Lady Windermere’s Fan, the first of Wilde’s social comedies, opened on February 20, 1892, in London to lukewarm reviews. A four-act play that employs what are often regarded in drama as cheap tricks—mistaken identity, the lost child restored to the rightful parent, the conversation overheard while hidden, and the romantic triangle—this play ultimately succeeds because it twists the clichés with which it is working. The mistaken identity remains mistaken, the lost child (Lady Windermere) never knows that Mrs. Erlynne is her true mother, and the romantic triangle is really not a romantic triangle, but only appears to be.
The play revolves around Lady Windermere’s twenty-first birthday. Her husband is giving a ball in honor of the occasion. Lady Windermere, trusting and innocent, receives information that “poor, dear Windermere” has been seeing another woman and has apparently set her up in style. At first, Lady Windermere does not believe the reports, but the seed of suspicion has been sown.
Hoping to prove her husband innocent, she goes to his desk and looks into his checkbook, finding nothing untoward. Her mind is relieved, but then she notices a second checkbook, this one locked. She breaks the lock, opens the checkbook, and, to her horror, finds that Windermere has written large and regular checks to Mrs. Erlynne, a woman with a past.
When she confronts her husband with this information, he is horrified that she has broken into his checkbook and defends Mrs. Erlynne, who is, as only Windermere knows, Lady Windermere’s real mother. Not only does he defend this fallen woman, but he insists that Lady Windermere invite her to the birthday ball to give her a chance to regain some of her squandered social stature. When Lady Windermere refuses, Windermere himself delivers an invitation to Mrs. Erlynne. Lady Windermere threatens to strike Mrs. Erlynne with her fan, a birthday gift from Windermere, if she comes to the ball.
In the next scene, the ball is under way. The butler...
(The entire section is 835 words.)