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A Woman of No Importance a play in four acts by Oscar WildeA Woman of No Importance

A Woman of No Importance is a play in four acts by Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. The play premièred on 19 April 1893 at London's Haymarket Theatre. Like Wilde's other society plays, it satirizes English upper class society. It has been performed on stages in Europe and North America since his death in 1900.

The play reveals troubling attitudes towards the roles and expectations of women in the Victorian Era. The main plot of the play revolves around Lord Illingworth, a successful diplomat, who hires Gerald Arbuthnot to be his private secretary, and finds out that he is his illegitimate son. A sordid past between Mrs Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth is revealed. Gerald declines the position with Lord Illingworth, and marries the American puritan Miss Hester Worsley. Lord Illingworth is banished from the affections of Gerald and Mrs Arbuthnot forever.

It begins on an estate called Hunstanton Chase – where Lady Hunstanton has assembled a collection of lords and ladies for the evening. Chief among them is Lord Illingworth – deemed “very, very wicked” by many in society and therefore drowning in dinner invitations. “It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true,” he says.

Amid such badinage, there are two thin plots afoot. In one, a tame riff on Dangerous Liaisons, Lord Illingworth is challenged by Mrs. Allonby to kiss a very young and very puritanical American in their midst named Miss Worsley. In the other, Lord Illingworth has, somewhat out of character, hired a young man of modest background named Gerald Arbuthnot to be his secretary – and Gerald’s mother is set to come over to meet her son’s new employer after dinner.


The play is set in "The Present" (i.e. 1893).

Act I

The Terrace at Hunstanton Chase

The play opens with a party on a terrace in Lady Hunstanton's estate. The upper class guests spend the better part of Act I exchanging social gossip and small talk. Lady Caroline Pontrefact patronizes an American visitor, Hester Worsley, and proceeds to give her own opinion on everyone in the room (and her surrounding life). Lady Caroline also denounces Hester's enthusiasm for Gerald Arbuthnot until Gerald himself enters to proclaim that Lord Illingworth, a powerful, flirtatious male political figure intends to take him under his wing as secretary. This is great news for Gerald, as being Lord Illingworth's secretary would be the young man's first step to a life of financial/political success. The guests then discuss the rumors surrounding Lord Illingworth's aim for being a foreign ambassador, while Lady Hunstanton sends a letter through her footman to Gerald's mother, inviting her to the party.

Gerald offers to take Hester for a walk, leaving the remaining guests to gossip further about their social lives. Lady Hunstanton and Lady Stutfield comment on the yet unseen Lord Illingworth's amoral qualities towards women when the man himself enters the terrace. He declines their thanks for his hiring of Gerald Arbuthnot and says that he hired him out of personal interest. Lord Illingworth remains near Mrs. Allonby during the entire exchange until the two of them leave for the conservatory together, following a discussion of Hester's background and wealthy father. When Illingworth and Mrs. Allonby return, the remaining guests have already moved to have tea in another room. The two characters have a witty conversation involving marriage and women and men until Gerald and Hester enter the room. They have some short small talk, and Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Allonby are again left alone. Their aim of discussion turns toward Hester when Mrs. Allonby reprehends the young American for her casual talk of being eighteen and a Puritan. Lord Illingworth expresses that he rather admires Hester's beauty and actually uses the conversation to assert his flirtations toward Mrs. Allonby, claiming that he has never met a woman so puritanical as Hester that she would resist his advances. After some flirting between the two, a footman enters with a letter from Mrs. Arbuthnot, stating that she will arrive to the party after dinner. Lord Illingworth is left aghast, and when Mrs. Allonby asks who the woman is, he dubs her, "A woman of no importance."

Act II

Drawing room at Hunstanton

Gerald's mother arrives at the end of an argument between Hester and the upper class women. Lord Illingworth enters shortly after, and Gerald uses the opportunity to introduce him to Mrs. Arbuthnot. The three share an uncomfortable exchange, as Mrs. Arbuthnot (to Gerald's dismay) can only partially expresses her disapproval of Illingworth's offer. Lord Illingworth excuses himself, and Lady Hunstanton calls everyone into her music-room soon after. Illingworth, however, requests that he remain behind to speak with Mrs. Arbuthnot.

What follows is the revelation that Gerald is the illegitimate child of Mrs. Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth, once known as George Harford. Years ago, Mrs. Arbuthnot and George Harford conceived a child, yet Harford refused to marry Arbuthnot. Harford had offered to provide financial security through his mother, but according to Mrs. Arbuthnot, it was his refusal to marry that forced her to leave him and live an arduous life as a scandalous single mother. Mrs. Arbuthnot retains a strong bitterness toward Illingworth, yet also begs him to leave her son alone, expressing that after twenty years of being a mother, Gerald is all she has. She refuses to allow Gerald to stay with his father, but Illingworth questions how she will force Gerald to do what she wants. He tells Mrs. Arbuthnot that Gerald should be able to choose his own future. Gerald then enters, and Lord Illingworth assures him and his mother that Gerald has the highest qualities that the man had hoped for in a secretary. Illingworth demands any other reason for Mrs. Arbuthnot to protest against Gerald's opportunity. Unwilling to reveal her son's true heritage, Mrs. Arbuthnot says that she has no other reason.


The Hall at Hunstanton Chase

Act III opens with Gerald and Lord Illingworth talking about Mrs. Arbuthnot. Gerald speaks of his admiration and protective attitude toward his mother, expressing that she is a great woman and wondering why she has never told him of his father. Lord Illingworth agrees that his mother is a great woman, but he further explains that great women have certain limitations that inhibit the desires of young men. Leading the conversation into a cynical talk about society and marriage, Lord Illingworth says that he has never been married and that Gerald will have a new life under his wing. Soon the other guests enter, and Lord Illingworth entertains them with his invigorating views on a variety of subjects, such as comedy and tragedy, savages, and world society. Everything Lord Illingworth has to say opposes the norm and excites his company, leaving Mrs. Arbuthnot room to say that she would be sorry to hold his views. During a discussion of sinful women, she also contrasts Lady Hunstanton's later opinion by saying that ruining a woman's life is unforgivable. When Lady Hunstanton's company finally breaks up, Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Allonby leave to look at the moon. Gerald attempts to follow when his mother protests and ask him to take her home. Gerald says that he must first say goodbye to his father and also reveals that he will be going to India with Lord Illingworth at the end of the month.

Mrs. Arbuthnot is then left alone with Hester, and they re-engage the previous conversation about women. Mrs. Arbuthnot is disgusted by Hester's view that the sins of parents are suffered by their children. Recognizing that Mrs. Arbuthnot is waiting for her son to return, Hester decides to fetch Gerald. Gerald soon returns alone, however, and he becomes frustrated with his mother's continued disapproval for what he sees as an opportunity to earn his mother's respect and the love of Hester. Remembering Hester's views, Mrs. Arbuthnot decides to tell her son the truth about his origin and her past life with Lord Illingworth, but she does so in the third person, being sure to describe the despair that betrayed women face. Gerald remains unmoved, however, so Mrs. Arbuthnot withdraws her objections. Hester then enters the room in anguish and flings herself into Gerald's arms, exclaiming that Lord Illingworth tried to kiss her. Gerald almost attacks Illingworth in a rage when his mother stops him the only way she knows how: by telling him that Lord Illingworth is his father. With this revelation, Gerald takes his mother home, and Hester leaves on her own.

Act IV

Sitting room in Mrs. Arbuthnot's House at Wrockley

Act IV opens with Gerald writing a letter in his mother's sitting room, the contents of which will ask his father to marry Mrs. Arbuthnot. Lady Hunstanton and Mrs. Allonby are shown in, intending to visit Mrs. Arbuthnot. The two comment on her apparent good taste and soon leave when the maid tells them that Mrs. Arbuthnot has a headache and will not be able to see anyone. Gerald says that he has given up on being his father's secretary, and he has sent for Lord Illingworth to come to his mother's estate at 4 o' clock to ask for her hand in marriage. When Mrs. Arbuthnot enters, Gerald tells her all that he has done and that he will not be his father's secretary. Mrs. Arbuthnot exclaims that his father must not enter her house, and the two argue over her marrying Gerald's father. Gerald claims that the marriage is her duty, while Mrs. Arbuthnot retains her integrity, saying that she will not make a mockery of marriage by marrying a man she despises. She also tells of how she devoted herself to the dishonor of being a single mother and has given her life to take care of her son. Hester overhears this conversation and runs to Mrs. Arbuthnot. Hester says she has realized that the law of God is love and offers to use her wealth to take care of the man she loves and the mother she never had. After ensuring that Mrs. Arbuthnot must live with them, Gerald and Hester leave to sit in the garden.

The maid announces the arrival of Lord Illingworth, who forces himself past the doorway and into the house. He approaches Mrs. Arbuthnot, telling her that he has resolved to provide financial security and some property for Gerald. Mrs. Arbuthnot merely shows him Gerald and Hester in the garden and tells Lord Illingworth that she no longer needs help from anyone but her son and his lover. Illingworth then sees Gerald's unsealed letter and reads it. Lord Illingworth claims that while it would mean giving up his dream as a foreign ambassador, he is willing to marry Mrs. Arbuthnot to be with his son. Mrs. Arbuthnot refuses to marry him and tells Lord Illingworth that she hates him, adding that her hate for Illingworth and love for Gerald sharpen each other. She also assures Lord Illingworth that it was Hester who made Gerald despise him. Lord Illingworth then admits his defeat with the cold notion that Mrs. Arbuthnot was merely his plaything for an affair, calling her his mistress. Mrs. Arbuthnot then slaps him with his own glove before he can call Gerald his bastard.

Lord Illingworth, dazed and insulted, gathers himself and leaves after a final glance at his son. Mrs. Arbuthnot falls and sobs onto the sofa. When Gerald and Hester enter, she cries out for Gerald, calling him her boy, and then asks Hester if she would have her as a mother. Hester assures her that she would. Gerald sees his father's glove on the floor, and when he asks who has visited, Mrs. Arbuthnot simply replies, "A man of no importance."

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