January 10, 2004: Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

Haymarket Theatre. Evening. Directed by Adrian Noble

A close colleague from Birmingham invited me to lunch with another, London-based colleague at the Garrick Club last Wednesday. At the next table Sir Peter Hall and Adrian Noble were deep in conversation. Together they almost dominate the current theatre season in London. This revival of A Woman of No Importance, directed by Noble, is surely one of the high points. It is crisply and lucidly staged by Noble and wonderfully well acted in a broad, assertive style that represents just the right accommodation of Wilde’s script and the boldly stated mise en scène for which it was written to the expectations of a West End audience of over a century later.

Having just returned to a long-deferred project, a book on Wilde and the theatre, and having just reviewed fifteen years’ worth of notes, I was primed to see the nuances and significance in the play that might not have been quite so clear otherwise. The comment about this play so often made is that Wilde uses a stale melodramatic structure of action, that of a wronged woman made to suffer greatly for her transgressions, as a gratuitous and over-obvious scaffolding on which to hang a desultory witty conversation between Lord Illingworth, the dandy-villain of the play, and Mrs. Allonby, who gives as good as she gets (“Lord I: Life begins with a man and woman in a garden. Mrs A: It ends with Revelation.”). That is, the play lacks coherence. In performance last night it was anything but incoherent. The large arc of the play dramatizes the ultimate connection between words and deeds. One is reminded once again of Feste’s comment — partly self-indicting, truth be told — about the sure real-life consequences of toying with the world. In this way of seeing the play, everything hangs together in unerring teleological certainty, even though we are allowed to enjoy Illingworth’s self-indulgent, mannered style and studied, casual ironies. The charge against Wilde that he summed up all life in an aphorism is perfectly true, and just. Note how this works in the play. Early on, Illingworth proffers the following moral observation (overheard by his abandoned mistress, Mrs Arbuthnot): “Children begin by loving their parents; later, they despise them; seldom if ever do they forgive them.” The action of the play, in which Illing­worth is exposed (though not publicly) as Gerald Arbuthnot’s father, brings the circle full, at Mrs Arbuthnot’s “charming, old-fashioned” house, when she throws Illingworth’s words back in his face. What could be a clearer, more coherent confluence of words and deeds than this?

Noble has seen this quite clearly and so has avoided entirely the mistake of making Illingworth merely attractive. Ultimately it is not hard to make Illing­worth a little oily, a little calculatedly offensive, and in Rupert Graves’s explicitly, casually measured performance he is just that. Graves tones down any tendency toward the overly supercilious and instead plays a quality of condescending insolence that, for a time, makes him attractive and gratifies his ego but that eventually leads to his defeat. We see this occur in the wonderful, final coup de théâtre in which Mrs Arbuthnot, handing Illingworth his hat and gloves as she insists once again that he leave her house, responds to his insulting reference to her as his mistress by slapping him across the face with his remaining glove (she having just handed the first one to him). It is a fully and beautifully realized moment, and Noble has the actors hold for a moment to let the effect sink in. She retains the glove, and for a moment we wonder if Illing­worth is going to be crass and craven enough to ask for the other glove back. But he does not, and leaves without it. Mrs Arbuthnot collapses in a paroxysm of weeping, dropping the glove in her distress. When Gerald and Hester come in from the garden and he comforts his mother, he finds the remaining glove on the floor. “Someone has been here,” he concludes. “Who was it?” The final irony comes home in Mrs Arbuthnot’s reply: “Oh, no one. A man of no importance” — Effectively inverting Illingworth’s end-of-act description of her, earlier, as “a woman of no importance.” From our perspective, a jaded one, a century later, we may find Wilde’s theatre of gloves and fans and bracelets that turn into dramatic icons that convict their wearers of social or personal crime and transgression quite contrived. We want Wilde to be more modern than this, want him to be more the author of Salome than of an ostensibly old-fashioned drama that caters to an audience still in touch with the energies and ethos that underpin and drive East Lynne. But the audience of the Haymarket that was held so well by this anti­quated play seemed quite happy with it all. As was I.

One test of how well the director comes to terms with this play is not whether he gets Illingworth and Mrs Arbuthnot right, but whether he makes Mrs Allonby and Hester Worsley work and live. The danger, in Mrs Allonby’s case, is to see her mainly as an interlocutor for Illingworth — that is, to see her only in terms of the witty banter she affords. Noble goes further than this and directs Joanne Pearce to keep a certain measured distance, verbally and psych­ically, between herself and this quite attractive but dangerous man. She takes his measure and does not overstep herself by so much as an inch. Hester is an even more conspicuous difficulty. On the page her puritanical biases may seem insipid and cloying, but Noble moves the quite beautiful and clear-faced Rachael Stirling to embrace Hester’s unabashed views as motivating certainties. In the course of the play Hester comes to understand the shallowness and wrong-headedness of her absolute ideas about the social consequences of sexual sin. But this portrait of a young American lady, an heiress who believes in the American dream of redemp­tive work, is no Henry Jamesian portrait. She is not in the least stung by Illingworth’s joke about where bad Americans go when they die (they go to America). This Hester has an unapologetic energy and freshness and enthusiasm for making things right that wins you over and almost convinces you that what she proposes for the three of them — redeemed mother and son and daughter — will actually work.

Behind this play lie allusions to Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter that are easily seen but perhaps less easily accounted for. “Hester” is Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, translated (to use the word in its Shakespearean sense) to an English country estate, given an inheritance that makes her free to do and go where she likes, and cleansed of any tell-tale traces of guilt over sexual sin. Lord “Illing­worth” is Hawthorne’s Chillingworth, the snake in the garden, whose altered name, in true morality fashion, provides an unwitting but transparent moral gloss. And, where in Hawthorne the villainous Chillingworth threatens horrific exposure of sin and guilt in the ostensibly pure Reverend Mr Dimsdale, there is no Dimsdale in this play; and it is Illingworth’s attempt at a clandestine kiss from Hester that sud­den­­ly sets rolling the wheels of an inexorable revelation and self-exposure. Of course, Mrs Arbuthnot has been consumed by her guilt — is she perhaps the Dimsdale, after all, of this play? — but she is redeemed at length. Or it may be more accurate to say that, in Wilde’s view, she redeems herself, in the act of refusing to accede to Gerald’s manic, desperate insistence that Illingworth marry her and legitimize their earlier relationship. Even when Illingworth himself, having read Gerald’s unsent letter to this effect, surprisingly says that he will do so, Mrs. Arbuthnot remains adamant. She is, as she has been for twenty years, her own woman, shunned by society and thrown on her own resources. Wilde wants us to see the moral consistency in this, even though it flies in the face of the pieties of conventional society. And we do see it.

And so, finally, the play follows the dandiacal principle consistently espoused by Wilde in his art and in his life: conducting a restless search for originality within the apparent bounds of convention. Perhaps the one assertion of Illingworth’s that is not countered by the events and structure of the dramatic action is his self-advantaging comment about the dandies of the world, who, he believes, are the ones to survive and thrive. The play, as a dramatic and ethical structure, finds its own coherent originality by working within the conventions of urban melodrama, re-examining the rigid ethos of the plot of the fallen woman, exposing its hide-bound inadequacy and reinvigorating it from within. I believe an audience today, a century after the fact, can feel the energies generated by this process of reintegration and respond to them, in ways that a fully conventional melodrama like East Lynne or Lost in London cannot inspire. They respond espec­ially well if the play is as well acted as it is in this sparkling, transparent prod­uction.

I have a mind to go back and see it again, for the sheer pleasure of the performance.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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