If theatre critics were responsible for the lasting reputation of the plays that they review, The Second Mrs Tanqueray – which is to have a rare revival this autumn – would never be off the stage: "a dramatic masterpiece", "the finest play of which this age can boast", "the greatest play of modern times" are just some of the superlatives that greeted its premiere in 1893.
It soon became the biggest hit of the Victorian theatre, leading one critic to declare that "nothing in the history of the modern stage has been more remarkable than the success gained by Pinero's latest, boldest and most brilliant play".
So why hasn't Pinero's succès de scandale been seen in London since Felicity Kendal played the notorious ex-prostitute, Paula, in 1981? The chief reason, I suspect, is Pinero's bad luck in being sandwiched between Ibsen and Wilde, Shaw and Granville Barker. But the time has come to revisit the most popular fin de siècle dramatist of them all, and find out what we've been missing. My production – which stars the Olivier-award winning Laura Michelle Kelly as Paula and James Wilby as her husband – is part of a broader re-evaluation, which includes a recent tour of Dandy Dick, and a revival of The Magistrate at the National Theatre in November.
Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) was, above all, a man of the theatre. He worked for a decade as a jobbing actor and, in despair at low standards of production, became a meticulous director of his own plays (often to the dismay of his actors). He wrote dozens of (best forgotten) juvenile dramas before he discovered his genius as a farceur and was responsible for some of the funniest plays in the language. So it's hardly surprising that when Pinero turned to more serious subjects, the results were so memorable. In Trelawney of the Wells, The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith, The Thunderbolt and, above all, The Second Mrs Tanqueray, he combined a rock-solid instinct for popular entertainment with a rare level of psychological and social inquiry. And it's this that makes these plays seem so fresh and alive today.
At the centre of Pinero's best plays are independent-minded women, battling to find their way in an all too male world. They follow their star, express their views and steadily gain in self-confidence. And although Pinero strenuously denied Ibsen's influence, The Second Mrs Tanqueray bears out his comment that there is "one law for men and another for women", demonstrating that while promiscuous men are excused for "living a man's life", women who do the same are marked forever. But Pinero is thankfully free of Shaw's sermonising or Ibsen's coldness. His work is lit up with an amazing human warmth and concern. "If I had only been more merciful," says the virginal Ellean about her young mother-in-law: it's a plea for a more tolerant world in which everyone is given a second chance at happiness.
One of the most heartening developments in recent years has been the critical rehabilitation of the oft-scorned giants of the commercial theatre. Thus Coward has been revealed as an English Chekhov and Rattigan as the supreme explorer of the hidden heart. But neither would have been possible without Pinero, whose surprisingly moving, amazingly theatrical and deeply humane plays still have the power to astonish and delight a 100 years after they first created such a stir.
Stephen Unwin directs 'The Second Mrs Tanqueray' at the Rose Theatre, Kingston (08444 821 556; rosetheatrekingston.org) 27 September to 27 OctoberReuse content