Oscar Wilde’s play A Woman of No Importance is a satirical comedy about the moral hypocrisy of English upper class society. This volume contains the first full draft of the play in Wilde’s own hand. By looking at this manuscript, together with an earlier notebook and later typescript, we can see that Wilde shaped and polished his play, at this point titled Mrs Arbuthnot, over several drafts.
Why did Wilde call the play Mrs Arbuthnot?
Mrs Arbuthnot is one of the main characters of the play and a former lover of witty diplomat and unscrupulous seducer, Lord Illingworth. Mrs Arbuthnot brought up their son alone after Lord Illingworth refused to marry her. She does not enter the stage in person until Act II, but she is talked about in Act I when her letter arrives. Lord Illingworth, recognising her distinctive handwriting, exclaims: ‘What curious handwriting! It reminds me of the handwriting of a woman I used to know years ago. A woman of no importance’ (folios 59–60). Wilde later changed the title of the play to A Woman of No Importance. He also changed the name of Mrs Arbuthnot’s and Lord Illingworth’s son from Aleck to Gerald.
What else can we learn from this manuscript?
We know that Wilde sent this draft to his typist because there is a note ‘To Type-writer’ in red pencil on folio 2. He wrote his own name and address on the first page of the book so that it could be returned to him. The draft contains numerous additions, corrections and instructions for the typist. Wilde used a red pencil or crayon to indicate where to insert additional text. He used the left-hand page, or verso, to record amendments to the main draft on the opposite page.