Oscar Wilde’s play A Woman of No Importance opened in London on April 19, 1893 and proceeded to run for 113 performances. Successful revivals were mounted on his home turf on both 1907 and 1915. Broadway was first delighted by Wilde’s adeptly witty and unexpectedly trenchant analysis of the “double standard” in 1893 with a revival not taking place there until 1916. Wilde’s notorious wit and preference for the epigrammatic style of humor—Lord Illingworth is the character who voices one of his most famously quotable quotes when he observes that he observe that “nothing succeeds like excess”—had a habit of confounding theater reviewers at the time to the point where they underestimated his strength and power as a writer yet again. In deeming A Woman of No Importance to be a Wilde effort of lesser importance, many reviewers unintentionally helped Wilde make his point.
Later re-examination of the apparently shallow depths of the comedy has revealed that in its penetrating examination of the conventional wisdom that one code of morality exists for men and quite another for women there run a much deeper and corrosively social satire: that those at the top of society which are assumed to represent the apex of social graces are almost uniformly more often mere exhibitors of pretentious displays of practice mannerisms devoid of any actual ethical dimension.
For the distinctly roughish Irishman like Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance is really about the lofty idealism and empty realities of the British class system. That he so successfully couched this attack as a merely witty comedy about the double standard applying only to women may say more about the targets of his attack than the play itself!