'A Woman of No Importance' Premieres in London
This play is considered to be Wilde's least successful drama, largely because it is not successfully epigrammatic in its structure and themes.
Although Wilde sets his play in an interesting dialogue with Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, and has many brilliantly witty epigrammatic lines in the course of the play, the underlying story is actually a fairly conventional one. Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Arbuthnot vie for influence over their illegitimate son, Gerald, and although Mrs. Arbuthnot eventually wins her son's allegiance and his acceptance of her socially-taboo past behavior, the end of the play sees them on their way into an exile of sorts, while Lord Illingsworth continues his life in the mainstream of smart London society. An ending such as this one would not have been particularly challenging or unexpected to London audiences.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree, actor-manager of London's Haymarket Theatre, asked Oscar Wilde to write him a play following the success of Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan at the St. James Theatre. Wilde was initially quite reluctant since the character Tree would take was not the sort of part he associated with the actor: "You must forget that you ever played Hamlet; you must forget that you ever played Falstaff; above all, you must forget that you ever played a duke in a melodrama by Henry Arthur Jones." Wilde went so far as to describe Lord Illingworth as himself.
This appears to have made Tree all the more determined and thus Wilde wrote the play while staying at a farmhouse near Felbrigg in Norfolk — with Lord Alfred Douglas — while his wife and sons stayed at Babbacombe Cliff near Torquay. Rehearsals started in March 1893. Tree enjoyed the part of Lord Illingworth and continued to play it outside the theatre, leading Wilde to comment "every day Herbert becomes de plus en plus oscarisé" ("more and more Oscarised").
The play opened on 19 April 1893. The first performance was a great success, though Wilde, while taking his bow as the author, was booed, apparently because of a line stating "England lies like a leper in purple" — which was later removed. The Prince of Wales attended the second performance and told Wilde not to alter a single line.
Men become old, but they never become good.”— Oscar Wilde