Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan garnered much popular and critical controversy on its debut at the St. James Theatre in February 20, 1892. The audience was filled to capacity with the literary stars of the time: Frank Harris, Henry James, actress Lillie Langtry, and a host of critics.

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However, according to Vyvyan Holland in the introduction to The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Wilde caused a furor of resentment when he came onto the stage with a cigarette in his gloved hand and his signature green carnation in his lapel and told the audience,

Ladies and Gentlemen. I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendition of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do.

The reviews the next morning focused on the playwright’s impertinence. Beckson states that Clement Scott accused Wilde of ‘‘condescension’’ and trying to ‘‘take greater liberties with the public than any author who ha[d] ever preceded [him] in history.’’

In an interview, Wilde took full responsibility for deviating from the expected humility of the author: ‘‘I have altered all that. The artist cannot be degraded into the servant of the public: humility is for the hypocrite, modesty for the incompetent. Assertion is at once the duty and the privilege of the artist.’’

The play ran for five months, then made a tour of the provinces and returned to London for another successful run. Although Henry James called the performance ‘‘infantine . . . both in subject and form,’’ George Bernard Shaw, who had not yet made his name in theater, admired it.

Beckson declares that A. B. Walkley maintained that the ‘‘plot is always thin,’’ that it is ‘‘full of . . . glaring faults’’ but was nevertheless a ‘‘good’’ play. Those who enjoyed the plethora of witty epigrams compared Wilde to Congreve and Sheridan, even though, in Wilde’s play, ‘‘all the men talk like Mr. Oscar Wilde.’’

The play was produced a year later in New York City by Maurice Barrymore, but Wilde was not happy with the production because Lord Darlington was presented as a villain—not as a person intent on saving Lady Windermere from an unfaithful husband. The New York production ran for several successful months.

More recent critics have explored gender issues relating to Wilde’s homosexuality. Only recently Wilde’s plays have been treated as separate from his personal life.

The deconstructionist view (of the 1970s and 1980s) perceived an inversion of the Victorian melodramatic conventions. Others have focused on the possible influences on his work.

Lady Windermere’s Fan, with its somewhat outdated concern for the errant mother and its staging requirements (actors capable of sophisticated social banter and elaborate costumes and sets), is not often produced today. It is viewed as a period piece.

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