The following analysis of Lady Windermere's Fan was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 55-58.
As the form of the play, its wit, its decoration, its pattern "were of more importance to Wilde than the theme or the characters," we may expect that this "play about a good woman" is more a clever excuse for an effective piece of drama and a good deal of verbal pyrotechnics than a sympathetic study of the protagonist. The play has stood the test of time, because it is a good story -- in spite of its flagrant shortcomings -- so that there is no need of discussing its sincerity of purpose.
The first act -- in the earlier version -- ends with the following speech of Lord Windermere:
(Calling after her.) Margaret! Margaret! (A pause) My God! What shall I do? I dare not tell her who this woman really is. The shame would kill her. (Sinks down into a chair and buries his face in his hands.)
In later editions the speech is altered to:
My God! What shall I do? I dare not tell her that this woman is her mother!
Why was the change made? How does it affect the attitude of the audience in the succeeding acts?
It is perhaps unjust to criticise this play as a serious comment on life, one in which we must believe and feel for the characters, yet some of the more important weak points must not be left unnoticed. Some pages from the end of the first act, Lady Windermere speaks the following lines:
How horrible! I understand now what Lord Darlington meant by the imaginary instance of the couple not two years married. Oh! It can't be true -- she spoke of enormous sums of money paid to this woman. I know where Arthur keeps his bank book -- in one of the drawers of that desk. I might find out by that. I will find out. (Opens drawer.) No, it is some hideous mistake. (Rises and goes C.) Some silly scandal. He loves me! He loves me! But why should I not look? I am his wife. I have a right to look! (Returns to bureau, takes out book and examines it, page by page, smiles and gives a sigh of relief.) I knew it, there is not a word of truth in this stupid story. (Puts book back in drawer. As she does so, starts and takes out another book.) A second book -- private -- locked! (Tries to open it, but fails. Sees paper knife on bureau, and with it cuts cover from book. Begins to start at the first page.) Mrs. Erlynne -- 600 -- Mrs. Erlynne -- 700 -- Mrs. Erlynne -- 400. Oh! it is true! it is true! How horrible! (Throws book on floor.)
(Enter Lord Windermere, C.)
The dramatic effect is too easily achieved, it is too obvious, and in consequence a little discrimination will prevent our believing what we see. The improbability of the situation is too apparent. Further, Lord Windermere's giving Mrs. Erlynne the money, his poor excuse that "the shame would kill her" (Lady Windermere) are insufficient motives. Had Wilde really cared to make his audience believe, he would not have made as the basis of the rest of the play so insecure a foundation. But he was concerned chiefly with externals; he knew that he was telling an intersting, if improbable story, he had numerous choice epigrams and some effective dramatic material for the ensuing acts -- and besides, had Lord Windermere told Lady Windermere the truth, there would have been no play!
The fundamental mistake just pointed out in the first act weakens the ensuing action, and Lord Windermere's secret results in his wife's attempted elopement with Lord Darlington. There is no need multiplying the instances of the like, for as the plot proceeds, the weak motivation becomes more and more apparent. By the time the "big" scene comes, with its heavy tirade, we doubt the sincerity of the characters. The "Believe what you choose about me" speech in the third act fails to ring true.
Wilde's skill in preparing for an effective scene [may be] observed in Salomé. In The Importance of Being Earnest there is an even better example. What instances are there in the present play?
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