This is an article in a series of re-evaluation of major plays from the past that are not often found in modern History of Theatre courses, nor, despite their previous popularity are no longer performed today. For this article the exact period under review is 1890-1895. A quick overview reveals some truly extraordinary plays, some of which are still regularly performed – some are not.
This includes – Pinero’s The Cabinet Minister (1890), Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1891), Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (1891), Wilde’s Salome (1891), Feydeau’s 13 Rue de l’Amour (1892), Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt (1892), Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), Ibsen’s The Master Builder (1892), Hauptmann’s The Weavers (1892), Shaw’s Widower’s House (1892), Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) and The Amazons (1893), Schnitzler’s Anatol (1893), Suderman’s Heimat (1893), Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance (1893), Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande (1893), Shaw’s Arms and the Man (1894), Shaw’s Candida (1894), Ibsen’s Little Eyolf (1894), Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1894), Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1895), Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), du Maurier’s Trilby (1895), and Barrett’s The Sign of the Cross (1895). I am primarily concerned with the plays that whilst once were extremely popular and influential, yet nonetheless are no longer part of the overall modern repertoire, such as Arthur Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray.
Arthur Pinero (1855-1933) was one of the most successful British playwrights of the late 19th Century. His most popular works include – The Magistrate (1885), The Schoolmistress (1886), Dandy Dick (1887), The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893), and in particular his wonderful Trelawny of the ‘Well’s that is the most consistently revived of Pinero’s work.
Arthur Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) was one of the most controversial plays of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. It is what was known as a ‘problem play’ in that it dealt with the moral dilemma of a ‘woman with a past’. In other words she had relationships with men outside the marriage bed. The play was also famous as being the one that made Mrs Patrick Campbell a ‘star’. The Second Mrs Tanqueray maintained its relative popularity in the first half of the 20th Century. The American actress Tallulah Bankhead scored considerable success with on the New York stage early in her career in the 1920s. The play has also been filmed three times – two ‘silent’ film versions, a British one in 1916, and an Italian one in 1922, and another British version in 1952 with Pamela Brown as Paula Tanqueray and Virginia McKenna as Ellean Tanqueray. Subsequently, however, this once very popular play has slid into relative obscurity, with a notable National Theatre revival in 1983.
In Pinero’s play, Mrs Paula Jarman, who was previously Mrs Paula Dartry, is a notorious London ‘hostess’ who has married the very respectable Mr Aubrey Tanqueray, becoming his second wife after the death of his very religious first wife. Complicating matters there is his daughter Ellean Tanqueray who being estranged from her father for years and brought up in a convent now comes to live with her father at his country estate with the second Mrs Tanqueray. Things are not going well in this household. Paula is acutely aware that she has been snubbed by the local gentry, nor is she and her step-daughter hitting it off – both are at fault, and Paula is acutely jealous and paranoid about her husband’s affection for his daughter. The sheltered and inexperienced Ellean is taken to Paris by an old family friend and falls in love with a young respectable army officer, Captain Hugh Ardale. It is all rather sudden, but her father doesn’t object to the match, until Paula reveals that in a previous life she and Hugh Ardale were lovers. The result is a tragedy – Paula, unable to shake her past, commits suicide.
The early 1890s saw the production of numerous ‘problem plays’, as well as novels, involving ‘fallen women’, exemplified by George Moore‘s wonderful novel Esther Walters (1894). The so-regarded ‘problem’ of a ‘woman with a past’ is integral to Oscar Wilde‘s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and An Ideal Husband (1895), as well as George Bernard Shaw‘s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1894). It is quite possible that Shaw was inspired by The Second Mrs Tanqueray, not just because he admired the character of Paula Tanqueray but also because it was played by Mrs Patrick Campbell whom Shaw adored. Shaw’s play, however, whilst written in this period 1890-1895 was not actually performed until 1902 due to its subject matter.
Shaw wrote a short essay about Mrs Patrick Campbell and The Second Mrs Tanqueray titled ‘An Old New Play and a New Old One’. It is a fascinating short essay by the cantankerous and condescending Shaw. In this essay he compares Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest with Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray, with a marked preference for the later. Shaw praises Mrs Patrick Campbell very highly (of course), stating that Paula Tanqueray is ‘an astonishing well-drawn figure’. His uber critical eye then focuses on the play itself. ‘In The Second Mrs Tanqueray I find little except a scaffold for the situation of a step-mother and a step-daughter finding themselves in the positions respectively of affianced wife and discarded mistress to the same man. Obviously, the only necessary conditions of this situation are the persons concerned shall be respectable enough to be shocked by it, and the step-mother shall be an improper person’. Whilst admiring Pinero for certain aspects of his writing, Shaw can’t help himself in placing Pinero is a relatively minor league. Of the character of Paula Tanqueray Shaw states, ‘she is a work of prejudiced observation instead of comprehension…Mr Pinero is no interpreter of character, but simply an adroit describer of people as the ordinary man sees and judges them’. Nonetheless, Shaw ultimately does praise Pinero, if in a rather pompous and condescending way – “Add to this a clear head, a love of the stage, and a fair talent for fiction, all highly cultivated by hard and honorable work as a writer of effective stage plays for the modern commercial theatre; and you have him on his real level. On that level he is entitled to all the praise The Second Mrs Tanqueray has won him’.
Shaw adds a wonderful caution in regards to reading the play in contrast to actually seeing it. The reader ‘must not expect the play to be as imposing in the library as it was on the stage. Its merit there was relative to the culture of the playgoing public’. This may be an all too common reason why some of the older plays become neglected, in that they do not read as well as they play.
Perhaps we have forgotten how to ‘read’ such works due to modern influences and tastes, such as the predictable cry that such a play as The Second Mrs Tanqueray is no longer relevant, innovative, nor entertaining. This somewhat limited imaginative, dismissive and knee-jerk fashionable response flies in the face of such wonderful and internationally successful re-interpretations by Stephen Daldry of J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1945) in 1992. There are many others – but we don’t see them in Australia. Recently the works of Terrence Rattigan have been re-evaluated and revived to great success.
Shaw’s criticism of Pinero, in that he is ‘no interpreter of character, but simply an adroit describer of people as the ordinary man sees and judges them’, is the problem – on page when reading Pinero. It could be, however, a completely different story if Pinero (and others) are actually seen and experienced on-stage. I suspect it is. Rather than being ‘old fashioned’ I think that The Second Mrs Tanqueray, in the right hands, could be wonderfully re-invented for modern audiences. After all, the essential drama between a relatively priggish and censorious 18 year old step-daughter dealing with a glamourous and beautiful step-mother with a notorious past is still the stuff of great drama.
Furthermore, Pinero has some wonderful observations about life that are remarkably pertinent, relevant, and often very witty. For example, the confidante friend of Aubrey Tanqueray, Cayle Drummle, has this to say about Tanqueray’s overprotection of his daughter – ‘My dear Aubrey, of all forms of innocence mere ignorance is the least admirable. Take my advice, let her walk and talk and suffer and be healed with the great crowd…if your daughter lives, she can’t escape – what you’re afraid of’.