A Woman of No Importance

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This article is about the Oscar Wilde play. For Alan Bennett's 1982 television play, see Talking Heads (series)#Episodes.
A Woman of No Importance program from 1930

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. Like Wilde's other society plays, it satirizes English upper class society. It has been performed on stages in Europe and North America since his death in 1900.

Synopsis[edit]

The play is set in "The Present" (i.e. 1893).[1]

Act I[edit]

The Terrace at Hunstanton Chase

The play opens with a party on a terrace in Lady Hunstanton's estate. The upper class guests spend the better part of Act I exchanging social gossip and small talk. Lady Caroline Pontrefact patronizes an American visitor, Hester Worsley, and proceeds to give her own opinion on everyone in the room (and her surrounding life). Lady Caroline also denounces Hester's enthusiasm for Gerald Arbuthnot until Gerald himself enters to proclaim that Lord Illingworth, a powerful, flirtatious male political figure intends to take him under his wing as secretary. This is great news for Gerald, as being Lord Illingworth's secretary would be the young man's first step to a life of financial/political success. The guests then discuss the rumors surrounding Lord Illingworth's aim for being a foreign ambassador, while Lady Hunstanton sends a letter through her footman to Gerald's mother, inviting her to the party.

Gerald offers to take Hester for a walk, leaving the remaining guests to gossip further about their social lives. Lady Hunstanton and Lady Stutfield comment on the yet unseen Lord Illingworth's amoral qualities towards women when the man himself enters the terrace. He declines their thanks for his hiring of Gerald Arbuthnot and says that he hired him out of personal interest. Lord Illingworth remains near Mrs. Allonby during the entire exchange until the two of them leave for the conservatory together, following a discussion of Hester's background and wealthy father. When Illingworth and Mrs. Allonby return, the remaining guests have already moved to have tea in another room. The two characters have a witty conversation involving marriage and women and men until Gerald and Hester enter the room. They have some short small talk, and Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Allonby are again left alone. Their aim of discussion turns toward Hester when Mrs. Allonby reprehends the young American for her casual talk of being eighteen and a Puritan. Lord Illingworth expresses that he rather admires Hester's beauty and actually uses the conversation to assert his flirtations toward Mrs. Allonby, claiming that he has never met a woman so puritanical as Hester that she would resist his advances. After some flirting between the two, a footman enters with a letter from Mrs. Arbuthnot, stating that she will arrive to the party after dinner. Lord Illingworth is left aghast, and when Mrs. Allonby asks who the woman is, he dubs her, "A woman of no importance."

Act II[edit]

Drawing-room at Hunstanton

Gerald's mother arrives at the end of an argument between Hester and the upper class women. Lord Illingworth enters shortly after, and Gerald uses the opportunity to introduce him to Mrs. Arbuthnot. The three share an uncomfortable exchange, as Mrs. Arbuthnot (to Gerald's dismay) can only partially expresses her disapproval of Illingworth's offer. Lord Illingworth excuses himself, and Lady Hunstanton calls everyone into her music-room soon after. Illingworth, however, requests that he remain behind to speak with Mrs. Arbuthnot.

What follows is the reveal that Gerald is the illegitimate child of Mrs. Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth, once known as George Harford. Years ago, Mrs. Arbuthnot and George Harford conceived a child, yet Harford refused to marry Arbuthnot. Harford had offered to provide financial security through is mother, but according to Mrs. Arbuthnot, it was his refusal to marry that forced her to leave him and live an arduous life as a scandalous single mother. Mrs. Arbuthnot retains a strong bitterness toward Illingworth, yet also begs him to leave her son alone, expressing that after twenty years of being a mother, Gerald is all she has. She refuses to allow Gerald to stay with his father, but Illingworth questions how she will force Gerald to do what she wants. He tells Mrs. Arbuthnot that Gerald should be able to choose his own future. Gerald then enters, and Lord Illingworth assures him and his mother that Gerald has the highest qualities that the man had hoped for in a secretary. Illingworth demands any other reason for Mrs. Arbuthnot to protest against Gerald's opportunity. Unwilling to reveal her son's true heritage, Mrs. Arbuthnot says that she has no other reason.

Act III[edit]

The Hall at Hunstanton Chase

Act III opens with Gerald and Lord Illingworth talking about Mrs. Arbuthnot. Gerald speaks of his admiration and protective attitude toward his mother, expressing that she is a great woman and wondering why she has never told him of his father. Lord Illingworth agrees that his mother is a great woman, but he further explains that great women have certain limitations that inhibit the desires of young men. Leading the conversation into a cynical talk about society and marriage, Lord Illingworth says that he has never been married and that Gerald will have a new life under his wing. Soon the other guests enter, and Lord Illingworth entertains them with his invigorating views on a variety of subjects, such as comedy and tragedy, savages, and world society. Everything Lord Illingworth has to say opposes the norm and excites his company, leaving Mrs. Arbuthnot room to say that she would be sorry to hold his views. During a discussion of sinful women, she also contrasts Lady Hunstanton's later opinion by saying that ruining a woman's life is unforgivable. When Lady Hunstanton's company finally breaks up, Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Allonby leave to look at the moon. Gerald attempts to follow when his mother protests and ask him to take her home. Gerald says that he must first say goodbye to his father and also reveals that he will be going to India with Lord Illingworth at the end of the month.

Mrs. Arbuthnot is then left alone with Hester, and they re-engage the previous conversation about women. Mrs. Arbuthnot is disgusted by Hester's view that the sins of parents are suffered by their children. Recognizing that Mrs. Arbuthnot is waiting for her son to return, Hester decides to fetch Gerald. Gerald soon returns alone, however, and he becomes frustrated with his mother's continued disapproval for what he sees as an opportunity to earn his mother's respect and the love of Hester. Remembering Hester's views, Mrs. Arbuthnot decides to tell her son the truth about his origin and her past life with Lord Illingworth, but she does so in the third person, being sure to describe the despair that betrayed women face. Gerald remains unmoved, however, so Mrs. Arbuthnot withdraws her objections. Hester then enters the room in anguish and flings herself into Gerald's arms, exclaiming that Lord Illingworth tried to kiss her. Gerald almost attacks Illingworth in a rage when his mother stops him the only way she knows know: by telling him that Lord Illingworth is his father. With this revelation, Gerald takes his mother home, and Hester leaves on her own.

Act IV[edit]

Sitting-room in Mrs. Arbuthnot's House at Wrockley

Act IV opens with Gerald writing a letter in his mother's sitting room, the contents of which will ask his father to marry Mrs. Arbuthnot. Lady Hunstanton and Mrs. Allonby are shown in, intending to visit Mrs. Arbuthnot. The two comment on her apparent good taste and soon leave when the maid tells them that Mrs. Arbuthnot has a headache and will not be able to see anyone. Gerald says that he has given up on being his father's secretary, and he has sent for Lord Illingworth to come to his mother's estate at 4 o' clock to ask for her hand in marriage. When Mrs. Arbuthnot enters, Gerald tells her all that he has done and that he will not be his father's secretary. Mrs. Arbuthnot exclaims that his father must not enter her house, and the two argue over her marrying Gerald's father. Gerald claims that the marriage is her duty, while Mrs. Arbuthnot retains her integrity, saying that she will not make a mockery of marriage by marrying a man she despises. She also tells of how she devoted herself to the dishonor of being a single mother and has given her life to take care of her son. Hester overhears this conversation and runs to Mrs. Arbuthnot. Hester says she has realized that the law of God is love and offers to use her wealth to take care of the man she loves and the mother she never had. After ensuring that Mrs. Arbuthnot must live with them, Gerald and Hester leave to sit in the garden.

The maid announces the arrival of Lord Illingworth, who forces himself past the doorway and into the house. He approaches Mrs. Arbuthnot, telling her that he has resolved to provide financial security and some property for Gerald. Mrs. Arbuthnot merely shows him Gerald and Hester in the garden and tells Lord Illingworth that she no longer needs help from anyone but her son and his lover. Illingworth then sees Gerald's unsealed letter and reads it. Lord Illingworth claims that while it would mean giving up his dream as a foreign ambassador, he is willing to marry Mrs. Arbuthnot to be with his son. Mrs. Arbuthnot refuses to marry him and tells Lord Illingworth that she hates him, adding that her hate for Illingworth and love for Gerald sharpen each other. She also assures Lord Illingworth that it was Hester who made Gerald despise him. Lord Illingworth then admits his defeat with the cold notion that Mrs. Arbuthnot was merely his plaything for an affair, calling her his mistress. Mrs. Arbuthnot then slaps him with his own glove before he can call Gerald his bastard.

Lord Illingworth, dazed and insulted, gathers himself and leaves after a final glance at his son. Mrs. Arbuthnot falls and sobs onto the sofa. When Gerald and Hester enter, she cries out for Gerald, calling him her boy, and then asks Hester if she would have her as a mother. Hester assures her that she would. Gerald sees his father's glove on the floor, and when he asks who has visited, Mrs. Arbuthnot simply replies, "A man of no importance."

Original production[edit]

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.[2] 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.

Criticisms[edit]

A Woman of No Importance has been described as the "weakest of the plays Wilde wrote in the Nineties".[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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[edit]

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

'Themes and ideas in 'A Woman of No Importance'[edit]

Money[edit]

In a Woman of no Importance money is presented as unlimited due to the majority of the characters belonging to the luxurious aristocracy who rely on the fortune provided by their predecessors so they have gotten away with never working a day in their lives. However Mrs Arbuthnot has had to struggle through life in order to supply herself and her son, Gerald, the basics in life. This symbolises the rest of the population of the Victorian Britain who have had to work hard whilst the upper classes are given an unfair advantage, highlighting the massive divide in Victorian society at that time.

Innocence[edit]

Another recurring theme in both plays is innocence. Innocence in A Woman of no Importance is presented in the character of Hester. She is an American girl who is foreign to the beliefs of the British aristocracy and their uptight morals and etiquette. Hester is often taken back by their views and so are the others by her. She represents the new woman emerging of the new world and due to this is considered naïve and has a hidden agenda. However she finds the others far too materialistic and judge people too harshly, scaring them by their pasts. This replicates the beliefs held by the aristocracy in Victorian Britain.

Adaptations[edit]

In 1921, the play was made into a film directed by Denison Clift.

In 1945, the play was made into a film in Argentina.

In December 2010, BBC Radio 7 broadcast an adaptation by Adrian Bean, starring Diana Rigg and Martin Jarvis.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde". Agora-Kolleg. AGORA. Retrieved 13 October 2014. 
  2. ^ Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, New York: Knopf, 1987, p. 360.
  3. ^ Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 357.
  4. ^ Martin Rain Review
  5. ^ Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 357n.

External links[edit]