Though English writer Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) was an extremely successful playwright of his era, a century later his body of work was known almost only in the literary histories of his craft. Pinero first rose to prominence in the 1880s with the comedies, farces, and, later, serious dramas he wrote for the London stage, many of which exposed contemporary social ills and attracted not a small degree of scandal as a result.
Arthur Wing Pinero was born into a fairly well-to-do family of Portuguese heritage in London in 1855. Both his grandfather and father were solicitors, or lawyers, and it was expected that he, too, would enter the firm as a young man. As preparation, he began working there when he was just ten. It was a job the young Pinero grew to dislike, and it strengthened his desire to avoid its more permanent chains. An avid theatergoer as a teen, Pinero dreamed instead of a career on the stage. At the age of 15, he enrolled in London's Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution to study elocution. For four years from 1870 to 1874, he trained in stagecraft there; the classes staged their own plays as part of the curriculum, and even made tours of several English cities.
Rejected an Assured Future
In 1874, the 19-year-old Pinero joined the Theatre Royal Company in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was a minor player, appearing in its repertoire of classic and contemporary plays that ranged from Shakespeare to Edward Bulwer Lytton. After a fire gutted the venue, he obtained a similar post, called a "utility actor, " in the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Liverpool, and through his work there came to the attention of an influential name in London theatrical circles, the actor and agent Henry Irving. By this time Pinero had forever quit the law, and with Irving's good word won a role in a London production, which led to a place with the Lyceum Theatre in 1876.
Perhaps realizing his limitations as an actor and foreseeing a more rewarding career on the other side of the curtain, Pinero had begun to write short plays for the stage. These were one-acts, called "curtain-raisers, " and his production, Two Hundred a Year, premiered at London's Globe Theatre on October 6, 1877. Its plot and setting would characterize much of Pinero's later body of work: romantic relationships among well-to-do middle-to upper-class scions of Victorian England. In Two Hundred a Year, the male protagonist needs to find a well-heeled wife to support him; the woman who chooses him, on the other hand, does so because she wishes to have a man at her mercy.
Skewered Hypocrisy of Victorian Era
Over the next few years, until he quit the stage permanently in 1885, Pinero belonged to the ranks of respected London actors-he had departed the Lyceum in 1881 to join the Haymarket Theatre-and devoted much of his spare energy into writing the curtain-raisers and seeing them into production. He often acted in them as well. The staging of one of these early works, Daisy's Escape in September of 1879, was responsible for introducing Pinero to his future wife, Myra Moore, whom he married in 1883. As a playwright, Pinero expressed some decidedly progressive attitudes about women and the difficult burdens that society, religion, and economics placed upon them. His male leads were often overshadowed by intelligent, witty women, and his plot structures usually revolved around a woman who was constrained by the strict morals of the Victorian era and the all-important need to maintain her "respectability." Pinero was also fond of turning the traditional symbols of "decency, " such as the exalted war hero, into comic figures.
Pinero's first full-length comedy, The Squire, was produced at St. James's Theatre in 1881. The male lead, Thorndyke, is a rake who desires to find a woman who will support him; Kate Verity is a liberated character who runs her own farm-a radical means of self-sufficiency for a woman. Their eventual marriage remains a secret to the world. When Kate becomes pregnant, however, a woman claiming to be Thorndyke's wife appears; in the end, the bigamy is but a misunderstanding, and he retains a degree of dignity when it comes to accepting his wife's largesse. The work was the controversy of the London season, however, for Pinero was accused of pilfering its plot from Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd of the previous decade. The scandal worked to The Squire's advantage, though, and the play enjoyed a successful run.
Pinero was soon a popular and critically-acclaimed dramaturge. He often directed many of his own plays, and was known for exhibiting lawyer's attention to detail. A number of his works-The Magistrate (1885), The Schoolmistress (1886), and Dandy Dick (1887) in particular-enjoyed long and successful runs. Like many of his plays during this era, they mirrored a popular form of stagewriting known as the piece bien faite, French for "well-made play." These were usually spirited comedies that relied on a tangled, though decisively resolved, plot structure. The Schoolmistress features a heroine who leads a double life as a proper Victorian woman by day as director of a girls' finishing school, but supports her wastrel husband by working as an actress in the evening. Dandy Dick concerns a man of the cloth who becomes addicted to racetrack gambling. Martin Banham, writing in the International Dictionary of Theatre, singled these plays out as "brilliant examples of their craft … all powered by plots of splendid English dottiness, which gives them a style and eccentric verve that distinguishes them" from their French counterparts.
Pinero credited another English dramatist whose career preceded his own, Tom Robertson, as a much greater influence on his writing than the French comedies. Robertson had introduced more realistic sets and abandoned conventional dramatic devices, such as the soliloquy and the aside, in his successful works, and Pinero carried on these innovations in his own work. He paid homage to Robertson in the 1898 work Trelawny of the "Wells." This and other works featured trademarks of Pinero's style, with their colloquial dialogue and reliance on the talents of a well-rehearsed ensemble, rather than the imposing presence of a well-known star.
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray
Pinero began to move away from the light fare of the piece bien faite around 1889, and evidence of his more serious approach came with the The Profligate, which debuted at London's Garrick Theatre in April of that year. The play featured a corrupt protagonist and charted his sad decline, and though the production ran for a 129 performances it was not considered a success. He enjoyed better luck with The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, which debuted at London's St. James's Theatre in May of 1893. The production ran for 225 performances, and critics started to hail Pinero the best English playwright in two hundred years; the play also made a star of its lead actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell.
The plot of the The Second Mrs. Tanqueray was considered somewhat risqué in its day-Paula Tanqueray's less-than-virtuous past comes to light when her new stepdaughter becomes engaged to one of her former beaus. The revelation shakes her marriage to the well-to-do, respectable George Tanqueray. She faces public disgrace and, in the end, commits suicide; meanwhile, Pinero's male characters face no such censure or scorn as a result of their affairs. Because of the finale, later critics would condemn Pinero-they pointed out that Paula Tanqueray and other heroines always seemed to suffer in the end, accepting punishment for their ways. Other reviewers contended this was the playwright's way of first shocking, then playing into the moral attitudes of the era. Yet in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the critic J. P. Wearing wrote of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and its relevance: "If the play seems tame to modern viewers, it should be remembered that Pinero managed to induce society audiences to watch a play which condemned the hypocrisy of which they were culpable."
These and other mid-career works put Pinero in line with other contemporary dramatists writing for the European stage, such as Henrik Ibsen, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Maurice Maeterlinck. Many of Pinero's works seemed especially comparable to Ibsen, for they dramatized contemporary social ills within their plots. Victorian society's double standard was incriminated by Pinero's pen in other works, including The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith (1895), Iris (1901), Letty (1903), and His House in Order (1906). This latter work is a Rebecca-like tale about a new wife haunted by the reputation of her predecessor, a supposedly good-hearted, virtuous woman; then it is discovered that the first wife had carried on an affair under her husband's nose for years.
Pinero was knighted in 1909-only a few years after his fiftieth birthday-and was an important figure in the London theater world. He served as secretary and provident of the Benevolent Fund for Actors, chaired the Royal General Theatrical Fund, acted as an examiner at his alma mater, which became Birkbeck College and part of the University of London, and sat on the Council of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts for 20 years. During World War I he chaired the First Battalion of the United Arts Rifles of the volunteer Central London Regiment. He found less success with his later plays, however: after the war, popular tastes ran to the vulgar, and his works were suddenly out of step. Pinero died on November 23, 1934, after emergency surgery. His manuscripts and letters are housed in the British Library, the University of Texas at Austin, and several other British and North American repositories.
Further Reading on Arthur Wing Pinero
Contemporary Authors, Volume 153, Gale, 1997.
Dawick, John, Pinero: A Theatrical Life, University Press of Colorado, 1993.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 10: Modern British Dramatists, 1900-1945, Gale, 1982.
Dunkel, Wilbur Dwight, Sir Arthur Pinero; A Critical Biography with Letters, Kennikat Press, 1967.
International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights, St. James Press, 1994.
Lazenby, Walter, Arthur Wing Pinero, Twayne, 1972.