For theatre companies seeking to stage the classics, there is a standard retinue of 19th and 20th century playwrights: Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg. Yet one of the most popular playwrights of his day is rarely produced and only known by those great readers of Victorian theatre: Sir Arthur Wing Pinero. Pinero’s farces and dramas were wildly popular from the 1880s through the 1910s. He was the second dramatist ever to be knighted. His plays were performed on multiple continents and adapted to film. Yet by his death, Pinero’s body of work was deemed outdated and has been largely set aside in the years since.
When I first started reading Pinero’s plays, I was struck, not by how outmoded they were, but by how strikingly modern his voice read. True, the antics of his farces are entirely Victorian in their comedy; his dramas tell of those trapped by a stilted, old-fashioned society. At the same time, though, the issues that Pinero tackles are strikingly relevant to modern audiences–especially his women. Pinero was passionately critical of the double-standard to which women are held by society–the judgement they face, the censure they endure. Having expected little more than drawing room antics, I was moved by the forward-thinking playwright ahead of his time.
Pinero was born May 24, 1855 in London. He came from a line of solicitors; while his grandfather was very successful, Pinero’s father was less so. As a result, the Pinero household was not an affluent one, which perhaps shaped Pinero’s compassion for all class levels, as evidenced in his work. He left school at age 10, going to work in his father’s office. Pinero’s father died when he was only 16, and he continued to work as a solicitor’s clerk to support his family, earning £1 per week. At night, he studied elocution at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution. It was there he fell in love with the theatre, staging amateur plays with his fellow students. In May 1874, Pinero officially abandoned law and became a junior company member at theatres in Edinburgh and Liverpool, gaining experience and acclaim as an actor. He was a supporting cast member to famed actor Henry Irving for five years.
Pinero’s first play, £200 a Year, was written in 1876. He wrote the one-act comedy in a single afternoon for a friend to perform in an upcoming benefit. The piece was a hit and performed multiple times, garnering Pinero his first notice as a playwright. After a string of one-act plays, his second full-length piece, The Money Spinner, was a smash hit, premiering at the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester before transferring to St. James’s Theatre in January 1881. Pinero’s style was lauded for its daring and unconventional comedy. The show was the first major success the St. James’s ever had, and Pinero wrote 11 more plays for the Theatre.
Between 1885-1892, Pinero wrote 6 farces and 5 comedies, the most popular being The Magistrate in 1885. The farce ran for 363 performances at London’s Court Theatre (today the Royal Court)–the first show in the theatre’s history to run longer than a year.
He followed The Magistrate with a string of popular farces: The Schoolmistress, Dandy Dick, The Cabinet Minister, and The Amazons, all performed at the Court. Concurrently, his comedy Sweet Lavender was a wild success at Terry’s Theatre; the softer, more heartfelt comedy played 684 performances and ran from March 1888 to January 1890.
After this, Pinero shifted his focus to social issues. According to theatre historian J.P. Wearing, Pinero was concerned with “the double standard of morality, applied unequally to men and women.” The first of his “problem plays” was The Profligate, performed at Garrick Theatre in 1889. The play depicted a man whose wild past comes back to haunt him. Pinero was forced to change the ending before the show opened: instead of killing himself, the protagonist’s wife forgives him. Dissatisfied, Pinero would hold more firm in his next, most popular drama, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. The play was considered too controversial at first, refused by the Garrick and St. James’s Theatre initially. After the success of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan, though, the St. James’s decided to give the show a chance. Both plays concern women with scandalous pasts; whereas Wilde’s heroine ultimately has a happy ending, though, Pinero’s Mrs. Tanqueray commits suicide. The Second Mrs. Tanqueray was a sensational success, playing 225 performances and making over £10,000.
Pinero’s next few problem plays enjoyed modest runs, but his next big hit wouldn’t be until 1898 with his comedy Trelawney of the Wells. The play served as a love letter to the theatre, telling the story of a Victorian melodrama actress who falls in love with a member of the English aristocracy, but cannot bear the lifestyle she must adopt to marry him. She returns to the stage, but is unable to act in the old, stylized form, instead learning to act in a more modern, realistic manner. Trelawney of the Wells has endured as Pinero’s most revived work. Over the next three decades, he continued to write, but to waning success. At the time of his death in 1934, he was considered outdated, and, after a lifetime of success in the theatre, was afforded only modest obituaries in the papers.
Pinero’s commitment to addressing social issues in his plays has perhaps been eclipsed by his friend and contemporary, George Bernard Shaw. The two playwrights both campaigned for a national theatre of Britain, and for the reform or lifting of theatre censorship. It was at Shaw’s suggestion that Pinero was knighted in 1909–only the second dramatist to be awarded the honor. Both were heavily influenced by the work of Henrik Ibsen; after seeing Ibsen’s Ghosts in 1891, Pinero realized that his work must be frank, honest, and brave in their explorations of injustice. Both Pinero and Shaw wanted to affect social change with their plays, but went about achieving it in fundamentally different ways. Shaw preferred a more didactic style of writing, focusing wholly on the problem at hand; Pinero wrote instead of the people affected by it.
Though Pinero’s work has since been deemed outdated, I find his work ahead of many of his time in regards to his female characters. He looks upon women with compassion and respect, and bluntly addresses the cruelly high, hypocritical stands of Victorian society. Henrik Ibsen was the first to emancipate a woman onstage with A Doll’s House in 1879, but his works were viewed as highly controversial in England. Pinero managed to marry his feminist messages with popular commercial entertainment, challenging his audience in a smart, subtle way.
Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan premiered the year before The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. Wilde’s fallen woman receives a happy, if unrealistic ending, being forgiven for her past transgressions. Pinero is not so romantic towards his heroine–Paula Tanqueray is judged and shamed for her past, though the man who soiled her good name is crowned a war hero. Her step-daughter looks upon her with disgust, she has no friends; feeling that she will never be accepted, she kills herself. Pinero calls out the double-standard in society’s treatment of men and women: a man who enjoys his sexuality is accepted–even celebrated–while a woman is denounced and shamed. Aubrey, Paula’s husband, angrily accuses Paula’s former lover, men, even himself in his impassioned, clear-sighted outburst:
“Curse him! Yes, I do curse him — him and his class! Perhaps I curse myself too in doing it. He has only led ‘a man’s life’ — just as I, how many of us, have done! The misery he has brought on me and mine, it’s likely enough we, in our time, have helped to bring on others by this leading ‘a man’s life’! But I do curse him for all that. My God, I’ve nothing more to fear — I’ve paid my fine! And so I can curse him in safety. Curse him! Curse him!” (Act Four)
Aubrey’s curse–and Pinero’s condemning view–is one that society is only recently beginning to tackle, 126 years after the words were first penned. In light of socio-political events of the past few years in the United States–the beginning of the Time’s Up movement, the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the fight for the voice of women to be considered in regards to our bodies and rights–I was all the more struck to hear a Victorian voice siding with the modern woman. The message is not “outdated,” but rings more true than ever.
Though Mrs. Tanqueray is perhaps Pinero’s strongest figure, there are many examples of his liberal, forward attitude towards women in all of his work. In The Amazons, three young women were raised as men. Each has a different attitude in regards to their to their gender: one identifies more with her feminine side, one with her masculine, and the eldest is equally settled with both. Regardless of their adherence to or rejection of traditional gender roles, all three women find love and acceptance. In Dandy Dick, a widowed woman continues in her passionate love of horse racing after her husband’s death, owning her own racehorse and being a favorite of the lower class at the racetrack. In Trelawney of the Wells, the young actress rejects an aristocratic marriage in favor of her former, poorer life in the theatre; it is her fiancé who foregoes his privileged past so as to join her. Strong, confident, nonconforming women appear throughout Pinero’s work, all afforded a freedom, respect, and voice that Victorian society would not yet allow.
It is my hope that Pinero’s plays become a stronger fixture in theatrical repertoire, for he undoubtedly has a place there. If the society he depicts seems old-fashioned, it only highlights how much time it has taken for it to evolve.
To find out more about this dynamic playwright’s work, check out our guides to his plays here!