Finding Singapore in ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’
“Things are seldom what they seem,” says W.S. Gilbert, a literary artist who knew as much as Wilde about the struggle to keep up appearances during the Victorian Era. The need to do so was especially relevant in a period rife with change and obsessed with the establishment of individual identity. Presented as a comedy, Wilde blithely explores these concerns in Lady Windermere’s Fan, while subtly hinting at the irony of how society is best left to deception. Chloe Lim‘s essay draws another perspective from Wilde’s comedy, bringing its issues closer to home through juxtaposition with Arthur Yap’s ‘2 mothers in a hdb playground‘. This suggests, then, that perhaps we aren’t too far off from the Victorians themselves, in trying to assert our own identities in front of the public eye.
Most Literature students in Singapore would have at one point or another come into contact with Arthur Yap’s ‘2 mothers in a hdb playground’, the familiar tones of “come, cheong, quick go home and bathe” perhaps bringing a smile (or a nervous shudder) to our lips remembering our own mothers. Scenes of (over-)protectiveness, the one-upmanship over whose children are doing better, the parents’ simultaneous attempts to bask in their reflected glory – these emerge in Yap’s poem, which itself reads like a play-text, direct speech flowing without discernible breaks between each voice. It is curious, then, that these acts that a Singaporean reader would consider so deeply local, the ‘kiasu-ism’ of ‘aunties’ so satirically Singaporean, would draw striking similarities with Victorian England in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, where both Yap’s portrayal of individual characters and Wilde’s social microcosm of the play-world can be read as social comedies that reveal the social ambitions latent in both societies.
In Wilde’s first scene set in Lord Windermere’s house, a Victorian fixation with appearances is quickly foregrounded through the Duchess’ directions to the passive and monosyllabic Agatha. Here, Lady Windermere frets over the recently dubious behaviour of her husband, only reinforced by the appearance of the comedic Duchess Berwick. The Duchess orders her daughter in private to “go and look over the photograph album that I see there” before quickly pointing out the “refinement” of her daughter who ironically “Exit(s) through window” later in response to her mother’s instructions to go out onto the terrace. This interest in controlling the image presented by oneself and one’s family in society not only makes itself clear at the outset of Wilde’s play, but is also apparent in the first stanza of ‘2 mothers’, where the mothers politely jostle claims over how comparatively “smart” ah beng and kim cheong are, revealing a deep-seated sense of social competition such that even the idiosyncratic behaviours of ah beng “[watching] tv & [knowing] the whole story” acquire social significance.
Parental control, with the intention of shaping self-presentation and image, creates a sense of unease in the social proceedings of Wilde’s presentation of Victorian society and Yap’s ‘2 mothers’. This is done again through the character of Duchess Berwick; Wilde presents her fixation with socio-economic advancement through her interests in the young Australian, Hopper, “that rich young Australian people are taking such notice of just at present” in order to marry off her daughter in a financially profitable manner. With teasing dramatic irony, the audience is privileged through a glimpse of the Duchess’ instructions to Agatha, ensuring earlier in Act II Scene I that the latter only interacts with suitors approved by herself, directing her daughter that “The last two dances you might pass on the terrace with Mr. Hopper.” The ensuing engagement between Hopper and Agatha is thus coloured by the audience’s knowledge of the larger social considerations behind marriage, and the Duchess’ orchestrations. A similar sense of unease in ‘2 mothers’ emerges from a mother’s instruction: “beng, / come here, come, don’t play the fool. / your tuition teacher is coming”. While this anxiety is presented in Wilde’s play through seeking the most publicly advantageous marriage, in Yap’s poem it is presented through seeking a private advantage in education, requiring a child’s image to be subjected to parental control.
Nonetheless, it must be noted that Wilde’s social critiques are rarely, if ever, explicit as the wit and inversions of Wilde’s characters prevent (or veil) direct offense. More often than not, Wilde’s paradoxes in Lady Windermere’s Fan surface through the flamboyant dandy, Lord Darlington. As mouthpiece of Wilde’s witty aphorisms – “I am afraid that good people do a great deal of harm in this world. / Certainly the greatest harm they do is that they make badness of such extraordinary importance.” (Act I, Scene I), these intentionally cutting, yet humourous and paradoxical statements suggest potential learning lessons such as not hypocritically judging ‘badness’ in a holier-than-thou manner. Crucially, this is largely cloaked by comedy for the other characters and the audience, making the bitter pill easier to swallow.
While the flippancy and ease of dialogue in Lady Windermere’s Fan presents a facade of curated social ease, Wilde’s stage is nonetheless managed with a certain draconian control that exposes an undercurrent of social anxiety to avoid shame or display their pride. This is most apparent in the notoriously suspense-filled Act III Scene I as “Lady Windermere hides herself behind the curtain”, obscured from the view of Cecil and Lord Windermere. Lady Erlynne “sees door R, and exits through it” only to return later to save Lady Windermere just as Lord Windermere “rushes toward the curtain C.” Whereas exits and entrances are tightly controlled to heighten the fear of exposure, elsewhere in Yap’s poem, the superficially carefree tone of each character conceals an inherent carefulness in maintaining one’s image, especially when one of the mothers boasts about her new future, “nearly two thousand dollars, sure must be good” and implicitly, her ability to afford them. Hence, we note how the social anxieties of modern day Singaporeans and Victorian middle-class families oscillate between a curated social ease and a controlled protection from exposing oneself.
We can only imagine what it must have been like for a Victorian audience watching Wilde’s social comedies in the 1890s. A contemporary reviewer of Lady Windermere’s Fan wrote how the play was “pregnant with the wisdom of the boudoir, and the cynicism of the club smoking room, while under all this there frequently lurk deeper truths of a wider range” (Sunday Times Review, 1892 in Tydeman, p. 47). Indeed, these underlying “deeper truths” in the grin-inducing humour of Wilde’s drawing-room scenes might be more familiar in our own experiences and literature than we think. In reading Wilde’s concluding pronouncement, “Ah, you’re marrying a very good woman!” alongside the wildly vernacular conclusion in ‘2 mothers’, “ah pah wants to take you chya-hong in new motor car”, we can find a compelling comedic mirror of contemporary Singapore in Victorian texts that we imagine and enjoy today.
Tydeman, W. (ed.) (1982) Wilde, Comedies: A Selection of Critical Essays. London: Macmillan.
Wilde’s social comedies:
A Woman of No Importance
An Ideal Husband
The Importance of Being Earnest
CHLOE LIM is a second-year undergraduate reading English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. She has also taught English Language and English Literature at Xinmin Secondary School and Victoria Junior College. Chloe studied Oscar Wilde’s works as part of her first-year course at university, and her favourite remains ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.
Photo credit: Jo Ann Low @jolowthehobo