Many scholars consider The Second Mrs. Tanqueray to be the first truly modern English play. Presenting a genuine social problem, this drama pictures people as they are in terms of their social prejudices and the difficulties arising from those biases. Other contributions that this play made to realistic English drama are the dramatist’s use of the names of actual places in London and Surrey, the story’s logically motivated action, and the exactness of the stage directions and descriptions of sets.
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray is one of the best examples in theatrical history of a play whose production was timely. Had it been written a few years earlier, it is doubtful that it would have gained a production or, if it had, that it would have met with anything but hostility and commercial failure. Presented even a few years later, after the early works of George Bernard Shaw and his realistic contemporaries, it is unlikely that its iconoclasm would have set it apart or that it would have enjoyed the instant masterpiece status accorded it by many of the best critics. In 1893, some of the Victorian moral rigidity began to give way to the more casual Edwardian lifestyle, and the influence of the new Continental theater was first being felt. The moment was ripe for a play that challenged Victorian social and moral postures but did not, finally, repudiate those attitudes and values.
Critics who have written about the play at some remove from the propitious time of its arrival, however, have been harsher in their appraisals. The most serious shortcoming of the play is that, seen from a modern perspective, it is too serious for a conventional well-made play but still lacks true depth because Pinero fails to pursue the moral and psychological implications of the characters and situations to their logical conclusions. In other words, Pinero has the material for a potentially important serious play, but, for reasons of personal taste or commercial...
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