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High Comedy Or Comedy Of Manners

( Originally Published 1913 )



Illustrated by " Lady Windermere's Fan" By OSCAR WILDE

SURPRISINGLY little has ever been written upon comedy. Freytag, whose work on " The Technique of the Drama," was until recently almost the only one to turn to, ignored comedy completely. As he was a philosophical German, possibly that was providential. In the works of Brander Matthews and William Archer, and in the various collected reviews and criticisms now issued in book form, there are occasional chapters upon this subject ; but the authors all seem to make haste to get away from it as quickly as possible. Even when what they say is clever and interesting, they apparently realize that often their distinctions and definitions, however plausible they may sound, are likely to go to pieces in face of a real comedy on a real stage before a real audience.

The one book upon the subject which is most thorough in treatment and most brilliant in style is George Meredith's " Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit." But Meredith, in all his works and ways, is caviar to the general; and it is the general who need to know about drama. Moreover, this small volume is less valuable than it otherwise would be, because, though published as an essay, it was written as a lecture; and lecture style, being addressed to the ear rather than to the eye, is apt to be artificially heightened, even when the author is not George Meredith.

Comedy is of timely interest, because it is evident that comedic drama of the serious and significant sort is more distinctively the play of the day than tragedy, or the problem play, now somewhat outmoded, or any other dramatic form.

Granville Barker, who is today stimulating advanced thought on the drama in England, considers comedy the play of the moment. " Modern life," he says, " calls for interpretation by comedy; that is, by comedy which shall reflect and clarify, honestly and humorously, the confused life about us." This he calls the normal drama; not the advanced drama, nor the intellectual drama, but the normal play for normal people.

The chief reason why comedy is coming in on the horizon all about us, is because it makes a more intellectual appeal at the moment to the audience in the theater than any other kind of play. True, like all drama, its first and chiefest appeal is to the emotions. In comedy, as in any other kind of play, there must be suspense and tension, which always work upon the feelings. The play that addresses itself to the mind first and most of all, and makes no other appeal, like some of Shaw's stage conversations — well, if it is very brilliant and attractively presented, it may be successful; but it is a doubtful venture, and always will be till human nature is revised and edited into something different from what it is or ever has been.

But the mind can be alert in the theater in a kind of secondary way, the emotions being engaged at the same time; and comedy is the only play that calls out this instantaneous mental quickness and alertness in the audience. And the present-day audience likes to be so stimulated.

The modern audience is different from that of a generation or two ago, or further in the past. It does not think more deeply, for Shakespeare and Molière always demanded thought; but it is sharper, more closely observant, more responsive to the appeal of new, fresh, stimulating ideas, quicker to make deductions and connections, and in every way wider awake while it is in the theater than the audience of an earlier day.

Now modern comedy is subtle, elusive, brightened by a delicate infused satire, which is different from the interpolated comic scene. It has a distinct intellectual trend. It does not make an audience nearly die laughing, like the comedic plays of the past, but it wakes them up. And the modern audience, being capable of thinking quickly and responding instantaneously, likes to be put to the test in the theater.

Tragedy always so tries the soul while the play is going on that the brain never sets to work until after the performance is over; and farce and melodrama never stimulate thought at all.

" Lady Windermere's Fan " is full of illustrations in point. A few lines taken almost at random from Act III will show this appeal to alertness of mind which is so pleasing to the modern audience, and incidentaIly will mark the difference between the brilliant speech that is introduced just because it is brilliant, and the speech that not only scintillates on its own ac-count, but pushes the action of the play along at the same time.

William Archer once said that a witty speech in a play should be like a blossom on a laburnum, instead of like a candle on a Christmas tree. That is, it should grow out of the whole structure and not be put on from outside.

The scene is Lord Darlington's rooms. Five men are smoking and talking. One of them is Cecil Graham, young, smart and irrepressible. Another is Lord Augustus Lorton, familiarly known as Tuppy, not too clever — indeed, rather slow and gullible.

In this passage Tuppy is hit off exactly, and as he is an important character, that helps develop the play. Lord Darlington is outlined also, as a dreamer, a theorist, and something of a sentimentalist.

Lord D. What cynics you fellows are !

Cecil G. What is a cynic?

Lord D. A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

Cecil G. And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market price of any single thing.

Lord D. You always amuse me, Cecil. You talk as if you were a man of experience.

Cecil G. I am.

Lord D. You are far too young!

Cecil G. That is a great error. Experience is a question of instinct about life. I have got it. Tuppy has n't. Experience is the name Tuppy gives to his mistakes. That is all.

One must think alertly to get the points in such rapid colloquy.

Another reason why comedy is the play of the day is that it favors or makes possible the non-ending or indeterminate close the kind of end which, although it completes the dramatic design, does so without finality, thus opening and stimulating the minds of the audience, and giving them something to think of in working out the situation. This also the modern audience enjoys.

Neither tragedy nor farce favors the non-ending close. In the nature of things, they must work themselves out to the very end, leaving no room for speculation.

This play furnishes a good illustration of the indeterminate ending, for though it is most dramatic and exciting, we find that after all it does not violently shake the kaleidoscope of events. Lady Windermere never learns that Mrs. Erlynne is her mother. Lord Windermere never discovers that Lady Windermere was on the point of eloping with Lord Darlington. Mrs. Erlynne does one kind act, but is not permanently reformed, and at the end of the play leaves England forever. No violent or far-reaching changes have taken place. The play is merely a tranche de vie which the audience may observe and interpret as it chooses.

Now experience and observation are apt to show that exciting events often have a queer way of earning to nothing particular in the end. This is why comedy, favoring the non-ending close, is expressive of so much in life and human nature.

Comedy Defined

If comedy, then, is for any reason or to any extent the play of the moment, it is worth while to define it as far as possible and stake out its boundaries.

How does it differ from farce, for example? That is an old, well-debated question. Moreover, how does high or serious comedy differ from tragedy? That inquiry has a newer sound.

It has often been said that comedy deals with the possible, the probable even, the credible, the easily conceivable; and that farce, on the other hand, deals with the impossible, the preposterous, the inconceivable and the incredible. It has been said also that comedy elaborates a situation, even a critical or climactic situation — that it is static, stationary, not dependent upon plot; but that farce must be full of incident, with an elaborate and intricate plot, so that something is happening all the time — as much in fact as can be crowded into the length and breadth of the play. It is usually set forth also that the action in farce must be obvious and so to speak physical, not an affair of mental states.

By way of still another distinction, George Meredith says that comedy causes thoughtful laughter; farce (he doubtless means by implication) causing thought-less laughter.

The trouble with these definitions is, that in the theater, where they should be decisively pointed and emphasized, they are sometimes totally discredited.

But there are a few distinctions that seem absolutely Sound as between comedy and farce. Seldom is anything seen on the stage which tends to blur or efface the following differences:

High or serious comedy must be credible and easily conceivable. It cannot deal with, or use for its material, the preposterous or the fantastic or the in-credible. Obviously, this is not true of romantic comedy, like Shakespeare's " Tempest "; but that is a different form altogether.

However, although comedy must be credible, it is not true that farce must use preposterous material. Farce may choose.

Comedy may or may not be full of incident. Usually good comedy is not crowded with happenings. But it need not necessarily work out a mere situation.

Farce must be full of incident and move briskly. Long-drawn-out farce is conceivable; or, rather, it is a bore. When farce begins to move slowly it at once loses its hold upon the audience.

What should be made very plain is, that comedy may, from beginning to end, do nothing but work out a situation, leaving affairs to all outward seeming exactly as they were at the beginning, and that comedy is the only kind of drama which can thus prolong a situation and yet be intensely absorbing and dramatically effective.

It is clear that tragedy cannot dwell long upon a crisis, for its highest points are a terrible stress and strain upon the emotions. It would be dangerous to sustain a tragic crisis ; in fact, it would be impossible. Human beings cannot endure emotion at the highest point for many moments at a time.

Comedy usually causes thoughtful laughter, but not always. There are often points where the laughter is careless, even in comedy that is all of a kind, never becoming farce for a moment.

Farce always causes thoughtless laughter, stimulating no speculation while the action is going on nor after it comes to an end.

Now, as to the difference between high or serious comedy and tragedy.

When this question is raised, what first comes to mind is the difference in the ending. Tragedy, we say, is drama with a disastrous finale, a heartrending close; while comedy always has a propitious or fortunate or happy ending.

But we know after a moment's thought that the ending is the least significant detail in any play. No drama in all the world was ever tragic merely because it had a calamitous ending. No play was ever comedic merely because it reached a happy issue.

For an extreme example let us take Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler." Suppose that at the end Lovborg returned to Tesman's house, and Thea gave him the notes of his book, and Brack had nothing to threaten Hedda with, and Hedda did not commit suicide; in other words, suppose that the first three acts are left as they were written, and then the fourth and final act is made over so that it avoids disaster — would the play then be comedy? We see at once that it would not. It is a dark play from the outset, the real tragedy being Hedda's marriage to Tesman, which took place before the action begins.

Tragedy is tragic throughout, with a cloud hanging over it from the first curtain. Tragic incidents are observed and commented upon and made to motive the action and color the whole drama, while whatever is comedic is subdued or passed over lightly. The tragedy is in the whole warp and woof of a really tragic play.

This brings us to a point of interest, namely, the difference between a tragic view and a comedic view of the same dramatic material.

Drama is always made out of an action or an incident or a group of incidents in which life is intense and vigorous. This action or these incidents must be segregated as completely as possible without sacrificing the sense of their place in the world; and then they must be shown up and commented upon in a dramatic way and thus made into a play.

If the dramatist looks at these incidents in their social aspect, so as to make us see the faults, the foibles, the eccentricities, the peculiarities, the incongruities, the artificialities, the human imperfections, the foolish conceits and absurdities of the characters, subduing all their severer aspects — then the play is comedy. Comedy is always social; loneliness is in itself tragic.

If, on the other hand, the dramatist treats the same set of incidents in such a way as to bring out their sterner side; if fate is allowed to enter; if there is a stern struggle with conscience and a final surrender to revenge or hatred; if it is made apparent that the misfortunes try the very souls of the dramatis personce; if all views of foibles and peculiarities are brief and no small incidents are shown up in an amusing light — then the play is tragedy. And it usually runs to a disastrous end.

If the ridiculous aspects are made to prevail — and ridiculous happenings do get strangely mixed up with the most strenuous events in life — then the play is farce.

If the incidents are allowed to follow one another as by chance and the characters are made to seem mere victims, without conscience or responsibility, then the play is melodrama.

Thus almost any event, or series of events, which is intense and vital enough to be dramatic material, can be used for almost any kind of play, depending on how the dramatist views it and what aspect of life he insists upon and makes much of. The question of atmosphere (actors know what that means), of how the special phase of life is observed, is what determines the kind of play that is turned out. The material, the mere out-line of events, stripped bare of comment and blown clear of atmosphere, is often much the same, for comedy, for tragedy, or what not. It is the dramatist's concept of the situation that determines the form of the play.

Comedy Illustrated

The material used in " Lady Windermere's Fan " is excellent for illustration of the technical points in high comedy. This play employs the familiar social triangle, the husband, the wife, and some one to come between them and for the moment create disharmony and cause a dramatic conflict.

The events which took place before the play begins, and which are worked into the colloquy as it proceeds, are as follows:

Good Dramatic Material

Twenty years before the first curtain rises, there lived in London a young couple who were not well suited to each other. The husband, we infer from what is said in the play (he does not appear), was Puritanic, stern, uncompromising, possibly what might be called uninteresting, and very British.

The young wife, Margaret, was a brilliant woman, audacious, daring, resourceful, clever to a degree, reckless, with just enough character to repent wrongdoing, but not enough to avoid it. They have one child, a daughter, who, to look forward, becomes the heroine of this play, Lady Windermere.

When this child was less than a year old the reckless young wife disappeared, and it became known that she had fled to the Continent with a lover. " I prefer living in the South," she explained many years afterward. " London is too full of fogs and serious people. Whether the fogs produce the serious people, or the serious people produce the fogs, I don't know; but the whole thing rather gets on my nerves."

To the husband this was an awful calamity. He made no effort to trace her, allowed her to pass out of his life, and seldom mentioned her name. He gave his child into the care of his older sister, who was even sterner and more Puritanic than he. And for whatever reason, he did one thing of doubtful wisdom; he told the child, as she grew up, that her mother died when she was an infant, and that it caused him great pain to speak of her. He gave the child her mother's picture, a miniature, showing a beautiful, sweet-faced young woman with dark hair. Every night before she said her prayers, Margaret kissed this miniature, feeling that her mother's spirit was ever guarding and guiding her.

Her father died before she was fully grown, and she always believed that his heart was broken at the time of her mother's death.

She continued to live with her uncompromising aunt, who, we are given to understand, was even stricter and sterner than she otherwise would have been, in fear that the girl might have inherited some of her mother's traits.

At the age of nineteen, Margaret married a man of rank and fortune, who is devoted to her and makes her very happy. At the time the play opens they bave been married two years and have one child, a son.

In the meantime the mother, the brilliant and reckless woman who fled to the Continent with her lover, has been abandoned by the lover, has tired of the life she has been leading, has paid for her sin, as she said, " again and again," and longs for an opportunity to regain her position in society. This social rehabilitation can only be brought about, she realizes, by a marriage with some man of position and means. She is still youthful and brilliant and beautiful, with, as she plainly intimates, the kind of brains, the kind of wit, the kind of courage, that enables a woman to get back. All she needs is opportunity. She knows, to quote her own words, that there are just as many fools in society as there used to be, and she knows how to manage them.

One day she reads in the papers that her daughter, whom she had abandoned without a pang, and whom she remembers merely as a fright in flannel, had married Lord Windermere. She sees her chance and takes it. Returning to London under the name of Mrs. Erlynne, she tells the whole story to Lord Windermere, and threatens to reveal it to Lady Windermere if he does not help her with his name and his influence to get back into society. In fear that the mother's sin and social disgrace may become known to the daughter, who really would be in danger of being killed with the shame of it all, Lord Windermere is willing to do almost anything, in desperation. It is, in point of fact, a blackmailing scheme, but very cleverly and brilliantly carried out. Mrs. Erlynne, reinforced with the money which Lord Windermere pays her in large installments, takes a house in Mayfair, sets up a carriage, and begins to make her way into society. At the opening of the play this has been going on for six months, and all London is talking of the strange infatuation of Lord Windermere, so unlike anything ever heard of him in all his life before. Lady Windermere hears of it, inevitably, of course — is frantic with jealousy, of course — and the play is ready to begin.

Obviously, this is good material for any kind of play. It not only avoids the hackneyed and the stereotyped, but brings about spontaneously many dramatic scenes and situations, motiving constantly those ironic speeches by means of which the characters dupe and bewilder one another, while they delight the audience. Then it is clear that there will be much inevitable suspense, tension and climactic pressure.

It is not difficult to understand that although we have excellent comedy fashioned out of this plot, almost any other kind of play might be constructed, if the incidents were viewed from a different angle and commented on in a different spirit.

For instance, the materials of tragedy are here. The danger of breaking up a household and wrecking two lives is surely a tragic matter. So then, by taking the serious view of all details from the beginning, by making it clear that the characters are all foredoomed, and by reaching the disastrous ending, which in the play as it stands is so narrowly avoided (such narrow escapes are often made in high comedy), we might easily have tragedy. Only the treatment and the whole view would have to be altered from the first.

As for farce, the materials for that are here too. Imagine, for example, all London society agog because the sedate Lord Windermere, who hitherto has lived above fear and above reproach, is constantly calling upon this brilliant unknown. Imagine Lady Winder-mere frantic over the scandal. Imagine great excitement and commotion, all working up absurdly to a dénouement which discovers that, after all, Mrs. Erlynne is Lord Windermere's mother-in-law! If that were done in the farcical manner, the play might be very good farce; only the whole spirit would have to be different from the beginning.

Then it could be made into a distinctively sex play, which it is not. Comedy is seldom distinctively problematic.

To shape a problem play out of it, all that would be necessary would be to make Lord Windermere fall in love with this brilliant and beautiful woman, so strikingly contrasted with his unsophisticated little wife, to make him infatuated with her, and further more, to make her fall in love with him, so that she is torn asunder between the alternatives of giving up her lover or destroying her daughter's home. Now, if this were adroitly done with intent to make the audience sympathize all round, and not quite know which side it was on or whose part to take, that would be a! problem play.

Finally, it could very easily be treated as melodrama. For, that purpose there should be no sharp insight into character — and there is, in the play as it stands, the finest possible differentiation of character. For melodrama, it should be made to appear that everything happened merely by a series of chances or mischances, till In the end dire disaster descended upon everybody like a bolt out of the blue. It is not difficult to imagine melodramatic treatment.

Comedic Use of the Material

Coming now to the play as it is — high comedy. Hating shown that the material is not treated as tragedy, nor as farce, nor as problem play, nor as melodrama, it remains to show just how it is treated, in order that the result may be such very good comedy as we in effect have.

First, we notice that Lady Windermere, in the play as we have it, is made a distinctly comedic character. That is, she has evident limitations which she ought to break over, certain conceits which she ought to get rid of, and certain illusions which are doing her no good in this queer world in which we all live. She is very sweet, very childlike, very innocent. But there is little moral strength in her sweetness, as indeed she finds out to her own dismay before the play is over; her childlikeness is sometimes nothing better than childishness ; and her innocence is, as Cayley Drummle would say, that least admirable kind of innocence for men and women who have reached maturity, the kind that is based on ignorance.

We observe further that the whole point of the plot is to show that Lady Windermere's character is changed. Beyond that, little happens in the play. Everything else and everybody else is left pretty much unchanged. From the first, all lines tend toward this comedic effect.

One of Lady Windermere's illusions or delusions she is not responsible for - that connected with her mother. Perhaps it was inevitable that she should be made to believe that her mother was dead ; but the cherishing of her mother's miniature, and the delusion that her mother's spirit is her guardian angel, when as a matter of fact her mother abandoned her without a pang, and remembered her always as a fright in flannel — that preposterous delusion, which one hardly knows whether to consider ridiculous or pathetic, might perhaps have been prevented.

But her real weakness is shown in her colloquy with Lord Darlington in the first act. He is much in love with her, and pays her many compliments, and she remonstrates with him.

Lady W. You think I am a Puritan, I suppose. Well, I have something of the Puritan in me. I was brought up like that. I always lived with my father's eldest sister. She was stern to me, but she taught me, what the world is forgetting, the difference between what is right and what is wrong. She allowed of no compromise. I allow none. . . . Nowadays people seem to look on life as a speculation. It is not a speculation. It is a sacrament. Its ideal is love. Its purification is sacrifice.

Lord D. I think life is too complex a thing to be settled by these hard and fast rules.

Lady W. If we had hard and fast rules, we should find life much more simple. . . . Why do you talk so trivially about life?

Lord D. Because I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.

At the close of the act Lord Windermere comes in and asks Lady Windermere to invite Mrs. Erlynne to her birthday party, which is to take place that evening.

Lord W. Won't you help a woman who is trying to get back?

Lady W. No! If a woman really repents, she never wishes to return to the society that has made or seen her ruin.

Whether Lady Windermere is wholly right in such lines as these, or wholly wrong, or partly right and partly wrong, does not for the moment matter. The point to be noted is that she is speaking artificially, insincerely, from the lip only.

At the opening of the fourth act we find Lady Windermere in soliloquy.

Lady W. There is a bitter irony in things, a bitter irony in the way we talk of good and bad women. Oh, what a lesson ! . . . I don't think now that people can be divided into the good and the bad, as though there were two separate races or creations. What are called good women may have terrible things in them, mad moods of recklessness, assertion, jealousy, sin. Bad women, as they are termed, may have in them sorrow, repentance, pity, sacrifice. . . . There is the same world for all of us, and good and evil, sin and innocence, go through it hand in hand. To shut one's eyes to half of life that one may live securely, is as though one blinded oneself that one might walk with more safety in a land of pit and precipice. . . .

She has become more sincere, more honest with herself, less artificial. High comedy has reached one of its most distinctive and effective culminations.

There is a sharp and dramatic antithesis between the two most important women in this play. Lady Windermere is a good woman with the possibility of wrong in her nature, partly because she is not over strong, and partly because she goes about with her head in the clouds. Mrs. Erlynne is what the world calls a bad woman, because at a critical moment in her youth she made the lower choice instead of the higher. But she has the possibility of good in her, since she is always honest with herself and is capable of the utmost self sacrifice and unselfishness. This she proves when, in a crisis involving another's safety and good name, she instantly, without a moment's thought of herself, makes a difficult higher choice and then abides by her impulsive action, though it wrecks all her hopes of " getting back."

The Setting

Before outlining the play in full, we may observe how the atmosphere is created.

It is important to get a distinct impression of the setting of this play, not only because it helps to understand the action as it goes forward, but because it shows just what a stupid, vapid, hard and worldly kind of society Mrs. Erlynne eloped out of twenty years before the play opens. The creation of atmosphere here is absolutely a stroke of genius ; or better still, many adroit strokes of genius.

First should be mentioned Lady Berwick and her ingenuous young daughter, Agatha, who has just come out. Ever since the play first saw the light, twenty years ago, everybody who knows it has laughed over Agatha, who says not one word throughout the play but " Yes, Mamma," ending with the climactic answer which she makes when her mother asks her what she said to the rich Australian's proposal. That answer is, " Yes, Mamma." And somehow, one constantly feels that Agatha is less ingenuous than she appears.

Ii the first act, Agatha comes with her mother to call upon Lady Windermere.

As the Duchess is about to repeat the rumors in society regarding Lord Windermere, she wishes Agatha to he out of hearing. Hence ensues the following colloquy : <> Duchess of B. Agatha, dear!

Agatha. Yes, Mamma.

Duchess of B. Will you go and look over the photo-graph album that I see there?

Agatha. Yes, Mamma.

Duchess of B. Dear girl! She is so fond of photographs of Switzerland. Such a pure taste, I think.

As the gossip proceeds:

Duchess of B. Agatha, dear!

Agatha. Yes, Mamma.

Duchess of B. Will you go out on the terrace and look at the sunset?

Agatha. Yes, Mamma.

Duchess of B. Sweet girl! So devoted to sunsets! Shows such refinement of feeling, does it not? After all, there 's nothing like nature, is there?

Then, at the beginning of the second act :

Duchess of B. Mr. Hopper is very late. You have kept those five dances for him, Agatha?

Agatha. Yes, Mamma.

Duchess of B. The last two dances you must pass on the terrace with Mr. Hopper. (Enter Mr. Hopper.)

Hopper. I should like to dance with Lady Agatha, Duchess.

Duchess of B. Well, I hope she has a dance left. Have you got a dance left, Agatha?

Agatha. Yes, Mamma.

Duchess of B. The next one?

Agatha. Yes, Mamma.

When Agatha and Mr. Hopper come in from the terrace:

Duchess of B. Agatha, dear!

Agatha. Yes, Mamma.

Duchess of B. Did Mr. Hopper definitely —

Agatha. Yes, Mamma.

Duchess of B. And what answer did you give him, dear child?

Agatha. Yes, Mamma.

Duchess of B. My dear one ! You always say the right thing.

Possibly Mrs. Erlynne was disposed of in just such a way by an ambitious mother. If so, it cannot be thought strange that she took her marriage a shade less seriously than if she had been allowed to act and speak like a human being. The mariage de convenance is responsible for a great deal; and it is not indigenous to Europe.

A further atmospheric effect, even more trivial, is created in the second act. The scene is the ball room, and Lady Windermere's birthday party is going on. This is always a difficult kind of scene to manage. In fact, it is said that a ball is as hard to stage as a battle. In this case we see merely the part of the drawing room where the guests are received. The ball room opens out on one side, and an illuminated terrace on the other. By way of hitting off the style of conversation prevalent at a London crush — or a crush anywhere else, for the matter of that — and hitting it off in a half dozen short speeches, taking only two or three minutes of time, could anything be better than this?

Enter Mr. Dumby, furnished with one serviceable remark.

Mr. Dumb y. Good evening, Lady Stutfield. I suppose this will be the last ball of the season.

Lady S. I suppose so, Mr. Dumby. It's been a delightful season, hasn't it?

Mr. Dumby. Quite delightful! Good evening,

Duchess. I suppose this will be the last ball of the season.

Duchess of B. I suppose so, Mr. Dumby. It has been a very dull season, hasn't it?

Mr. Dumby. Dreadfully dull! Dreadfully dull!

Mrs. Cowper-Cowper. Good, evening, Mr. Dumby. I suppose this will be the last ball of the season?

Mr. Dumb y. Oh, I think not. There 'll probably be two more.

At the close of the second act Lord Darlington makes a speech, much more serious than these, which also helps to create the atmosphere. Lady Windermere, observing the attentions which her husband is paying to Mrs. Erlynne, has become frantic with jealousy, and Lord Darlington, who is about to leave London that night, urges her, in one of the most dramatic scenes in the play, to fly with him.

Lord Darlington. You once said you would make no compromise with things. Make none now. Be brave ! Be yourself !

Lady Windermere. I am afraid of being myself. Let me think ! Let me wait ! My husband may return to me.

Lord Darlington. And you would take him back! You are not what I thought you were. You are just the same as every other woman. You would stand any-thing rather than face the censure of a world, whose praise you would despise. In a week you will be driving with this woman in the Park. She will be your constant guest — your dearest friend. You would endure anything rather than break with one blow this monstrous tie. You are right. You have no courage ; none!

By means of these three brief scenes, two of them merely trivial, and the last one very serious, the atmosphere is created. The spectator in the theater some-times speaks of atmosphere artificially, but to the actor of experience and high ideals it is something real and tangible.

Coming now to consider the play more minutely: The name is well chosen. The fan is simply one of the properties, involving from beginning to end occasional important stage business. The best thing about the name is that, besides being truthful and significant, it plainly indicates comedy. Tragedy could not well be built around a fan. And on the whole, a clear indication of the style of the play is desirable, rather than otherwise, in the name.

The date is the time of writing, twenty years ago.

The length of the time of action is from five o'clock one afternoon to half-past one the next afternoon — less than twenty-four hours. In this respect the play is very modern.

There are three stage sets, elaborate and costly.

There are sixteen characters, including two servants. This is economical, remarkably so considering that the London season is on, and the setting of the play is very social. To give an impression of such extensive social life with so few characters is a marked case of skill in overcoming difficulties.

In Act I Lady Windermere and Lord Darlington are discovered in the morning room of Lord Windermere's house. Lord Darlington takes up a fan and admires it. She says, "It is my husband's birthday present to me It has my name on it." He pays her many compliments. She remonstrates with him. Finally he replies with the famous mot d'esprit which is always quoted whenever this play is mentioned :

" I can resist everything except temptation."

Enter the Duchess of Berwick and Agatha. Presently, exit Lord Darlington. The Duchess of Berwick, being a kind friend of Lady Windermere's, rehearses to her the scandal that is rife in London in regard to Lord Windermere.

Duchess of B. It 's quite true, my dear. The whole of London knows it. That 's why I felt it was better to come and talk to you, and advise you to take Winder-mere away at once on a holiday, where he will have something to amuse him, and where you can watch him all day long. I assure you, my dear, that on several occasions after I was first married, I had to pretend to be very ill, and was obliged to drink the most unpleasant mineral waters, merely to get Berwick out of town. Though I am bound to say he never gave away any large sums of money to anybody. He is far too high principled for that.

Lady Windermere is left in great distress of mind. Not knowing what else to do, she goes to her husband's desk and examines his bank book. Finding no record of money paid to Mrs. Erlynne, she gives a sigh of relief. But as she returns the book, she discovers another, which is locked or sealed. She tears off the cover and finds record of many hundreds of pounds paid to Mrs. Erlynne.

Enter Lord Windermere. She accuses him ; he denies that anything is wrong, and then takes this most inopportune moment to beg Lady Windermere to invite Mrs. Erlynne for that evening. She refuses ; and then he himself sends a note.

Lady Windermere. If that woman crosses my thresh-old, I shall strike her across the face with my fan. (Exit.)

Lord Windermere. I dare not tell her who this woman is. The shame would kill her.

This is the only serious act-ending in the play.

Act II takes place the same night, while the birthday party is in progress. Being broken up into fleeting scenes and colloquies, it is difficult to describe.

Enter, first the Duchess of Berwick and Agatha; then the rich Australian, Mr. Hopper ; then Mr. Dumby with his one serviceable remark. There is a brief scene between Lord Augustus Lorton and Lord Windermere, in which Lord Augustus inquires in regard to Mrs. Erlynne's social standing. Lord Windermere makes no comment, except to say that she is coming to the party. Lord Augustus exclaims, " Why didn't you tell me that before? It would have saved me a heap of worry."

Then Mrs. Erlynne makes a striking entrance, looking, as one of the guests maliciously remarks, like an édition de luxe of a wicked French novel, meant for the English market. Lady Windermere drops her fan in agitation. Mrs. Erlynne recovers it, and restores it to her.

This is a great scene, because it is necessary for Mrs. Erlynne to do and say just the right thing, to avoid self consciousness, and to carry everything off quickly, lightly, gracefully, and without effort.

She asks Cecil Graham to introduce her to his aunt, Lady Jedburgh, an elderly dowager; and on being presented, makes one of her most politic speeches.

Mrs. Erlynne. So pleased to meet you, Lady Jedburgh. Your nephew and I are great friends. I am so much interested in his political career. I think he is sure to be a wonderful success. He thinks like a Tory, and talks like a Radical, and that is so important nowadays. He is such a brilliant talker, too. But we all know from whom he inherits that. Lord Allandale was saying to me only yesterday in the Park that Mr. Graham talks almost as well as his aunt.

Then she passes on, observing what a bore it is to be civil to these old dowagers. And we find, before the end of the act, that Lady Jedburgh has invited Mrs. Erlynne to luncheon the next day, to meet the Bishop!

Mrs. Erlynne takes frequent occasion to be seen in confidential conversation with Lord Windermere. Lady Windermere becomes more and more jealous. Lord Windermere tries to find opportunity to speak with her, but she avoids him. Lord Darlington then makes his plea to Lady Windermere to leave London with him that night. She refuses. He bids her good-by, and exits. Then comes a brief scene in which Lord Augustus proposes to Mrs. Erlynne, who puts him off, telling him she will give him her answer next morning. Then follows a scene in which Mrs. Erlynne demands a settlement from Lord Windermere. This, being hard and worldly, is a cue for the next scene, in which Mrs. Erlynne discovers that Lady Windermere has forsaken her home, leaving behind her a letter addressed to Lord Windermere. This letter Mrs. Erlynne opens, and then falls into a soliloquy, which recalls the great climax in " Ghosts."

Mrs. Erlynne. Oh, how terrible ! The same words that twenty years ago I wrote to her father! and how bitterly I have been punished for it! No ; my punishment, my real punishment, is tonight, is now !

Mrs. Erlynne then reports to Lord Windermere that his wife, being very tired, has gone to her room and does not wish to be disturbed. (Exit Lord Winder-mere. . . . Enter Tuppy.)

Mrs. Erlynne. Lord Augustus, listen to me. You are to take Windermere to your club at once and keep him there as long as possible Do you understand?

Lord A. But you said you wished me to keep early hours.

Mrs. Erlynne. Do what I tell you ! Do what I tell you !

Lord A. And my reward?

Mrs. Erlynne. Your reward ! Oh, ask me that tomorrow. But don't let Windermere out of your sight tonight. If you do I will never forgive you. I will never speak to you again. I'll have nothing to do with you. Remember you are to keep Windermere at your club, and don't let him come back tonight. (Exit.)

Lord A. Well, really, I might be her husband al-ready. Positively I might.

This ending is noticeable for two reasons : first, because it is humorous, as a comedy act-ending generally should be, no matter how serious the act as a whole. And then, since it indicates that Mrs. Erlynne intends to follow Lady Windermere and bring her home if possible, it sends the curtain down upon dramatic suspense.

In Act III we find ourselves in Lord Darlington's rooms. Lady Windermere is alone, soliloquizing in a speech so long as to mark the play not distinctly modern. From it we gather that she is irresolute and, above all, terrified. Enter Mrs. Erlynne. Then follows the spiritual climax of the play. Mrs. Erlynne, in an impssioned speech, orders Lady Windermere to return to her home, to her husband, and above all to her child, saying, " If he was harsh to you, you must stay with your child. If he ill-treated you, you must stay with your child. If he abandoned you, your place is with your child." At last Lady Windermere, holding out her hands helplessly, cries, " Take me home ! Take me home ! "

At this point we feel the mysticism so common in the modern play. It is evident that Lady Windermere is conscious of a dim, overshadowing, mysterious influence which she must obey. This strange spell, inexplicable to her, but which the audience knows to be maternal, controls her to the end of the play.

Just as they are about to leave, voices are heard outside. They are both panic struck, but Mrs. Erlynne keeps her head. She bids Lady Windermere hide be-hind the heavy window curtains near the entrance door, so that she can make her escape if opportunity offers. Mrs. Erlynne herself exits into the inner room. The birthday fan is left on the sofa.

Enter Lord Darlington, Lord Windermere, Lord Augustus, Mr. Dumby and Cecil Graham. It develops that Tuppy, obedient to orders, has persuaded Lord Windermere to prolong the evening after the club closed. There are ten or fifteen minutes of the brilliant conversation in which the play abounds, when Cecil Graham, spying the fan, exhibits it to Lord Augustus as rather a joke on their romantic host. Then, when Lord Windermere says he really must be going, Tuppy seeks to detain him by showing the trophy over which they are laughing. Lord Windermere, instantly recognizing the fan, rounds upon Darlington, asking how it came there, demanding an explanation and threatening to search the rooms. Darlington, surmising that Lady Windermere is somewhere concealed, strives excitedly to prevent the search. In the midst of the commotion, Mrs. Erlynne, who has overheard the threat and who fears for Lady Windermere, opens the door and calmly stands before them all. As they start and turn in her direction, Lady Winder-mere slips from behind the curtains and glides from the room.

Mrs. Erlynne (to Lord Windermere). I am afraid I took one of your wife's fans in mistake for my own when I was leaving your house last night. I am so sorry. (Lord Windermere looks at her in contempt. Lord Darlington in mingled astonishment and anger. Lord Augustus turns away.)

The final act is one of the best in modern comedy. Seldom, indeed, after the climaxes are left behind, is the last act brought on with so much dramatic uncertainty. The time is the next day ; the scene, as in the' first act, Lady Windermere's morning room.

It is clear that Lady Windermere must be in fearful doubt as to what happened in Lord Darlington's room after she made her escape. It is equally clear that Lord Windermere must be terrified lest Mrs. Erlynne, in desperation, may reveal herself to her daughter. It is clear, also, that Mrs. Erlynne must be fearful lest Lady Windermere may spoil everything by some hysterical confession to Lord Windermere. So great is the tension that ironic speeches, of a kind rarely found near the end of a play, come thick and fast.

When the curtain rises, Lady Windermere is alone. As Lord Windermere enters she starts in alarm; but he comes in quite as usual, and suggests going down to the country for a rest. Lady Windermere replies that she must see Mrs. Erlynne before leaving town.

Lord Windermere tries to dissuade her, and finally ex-claims, " Margaret, if you knew where Mrs. Erlynne went last night after she left this house, you would not sit in the same room with her."

To the consternation of both, Mrs. Erlynne is announced. Her entrance, as always throughout the play, is dramatic. She comes in unconcernedly, returns the fan, and announces that she is leaving England permanently to live abroad. But she asks as a favor that she may take with her a photograph of Lady Winde-mere and her child.

Lady Windermere exits to find the picture. Then Lord Windermere, exasperated beyond endurance at Mrs. Erlynne's triviality, threatens to tell his wife everything. Mrs. Erlynne begs, even commands him to hold his tongue forever.

Mrs. Erlynne. If I said to you that I cared for her, perhaps loved her even you would sneer at me, wouldn't you?

Lord Windermere. I should feel it was not true. A mother's love means devotion, unselfishness, sacrifice. What could you know of such things?

Then there is a brief interview between the two women alone, in which Lady Windermere cries, " You saved me last night, but I can't let you think that I am going to accept this sacrifice. It is too great. I am going to tell my husband everything. It is my duty."

Mrs. Erlynne pledges her never to reveal the events of the previous evening, and Lady Windermere, mysteriously influenced as before, gives her word, adding the most bitterly ironic speech of all.

" Only once in my life I have forgotten my own mother that was last night. Oh, if I had remembered her, I should not have been so foolish, so wicked."

This brings the play to an end, except for the inevitable comedic tag, especially necessary after an act that has so closely bordered on tragedy.

Lord Augustus comes in for a morning call, starts at sight of Mrs. Erlynne and greets her coldly. Mrs. Erlynne asks him to see her to her carriage, gives him the fatal fan to carry (she has asked to be allowed to keep it) and goes out airily and gracefully.

After a few moments, Lord Augustus returns to make the following preposterous speech:

" Windermere, she has explained everything! (Final consternation of Lord and Lady Windermere.) We all wronged her immensely. It was entirely for my sake she went to Darlington's rooms. Fact is, she wanted to put me out of suspense, and being told I had gone on, followed — naturally — frightened when she heard a lot of men coming in — retired to the other room — I assure you, most gratifying to me, the whole thing. We all behaved brutally to her. She is just the woman for me. Suits me down to the ground. All the condition she makes is that we live out of England.

Comedy well Exemplified

If the description of high comedy or comedy of manners worked out in the opening pages of this chapter is in any degree adequate, then " Lady Windermere's Fan " may fairly be considered to exemplify that rare and difficult species of play. For it elaborates a conceivable situation, treats of social foibles and artificialities, stimulates thought by constantly recurring brilliant lines, and succeeds in completing its dramatic design by means of a non-ending or indeterminate close.

Molière the Model

In taking leave of the subject, it need hardly be said that always, for comedy of manners, Molière is the model. Nothing is more obvious than that pure, unmixed comedy, shading into no other form, is more easily French than English. Our best high comedy traces to "Le Misanthrope " rather than to " Much Ado " or " Twelfth Night." And the reasons are not far to seek.

When Molière wrote " Le Misanthrope," he had not to orient himself anew to get into a more favorable atmosphere. Paris was the only place and the best place for the entire action of his play. Then, Parisians, without any admixture of foreigners or natives from far or near, were quite as inevitably his characters. The salon in Célimène's house was an all sufficient setting for his five acts. Having conceived the misanthrope Alceste, the rational optimist Philinte as his foil, the poetaster Oronte to write the had verses, the brilliant Célimène to keep the school for scandal and be the undoing of her melancholy lover, and a few other characters, among them bores, gossips and tuft-hunters, to create the impression of a lively social world, it was necessary for him to do little more, in rounding his play to completion, than to make them all talk in-terminably. He was not tempted to borrow a plot or any part of one, because the perfectly created situation was, as always in high comedy, the strongest effect he could hope to produce. He wrought the comedic quality into the very warp and woof of the conversation, in-stead of setting it off in detached comic scenes. So the whole play could be unified, polished and finished to a high degree of dramatic perfection.

Shakespeare's courtliest and most elegant comedy is " Much Ado," but the interrupted marriage brings it very close to tragedy, while the comic town watch, so preposterously transplanted from London to Messina, gives it a farcical side. Then Shakespeare, after the fashion of his time, neither kept the play contentedly in England nor strove to perfect its foreign setting, but compromised by making his Spaniards partly and sometimes wholly British. The scenery is both out-doors and indoors — a hall, a street, a garden, a prison and a cathedral. The plot is complicated, the dramatic effects exceedingly varied, the comedic situations few and scattered.

Now Benedick and Beatrice, by themselves, are gloriously comedic, and an Englishman might well challenge a Frenchman to match Benedick's best soliloquies with anything from Molière, or to parallel the love scene of the fourth act, strengthened by its outbursts of generous anger, with anything from all the dramas of France.

But if a Frenchman should criticise the play as being an inconceivable mixture of the English and the Spanish the inventive and the borrowed, prose and verse, tragedy, comedy and farce, it would not seem strange from his point of view.

For high comedy, Molière and not Shakespeare nor any other, is the model.

La Bonne Comédie

Such a play as " Lady Windermere's Fan " might have .been the theme of some of the lines to " La Bonne Comédie," recently written by Austin Dobson.

It lashes the vicious, it laughs at the fool,
And it brings all the prigs and pretenders to school.

Its thrust, like a rapier's, though cutting, is clean,
And it pricks affectation all over the scene.

Its mission is neither to praise nor to blame;
Its weapon is ridicule; Folly, its game.

It clears out the cobwebs, it freshens the air;
And it treads in the steps of its master, Molière !



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