In structural terms, A Woman of No Importance is little more than a ramshackle melodrama exploring the tragic consequences of a love-affair conducted twenty years previously, when Lord Illingworth (Martin Jarvis) made Mrs. Arbuthnot (Diana Rigg) pregnant and refused to marry her, leaving her to bring up her son Gerald (Dominic Letts) in sin. Now Gerald has come of age, Illingworth wants to employ the young man as his private secretary, claiming he has a right to do so as the natural father. Naturally Mrs. Arbuthnot resists, and the tussle between the two parents degenerates into a public scandal as Gerald learns the secret about his birth, which until now had been kept from him by his mother. Gerald rejects his father’s offer of employment and marries American Hester Worsley (Teresa Gallagher) instead, while acknowledging the sacrifices made on his behalf by his mother.
Adrian Bean’s revival made no attempts to update the plot, but proved fascinating in the way it underlined the brittleness of Wilde’s dialogue. The aristocrats talked to one another in nonstop epigrams; any true feelings were kept securely locked away in the belief that to put them on show would reveal an individual’s basic weakness of character. When Miss Worsley voiced the truth about their way of life, the aristocratic ladies, led by Lady Hunston (Annette Crosbie) did their utmost to change the subject, or better still silence the young lady through insincere expressions of flattery. The truth haunted them, and they refused to face it. The effect of such scenes was strongly reminiscent of an absurd drama, in which the characters talked in incessant non sequiturs as a way of covering up the emptiness of their lives.
Bean emphasized Wilde’s satire of the upper classes through the characterization of Lord Illingworth, who came across as a skilled social animal with a gift for the mot juste in any and every occasion; the aristocratic ladies were charmed by his wit and vocal ingenuity. At heart, however, Illingworth was a morally bankrupt personality, with little concern for anyone but himself. He regarded Mrs. Arbuthnot as a plaything, to be picked up and disposed of at will. When she ended up outwitting him, his sole response was to remark that this was the first time anyone had treated him seriously; ‘seriousness’ in this speech was equated with ‘truth,’ and the truth was too painful for him to bear. Mrs. Arbuthnot’s description of him in the play’s concluding line as “a man of no importance” – delivered by Rigg with withering emphasis on the last two words of the phrase – proved painfully apt.
Set against Lord Illingworth and his social set was Mrs. Arbuthnot herself, a woman who in Rigg’s performance had sufficient self-awareness to realize that suffering was a way of life in late Victorian society. Nonetheless she had a steely sense of purpose, caring not a jot for social proprieties – she refused point blank to marry Illingworth on the grounds of respectability – and devoting her life to her son. When Illingworth tried to destroy her life by mentioning the unmentionable (calling Gerald “a bastard’), she smacked the aristocrat across the fact; the noise rang out like a pistol-shot across the airwaves, and was followed by a three-second pause. Mrs. Arthuthnot burst into tears, although it seemed as if they were tears of joy rather than sadness, as she understood what she had accomplished in resisting the oppression of upper-class patriarchal society.
This spell-binding revival underlined once and for all how Wilde should be regarded not just as a witty writer, but as a trenchant critic of nineteenth century social iniquities. No wonder the English aristocracy wanted him out of their midst as soon as possible, once he had been arrested on suspicion of sexual deviance in 1895.