Friday, November 14, 2008

A Good Woman: "Lady Windermere's Fan"

The ancients held that the happiness of men is equal to the happiness of the gods, that it admits of no degree. One wonders if this standard applies to works of art? Is any truly good play just as perfect as any other? Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" would sorely test that notion, for although it is, in its own way perfect, it would also, I have to think, admit of improvement. Let me explain why this play is so satisfying, yet so frustrating.

Read here an extract from the opening dialog of the play, available in full at the Gutenburg Project. Lady Windermere, married a year, in love, and newly a mother, with an acquaintance, Lord Darlington, who has not yet openly revealed that he is madly in love with her:

"Oh, nowadays so many conceited people go about Society pretending to be good, that I think it shows rather a sweet and modest disposition to pretend to be bad. Besides, there is this to be said. If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism."
"Don’t you want the world to take you seriously then, Lord Darlington?"
"No, not the world. Who are the people the world takes seriously? All the dull people one can think of, from the Bishops down to the bores. I should like you to take me very seriously, Lady Windermere, you more than any one else in life."
..."I think we’re very good friends already, Lord Darlington. We can always remain so as long as you don’t -"
"Don’t what?"
"Don’t spoil it by saying extravagant silly things to me. You think I am a Puritan, I suppose? Well, I have something of the Puritan in me. I was brought up like that. I am glad of it. My mother died when I was a mere child. I lived always with Lady Julia, my father’s elder sister, you know. She was stern to me, but she taught me what the world is forgetting, the difference that there is between what is right and what is wrong. She allowed of no compromise. I allow of none."
"My dear Lady Windermere!"
"You look on me as being behind the age. - Well, I am! I should be sorry to be on the same level as an age like this."
"You think the age very bad?"
"Yes. Nowadays people seem to look on life as a speculation. It is not a speculation. It is a sacrament. Its ideal is Love. Its purification is sacrifice."
"Oh, anything is better than being sacrificed!"
"Don’t say that."
"I do say it. I feel it - I know it."

Darlington is a charming wit and we sympathize with his rejection of conventional hypocrisy. As the plot develops, we learn from Darlington that Lord Windermere has been fraternizing with a Mrs. Erlynne, (here as played by Helen Hunt,) a woman of questionable reputation. Darlington, an honorable and not unforthright man suspects that Lady Windermere will find herself betrayed, and makes it clear that he intends to "be there for her" when she needs him. Later that evening, when Mrs. Erlynne mortifies Lady Windermere by showing up as her husband's guest at Lady Windermere's party, Darlington repeats his offer, explicitly and urgently:

Lady Windermere: "Yes. Her coming here is monstrous, unbearable. I know now what you meant to-day at tea-time. Why didn’t you tell me right out? You should have!"
"I couldn’t! A man can’t tell these things about another man! But if I had known he was going to make you ask her here to-night, I think I would have told you. That insult, at any rate, you would have been spared."
"I did not ask her. He insisted on her coming - against my entreaties - against my commands. Oh! the house is tainted for me! I feel that every woman here sneers at me as she dances by with my husband. What have I done to deserve this? I gave him all my life. He took it - used it - spoiled it! I am degraded in my own eyes; and I lack courage - I am a coward!"
"If I know you at all, I know that you can’t live with a man who treats you like this! What sort of life would you have with him? You would feel that he was lying to you every moment of the day. You would feel that the look in his eyes was false, his voice false, his touch false, his passion false. He would come to you when he was weary of others; you would have to comfort him. He would come to you when he was devoted to others; you would have to charm him. You would have to be to him the mask of his real life, the cloak to hide his secret."
"You are right - you are terribly right. But where am I to turn? You said you would be my friend, Lord Darlington. - Tell me, what am I to do? Be my friend now."
"Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship. I love you -"
"No, no!"
"Yes, I love you! You are more to me than anything in the whole world. What does your husband give you? Nothing. Whatever is in him he gives to this wretched woman, whom he has thrust into your society, into your home, to shame you before every one. I offer you my life-"
"Lord Darlington!"
"My life - my whole life. Take it, and do with it what you will. . . . I love you - love you as I have never loved any living thing. From the moment I met you I loved you, loved you blindly, adoringly, madly! You did not know it then - you know it now! Leave this house to-night. I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a great deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely - or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose! Oh, my love, choose."
"I have not the courage."
"Yes; you have the courage. There may be six months of pain, of disgrace even, but when you no longer bear his name, when you bear mine, all will be well. Margaret, my love, my wife that shall be some day - yes, my wife! You know it! What are you now? This woman has the place that belongs by right to you. Oh! go - go out of this house, with head erect, with a smile upon your lips, with courage in your eyes. All London will know why you did it; and who will blame you? No one. If they do, what matter? Wrong? What is wrong? It’s wrong for a man to abandon his wife for a shameless woman. It is wrong for a wife to remain with a man who so dishonours her. You said once you would make no compromise with things. Make none now. Be brave! Be yourself!"
"I am afraid of being myself. Let me think! Let me wait! My husband may return to me."
"And you would take him back! You are not what I thought you were. You are just the same as every other woman. You would stand anything rather than face the censure of a world, whose praise you would despise. In a week you will be driving with this woman in the Park. She will be your constant guest - your dearest friend. You would endure anything rather than break with one blow this monstrous tie. You are right. You have no courage; none!"
"Ah, give me time to think. I cannot answer you now."
"It must be now or not at all."
"Then, not at all!"
"You break my heart!"
"Mine is already broken."
"To-morrow I leave England. This is the last time I shall ever look on you. You will never see me again. For one moment our lives met - our souls touched. They must never meet or touch again. Good-bye, Margaret."

And of course, she breaks our hearts too! How could she not go with this man, this man willing to suffer all to gain her, to face the world's scorn for true love? But herein lies the play. Lady Windermere does not abscond with a man worthy of her love. We are denied the happy ending we expect in the second act. Yet Wilde has a trick up his sleave, a twist of the plot, and he pulls off a happy ending with which we are, in the end, satisfied. Is the satisfaction the same as it would have been had the Lady run off? She does end the play happily. And if all happiness is equal, then we too should be happy. Yet...

Given our modern view of the Victorian virtues, and especially our knowledge as ominpotent spectators in this play, we can imagine an ending to it other than Wilde's which would satisfy us completely. Yet the play's internal logic is sound. The drama works. Wilde is still a dramatic genius. I am not a dramatist, and while I could imagine a great play with a different ending, I could not write it. I do not know if anyone could. But that does not matter. This work stands on its own, and stands up very well. And it contains some of Wilde's best humor, which I will not ruin by telling trying to tell any of it here.

The play is availble in several versions. Scarlet Johansson stars in the most recent remake which goes by the subtitle of the original, "A Good Woman." The BBC television production which is in stock at Netflix is also available in full at YouTube. Here is part one:

Download the text of Lady Windermere's Fan for free at Project Gutenberg.


Mike Erickson said...

I loved this. I felt distressed that things were going to go badly right up to almost the last line. I cannot imagine a better ending. Thank you Ted. I am now an Oscar Wilde fan.

Ted Keer said...

Well, I can't think of a better endorsement than that! I assume you watched the BBC version on YouTube?

I would very strongly recommend specifically the Cate Blanchett/Juliane Moore version of An Ideal Husband. It does actually improve just a bit on Wilde's screenplay. The Reese Witherspoon/Rupert Everett version of The Importance of Being Earnest is also quite good, but Ideal Husband with Blanchett is better.

Mike Erickson said...

Yes, the 1985 TV version. I've already watched "The Ideal Husband" on YouTube as well. I looked up the Cate Blanchett/Juliane Moore version on Anazon, they have the DVD for only $10 but it's region two and has a warning that it will not work on US/Canada DVD players. What's up with that? I'll keep looking. I liked "Ideal Husband" quite a lot but didn't fall for any of the characters like I did for Lady Windermere. Good stuff. Thanks again.