John’s Review: If this headline appeared today few readers would take much notice. It would just been seen as the liberal intellectual elite doing what they have always done, chipping away at social structures and norms. But in 1893, when the Victorian age of severe morality was probably at its height, Oscar Wilde chose to write a play dedicated to championing the cause of women in high society, and in the process exposing the moral hypocrisy which in turn led to his famous trial and death as a pauper at the age of only 46.
It was a brave move, satirising a moral code that formed the backbone of the British Empire. Women knew their place, and that place was next to their men. Standing there she was expected to say very little of consequence, certainly not to challenge anything her husband said. Her husband’s infidelities were to be ignored in the preservation of the institution of marriage. Without that marriage she would be without meaning, penniless and destitute.
Oscar Wilde’s “A Woman of No Importance” is not the greatest of his plays, but it is unusual in its insistence on being a morality tale despite the wit and satire which runs like a rich vein through all his work. Lord Illingworth has wronged Mrs Arbuthnot. He is a cad, that got her pregnant and then refused to marry her. For this crime he is ultimately tried by the play and his punishment is the loss of his son and the humiliation of having his unwilling and late proposal of marriage turned down.
The surprising aspect of the play for me, was how often Wilde returned to his theme in an almost biblical manner. He includes a Deacon in his cast, but it is Wilde who preaches morality and attacks hypocrisy and double standards throughout.
The use of an American character, Miss Hester Worsley to attack the immorality of the British aristocracy with great vigour is an interesting device. The USA is seen as a place without class, without malice and where purity is not mocked. Miss Worsley savages Illingworth and the others, and eventually turns saviour for Mrs Arthbuthnot and her son Gerald.
Further chipping away at the quiet stereotype of the “little woman” is Mrs Allonby, who flirts with and torments Lord Illingworth and other men, giving as good as she gets in the verbal pyrotechnics. She seems not to need to be validated by men, but is able to take her pleasure where she finds it.
The play was staged by the Birmingham School of Acting, a part of the Faculty of which I am Associate Dean. I went along, because I knew it would be witty. After all Oscar Wilde wrote one of my favourite phrases, “Nothing is more doomed to failure than a scheme of merriment.” I wasn’t prepared for the strength of the moral case, and the extent to which my wife would be moved to tears by the predicament of Mrs Arbuthnot.
That’s the great thing about live theatre, professionally done. You never know exactly what you are going to get.
Junying’s Take: I was thoroughly entertained by this wonderful play. It had me laughing many times and sobbing my heart out once or twice in between. Oscar Wilde’s wit and sarcasm has won me over.
Here is one of many quotes:
Lord Illingwonh: Women have become too brilliant. Nothing spoils a romance so much as a sense of humour in the woman.
Mrs. Allonby: Or the want of it in the man.
The women’s rights, and indeed that of gay people, ethnic minorities and many other disadvantaged groups are still a daily struggle in many parts of the world. Oscar’s theme is as relevant today as it was in Victorian England.