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 announces the guests as they enter. He recites a string of names, at the end of which is Mrs. Erlynne’s, her isolation heightened by the fact that all the names that he recites are those of pairs of titled people, but Mrs. Erlynne is unaccompanied and untitled. Confronted by this scarlet woman, Lady Windermere drops her fan and bows mechanically. When she overhears Mrs. Erlynne asking Windermere for a large sum of money, she flees from the room.
She writes a letter to her husband announcing that she is going to run away with Lord Darlington, a Beau Brummel type who has rooms nearby. Mrs. Erlynne finds the letter and reads it. She rushes to Lord Darlington’s rooms to try to convince her daughter to reconsider, attempting to prevent her from making the sort of mistake that she herself made some years before.
As they talk, they hear voices in the hall, those of Windermere and Lord Darlington. Lady Windermere panics, but the resolute Mrs. Erlynne stashes her behind a curtain so that she will not be discovered. In her haste to hide, Lady Windermere leaves her fan behind. Her husband spots it and demands to know of Darlington what his wife’s fan is doing in Darlington’s quarters.
Mrs. Erlynne makes her self-sacrifice at this point, coming into the room and saying casually that she took the wrong fan at the party. Lady Windermere’s reputation is saved, but at great cost to Mrs. Erlynne. Now it is Lord Windermere’s turn to reject Mrs. Erlynne, whom he presumes has left her fan in Darlington’s drawing room because they are having a liaison.
The next day, it is Lady Windermere who is charitable toward Mrs. Erlynne; Lord Windermere is condemnatory. Yet the day is saved when Mrs. Erlynne comes by to announce that she is leaving London, and that she is going to marry an elderly, titled admirer.
This play is clearly about appearances and about the kinds of moral judgments that Victorian standards encouraged. Its epigrams are spirited, memorable, and...
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