A Woman of No Importance

Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance: Bombing in New Haven

By David Begelman

Squirming uncomfortably in one's seat during the course of director James Bundy's
production of Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance at the Yale Repertory Theatre is
the risk the play appears to run. The show is a dated affair. Shorn of any pretension
about having a unifying theme, the drama is really two plays going undercover as the first
and second acts of one.

The first act is devoted to observations on the part of upper-class idlers whose palaver is
laced with the mordant wit that distinguishes Wilde's humor. Dramatic conflict is initially
represented by the introduction of a younger American woman, Hester Worsley (played
by Erica Sullivan, a second year graduate student at the Yale School of Drama). Her
views on life, springing as they do from the egalitarian philosophy of the country across
the Atlantic, jars stratified British sensibility, especially that of Lady Caroline Pontefract
(played with exquisite condescension by seasoned trouper Judith-Marie Bergan).

Lady Pontefract disdains American impertinence through witticisms aimed at taking it
down a notch or two. When Hester brags that some of her American states "are as big
as France and England put together," Lady Caroline punctures the insolence by
remarking, "Ah! You must find it very draughty, I should fancy." This is only the beginning
of banter exchanged among assembled Brits and a Yank dotting a garden patio. Its most
skilled practitioner is the cynic extraordinaire, Lord Illingworth. His drawing-room
badinage upstages everyone else, and his remarks about women, sentiment, American
youth, beauty, joy, slavery, and almost everything else under the sun are remarks Oscar
Wilde himself would probably make-or did make-in other contexts.

When Lady Stutfield (played deliciously by Felicity Jones) remonstrates with Lord
Illingworth (played with devilish panache by Geordie Johnson) that everyone she knows
says he is "very, very wicked," he is hardly taken aback, quipping: "It is perfectly
monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one's
back that are absolutely and entirely true." Lord Illingworth is a sure bet facsimile of
Oscar Wilde himself, and a counterpart of the gadfly and hedonist Lord Henry Wotton in
Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. So much for the first act.

The second act of the play spins off on a different direction while its plot thickens, like
cold molasses. Clever banter is summarily exchanged for soulful recrimination,
declarations of female independence, resolutions to mend the evil ways of the past, and
announcements that remaining true to one's self is the only proper course in life. If
Wilde's second act is not supposed to be a soap opera, you could have fooled me.
Lord Illingworth, it transpires, has sired a son, Gerald (played innocently by Bryce
Pinkham), with Rachel Arbuthnot (played soulfully by Kate Forbes). Gerald is flattered
and overwhelmed by the attention his lordship suddenly bestows upon him, while
Gerald's mother is threatened by the father of her boy who wishes to become less
dependent upon her. Gerald laces into his mother for her possessiveness, but
subsequently sides with her against his lordship when he discovers his true paternity and
the dastardly desertion of mother by his father. Rachel, Gerald, and Hester (who is now
in love with sheltered Gerald) band together to brave the future without the "man of no
importance." Love marches on, to the tune of unheard bugles trumpeting integrity and
garnished by Rachel's long and tendentious speeches. For my money, I'd take Oscar
Wilde at his decadent best over the Irishman as posturing puritan.

It is a stretch to imagine that there is anything praiseworthy about these goings on.
Indeed, nodding off while seeing A Woman of No Importance might be reckoned an act of
merciful self-indulgence. Oscar Wilde himself shares most of the blame for the tedium,
an unwieldy and preachy discourse possessing none of the sparkle of his earlier Lady
Windermere's Fan or the piquant charm of his later masterpiece, The Importance of
Being Earnest. This is not to say that the play doesn't touch on important social themes.
It's just that the manner in which Wilde broaches them runs a disconcerting gamut from
boring to ham-fisted preachment.

The themes in question, pleas for the emancipation of women from loveless alliances
with men and sheltered social roles, was originally innovated by a certain Norwegian
playwright. Oscar Wilde's subsequent flirtation with ideas that had a more impressive
debut in A Doll's House in 1879 (A Woman of No Importance was authored fully thirteen
years after Ibsen's play) bears all the earmarks of a playwright who is decidedly out of
his element-even if his heart is in the right place.

Ibsen's influence on Wilde is broader still. At least twice in A Woman of No Importance
reference is made to the sins of parents that are visited on the young, a theme borrowed
from Ghosts, authored by Ibsen in 1881. In Wilde's play, malefactors like the repudiated
Lord Illingworth, are those who leave family disarray in their wake, whereas in Ibsen's
play the price is insanity transmitted through syphilis, a distressingly common blight in
Europe before the advent of antibiotics.

All of Mr. Bundy's performers are talented actors who manage their British accents
impeccably. They deserve the privilege of gracing a play with more substance than Oscar
Wilde's dated dud.

A Woman of No Importance opened on March 21 and plays throughout the week until
April 12 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT.

Performances are at 2 pm and 8 pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Tickets are $35 to
$58 for reserved seating, and can be purchased by calling (203)-432-1234 or online at
This review originally appeared in the New Fairfield Citizen News.

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