A play by Oscar Wilde
, performed in 1892, the first of his four drawing-room comedies
that culminated with his 1895 masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest
. Two earlier plays had sunk without trace, but now he found his feet with this mixture of social observation and throwaway wit
. It is not remotely as witty as Earnest
, though it contains a number of Oscar's best-known lines:
I can resist everything except temptation.
What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.
Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
I don't think it's a very good play; it's sensationalist
, and contrived. But I suppose for 1892 it was very up-to-date. It involves a Woman with a Past, and infidelity
, and temptation. There is a Good Woman who does a Bad Thing, and a Bad Woman who does a Good Thing, and when they confront each other they get frightfully melodramatic
about it. It's hard to enter into the moral problems: we know that a man having a mistress
was considered an acceptable foible whereas a woman being a mistress was a condemnation beyond hope; but it is hard to understand the precise shade of scandal
that a woman choosing abandonment and divorce for such-and-such a reason would suffer.
So Lady Windermere is the Good Woman, very young and well brought up, with puritan ideals admitting of no exception. She has a baby son and is very happily married. Mrs Erlynne is the Bad Woman, inadmissible to Society because of her Past, more rumoured than known about. What only she and Lord Windermere know is that she is Lady Windermere's mother: not dead but divorced, because she had run off with another man. It broke her husband's heart and he could never hear her name spoken, which is why Lady Windermere and the rest of Society conveniently know nothing more about it, and the stranger Mrs Erlynne can move about safely disguised in her assumed name.
So now she's... blackmailing might be too strong a term... getting large sums of money from Lord Windermere to keep her in a handsome style. What they have in common is love of her daughter, his wife, and an understanding that it would be better to support the mother quietly this way than in any rather more dubious ways she might have available, should her identity become known. But now she wants to be back in Society: for one, it would be convenient to marry a Duchess's brother she is particularly intimate with. To get her noticed in Society it would be useful if Lady Windermere were to welcome her to a ball and accept her as an acquaintance.
Unfortunately Lady Windermere is the last person to learn what everyone else in Society knows about, the strange intimacy between Lord Windermere and Mrs Erlynne, and the sums he is giving her. Naturally everyone else assumes the worst, but he's a man and she's devilish handsome, so they regard it quite cynically and merely pity poor innocent Lady Windermere.
She has a friend in young Lord Darlington, who loves her and tries to hint at the apparent attachment; then the Duchess (in between scheming a match between her taciturn daughter and a rich, vulgar Australian) spells it out for her. Lady Windermere is of course disbelieving, shocked, outraged, and brokenhearted.
Windermere, confronted, denies all, and hamfistedly assures her there is not a syllable of truth in it, but he can't bear to tell her the real truth about her mother, and he insists on her being invited to the ball. His wife swears that if that woman crosses her threshold she will publicly insult her with this fan, a birthday present that morning from her husband.
When it comes to it her courage fails. After much agonising she flees to the house of her friend Darlington, resolved to take up his offer: there will be scandal and divorce and pain, but the alternative is continuing to live the lie with Windermere. As the young woman waits for Darlington to return home, Mrs Erlynne sees the note she left her husband and with horror realises her daughter is about to commit the same tragic mistake she did. She seizes the note and goes to confront Lady Windermere, begging her to return to her husband and child.
They are trapped when Darlington, Windermere, and others return home unexpectedly from their Club. They hide and await a chance to flee. The fan is accidentally left out, revealing Lady Windermere's guilt. At this point Mrs Erlynne steps out, apologising for having mistaken it for her own when she left. This draws all attention to her, now totally condemned in the eyes of all there; while Lady Windermere slips out unobserved.
Their final meeting is full of high sentiment: Lady Windermere can hardly believe that the woman she had condemned could have sacrificed herself for her like this. Mrs Erlynne swears both her and her husband separately to silence; and the happy marriage is restored.