworth trying to claim his son once again, but is told by Mrs. Arbuthnot that neither she nor her son need him anymore.  Lord Illingworth leaves, shamed and made redundant. At the end of the play he turns into a man of no importance.

The play may not be one of Wilde’s finest, but it has an array of great comedic characters and plenty of witticisms. The first act, which is often criticized for its lack of action, works very well as a contrast to the melodramatic and emotionally charged final acts. The insipid group of aristocrats with their petty problems sitting around and exchanging pleasant nothings sets up the mood for the rest of the play. These people never find out what drama is playing out between the main characters and they go about their business oblivious to almost everything except their own pleasure.

Mrs. Allonby, Lady Stutfield and Miss Hester Worsley by Yale Repertory Theatre, 2008

We have Lady Hunstanton who is a well-meaning, but generally clueless hostess; Lady Caroline, overprotective of her husband, who has problems with names and is rather traditional;  Lady Stutfield who is a bit naive and very silly;  Mr. Kelvil a politician and a moralist who has very poor social skills, a meek Archdeacon Daubeny; Lord Alfred Rufford who is constantly in debt and Sir John Pontefract, Lady Caroline’s quiet and weary husband.

Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth by Yale Repertory Theatre, 2008

However, the supporting cast is a lot more exciting and interesting than our main characters. Hester is very judgmental and self-righteous, while Gerald is pretty naive and uninteresting. Lord Illingworth is too cold to be a fun character and he seems to be trying too hard most of the time.

A poster for a production of' 'A Woman of No Importance' by Birmingham School of Acting, 2011

The subject matter and the tone of the play also feel very dated. The social mores have changed quite a bit since the late 19th century and the opinions of the characters, even the sympathetic ones, seem very archaic. The play suffers from Victorian moralizing and extreme melodrama. It is not easy to do and is not easy to do well.

I would stay away from re-imaginings or postmodern productions of this play. The text is so thoroughly a product of the late 19th century that it is almost impossible to imagine it in any other setting. Though, I would say that 1920s with its decadence could be a good place to set it in. The 50s, with its moral and social rigidity, is another era that would work for this play. If trying to avoid late Victorian fashions and the cost and difficulty of making them, these two time periods could be good alternatives.

All in all, A Woman of No Importance is an interesting piece on Victorian morality written by a man who was condemned, imprisoned and then exiled for not falling in line with said morality. This is not a comedy of sparkling wit; the undertones are too dark and the one-liners are delivered primarily by the villain of the piece. But if done right, it could still make people think about the the value we place on conventional morality and how it affects people’s lives.


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