In 1892, Oscar Wilde was near the peak of his fame.
He had already gained international renown as a poet, essayist and wit. His novel The Picture of Dorian Gray — first serialized in Lippincott’s Magazine 1890, then published in book form in 1891 — was highly popular.
Then, in 1892, he enjoyed his first major success as a playwright with the production of his Victorian-era comedy of manners Lady Windermere’s Fan. (The full original title is Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play about a Good Woman.)
The play opened at St. James’s Theatre in London on February 20, 1892, where it ran to packed houses through the end of July. Some books and websites give the date February 22, 1892 for the premiere, but the majority — and the most authoritative sources — say the play opened on February 20.
Lady Windermere’s Fan has continued to be performed on stages throughout the world ever since.
The first movie adaptation was a silent film produced in England in 1916. In 1925, a more widely-seen silent film version was released, starring Ronald Colman and May McAvoy and directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
In 1949, Otto Preminger produced and directed an updated film version, titled The Fan. It starred Jeanne Crain and George Sanders. One of the scriptwriters was Dorothy Parker.
Noel Coward created a musical version of the play in 1954, which he titled After the Ball.
The BBC produced two Masterpiece Theatre-style adaptations for television, one in 1972 and another in 1985.
The most recent film based on Wilde’s play was made in 2004. Titled A Good Woman, it stars Scarlett Johansson as Meg Windermere. (Thanks to my fellow quote aficionado Dr. Mardy Grothe for bringing that excellent adaptation to my attention.)
Even if you’ve never seen any version of Lady Windermere’s Fan, you probably know some of the oft-cited lines from it that are included in many books of quotations.
In Act I, the character Lord Darlington makes the famed quip: “I can resist everything except temptation.”
In Act III, Lord Darlington says the sardonic line: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” (My favorite reference to that line is in the 1981 song “Message of Love” by The Pretenders, in which Chrissie Hynde sings: “We are all of us in the gutter / But some of us are looking at the stars.”)
Also in Act III, the character Mr. Dumby utters the oft-quoted bit of wisdom: “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”
An exchange shortly after that between the character Cecil Graham and Lord Darlington is the origin of the now proverbial definition of a cynic:
GRAHAM: “What is a cynic?”
DARLINGTON: “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
A few year’s after the success of Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde’s fortunes took a dramatic downturn.
He was imprisoned for violating England’s puritanical laws against homosexuality (which Wilde’s lover Alfred Douglas famously called “the love that dare not speak its name” in his 1894 poem “Two Loves”).
After being released from prison in 1897, Wilde published his last well-known work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” the poem that contains the famous line: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.”
Wilde was a broken, impoverished, sick man after serving his prison sentence. But according to legend, he gave us one final witticism before he died in a dingy Paris boarding room on November 30, 1900.
His dying words, as he gazed at the drab walls of the room were (purportedly): “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”
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