Thursday, March 21, 2013

Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde, Austin Playhouse, March 15 - April 7, 2013

Austin Live Theatre reviewLady Winderemere's Fan Oscar Wilde Austin Playhouse TX

by Michael Meigs

Oscar Wilde wrote and proclaimed almost to tedious extent about aestheticism in his early career as writer, lecturer and journalist, and he was so well known for his extravagance and opinions that Gilbert & Sullivan had caricatured him in their 1881 operetta Patience. Wilde wrote a couple of dramatic tragedies in the 1880s that came to nothing, and in 1891 he wrote Salomé, in French. The Lord Chamberlain put a stop to Sara Bernhardt's plan to stage in London on the grounds that Biblical characters should not be depicted onstage.

In summer of 1891 on holiday in the north country Wilde sat down and produced the first of four society plays that were produced in London in the first half of the 1890's. Lady Windermere's Fan was the first of these, and it was a huge success, almost certainly because he endowed his characters with the wit, epigrams and repartee for which he himself was famous. These are scenes and domestic dilemmas of the idle rich, most of whom produce nothing but words. Wilde gleefully undermines the very society that lionized him. His stereotypes as are vivid as those who later populated P.G. Wodehouse's novels and they're equally, mindlessly devoted to their status quo as the 1%, but any one of them would serve as a charming dinner companion for a whole evening.

Lady Windermere's Fan Austin Playhouse Oscar Wilde

The structure of Lady Windermere's Fan is that of the "well-made play" typical of 19th century drama, in which a a dramatic plot is driven by secrets that are described and gradually brought to light, often through the device of a letter or object that reveals hidden information. This is a plot turn as old as the theatre itself, of course, and no doubt those London audiences in evening clothes were agreeably pleased when the sweet young Lady Windermere's fan, a present from her husband of two years, turns up in the private quarters of the sleekly caddish Lord Darlington. 

 Wilde artfully turns the discovery into an opportunity for the outsider, Mrs. Erling of dubious past, to intervene and cover for the ingénue. His clever turn is that the play does not end in the expected revelation; instead, there are two mirrored secrets that are successfully covered up and an identity that is revealed to the audience but not to the character most closely concerned by it.

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