LORD DARLINGTON: Oh, nowadays so many conceited people go about Society pretending to be good, that I think it shows rather a sweet and modest disposition to pretend to be bad. Besides, there is this to be said. If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.
LORD DARLINGTON: Well then, setting mercenary people aside, who, of course, are dreadful, do you think seriously that women who have committed what the world calls a fault should never be forgiven?
LADY WINDERMERE: (standing at table) I think they should never be forgiven.
LORD DARLINGTON: And men? Do you think that there should be the same laws for men as there are for women?
LADY WINDERMERE: Certainly!
LORD DARLINGTON: I think life too complex a thing to be settled by these hard and fast rules.
LADY WINDERMERE: It is very kind of you, Duchess, to come and tell me all this. But I can’t believe that my husband is untrue to me.
DUCHESS OF BERWICK: Pretty child! I was like that once. Now I know that all men are monsters. (Lady Windermere rings bell) The only thing to do is feed the wretches well. A good cook does wonders, and that I know you have. My dear Margaret, you are not going to cry?
LADY WINDERMERE: You needn’t be afraid, Duchess, I never cry.
DUCHESS OF BERWICK: That’s quite right, dear. Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones.
LADY WINDERMERE: I did not spy on you. I never knew of this woman’s existence till half an hour ago. Someone who pitied me was kind enough to tell me what everyone in London knows already—your daily visits to Curzon Street, your mad infatuation, the monstrous sums of money you squander on this infamous woman! (Crossing L.)
LORD WINDERMERE: Margaret! don’t talk like that of Mrs. Erlynne, you don’t know how unjust it is!
LORD WINDERMERE: Ah, Margaret, do this for my sake; it is her last chance.
LADY WINDERMERE: What has that to do with me?
LORD WINDERMERE: How hard good women are!
LADY WINDERMERE: How weak bad men are!
LADY WINDERMERE: There is not a good woman in London who would not applaud me. We have been too lax. We must make an example, I propose to begin tonight. (Picking up fan) Yes, you gave me this fan today; it was your birthday present. If that woman crosses my threshold, I shall strike her across the face with it. (Rings bell)
LORD AUGUSTUS: (coming up to Lord Windermere) Want to speak to you particularly, dear boy. I’m worn to a shadow. Know I don’t look it. None of us men do look what we really are. Demmed good thing, too. What I want to know is this. Who is she? Where does she come from? Why hasn’t she got any demmed relations? Demmed nuisance, relations! But they make one so demmed respectable.
LORD WINDERMERE: I am afraid—if you will excuse me—I must join my wife.
LADY PLYMDALE: Oh, you mustn’t dream of such a thing. It’s most dangerous nowadays for a husband to pay any attention to his wife in public. It always makes people think that he beats her when they’re alone. The world has grown so suspicious of anything that looks like a happy married life.
LADY WINDERMERE: (C.) London is full of women who trust their husbands. One can always recognize them. They look so thoroughly unhappy. I am not going to be one of them. (Moves up) Lord Darlington, will you give me back my fan, please? Thanks…A useful thing a fan, isn’t it?…I want a friend tonight, Lord Darlington: I didn’t know I would want one so soon.
DUMBY: What a mystery you are!
LADY PLYMDALE: (looking at him) I wish you were!
DUMBY: I am—to myself. I am the only person in the world I should like to know thoroughly; but I don’t see any chance of it just at present.
LORD DARLINGTON: Wrong? What is wrong? It’s wrong for a man to abandon his wife for a shameless woman. It is wrong for a wife to remain with a man who so dishonours her. You said once 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. (Sits down on sofa)
MRS. ERLYNNE: (laughing) Then we will talk of it on the terrace. Even business should have a picturesque background. Should it not, Windermere? With a proper background women can do anything.
LADY WINDERMERE: I must go back—no; I can’t go back, my letter has put me in their power—Arthur would not take me back! That fatal letter! No! Lord Darlington leaves England tomorrow. I will go with him—I have no choice.
LADY WINDERMERE: Go back to my husband, Mrs. Erlynne. He belongs to you and not to me. I suppose he is afraid of a scandal. Men are such cowards. They outrage every law of the world, and are afraid of the world’s tongue. But he had better prepare himself. He shall have a scandal. He shall have the worst scandal there has been in London for years. He shall see his name in every vile paper, mine on every hideous placard.
MRS. ERLYNNE: […] Back to your house, Lady Windermere—your husband loves you! He has never swerved for a moment from the love he bears you. But even if he had a thousand loves, you must stay with your child. 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.
LORD AUGUSTUS: You want to make her out a wicked woman. She is not!
CECIL GRAHAM: Oh! Wicked women bother one. Good women bore one. That is the only difference between them.
LORD AUGUSTUS: (puffing a cigar) Mrs. Erlynne has a future before her.
DUMBY: Mrs. Erlynne has a past before her.
LORD AUGUSTUS: I prefer women with a past. They’re always so demmed amusing to talk to.
CECIL GRAHAM: Now, my dear Tuppy, don’t be led astray into the paths of virtue. Reformed, you would be perfectly tedious. That is the worst of women. They always want one to be good. And if we are good, when they meet us, they don’t love us at all. They like to find us quite irretrievably bad, and to leave us quite unattractively good.
CECIL GRAHAM: That is a great error. Experience is a question of instinct about life. I have got it. Tuppy hasn’t. Experience is the name Tuppy gives to his mistakes. That is all. (Lord Augustus looks around indignantly)
DUMBY: Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.
CECIL GRAHAM: (standing with his back to the fireplace) One shouldn’t commit any.
LADY WINDERMERE: […] Perhaps she told them the true reason of her being there, and the real meaning of that—fatal fan of mine. Oh, if he knows—how can I look him in the face again? He would never forgive me. (Touches bell) How securely one thinks one lives—out of reach of temptation, sin, folly. And then suddenly—Oh! Life is terrible. It rules us, we do not rule it.
LORD WINDERMERE: […] Oh, the shame of it, the shame of it. To tell it is to live through it all again. Actions are the first tragedy in life, words are the second. Words are the worst. Words are merciless…
LORD WINDERMERE: I wish that at the same time she would give you a miniature she kisses every night before she prays—It’s the miniature of a young innocent-looking girl with beautiful dark hair.
MRS. ERLYNNE: Ah yes, I remember. How long ago that seems. (Goes to a sofa and sits down) It was done before I was married. Dark hair and an innocent expression were the fashion then, Windermere!
MRS. ERLYNNE: (rising) I suppose, Windermere, you would like me to retire into a convent, or become a hospital nurse, or something of that kind, as people do in silly modern novels. That is stupid of you, Arthur; in real life we don’t do such things—not so long as we have any good looks left, at any rate. No—what consoles one now is not repentance, but pleasure. Repentance is quite out of date. And besides, if a woman really repents, she has to go to a bad dressmaker, otherwise no one believes her. And nothing in the world will induce me to do that.
MRS. ERLYNNE: Yes. (Pause) You are devoted to your mother’s memory, Lady Windermere, your husband tells me.
LADY WINDERMERE: We all have ideals in life. At least we all should. Mine is my mother.
MRS. ERLYNNE: Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they’re better.
LADY WINDERMERE: (shaking her head) If I lost my ideals, I should lose everything.
MRS. ERLYNNE: Everything?
LADY WINDERMERE: Yes.
LORD WINDERMERE: (gravely) She is better than one thought her.
LADY WINDERMERE: She is better than I am.
LORD WINDERMERE: (smiling as he strokes her hair) Child, you and she belong to different worlds. Into your world evil has never entered.
LADY WINDERMERE: Don’t say that, Arthur. 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.