A Woman of No Importance is one of Oscar Wilde’s more serious and insightful plays. It’s a relatable personal drama with plenty of commentary. Short and sweet. Decent on it’s own but better enjoyed alongside his other plays where it forms a piece of a larger portrait.
Most of Wilde’s plays take place in 1800s Victorian England centring on some dramatic event that highlights an aspect of Victorian society that Wilde took issue with (the man had plenty of opinions). What’s become clear to me as I read more of his plays is that Wilde saw the English nobility as shallow and vain people who, being rich beyond common sense, occupied their time principally with gossip, pointless socializing and scandal. And scandal in particular is the flavour of A Woman of No Importance: a story of the unequal gender roles in Victorian culture. A story about how men guilty of infidelity were forgiven (and sometimes even revered) but women guilty of the same were banished and disgraced.
A Woman of No Importance begins at a party at a countryside mansion. The young and poor Gerald Arbuthnot has just been awarded the prestigious position of secretary to Lord Illingworth and the high-born are excited for him. Gerald’s mother, Mrs Arbuthnot, is invited to the party but tensions rise when she realizes that she has a shady history with Gerald’s new boss, Lord Illingworth, from the days before he was a Lord. Mrs Arbuthnot tries to stop her son from taking the job while trying to keep her own shameful past from becoming unravelled… and well: drama.
A Woman of No Importance feels more serious than much of Wilde’s other work; it’s like having a conversation with someone who’s smiling as he tells you how much he hates someone else. But there’s a real understanding of the problem of gender roles by Oscar and the suffering that people go through because of it. Lord Illingworth himself is a caricature of sleazy Victorian men and possibly one of Wilde’s few outright villains. Illingworth is realistic enough to be believable while managing to capture everything wrong with his kind of person.
Wilde is often praised for his wit, but A Woman of No Importance is more bitter and mocking than witty. In particular the nobles are portrayed as ignorant imbeciles and the crowning moment, and probably my favourite scene, comes when the American visitor Hester lambastes English society for their superficiality and one of the Ladies responds that they didn’t understand the speech but Hester ‘looked very pretty’ while she was speaking. Expect a sourer temperament than his other works but the killer style is still there.
If I had to complain about anything, I’d say there are far too many side characters. The result is that the play starts off slow and unfocused and we’re not sure who the main characters are until the at least the Second Act. Also very few of the side characters really tie into the main plot or even have sub-plots of their own so it seems that many of them are there simply to fill space or to serve as minor jokes.
In conclusion, A Woman of No Importance is one of Oscar Wilde’s more serious and insightful plays. It’s a relatable personal drama with plenty of commentary. Short and sweet. Decent on it’s own but better enjoyed alongside his other plays where it forms a piece of a larger portrait.