The Second Mrs Tanqueray

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The Second Mrs. Tanqueray is a problem play by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero. It adopts the "Woman with a past" plot, popular in nineteenth century melodrama.

Plot[edit]

The play opens with a late night dinner between the widower Mr Tanqueray and some of his long time professional friends. All are upper class members of British Society, and are very disturbed when they learn of the upcoming second marriage of Tanqueray to a Mrs Paula Jarman, a lower class woman with a known sexual past.

As the play progresses we see the misery of the mismatched couple and their shared efforts to foster a bond between the young, but impeccably proper Miss Eillean Tanqueray and her young unhappy stepmother. This is compromised when Mrs Tanqueray learns the identity of her stepdaughter's fiancé; he is the man who ruined her, years ago. She reveals her knowledge to her husband, who prevents the marriage and alienates his daughter. This alienation spreads and husband and wife, father and daughter, step-parent and child are all angered and alone. When the daughter learns the reasons behind her disappointment she is struck with pity and makes a speech about trying again with her stepmother, only to go to her and find her dead, apparently by suicide.

History[edit]

The Second Mrs. Tanqueray was first performed on 27 May 1893, at the St. James Theatre, London, with Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Paula.[1] Mrs. Campbell became a star on the strength of her performance. The play was "sensationally successful"[2][3]

References in popular culture[edit]

The play is referred to in Hilaire Belloc's cautionary verse (1907) Matilda:

It happened that a few weeks later
Her aunt went off to the theatre
To see that interesting play
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
She had refused to take her niece
To hear this entertaining piece:
A deprivation just and wise
To punish her for telling lies ...

The humour of this reference lies in the fact that the play is of a serious nature, ending in suicide - and therefore entirely unsuitable for Matilda in any case: the aunt was herself lying to Matilda about why she was not permitted to accompany her. It is understood that adults know the difference between a good lie and a bad one. The joke is therefore at the expense of the depressingly grim subject of the play, and is for the benefit of the adult reader of Belloc's poem. The aunt is therefore revealed as a person of social conscience, both because she attends the theatre to see a serious play on a contemporary (feminist) theme, and because she protects her niece from any suspicion of the nastiness which attaches to its subject. So Belloc shows that Matilda's attention-seeking behaviour is a form of spoilt, wilful mischief rather than the result of an improperly nurtured upbringing.

There is also a reference in Harry Graham's 1909 poem, Poetical Economy, where abbreviation of words is used for comic effect, without, it is assumed, loss of meaning. This includes the verse

If playwrights would but thus dimin.
The length of time each drama takes,
(The Second Mrs. Tanq. by Pin.
or even Ham., by Shakes.)
We could maintain a watchful att.
When at a Mat. on Wed. or Sat.

This reference may not be a critique of the play's verbosity, but it is certainly evidence for the work's continuing fame.

The play is also referenced in the very first episode of Round the Horne as a play that the much-married character Lady Counterblast had taken the lead role in during her acting career (in The Clissold Saga).

The play is also briefly mentioned in the 1967 adaptation of H.G. Wells 'Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul,' Half a Sixpence. While Kipps is closing the boutique in which he works, he is accosted by unsuccessful actor and playwright, Harry Chitterlow. Kipps explains that he has not ever seen a play after expressing his excitement at meeting an actor and Chitterlow, surprised, asks if he had ever seen The Second Mrs Tanqueray. Kipps humorously responds that he has not "even seen the first."

In the seventh episode of the fourth series of the ITV period drama Downton Abbey, Lady Edith Crawley responds to the eloquent claims of her sympathetic aunt Lady Rosamund Painswick that she will support Edith through her pregnancy despite her niece's unmarried status by saying "That sounds like a speech from 'The Second Mrs Tanqueray,' but you don't mean a word of it!"

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ article from Minute History of the Drama
  2. ^ "Pinero, Sir Arthur Wing". Encyclopædia Britannica. 1974. 
  3. ^ Martin Banham (1992). "Pinero, Arthur Wing". The Cambridge Guide to Theatre.