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Critic Review: Lady Windermere’s Fan, 122 years later

By Anne Manyara


My heart goes out to the Strathmore University drama society for making, as always, such a tremendous effort to put on an Oscar Wilde play.


Lady Windermere’s Fan opened for a run of six shows at Alliance Française on February 20. Incidentally, it premiered in London on the same date in 1892, and was Wilde’s first successful play.


But how does one successfully stage an Oscar Wilde play in a Kenyan theatre? Nick Muthama chooses to adapt it to a Kenyan context. The play is set in Nairobi. The characters are dressed in recognisable costume —Nairobi’s sense of smart, neat and conservative dress.


Lady Erlynne, “the woman with a past” wears a lot of jewellery and a trilby hat that partially covers her face, very much like “that sort of woman” in Nairobi.


Mr Hopper, the Australian, is from Congo in this adaptation, wearing a dazzling shirt, as we tend to stereotype francophone Africans.


The play would definitely appeal to a director who wants to put on a clean, tidy, play and certainly the costume and the set in Muthama’s adaptation are beautiful.


The characters look like a picture out of those soap operas where everyone is rich and beautiful. But to stop at this is to sell Wilde short.


The fan in the title is offered to Lady Windermere by her husband on her coming of age birthday (21), meaning that she is quite a young wife, naïve and new to the ways of the world.


Lord Darlington has been paying compliments to her, but she has so far shunned his affections. But when she is distraught on learning about her husband’s association with a Lady Erlynne, Lord Darlington seizes the opportunity. He professes his love for her and asks her to elope with him that very night.


“Leave this house tonight. I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice or the voice of society. They matter a great deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely, or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose! Oh my love, choose.”

Source of Victorian scandal

And right there, lies the trap and the source of Victorian scandal and gossip.

Today, one may have a friend who divorces and re-marries, or takes off with her lover but does not re-marry, and one gets to hear about it a year after the event. But in Victorian times, this was the sort of scandal that people literally feasted on.


In fact, European 19th century fiction and real life seems crowded with gallivanting (often aristocratic) men going about breaking the hearts and minds of love-starved women.


Lord Byron (1788-1824), who is acclaimed as one of England’s greatest poets — Wilde was very much like him in flamboyance and notoriety — was one such philanderer. He seduced Lady Caroline Lamb, a married woman, making no secret of their affair and then moved on to various other scandalous affairs, once he was done with her. Lady Caroline never recovered from this.


Henry Crawford does the same thing to Maria Bertram in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park(1814) and Radolphe Boulanger to Emma Bovary in Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary(1856).


Lord Darlington therefore represents this type of man — the heartless Casanova. He is also the mouthpiece for the witticisms that Oscar Wilde is so famous for: “The only thing I cannot resist is temptation,” he tells Lady Windermere. And later he tells her, “Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship.”


But much as Darlington comes across as the sly, gallivanting fox that the Victorian audience would recognise, Wilde creates some ambiguity in him. It seems that he genuinely loves Lady Windermere given that in Act III, he is planning to leave town forever as he said he would, when Lady Windermere rejects him.


And what temptation Wilde creates, then, for a Victorian woman! To think that there could be a genuine, honest fox such as Lord Darlington. What fodder for endless fantasy and romantic musings for the Victorian woman caught in a passionless marriage!


But all this is misplaced in the adaptation. In the effort to situate the play in Kenya, Wilde’s aestheticism — and decadence — is lost.


Wilde’s plays are best understood in their Victorian context and to stage one in a Kenyan theatre would require a lot more character study on the part of the director and actors.


Anne Manyara is a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics

This story has been reproduced from The East African. You can access the original posting here.