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The Complete Plays, Page 2

Oscar Wilde

  Briefly, the plot centres on Mrs. Erlynne, a woman with an unfortunate past, who has returned to London after spending many years abroad and is now struggling to get back into Society. She deliberately ruins her reputation in order to save that of her puritanical daughter Lady Windermere, who is unaware that Mrs. Erlynne is her mother, and suspecting that her husband is unfaithful to her, plans to elope with Lord Darlington; fortunately for her she is saved at the crucial moment from taking such a disastrous step. In the play George Alexander, who also produced it, cast himself for the part of Lord Windermere, the other leads being taken by the great Ellen Terry’s sister Marion (Mrs. Erlynne), Lily Hanbury (Lady Windermere), H. H. Vincent (Lord Augustus Lorton), and Nutcombe Gould (Lord Darlington). The smaller part of Mr. Dumby, who has some very good lines, went to Francis Vane Tempest, a first cousin of the then Marquess of Londonderry; he was thus naturally familiar with the social scene which Wilde so cleverly depicts in the witty dialogue, underlined by his ingenious use of paradox, and which he puts into the mouths of his principal characters who represent the English socially élite class of the period. Society with its insuperable barriers against those who had offended against the accepted code of behaviour was something, one feels, Wilde would have liked to discuss in detail in his social comedies, particularly Lady Windermere’s Fan, but he was careful to make sure that the heterodox views expressed by characters like Lord Darlington did not pose a serious threat to the social world which the plays represented. As Mrs. Erlynne remarks to Lord Windermere: ‘Manners before morals.’

  On the first night Wilde responded to shouts of ‘Author! Author!’ by coming on to the stage smoking a cigarette and delivering a short speech. We have his exact words since they were taken down in shorthand by a member of the theatre staff and we know which ones he stressed, being those which are italicised here:

  Ladies and Gentlemen, I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendering 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 myself.

  After the show, Wilde took Robert Ross, Lord Alfred Douglas, and several other young men with whom he was friendly, for supper at Willis’s, a fashionable restaurant near the theatre in King Street, where they discussed the play and its enthusiastic reception by the audience. Wilde told his young friends of the sharp difference of opinion he had had with George Alexander over the timing of the audience being let into the secret of Lady Windermere’s relationship with Mrs. Erlynne. While the author wished that this should not be revealed until the last Act, Alexander felt that ‘for the good of the play’ the audience should know very early in Act II, or at least at the end of it, that Mrs. Erlynne was Lady Windermere’s mother. ‘The interest would be increased by this knowledge,’ Alexander had told Wilde, ‘and Mrs. Erlynne and Lord Windermere would not be in a false position.’

  At first the author stuck to his view. ‘I have built my house on a certain foundation and this foundation cannot be altered,’ he had written to Alexander during rehearsals. And, in fact, the play opened as Wilde had originally written it. Nevertheless, Alexander’s intimate knowledge of what was and what was not ‘good theatre’ very soon prevailed. In the result, after a few nights, Wilde rewrote the dialogue in the second Act in the sense that Alexander wished. Thus the fact that Mrs. Erlynne was Lady Windermere’s mother was hinted at in the first Act and revealed in the second.

  With the notable exception of two of the leading dramatic critics of the day, Clement Scott in The Illustrated London News and A. B. Walkley in The Speaker (later The Nation), the notices were largely hostile. Even Wilde’s brother Willie, who was a journalist in Fleet Street, wrote an unkind critique. However, Oscar dismissed this with good-humoured tolerance. (‘After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.’) Nevertheless the views of the dailies and weeklies like Punch (‘A Wilde “Tag” to a Tame Play’) did not deter the public from flocking in strength to the St. James’s Theatre. One day an acquaintance stopped Wilde in the street and asked him how the play was going. ‘Capitally,’ replied the author. ‘I am told that Royalty is turned away nightly.’

  The play ran until 29 July, which was the end of the London ‘season’, when it went on tour for three months, returning to the St. James’s Theatre on 31 October and finally coming off after a total London run of 156 performances. The receipts from the original production showed how wise the author had been in asking for and getting a percentage of the royalties instead of an outright payment which Alexander had at first suggested. Wilde’s share came to £7,000, a considerable sum in those days when income tax was minimal and the purchasing power of money greatly in excess of what it is now.

  Lady Windermere’s Fan was produced in New York by A. M. Palmer at Palmer’s Theatre, formerly Wallach’s, opening on 6 February 1893, with Maurice Barrymore as Lord Darlington. It had previously been tried out in Boston. But the American notices were generally as unfavourable as the English ones. ‘The newspapers seemed to me not to understand the form or spirit of the work,’ Wilde wrote to an unidentified correspondent at the time, ‘and some of the criticisms seemed to me unnecessarily vulgar, even for newspapers …’ However the play had a good run of several months in New York.

  It has since had a number of scccessful revivals, both in England and America, the first being in London, in November 1904, at the St. James’s Theatre, where it had been originally produced twelve years earlier. Marion Terry and Francis Vane Tempest played the same parts as they had in the original production; otherwise the principal characters were newcomers, Aubrey Smith (Lord Darlington), Lilian Braithwaite (Mrs. Erlynne), Ben Webster (Lord Windermere), and Sydney Brough (Lord Augustus Lorton). ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan is a classic assuredly,’ wrote the author’s old friend Max Beerbohm with prophetic insight in the Saturday Review:

  As time goes on, those artificialities of incident and characterisation (irritating to us now because we are in point of time so near to this play that we cannot discount them) will have ceased to matter. And no lapse of time will dim the lustre of that wit which won the play so much enthusiasm last Saturday [9 November]. One may note, by the way, that the critics have doffed the glory with which, twelve years ago, they covered themselves by declaring that the author’s wit was not genuine wit, but merely a mechanical trick which anyone could master. Perhaps they have been experimenting in the interval.

  Of the subsequent revivals in London, by far the longest was shortly after the end of World War II when it opened at the Haymarket on 21 August 1945 and ran for 602 performances, an all-time record for a Wilde play. In New York the revivals were brilliantly pioneered by Margaret Anglin, who produced it at the Hudson Theatre on 30 March 1914. In 1949 a film of the play entitled The Fan was made in Hollywood by Twentieth Century-Fox from a script by Dorothy Parker, Ross Evans, and Walter Reisch. Ronald Colman starred as Lord Darlington. In June 1954, a musical version by Noël Coward, After the Ball, was staged at the Globe Theatre in London.1

  Finding his Chelsea house in Tite Street, in spite of a comfortable study on the ground floor, too distracting for work with constant interruptions by his two growing children, Wilde took rooms in a private hotel in St. James’s Place, off St. James’s Street, as he needed peace and quiet to concentrate on the new play he had in mind. Although he did not find the perfect conditions for work there which he had envisaged, due to his baleful young friend Alfred Douglas’s frequent calls on his time, nevertheless he succeeded in completing it in a little over two months, between the latter part of November 1893 and the end of February 1894. The play was An Ideal Husband, which the author provisionally entitled Mrs. Cheveley as a precaution against any premature announcement in the press of its production. Wilde had expressly written it for the actor-manager John Hare, for whom the Garrick Theatre had been built by W. S. Gilbert, the librettist of the Gilbert and Sull
ivan comic operas. However, when he received the final script, Hare turned it down on the ground that the last act was unsatisfactory, since he thought it had too many entrances and exits. Wilde now offered it to another actor-manager, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Max Beerbohm’s half-brother, who had produced another of Wilde’s plays (A Woman of No Importance) at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in the previous year. Tree liked the new play when he read it, but he explained to the author that he could neither produce it nor act in it himself, as he had arranged an American tour for the 1895 season and during his absence he was handing over the running of the theatre to Lewis Waller, the well-known Shakespearean actor, and to H. H. Morrell. But he gladly recommended it to Waller and Morrell with the result that they agreed to produce it as the first play in the new season and to open as soon as possible after Christmas.

  Accordingly it went into rehearsal in the second half of December, with Lewis Waller as Sir Robert Chiltern, Charles Hawtrey as Lord Goring, Julia Neilson as Lady Chiltern, and Florence West as Mrs. Cheveley. Charles Brookfield, who had written a rather spiteful skit on Lady Windermere’s Fan, entitled The Poet and the Puppets, in which Hawtrey burlesqued Wilde as ‘The Poet’, accepted the small part of Lord Goring’s servant Phipps without any apparent objection on Wilde’s part.2 Nor did Wilde object to Hawtrey playing the major role of Lord Goring, in spite of the burlesque.

  Much to the annoyance of the actors and actresses, Wilde insisted on having a rehearsal on Christmas Day, and they were further incensed when the author kept them standing about the cold stage for an hour before he condescended to appear. Brookfield alone was moved to protest.

  ‘Don’t you keep Christmas, Oscar?’ he asked.

  ‘No, Brookfield,’ Wilde replied blandly. ‘The only festival of the Church I keep is Septuagesima. Do you keep Septuagesima, Brookfield?’

  ‘Not since I was a boy.’

  ‘Ah, be a boy again!’

  An Ideal Husband opened at the Haymarket Theatre on 3 January 1895 and was an immediate success. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, occupied the Royal Box on the opening night and sent for Wilde after the final curtain to congratulate him. The flattered author remarked that he would have to cut some of the scenes, as the performance was too long. But the Prince would not hear of this. ‘Pray do not take out a single word,’ he said. It was a command which Wilde was only too pleased to obey.

  The play showed a considerable advance in construction and characterisation, compared with the author’s two previous comedies, in spite of the weak fourth Act, and it foreshadowed the satirical nonsense of Wilde’s next and most famous play The Importance of Being Earnest. The critics also received it kindly. ‘In a certain sense Mr. Wilde is to me our only thorough playwright,’ wrote Bernard Shaw in the Saturday Review. ‘He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audiences, with the whole theatre.’ The plot, which Wilde later admitted he had taken from one of the comedies of the popular French playwright Victorien Sardou, revolved round the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Sir Robert Chiltern, who had once sold a Cabinet secret to the representative of a foreign power. Mrs. Cheveley, who is anxious for Chiltern to promote a commercial scheme of dubious quality, at one point threatens to expose him publicly unless he helps to get the scheme through the House of Commons. ‘Scandals used to lend charm, or at least interest, to a man – now they crush him. And yours is a very nasty scandal,’ she tells him à propos his disclosure of the Cabinet secret. ‘You couldn’t survive it.’

  ‘It reads rather well,’ Wilde aptly noted when he was correcting the proofs of the play for publication some years later, ‘and some of its passages seem prophetic of tragedies to come.’ This passage was undoubtedly one of them.

  An Ideal Husband ran for III performances at the Haymarket, finishing on 6 April 1895. This was the day following Wilde’s arrest, but that fact had nothing to do with the play’s withdrawal which had been announced some time previously, before the news of the scandal broke, since the theatre was required for the revival of another play which Tree had promised should be done. Wilde’s play was then transferred to the Criterion, which was under Charles Wyndham’s management, but owing to the scandal of the Queensberry trial and Wilde’s arrest on the same day as Queensberry was acquitted on the charge of having criminally libelled Wilde, it only ran at the Criterion for a fortnight, when it was finally taken off. It had a similarly short run at the Lyceum Theatre in New York, in spite of the fact that the management there decided to remove the author’s name from the playbills and programmes.

  The play was not published in book form until July 1899, under the dubious imprint of Leonard Smithers, who had already published Wilde’s poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol and who was the only English publisher who dared to bring out anything by Wilde at this period. As with The Ballad Wilde’s name did not appear on the title page, the work being stated to be ‘by the author of Lady Windermere’s Fan’. It was dedicated to Wilde’s friend Frank Harris as ‘a slight Tribute to his Power and Distinction as an Artist’ and ‘his Chivalry and Nobility as a Friend’.3 Incidentally the publisher’s reputation was not enhanced by the knowledge, fairly general at the time, that he ran a profitable sideline in pornography in addition to his publishing business.

  ‘I do not know if you know Smithers,’ Wilde wrote to his friend Reggie Turner from Dieppe shortly after he had been released from prison.

  He is usually in a large straw hat, has a blue tie delicately fastened with a diamond brooch of the impurest water, or perhaps wine, as he never touches water – it goes to his head at once. His face, clean shaven as befits a priest who serves at the altar whose God is literature, is wasted and pale, not with poetry but with poets, who, he says, have wrecked his life by insisting on publishing with him. He loves first editions, especially of women – little girls are his passion – he is the most learned erotomaniac in Europe. He is also a delightful companion, and a dear fellow, very kind to me.

  Although it is considered by some literary critics to be Wilde’s least successful play,4 An Ideal Husband has been revived on a number of occasions, notably by George Alexander at the St. James’s Theatre in May 1914, but the most successful was during World War II at the Westminster Theatre where it opened on 16 November 1943 and ran for 266 performances. After the war, in 1947, it was produced as a technicolour film by Sir Alexander Korda, with Paulette Goddard and Michael Wilding starring as Mrs. Cheveley and Lord Goring, Hugh Williams as Sir Robert Chiltern, Diana Wynyard as Lady Chiltern, Aubrey Smith as the Earl of Caversham, Glynis Johns as Mabel Chiltern, Constance Collier as Lady Markby, and Christine Norden as Mrs. Marchmont. Vincent Korda’s sets and Cecil Beaton’s costumes were beautiful but wildly extravagant, the costumes alone, according to Vincent’s son Michael, being ‘enough to finance a small movie’. Altogether the production was most lavish but proved to be an expensive flop.5

  An Ideal Husband was still running at the Haymarket when The Importance of Being Earnest opened spectacularly at the St. James’s Theatre on 14 February 1895, with the two male leads being taken by the producer George Alexander (John Worthing) and Allan Aynesworth (Algernon Moncrieff). The play was subtitled ‘A Trivial Comedy for Serious People’, having been written (as the author told a friend) ‘by a butterfly for butterflies’. It had been dashed off in the previous summer when Wilde was staying at the Sussex seaside resort of Worthing, where he had taken a house with his wife and two young sons. ‘I remember the time very well,’ his younger son Vyvyan was later to recall. ‘He spent the morning writing, but most of the afternoons on the beach playing with us.’

  The author had submitted the scenario to George Alexander in August 1894, and asked for an advance of £150. ‘I am so pressed for money that I don’t know what to do,’ he had written to Alexander at the same time. ‘Of course I am extravagant. You have always been a good wise friend to me, so think what you can do.’ Shortly afterwards he had gone up to London for the day and lunched at the Ga
rrick Club with Alexander, who gave him some money, probably what he had asked for, although the exact amount is not stated. Anyhow he now had enough to pay the rent of the holiday house and Cyril’s school fees. ‘I dare not lodge the money in the bank, as I have overdrawn £40,’ he told Douglas, ‘but I think of hiding gold in the garden.’ Towards the end of October he again wrote to Alexander:

  As you wished to see my somewhat farcical comedy, I send you the first copy of it. It is called Lady Lancing on the cover: but the real title is The Importance of Being Earnest. When you read the play, you will see the title’s punning meaning. Of course the play is not suitable to you at all: you are a romantic actor; the people it wants are actors like Wyndham and Hawtrey … But, of course, read it, and let me know what you think about it. I have very good offers from America for it.

  At first Alexander was not attracted by the play as he had been by Lady Windermere’s Fan, nor was he convinced about the good offers from America which Wilde had stressed in his letter. Hence he took the author’s hint and sent it to Charles Wyndham, the actor-manager and lessee of the Criterion Theatre. However, two months later, in January 1895, two things caused Alexander to change his mind. First, he was impressed by the opening success of An Ideal Husband at the Haymarket. Secondly, he had agreed to put on Henry James’s play Guy Domville at the St. James’s Theatre, and in the event the production had opened disastrously, the author and the actor-manager, who played the name part, both being hissed off the stage on the first night. Alexander kept the James play on for a month, losing nearly £2,000 by doing so, until he realised that he was going to have to put on another production to retrieve the unfortunate failure. Remembering Wilde’s play, he asked Wyndham to let him have it back. Wyndham agreed subject to one condition, that Wilde should write another play for him before writing another for Alexander. This condition was quite acceptable to Alexander. But there was a further difficulty. As originally written The Importance of Being Earnest consisted of four fairly lengthy Acts, which Alexander considered would make the whole too long, if the play was to be preceded by a ‘curtain raiser’, the short piece which was customary in those days.