Pinero: forgotten funnyman of the Victorian theatre

Stephen Unwin explains why he's reviving The Second Mrs Tanqueray

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; 27 September to 27 October

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk