Is it an accident that Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), at one level, offers a playful and mischievous response to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879)? Of the little history I know of either playwright I am yet to come across a close association between the two, but yet the above line of inquiry intrigues me, given the frequent cross-sections at which the two plays meet. This, in a context where the first English version of A Doll’s House premiered in London in 1889, and where Wilde, a dynamo of the literary and social circuits of his day, first publicizes Lady Windermere in 1892.
For a playwright who was also a favourite of the London society circles, Wilde was a first-hand witness to the social and moral frictions and tensions of the milieu of the upper middle class: a class whose theater-goers would now be introduced to and familiarized with what has since been proverbial as “Nora’s Question” in Ibsen’s play: the moral dilemma of a straitjacketed, middle class woman who had been accustomed to find “contentment” in her male-dominant, humdrum marriage to the banker, Trovald Helmer. The play develops in a way where Nora, after a sequence of events, finally unshackles herself from the marriage; and foregoes her domestic commitments by leaving the house, in order to “realize herself” as an individual. The play ends with her walking out to a world that is unknown and challenging; but, by implication, one that is freer and energized with hope.
In many levels, Wilde’s somewhat simplistic comic plot arrangement in Lady Windermer’s Fan seems to parody and unpack the stiff humanistic and moralistic frame Ibsen’s play operates in. Lady Windermere is, at its simplest, a conflict caused by mistaken identity, which is easily reminiscent of the frame of classical comedy. The eponymous Lady Windermere, now two years into her marriage, mistakenly construes that her spouse is secretly engaged in an affair with an older widow of “dubious reputation”, a Mrs. Margaret Eerlynn. The Lady, in turn, is wooed by a Lord Darlington whom she first rejects on moral grounds; but, subsequently thinks better of accepting. A series of convenient coincidences, allowances and prohibitions later, her submission to Darlington is avoided in the last minute through Mrs. Eerlynn’s intervention. The latter urges the Lady to stay with Lord Windermere and not to walk out of her marriage and her child. In the concluding Act, the Lady learns of Mrs. Eerlynn to be her mother, whom she from a young age was made to believe had been dead.
Wilde seems to playfully mock the ease with which Nora Helmer walks out of her settled, middle class marriage life, out into a world where she has no foothold or banister; all, in the name of agency and individual will. Lady Windermere, alike Nora, is indoctrinated courtesy of her socialization through the upper middle class with “principled morals” and a “sense of right and wrong” which are closely hinged to her being a “happy wife”. Under the impression that her husband had had an affair, she chooses to forsake this cherished code — but, not until then. By making things so, Wilde rejects from the root the idea of “morality” as a condition, but evaluates it as a necessary construction that defines one’s desired social and domestic roles. As a play, Lady Windermerer’s Fan dwells heavily on the theme of “morality” — this, for that matter, is a recurrent line in the “society scenes” in both Acts 2 and 3 — but, the play ends with the Lady falling back on the safety net of family and upper middle class stability. The reasons for her “not breaking through”, at this point, are inconsequential; but, in her we find a woman who “almost errs” into recklessness, upon an error of judgment.
In his novel Bluebeard (1987), Kurt Vonnegut, in passing, takes the reader back to the “Problem of Nora”. In the novel, celebrity artist Dan Gregory’s much abused mistress Marilee Kemp tells the young narrator / protagonist Rabo Karabekian as to how the story of Nora walking out of her marriage and domestic is a myth. On what does Nora propose to survive in the world? Who is going to provide her employment? Marilee’s dilemma , being unable to escape the abusive Dan Gregory who otherwise provides for her in materialistic fronts is similar to what, Marilee suggests, Nora must face. The following lines are memorable as they are perceptive in the way they pull down Ibsen’s lofty ideals to the ground:
“Nora didn’t have any skills or education. She disn’t even have money for food and a place to stay… That ending is a fake!… Ibsen just tacked it on so the audience could go home happy. He didn’t have the nerve to tell what really happened, what the whole rest of the play says has to happen… She has to commit suicide — and I mean right away: in front of a streetcar or something before the curtain comes down” (Bluebeard, p. 142-143)
Is Wilde’s then an attempt to balance out with commonsensical and practical caution the zealous idealism the London audience is peddled with by his famed Norwegian contemporary? Witty and charming in the outset, irreverent of upper middle class morality and convention, can the dramatist yet stress on the need for restraint; for, in Lady Windermere’s being held back alone climaxes his parodic rebuttal? I assign no value to the direction in which Wilde takes the contention of “conformity” against “breakaway” in the play, as I don’t see his interest being one moral. Rather, his interest is that of a counterpart who strives to rebut the controversial — yet fanatical — “Solution of Nora” which Ibsen proposes.
Lady Windermere appeals to our interest as being a contentious text at other points too. The mundane quality of the relationship Nora shares with Helmer — a perfect picture where furniture, benefits and appliances go; but one that, nonetheless, leaves an emotional vacuum in Nora — complements with what Lady Windermere is moved to believe is the rut her marriage has fallen into, with Lord Windermere allegedly being in an affair with Mrs. Eerlynn. Another resonance is found in Dr. Rank of A Doll’s House who adds to Nora’s growing confusion with a declaration of love; that, too, at the brink of his own death. In a melodramatic passage of play that almost seems to mock at sensationalized love declarations, Lord Darlington, in Act 2, communicates to Lady Windermere his love for her, in a corner of a drawing room already teemed with party guests. An element of scandal hovers over both plots: in Ibsen’s play, tension builds up concerning a borrowing of money in which Nora finds herself at the mercy of Krogstadt. Similarly, the assumed “scandal” of Lord Windermere courting Mrs. Eerlynn impacts the movement of the plot in Lady Windermere throughout the four Acts. The influence of Mrs. Linde’s presence in Nora’s life, to a certain level, can be seen in parallel to Mrs. Eerlynn’s influence in Lady Windermere finding a last minute reprieve in her name and reputation being saved from disgrace. The Lady had earlier decided to leave her husband under the misconception of his having an affair with Mrs. Eerlynn, and the latter steps in to prevent the Windermere family from disruption.
In the immediate years that predate Lady Windermere’s Fan Wilde had had average success with his two attempts at Tragedy, with The Duchess of Padua and Salome. The latter, in particular, is a powerful dramatic achievement, but one that left Wilde desperately at edge, as it was banned upon being staged. For Wilde, the years 1890-1892 would have been spent in a certain degree of agitation and tension, in spite of the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Dorian Gray, in a way, is akin to a gospel on public morality and society — or, at the least, how Wilde assessed them — and the defense he had to put up in saving his novel from the choler of London’s upper middle class moral police was both strenuous and tiring. These developments which would have taxed Wilde’s own creative energy, temperament and patience are concurrent to Ibsen’s premiering in London with A Doll’s House. The surprise should be if Oscar Wilde did not want to make a fitting repartee.