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A Woman of No Importance is a play by Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. The play premièred on 19 April 1893 at London‘s Haymarket Theatre. It is a testimony of Wilde’s wit and his brand of dark comedy. It looks in particular at English upper class society and has been reproduced on stages in Europe and North America since his death in 1900.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree, actor-manager of London‘s Haymarket Theatre, asked Oscar Wilde to write him a play following the success of Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan at the St. James Theatre. Wilde was initially quite reluctant since the character Tree would take was not the sort of part he associated with the actor: Wilde went so far as to describe Lord Illingworth as himself.
This appears to have made Tree all the more determined and thus Wilde wrote the play while staying at a farmhouse near Felbrigg in Norfolk — with Lord Alfred Douglas — while his wife and sons stayed at Babbacombe Cliff near Torquay. Rehearsals started in March 1893. Tree enjoyed the part of Lord Illingworth and continued to play it outside the theatre, leading Wilde to comment “every day Herbert becomes de plus en plus oscarisé” (“more and more Oscarised”).
The play opened on 19 April 1893. The first performance was a great success, though Wilde, while taking his bow as the author, was booed, apparently because of a line stating “England lies like a leper in purple” — which was later removed. The Prince of Wales attended the second performance and told Wilde not to alter a single line. The play was also performed in New York and was due to go on tour when Wilde was arrested and charged with indecency and sodomy following his feud with the Marquess of Queensberry over the Marquess’ son, Lord Alfred Douglas. The tour was cancelled.
A Woman of No Importance has been described as the “weakest of the plays Wilde wrote in the Nineties”. Many critics note that much of the first act-and-a-half surrounds the witty conversations of members of the upper-classes, the drama only beginning in the second half of the second act with Lord Illingworth and Mrs Arbuthnot finding their pasts catching up with them.
Lytton Strachey gave a curious interpretation of the relationship between Lord Illingworth and his new-found son Gerald when Tree put on another production of the play in 1907. In a letter to Duncan Grant he described Lord Illingworth (again played by Tree) as having incestuous homosexual designs on his son. Strachey’s interpretation of Tree’s performance was probably influenced by Wilde’s exposure as a homosexual himself.
Like many of Wilde’s plays, the main theme is the secrets of the upper-classes: Lord Illingworth discovering that the young man he has employed as a secretary is in fact his illegitimate son, a situation similar to the central plot of Lady Windermere’s Fan. Secrets would also affect the characters of The Importance of Being Earnest.
In one scene, Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Allonby (whose unseen husband is called Ernest) share the line “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy”, “No man does. That is his.” Algernon would make the same remark in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Characters of the play
- Lord Illingworth
- He is a man of about 45 and a bachelor. He is witty and clever and a practised flirt, who knows how to make himself agreeable to women. He is Mrs. Arbuthnot’s former lover and seducer and the father of Gerald Arbuthnot. Also, he has a promising diplomatic career and is shortly to become Ambassador to Vienna. He enjoys the company of Mrs. Allonby, who has a similar witty and amoral outlook to his own, and who also engages in flirting. His accidental acquaintance with Gerald, to whom he offers the post of private secretary, sets in motion the chain of events that form the main plot of the play. Illingworth is a typical Wildean dandy.
- Mrs. Arbuthnot
- Apparently a respectable widow who does good work among the poor and is a regular churchgoer. She declines invitations to dinner parties and other social amusements, although she does visit the upper class characters at Lady Hunstanton’s, since they all appear to know her and her son, Gerald. However, the audience soon realise that she has a secret past with Lord Illingworth who is the father of her son, Gerald.
- Gerald Arbuthnot
- The illegitimate son of Mrs. Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth. Gerald’s young and rather inexperienced character represents the desire to find a place in society, and gain high social standing. His naivety allows him to accept uncritically what society deems as proper, and his belief in honour and duty is what leads him to insist upon his parents’ marriage.
- Mrs. Allonby
- A flirtatious woman who has a bit of a reputation for controversy. She is not the stereotypical female character and exchanges witty repartee with Lord Illingworth, indeed she could be viewed as a female dandy. It is she who dares Illingworth to “kiss the Puritan.”
- Miss Hester Worsley
- As an American Puritan and an outsider to the British society in the play, Hester is in an ideal position to witness its faults and shortcomings more clearly than those who are part of it. Hester is both an orphan and an heiress, which allows her to “adopt” Mrs. Arbuthnot as her mother at the end of the play.
- Jane, Lady Hunstanton
- The host of the party. Means well but is quite ignorant, shown in her conversation and lack of knowledge. Could be seen as portraying the typical Victorian aristocrat.
- Lady Caroline Pontefract
- A very strong bully, shown by her belittling of Mr. Kelvil whom she constantly refers to as Mr. “Kettle”. Her traditionalist views are in direct contrast to Mrs Allonby.
- The Ven. Archdeacon Daubeny, D.D.
- Seen as the ‘ultimate priest’ his willingness to ‘sacrifice’ his free time for the benefit of his wife who is seen as an invalid of dramatic proportions. Shows his discomfort at being within the upper-class social circle.
- Lady Stutfield
- A naive and intellectually restricted character that shows her lack of vocabulary with constant repetitions such as her use of the phrase, “Quite, Quite”. However this view is a misconception, and those who study the women characters in depth will find Lady Stutfield to be full of ulterior motives and desperate for male attention.
- Mr. Kelvil, M.P.
- A stuffily and thoroughly modern progressive moralist. He earnestly wishes to improve society and in particular the lot of the lower classes, but seems to lack the charisma and charm to succeed — for example, he chooses to discuss the monetary standard of bimetallism with Lady Stutfield.
- Lord Alfred Rufford
- A stereotypically lazy aristocrat who is constantly in debt with no intentions of paying back his debtors due to him spending other peoples money on luxury items such as jewelry.
- Sir John Pontefract
- Husband to Lady Caroline Pontefract, he is a quiet man who allows his wife to control their relationship. He seems weary of his wife’s behaviour, constantly correcting her mispronunciation of Mr. Kelvil’s name.
- Farquhar, Butler
- Francis, Footman
- Alice, Servant
- Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, New York: Knopf, 1987, p. 360.
- Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 357.
- Martin Rain Review
- Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 357n.
- A Woman of No Importance at Project Gutenberg
- A Woman of No Importance at IBDB
- A Woman of No Importance at IMDB
- A Woman of No Importance plot summary & character descriptions at StageAgent.com
This article uses material from the Wikipedia article A Woman of No Importance, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.