CONNECTICUT CRITICS CIRCLE
A Woman of No Importance
Wilde's verbally dandy "Woman" at Yale Rep
by David A. Rosenberg
Once you get past the static first scene of "The Woman of No Importance" at Yale Rep, you're likely
to have an amusing, verbally dandy good time. Oscar Wilde's melodramatic comedy, sitting square in
the middle of his theatrical output, has the weaknesses and strengths not only of his works but also
his era. Director James Bundy emphasizes both the playful wit and the serious undertones of the
author who once said, "I have put my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works."
Wilde's reputation in some quarters as merely an "art-for-art's-sake" aesthete is undeserved. He was,
in fact, as much a product of Victorian morality (he had a wife and two children) as a rebel against
those shallow values. He could critique aestheticism as well as show its ruinous qualities. "The wise
contradict themselves," he once wrote, as well as "each man kills the thing he loves."
For him, both sides of the divide wore masks and were subject to hypocrisy. He could pen lovely
stories for children that parents would accept. He could also present stinging ones like "Salome" and
"The Picture of Dorian Gray" that got him into hot water and led to his downfall when he was jailed for
the "gross indecency" of having sexual relations with his reprobate lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.
"A Woman of No Importance" was written in 1893, three years after "Dorian Gray," which described
both the delight and corruption of beauty. Two years later, Wilde wrote his masterpiece, "The
Importance of Being Earnest," still the most perfect comedy in the English language. "Woman" has
elements of both, but sits uneasily between them, looking nostalgically back and furtively ahead.
Taking place at an English country estate where the idle upper class gossips and trades bon mots,
the plot soon focuses on Mrs. Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth. Twenty years earlier they had an affair
which resulted in producing their son Gerald, now, coincidentally, slated to become the lord's
secretary. Neither dad nor son know the truth until Mrs. Arbuthnot, still smarting from Illingworth's
seduction and abandonment and dead set against her son's employment, reveals her secret to both
She's backed in her stance by Hester Worsley, a rich American guest who, despite her Puritanism,
has lots to say about the role of English society and the general treatment of women. "Your English
society seems to me shallow, selfish and foolish," she tells her hosts. "Don't have one law for men and
another for women." It helps, plot-wise at least, that Hester and Gerald love each other.
What starts as a comedy of manners ends up as Victorian melodrama with some of the purplest
prose imaginable. ("We shall go somewhere to find green valleys and fresh waters, and if we weep,
well, we shall weep together.") Further, the piece drowns in epigrams ("Everyone is born a king and
most people die in exile, like most kings") and witticisms ("The English country gentleman galloping
after a fox - the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable").
Amusing as all this is, it gets mighty tiresome after a while. Further, since most are uttered by the
despicable Lord Illingworth, played flatly and with no menace by Geordie Johnson, the evening
threatens to sink like lead.
But there are buoyant compensations. Bundy adds bits of business that both enliven the action and
reveal these people's shallowness, as in the sight of lords and ladies chasing a feather. Standing out is
Patricia Kilgarriff who hastens the pace and lands all her jokes as the befuddled Lady Hunstanton. ("I
believe he said her family was too large. Or was it her feet? I forget which.")
Also excellent is Kate Forbes as the elegant, desperate Mrs. Arbuthnot. Terence Rigby is hilarious as
the dippy Archdeacon Daubeny and Judith-Marie Bergan, René Augesen and Felicity Jones (the
actress who ran off with Yale's "Lulu") are also fine.
The audience at the performance caught was not exactly in stitches. But they did appreciate the
following exchange: "The growing influence of women is the one reassuring thing in our political life,"
followed by "Politics are in a sad way everywhere."
Who said Oscar Wilde wasn't relevant?
Published in The Hour, April 3, 2008