Oscar Wilde‘s four-act comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Play About a Good Woman is first produced on February 22, 1892 at the St. James’s Theatre in London. The play is first published in 1893. Like many of Wilde’s comedies, it bitingly satirizes the morals of society.
The story concerns Lady Windermere, who suspects that her husband is having an affair with another woman. She confronts him with it but although he denies it, he invites the other woman, Mrs. Erlynne, to his wife’s birthday ball. Angered by her husband’s supposed unfaithfulness, Lady Windermere decides to leave her husband for another lover. After discovering what has transpired, Mrs. Erlynne follows Lady Windermere and attempts to persuade her to return to her husband and in the course of this, Mrs. Erlynne is discovered in a compromising position. It is then revealed Mrs. Erlynne is Lady Windermere’s mother, who abandoned her family twenty years before the time the play is set. Mrs. Erlynne sacrifices herself and her reputation to save her daughter’s marriage.
By the summer of 1891 Wilde has already written three plays, Vera; or, The Nihilists and The Duchess of Padua find little success, and Salome is censored. Unperturbed, he decides to write another play but turns from tragedy to comedy. He goes to the Lake District in the north of England, where he stays with a friend and later meets Robert Ross. Numerous characters in the play appear to draw their names from the north of England: Lady Windermere from the lake and nearby town Windermere (though Wilde had used “Windermere” earlier in Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime), the Duchess of Berwick from Berwick-upon-Tweed, Lord Darlington from Darlington. Wilde begins writing the play at the prodding of Sir George Alexander, the actor manager of St. James’s Theatre. The play is finished by October 1891. Alexander likes the play, and offers him an advance of £1,000 for it. Wilde, impressed by his confidence, opts to take a percentage instead, from which he earns £7,000 in the first year alone.
Alexander is a meticulous manager and he and Wilde begin exhaustive revisions and rehearsals of the play. Both are talented artists with strong ideas about their art. Wilde, for instance, emphasises attention to aesthetic minutiae rather than realism. He resists Alexander’s suggested broad stage movements, quipping that “Details are of no importance in life, but in art details are vital.” These continue after the opening night, when at the suggestion of both friends and Alexander, Wilde makes changes to reveal Mrs. Erylnne’s relationship with Lady Windermere gradually throughout the play, rather than reserving the secret for the final act. Despite these artistic differences, both are professional and their collaboration is a fruitful one.