Oscar Wilde's Number One Fan
Lady Windemere's Fan by Oscar Wilde directed by Robert J. Bouffier at the Lyric Stage through March 10
Wit and esprit are usually the first words one hears in conjunction with Oscar Wilde's plays, as if anything beyond that strains his talents. Naturally Wilde's frivolity is not devoid of substance, even though his lazy work habits allegedly kept his best work from ever being recorded. Victorian England's Rococo fop was not loathe to entertain a single meaningful thought--only, perhaps, to express it as such.
"Art is the only serious thing in the world," runs Wilde's aphorism that is most descriptive of this dichotomy. "And the artist is the only person who is never serious." The 'seriousness' of art depends on what art achieves and sometimes what art discusses, but not how it is discussed. According to Wilde, the artist keeps his opinions from growing tedious and burdensome and, when in the role of social critic, he chooses satire and parody for his media rather than belabored disputation.
In one distinct way "Lady Windemere's Fan" does much to complicate this picture. One strain throughout the play ruthlessly satirizes the double standards for sexual activity applied to men versus women, but another takes a genuinely bitter look at the damning effects that even the slightest hint of impropriety could have on one's social viability.
Though scandal and imprisonment for "acts of gross indecency with other male persons" had not yet ruined him and his career, Wilde was already familiar with the cruel custom of ostracism when he wrote this play. The plot alone is a harsh indictment of sanctimonious contemporary values. His character Mrs. Erlynne (Marina Re) is one such outcast. Every high-born man in the city calls on the reputed courtesan, but the courtesy of an invitation to balls and parties is never returned, the honor of which Erlynne desperately wants to regain.
One of the men who befriends Erlynne is Lord Windemere (Jolyon Reese) who even sends her money but for reasons not altogether clear. His prudish young wife (Linda Amendola), fed by rumors and the hard evidence in his accounting books, believes the worst: that not only is he having an affair with Erlynne, but he is supporting her to protect his secret.
In retaliation Lady Windemere finally determines to accept the advances of the society roue, Lord Darlington (Gregory Grene), a man who seems to court wives out of vocation. Gossip, misunderstanding and rather haphazard designations of good and bad all threaten to ruin Lady Windemere's otherwise healthy marriage.
But Wilde attacks the hypocrisy and cruelty by making fun of it. He reduces its centerpiece, namely virtue, to a superficial and ultimately trivial possession by symbolizing it as a fan. Both are dainty, refreshing and highly transferable. Both are so difficult to retain only constant vigliance or compulsive attachment could prevent them from slipping away. Virtue is ephemeral, striking one moment as a gallant display, but in the next instant vanished from sight.
His symbolism draws attention to itself through the play's title, but it becomes something of a joke by being pat and trite, like a Victorian maxim. The upstanding Lord Windemere bestows the fan on his chaste wife as a gift, but when jealousy leads her to rendezvous with Lord Darlington late at night, she leaves it lying on his table. She explicitly forgets it, and virtue, in his chambers.
For Lord Windemere who immediately recognizes it there, the fan signifies lost honor and he demands explanation. Someone must come claim the fan and rescue virtue. Mrs. Erlynne, who, prior to that moment, had done nothing soft-hearted or commendable in her entire life, saves the day. For one crucial moment when honor will most certainly be challenged, Erlynne shows courage. That's Wilde's kind of hero.
A key problem with this production is that half the cast has not picked up on the sense of mirth that overrides the bitterness. It as if we were not watching a comedy at all. Lady Windemere and her suitor Lord Darlington play their unhappiness straight as if she were a trapped maid and he her sentimental savior. The two have such a hard time with Wilde's snappy dialogue that their love affair of miscues is in mortal danger of never getting off the ground.
Amendola in particular takes what seems an immutably comic character, so caught up in her moral strictures she has not sense enough to see her husband's basic good will, and freights Lady Windemere with melancholy. Her lines make her seem flighty and naive, but Amendola spaces them, pausing between delivery so that rather meaningless observations lilt in her mouth with undo contemplation. From her opening scenes with Lord Darlington, one expects a tragic conclusion based simply on Amendola's tone of voice.
She really ought to take lessons from Re, the superb Duchess of Berwick (Marjorie Burren), and the charmingly rakish Cecil (Colin Stokes '96) all of whom play wicked Wilde to the hilt. Each is a marvelous showcase for Wilde's keen observations of petty society cruelties, especially Cecil and his cronies who know how to draw the line only after they have crossed it. Unlike Amendola, they act idle, bored, and in need of distraction. And Burren cuts through her scenes with the impatient airs of someone conniving to fools' detriment. She, too, is flighty but with panache and an ego entirely liberated from its conscience.
Director Robert Bouffier seems perfectly aware of the plays divergent strains but is not quite sure of how to resolve them. Bouncing back and forth between the two moods almost makes one more aware of what Wilde wants to accomplish though so that the lack of unity even highlights, rather than obscures, his purpose.