The overtness of the moral lesson in this play surprised me. Unlike my initial impressions, Wilde’s writings are not just about manners and matters of taste. There is, what some would call, substance, it’s just that he calls the matters of taste substance as well. But even for Wilde, this play seems too neatly wrapped up, like an Aesop’s fable.
The story is that Gerald, a young man of no background, has been recently employed as the secretary to the foppish Lord Illingworth. However, his mother forbids him to accept this position even though it would be a boon for the family. The reason is that Illingworth is actually Gerald’s father, and she is afraid that he will corrupt Gerald’s good nature. Gerald, who knows nothing of his relationship to Illingworth, urges his mother to allow him to go, particularly because he wants the money to marry the American girl he loves. Gerald’s mother tells Gerald the story of Illingworth’s treatment of her in a very pathetic story, but in 3rd person so as not to reveal his paternity. Gerald replies that something that happened 20-odd years ago won’t make this man a bad boss, and his downhearted mother complies. However, at that moment, Gerald’s girlfriend, who has been described as an American Puritan, rushes in because Illingworth made a pass at her. Gerald is about to throttle Illingworth when his mother interrupts with the revelation that Illingworth is his father. Gerald, his girlfriend, and his mother all retire to the cottage and Gerald proposes to his girlfriend. When Gerald and Hester are out of the room, Illingworth comes to visit the mother proposing to give Gerald money, a few houses, and a good career, but she blows him off.
The cute turn in this play which wraps it up is that at the beginning Illingworth calls Gerald’s mother “a woman of no importance” and at the end his mother calls Illingworth “a man of no importance” which is a nice little gender/power reversal.
But it’s this neat, bad-guy-looses, ending which makes this odd as a Wilde play to me after reading Earnest. There is something a bit too serious to make this play a comedy in the same way as Earnest. Perhaps it’s the fact that there is a person as the antagonist, or, arguably the tension and past of two people, rather than merely a misunderstanding or manners which is the force to be overcome. Or maybe the neatness of the couple coming together without any narrative tension—what was ultimately threatened was not the new relationship between Gerald and Hester, which is the common romantic comedy trope, but the relationship between Gerald and his mother, or, more deeply the placement of the woman and man in society—the central question seemed to be: was this woman wronged? And the answer was, with some hesitations, yes.
Even the name, Illingworth, is like a Dickensian characternym, vilifying the dandy persona. I found this very odd, as Wilde usually puts his best (and often repeated) lines in mouths of the dandy characters, and one feels as though Wilde himself is speaking through them and perhaps even is expressing himself through these characters. To have the dandy be a bad guy, in that case, is problematic, unless Wilde has some tension with the dandy persona, at least to feel that there is some limits to proper conduct. Interestingly, in this play, the dandy does not get all the best lines—there is another character, Mrs. Allonby, who is just as witty and of the same moral sympathies as Illingworth. In fact, she is the one who puts Illingworth up to making a pass at Hester, and, in so doing, ruins his chance at reconciling with his son. Allonby and Illingworth make a sort of witty Boris and Natasha, both opposing the character of the same sex in Gerald and Hester. Overall, in this play, Wilde seems to vilify dandism and stuffy drawingroom English politics however witty they might be trying it to a careless powerful patriarchal society, in favor of American (in the character of Hester) values of hardwork, and motherly compassion.
In terms of the play’s history, this play was an earlier one, before Earnest or An Ideal Husband, which seems to make the repetition of some of the lines in this this play make sense, as perhaps they originated here and Wilde put them to better use in his later work.