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Oscar Wilde - (An Ideal Husband)

Brit wit at its finest. Wilde is best known for his skill with epigrams, but if you look beyond them, at the entire structure of his plays, you find that his talents go a lot deeper. His characters are pragmatic, cheeky, clever, and romantic -- when it suits them. Clear moral, delightful language, extremely careful plot.

Actually, everything Wilde writes has an extremely careful, well-planned plot. In An Ideal Husband, all of the surface banter and games mask a very serious and sobering reality. Looking at the action of the play, one sees a very close correlation with Wilde's own life at the time -- his infamous homosexuality trial was looming near. Law at the time condemned Wilde, but his hero escapes.

An Ideal Husband was written and first staged immediately prior to Oscar Wilde's best-known play, The Importance of Being Earnest. In part because of this proximity, the first-born of these twin comedies of manners has languished in the shadow of its more light-hearted counterpart. Until recently, An Ideal Husband was rarely staged, while Earnest has long been a staple of repertories across the English-speaking world. The current decade, however, has witnessed a surprising resurgence (or, in fact, long-overdue beginning) of interest in Wilde's penultimate play. Several revivals have begun to introduce audiences to the nuances and delights of this work and a richer understanding of a more complex, varied Oscar Wilde.

Some critics, accounting for the relative neglect of An Ideal Husband, have claimed that the play gives precedence to men's "wider scope and greater ambition" over women's "emotional curves," making it more difficult for contemporary audiences to identify with. Yet it is precisely this masculine ambition that precipitates near-catastrophe in the play, while only the gentler spirit of forgiveness--and a new commitment to the domestic world of the family--offers potential salvation.

The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde's last work for the stage, embodies the features that have made its author such a beloved figure: the sparkling wit and razor-sharp epigrams; the solemnity and intensity with which his characters pursue the most trivial ideas; the finely honed satire of social pretension, greed, self-interest, folly, and affectation. All the marks of the true comedy of manners. Whereas An Ideal Husband, less filled with consistent comic banter, and relying less on witty epigrams, explores issues not usually associated with the arch, superficial cultivated by the man known in his time as "The Oscar." Yet An Ideal Husband boasts a wealth of delightfully lunatic characters while also offering much on the subject of love, betrayal, and trust. No less a social satire than his other plays, in it Wilde balances a harsh look at ambition and ethical compromise with the melodramatic suspense of a political thriller of the first water.

The threat of personal scandal for the politician, painfully familiar to any audience member in the late twentieth century, makes it clear that Wilde's concerns with publicity and the exposure of dark secrets remain quite relevant. The central conceit of the plot was drawn from a contemporary political scandal, and is still as timely as if it had been ripped from tomorrow's headlines. The play is also striking for the way in which it eerily foretold Wilde's own dizzying fall from grace when his homosexuality was exposed in a very public trial. Written at the peak of Wilde's popular success and artistic acclaim, An Ideal Husband displays a painful sense of the burden of deception that lay behind the public persona of its author. A deep sense of guilt and fear seems to torment the usually flippant Wilde as he uses the complicated mixture of tones in the play to explore his double life, his mortality, and the inevitable consequences of our choices. Unlike the sad results of Wilde's own personal ruin, the play offers too a hopeful picture of redemption and reconciliation.

Few critics since its opening have been able to agree on whether An Ideal Husband functions as a melodrama, as a dark comedy, or as considerably more; since below its "trivial" plot and witty dialogue lies a social satire of substance and insight. Court audiences will have the opportunity to judge for themselves when they watch Wilde's quintessential comedy of political manners.

Synopsis

An Ideal Husband opens during party at the home of Lord and Lady Chiltern in London's highly fashionable Grosvenor Square. Sir Robert Chiltern, a prestigious member of the House of Commons, and his wife are hosting a gathering that includes his friend Lord Goring, a thirty-four year old bachelor who is famous for being a dandy, his sister Mabel Chiltern, a pretty and youthful woman, and other genteel guests.

During the party, Mrs. Cheveley, a former schoolmate of Lady Chiltern, attempts to blackmail Sir Robert in order to drive him to support a fraudulent scheme to build a canal in Argentina, much like the Suez Canal in Egypt. Apparently, Mrs. Cheveley's friend Baron Arnheim had profited when Sir Robert had sold him a Cabinet secret which suggested that he buy stocks in the Suez Canal three days before the British government announced its purchase. Sir Robert made his fortune with that money, and Mrs. Cheveley has the letter to prove his dishonor. In the face of this blackmail, Sir Robert not only fears the loss of his status in the House of Lords, but also fears the loss of his wife. He promises to withdraw his support. When Lady Chiltern discovers this, she insists that he write Mrs. Cheveley and renege on his promise to her.

In the second act, Lord Goring, a close friend of both Lord and Lady Chiltern, urges Sir Robert to fight Mrs. Cheveley. Here, too, Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert's younger sister, and Lord Goring engage in flirtatious banter. After Lord Goring leaves, Mrs. Cheveley returns to ask if Lady Chiltern has found a brooch which she had lost the previous evening. At this moment, Sir Robert enters and is forced to share his misdeed with his wife. Lady Chiltern then denounces her husband and refuses to forgive him.

In the third act, set at Lord Goring's home, Lord Goring receives a letter from Lady Chiltern, a letter that asks for his help and might be read as compromising. Lord Goring's father, Lord Caversham, drops in and demands to know when his son will marry. This visit is followed by one from Sir Robert, who seeks counsel from Lord Goring. Meanwhile, Mrs. Cheveley awaits Lord Goring in his study. While she waits, she finds Lady Chiltern's letter. When she and Lord Goring meet, he offers to exchange the brooch, which she had stolen, for the letter that incriminated Sir Robert. After he obtains the letter, Mrs. Cheveley then steals Lady Chiltern's letter and announces that she will send it to Sir Robert. She then leaves.

In the final act, Lord Goring proposes to and is accepted by Mabel Chiltern. It is announced that Sir Robert has denounced the Argentine canal scheme before the House. Then, Lady Chiltern enters and is told by Lord Goring that Sir Robert's letter has been destroyed, but that Mrs. Cheveley has stolen her letter. At that moment, Sir Robert enters and announces he has received Lady Chiltern's letter, but he has mistaken it for a letter of forgiveness written for him. Lady Chiltern attempts to drive Sir Robert to renounce his career in politics, but Lord Goring dissuades her from doing so. When Sir Robert refuses Lord Goring his sister's hand in marriage, Lady Chiltern is forced to admit that the letter had been from her. Sir Robert forgives her, and they are reunited. And Lord Goring and Mabel can be wed.

I never reply to my critics. I have too much time. But I think some day I will give a general answer in the form of a lecture, which I shall call 'Straight Talk to Old Men.' ... The end of Act I, the end of Act II, and the scene in the last act, when Lord Goring points out the higher importance of a man's life over a woman's--to take three prominent instances--seem to have been quite lost by the critics. They failed to see their meaning, they thought it was a play about a bracelet. We must educate our critics -- we really must educate them.

Oscar Wilde, The Sketch, 1895.

"Pray do not take out a single word."

H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, upon seeing the premiere, which Wilde considered cutting.

Mr. Wilde's new play...is a dangerous subject, because he has the property of making his critics dull....In a certain sense, Mr. Wilde is to me our thorough playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theater.

George Bernard Shaw, review of An Ideal Husband, The Saturday Review , 1895.

[An Ideal Husband] is brilliant...we doubt not that the play will be successful, it is so smart and so characteristic of its author...when the play was over the applause was hearty...

Review in London Daily Telegraph of the original production, 1895.

The cumulative effect of language and action is to function as a subversive critique of Victorian attitudes and institutions, all the more telling for being so lightly elegant in expression. It is the hypocrisy of society that Wilde aims at, for instance the notion that marriage is an ideal state.

-Peter Raby, Oscar Wilde, 1988.

Wilde's taut, funny and prodigiously smart 1895 comedy of political manners deals with the sort of situation...that might turn up on tomorrow's evening news. Wilde twines parliamentary politics and marital politics together in a glittering, prescient work....An Ideal Husband is the ultimate backroom political play--[in it] Wilde examines political careers and marriages in the same penetrating light. Both...are compounded of accident, deception, and bravery.

-Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle, 1995.

An ideal husband Oscar Wilde most emphatically was not. So accustomed was this syphilitic bisexual to the best of both worlds that his cautionary comedy An Ideal Husband managed to celebrate family values while simultaneously mocking the moralisers.

Maureen Paton, London Daily Express, 1996.

If this production is a golden treat, it is also a harsh expose of late-Victorian political corruption that can address itself quite without inhibition to the glorious 1990's, the golden decade of sleaze.

John Peter, London Sunday Times, 1996.

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