The Magazine

The Ladies Windermere

Two productions, and two separate visions, of early Oscar Wilde.

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By JOHN SIMON
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IT IS INSTRUCTIVE TO COMPARE concurrent productions of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. This was the first of Wilde's four social comedies that climaxed in his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. The two productions are at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre and at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

The play can be better grasped via a revelatory new biography, Neil McKenna's The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, which concentrates on Wilde's hyperactive homosexual activities that previous biographers tended to underplay. Oscar's marriage to the puritanical Constance had started with his infatuation, but soon turned into his physical revulsion, what with his ever-increasing involvement with so-called renters--young male prostitutes--and other youths. Dangerous business, this, in Victorian England, where homosexuality was outlawed and elicited draconian sentences, and renters and their pimps could easily blackmail their clients, knowing that denunciation could land the accuser in jail.

But, as the biography makes clear, part of the excitement for Oscar was what he called "feasting with panthers," the danger, and the mostly unconscious but growing urge to get caught and become a martyr for the homosexual cause. Indeed, Melissa Knox's provocative Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide approaches Wilde from that angle: He could have easily avoided prison by escaping, like so many other homosexuals, to the Continent. In the play, much of which is covert autobiography, boredom with the very proper Constance translated into Lady Windermere's intransigent puritanism, and Oscar's curiously friendly relations with his blackmailers were represented heterosexually as dealings with manipulative women such as Mrs. Erlynne in Fan and Mrs. Cheveley in A Woman of No Importance--all part of an Ovidian deteriora sequor, flirting with the abyss.

What Oscar entitled A Good Woman until his formidable literary mother demanded something more alluring opened in early 1892 London as Lady Windermere's Fan. Already notorious for other writings, Wilde was making his dazzling debut as a dramatist. Never much interested in plot, he considered it a mere sop to the audience. "Art should never be popular," he wrote. "The public should try to make itself artistic." As critics at the time noted, several plot elements were nonchalantly lifted from sundry, mostly French, plays. But the public loved the wit, unaware that, as Peter Raby recently remarked, "this imitation of Englishness is at once parodic and unnervingly accurate, a subtle form of insult."

Lord Arthur and Lady Margaret Windermere have been happily married two years and have a six-month-old son. Lord Darlington, though a rake, is genuinely in love with Margaret; hinting at some dark reason, he urges her to elope with him. As she refuses, he declares he'll leave England for a long time. Enter the Duchess of Berwick and her insipid daughter, Lady Agatha, who never says more than "Yes, mamma." The Duchess, an earlier version of the daunting Lady Bracknell of The Importance of Being Earnest, imparts that Windermere has been seen much with a Mrs. Erlynne, divorcee and demimondaine, apparently giving her large sums of money.

Left alone, Lady Windermere breaks open her husband's secret, locked bankbook, with stubs of hefty checks made out to Mrs. Erlynne. Arthur arrives and asks Margaret to invite Mrs. Erlynne to her twenty-first-birthday ball that evening. Furious, she refuses, and threatens to strike the woman with the diamond-studded fan, her husband's birthday gift, if she should show up. Arthur himself sends the invitation, muttering that he dare not reveal Mrs. E.'s true identity to his wife: "The shame would kill her."

The Windermere marriage is an idealization of the Wilde one. Trouble comes with Arthur's frequentation of Mrs. E., who stands for Oscar's louche involvements with men. Like Constance Wilde, Margaret is a moralistic puritan--women like Mrs. E. "should never be forgiven"--hence her violence against her, and total intolerance for her husband. His anxiety is about the threatened revelation that Mrs. E. is her mother, who did not, as purported, die young, but ran off with a lover. The shame would kill Margaret. Shame, a concept that recurs throughout the play, was also, as McKenna shows, a contemporary code word for clandestine homosexual activity.

Lord Darlington, too, is an Oscar stand-in. When Margaret rebukes him for calling her "a fascinating Puritan," saying "the adjective was unnecessary," he replies, "I couldn't help it. I can resist everything except temptation." A typical Wildean epigram, it is a variation on The Picture of Dorian Gray's "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it." The temptations in Wilde's life, to be sure, were not just for unwelcome compliments.