Longform

Well its a new year and a new segment. I have introduced Longform, which contains criticism over the usual 1000-ish words. I’ll be comparing two or more works and discussing their themes in a more in-depth way.

First up are The Wife by Meg Wolitzer and A Separation by Katie Kitamura. The protagonists of both novels are women writers married to unfaithful writer husbands, and both novels pit the circumscribed ambition of their female characters against the apparently limitless desires of their husbands. One on level, the plots of both novels are driven by an apparently simple question: why do the women put up with their husbands? At a deeper level, the two novels are essentially different iterations of the same story that has been spooling and unspooling throughout history: that of the faithful wife, and her faithless husband.

National Treasure

[contains spoilers]

 There is nothing to find. Just a desperate woman being desperate.

In an interview with Leigh Sales in mid-December, the actress Yael Stone detailed uncomfortable sexualised encounters she has had in the past with the actor Geoffrey Rush. In revisiting allegations of behaviour that pushed the boundaries of acceptable workplace conduct, Ms Stone was also brutally honest about her responses to it, which included behaviour that could easily have been interpreted as encouragement. As Mr Rush’s suggestive behaviour escalated and she became more uncomfortable, she reflects that she did not have the language to challenge Mr Rush’s alleged behaviour, and believed that her work would suffer if she made a complaint. Towards the conclusion of the interview, Ms Stone strongly asserted that consent is “almost impossible in a dynamic where the power is so drastically imbalanced. And I would say in any working environment, where there is that imbalance of power, the subordinate doesn’t have a great opportunity for expressing themselves freely.”

Ms Stone’s compelling interview was a timely reminder that consent is a lot more complex than “yes” or “no,” and strongly recalled to me the 2016 British miniseries National Treasure. This series cut through the self-serving explanations about consent that are often bandied about by powerful men when they are challenged about their sexual behaviour. The plot revolves around a television comedian in the twilight of his career, Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane), who is accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls many years previously. Finchley staunchly maintains his innocence, and the series explores the tensions between the presumption of innocence and the need to protect children and bring perpetrators of abuse to account. It also portrays, with devastating acuity, the monopoly on “truth” that is wielded by those with unchecked power.

The series was inspired by Operation Yewtree, the investigation by British police into sexual abuse by high profile entertainers, including Jimmy Savile. This context is a backdrop for Paul’s spin on the charges levelled against him. From the moment he is advised of these allegations, Paul casts himself as a scapegoat: “they think I’m Jimmy fucking Savile.” Ambiguity surrounding his guilt or innocence is maintained well into the final episode. On the one hand, it is not hard for the viewer to imagine his guilt in light of the revelations of Operation Yewtree. On the other, apart from a certain understated repulsiveness that he occasionally exudes, he doesn’t come across as a monster. He converses respectably with his long-suffering wife, looks after his grandchildren, and taxi drivers accost him to re-enact scenes from his heyday. His long-time comedy partner sticks by him. He is also eager (too eager, according to his legal team) to face the media and profess his belief in punishment for paedophiles.

The ambiguous atmosphere surrounding Finchley’s guilt or innocence heightens the impact of the series’ main themes: the reliability of memory and abuse of power. Tension between truth and deception, reality and performance is established from the opening scene. He is filmed smoking in a floodlit basement, the walls a turquoise shade once found in hospitals and the floor blood red. It resembles a prison, but Finchley is actually waiting backstage in a theatre to present a lifetime achievement award to his comedy partner. This immediately establishes a link between the possibility of guilt, and his fame, which allows men like him to abuse. While a seasoned entertainer, he appears to suffer stage fright, invoking doubt in the viewer about the authenticity of his public persona.

Finchley’s trial brings to the fore the shortcomings of the adversarial legal system when it comes to sexual abuse and rape. Paul’s barrister, charging £400 per hour, and the ex-cop investigator assisting them in garnering evidence, are intent on winning. They blithely accept Paul’s history of infidelity and apparent compulsion to view pornography; their only qualm is that he did not forewarn them about it before they discovered it in the police’s brief of evidence. Every twist or turn can be manipulated, used to their advantage or turned against a complainant. This includes the serious injury of Paul’s daughter in a car crash, which his legal team believes is a publicity coup for him. It seems Paul and his family inhabit a murky world where everyone has an agenda, not just those with something to hide. This is strongly reinforced in the scenes shot inside the Finchley’s monstrosity of a house. The interior is constantly bathed in shade, with the odd bit of sunlight coming through a window only serving to illuminate dust motes. The walls are a shade of green reminiscent of a stagnant pond, and Marie wears an overcoat of a similar shade; her being is literally enveloped by the murkiness.

There is a courtroom scene strongly reminiscent of Ms Stone’s comments about being torn between admiration for Mr Rush and discomfort at his behaviour. Under cross-examination, it is revealed one of Paul’s accusers, Rebecca Thornton, sent Finchley a fan letter after the date of the alleged rape. The defence contends this proves she fabricated her claim; at most they had consensual sex, and her subsequent regret clouded the facts in her mind. Distressed, Ms Thornton says she can’t explain it, other than that it was a very confusing period in her life. Earlier, she confronts Marie in the court toilets, and is absolutely certain about the veracity of her memory. She says to Marie: “He did this to me. And to you. I feel like I’m doing this for you.” As the series progresses, flashbacks to the  alleged rapes become more frequent and revealing, and finally it is clear that Finchley did commit the crimes alleged against him. But time, memory, and the law take their toll. He is acquitted.

The position of the women in Finchley’s life is also a point of drama. His wife Marie is staunchly Catholic and, though she does not like her husband’s infidelity or predilection for pornography, she stands by him. In preparation for the trial, in which she will be called as a witness, the barrister probes Marie about her relationship with Paul, asking him whether her constant forgiveness and acceptance of her errant husband’s extramarital “needs” is a “Catholic thing.” No, Marie replies, “it’s a love thing.”

The public love and affection of a good woman is the ultimate saviour for men like Paul. The faithfulness of a wife allows the traditional double standard to be maintained- that women and daughters are sacred property, and other women are up for grabs. Distinguishing between these “types” of women is also the basis of public respectability. During the trial, the prosecution challenges Finchley about his use of prostitutes, including a propensity for BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism):

So sex with women who aren’t prostitutes never gets violent. But sex with prostitutes sometimes can.

They consent to everything that happens.

You pay them to consent. But with other women, no violence.

No.

You have a code. If I’m paying for it I will do whatever I like. But with other women I will not do whatever I like.

Yes.

That must involve restraint on your part. Clearly you like violence as part of sex otherwise why would you pay for it.

I don’t engage in BDSM with women who aren’t prostitutes.

You hate women, don’t you….

Marie and Paul’s troubled adult daughter, Dee, has her own problems with memory. She claims she cannot remember large swathes of her life. It is unclear whether this is due to her drug use or trauma. Her memory loss mirrors the way the defence paints Rebecca Thornton as an unreliable witness. And, like Rebecca, the possibility she was abused by Paul is hinted at, but in her case never settled. Dee is, however, strikingly intelligent, and challenges her father on his professed feelings of shame for his infidelity and penchant for violent sex. As a drug addict, she knows about shame, and doesn’t believe it is what her father is purporting to demonstrate. What Dee is alluding to is Paul’s ability to compartmentalise his behaviour, and his audacity to think he can redeem himself through a superficial display of regret.

Marie has also cottoned on to this by the end of the trial. Just before Paul is due to give evidence, she challenges him on the truth of his recollections, and his grip on the narrative, both public and personal, that he has spun around the allegations. She doesn’t think he is lying, she says. Instead, she thinks he has a broad definition of truth, and can make himself belief in contradictory facts at the same time:

There are layers of you aren’t there. You don’t lie, I don’t think you lie. I think you believe everything… You exist on one layer quite purely. Good husband layer, the good man layer. And then there’s another layer. And on that you’re less good. But you treat them both separately. And then there’s the third layer. And on that, you’re capable of anything…Be brave Paul. Try and remember the man you are, try not to lie. Look through the layers.

For a moment, his guard is down. A look of outrage flicks across his face in the form of a twitch that makes his lip momentarily curl before he delivers his verdict on her: “You never loved me the way you thought you did.” In his view, her failure of belief in him is tantamount to failure as a wife.

In the closing scenes of the final episode, Marie vanishes from their home, where a party celebrating Paul’s acquittal is in full swing. The series ends with Paul yelling Marie’s name into the void. He has lost her, her absolution, and with it, the ability to maintain both a respectable public image and to compartmentalise his crimes according to the women they were committed against. He can no longer pretend his behaviour does not harm his family. In fact, as his victim Rebecca Thornton pointed out to Marie, his crimes are also a violence against his family, and it is his willingness to make them suffer that is most revealing about who he truly is: that he believes a woman’s lot is to put up and shut up, and that, when pushed, women are not capable of making the truth stick.

 

New Territory Litbloggers’ Year in Review 2018

As the end of the year looms closer, I thought it would be good to catch up with Sue Terry of Whispering Gums to compare notes on our favourite reads of 2018. We have both read a selection of new and older books over the year, and we also chatted about the highlights of our summer reading lists. Sue has reviewed some of her books (and many more!) on her blog.

To cap it off we have also included some reflections on the ACT Writers Centre’s New Territory program.

Sue’s highlights are below. You can read mine on Sue’s blog.

Best Fiction of 2018:

I’ll be doing my top reads of 2018 in early January as I always do, and I’ll admit right up front that I find it very hard to choose Bests. Consequently, I’m going to choose three books representing different “categories” in my fiction reading for the year:

For translated fiction: Raphaël Jerusalmy’s Evacuation: I loved this for its imagination, its clever “road trip” form, its Tel Aviv setting, and its exploration of art, war, and personal choices.

For contemporary Australian: Sofie Laguna’s The choke: Very hard to choose because I’ve read a lot of great Australian fiction. The choke may not be perfect, requiring some suspension of disbelief in its denouement, but it moved me immensely. Not only are its characters, subject matter, and setting so beautifully evoked, but it avoids sentimentality and judgement. And, I loved Justine’s voice.

For my classic: EM Forster’s Howard’s End. I read a few good classics this year, but it was so good to read EM Forster again, and to see how relevant it still is, that I just had to choose this one.

Best Non-Fiction of 2018:

Again, I’m going to choose three (well, four, actually) books representing three different categories:

Biography: Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner, and Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life lived at the edge of the world. I’ve chosen Krasnostein’s book for the warmth and generosity of its writer and subject, and for its clever structure; and Scott Tucker’s because, although it is a more traditional biography, it manages also to be an exciting, engrossing tale.

Memoir: Marie Munkara’s Of Ashes and rivers that run to the sea. It’s hard to make a serious story about dispossession and the Stolen Generations funny, but Munkara pulls it off – without undermining the seriousness of, and conflicting emotions within, her story.

Non-fiction: Rebecca Skloot’s The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. This is a bit of a cheat I suppose because it is partly biography, but it is also a study of the history, science and ethics of cell culture, and it manages to do all of this with a great deal of aplomb.

What has New Territory meant for me?

This was my second year as the blogging mentor for the ACT Writers Centre’s litblogging program, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly again. The best part is meeting other bloggers, and Amy has been an absolute delight to work with over the last few months. I loved that she was open to exploring her blogging goals and keen to learn what she could, that she came with definite ideas about what she wanted to achieve, and that she took the initiative in organising a couple of meetings to which she then invited me. In addition, there’s the fact that the best mentor relationships involve learning on both sides. At least, I hope Amy feels she’s learnt some things! I certainly have, particularly in terms of Amy’s way of thinking about and interrogating the arts. I look toward to continuing to read her thoughts when our formal mentorship ends. I wish her well with her longer-term writing goals.

Besides this connection with the bloggers I mentor, the program has also provided me with an opportunity to get to know a little better some of Canberra’s cultural movers and shakers – at the Writers Centre and the National Library of Australia, in particular. It’s a two-edged sword, that, because I rather like lying low, but I also like to meet warm, interesting, enthusiastic people, and that’s what they are.

Summer reads

I’m not a big on making reading plans, partly because the majority of my reading tends to be driven by the review copies I’m sent, and my reading group schedule. But, in January, there is always just a little sense of having the time and freedom to break a bit loose, and so, if time permits, my priorities would be:

  • Elizabeth Kleinhenz’s biography Germaine: the life of Germaine Greer, which I bought at the Conversation event I attended and am keen to read as Germaine is, well, Germaine.
  • Fiona Wright’s book of essays The world was whole, a follow-up to her Stella Prize shortlisted first book of essays, Small acts of disappearance, which impressed me for its openness, thoughtfulness, and stylish writing.
  • Gerald Murnane’s latest novel Border districts, which has just won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction though, as Amy can attest, I already had it on my list. Just saying!
  • my first reading group book for 2019, Trent Dalton’s debut novel Boy swallows universe, which was highly recommended by my brother and an ex-reading group member.

However, please don’t keep me to this. Who knows what January (not to mention Santa) will bring?

Another New Territory review

My final review for for New Territory has been published on the ACT Writers Centre’s blog Capital Letters. In this piece, I reflect on the impact of ‘Friends’ societies and organisations in supporting our arts institutions, and the significant role they have played in shaping Canberra’s civic ‘artscape’. It is unlikely the National Museum of Australia would ever have been built without the advocacy the Museum’s Friends. Read more

New Territory

I have completed another review which has been published on Capital Letters. This time it is about the craft of biography. My subject is…Richard Fidler. I heard the talented Mr Fidler give the 2018 Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library, in which he spoke about his radio program Conversations, as well as his book on the Icelandic sagas co-authored with Kari Gislason. How do we distill a life a into the narrative arc of biography? Read on to find out…

Intimacy and Boundaries in the Rehearsal Room

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of the Street Theatre’s production of Venus In Fur for the ACT Writers’ Centre’s blog Capital Letters. Venus In Fur is a captivating take on sexism and male power both in the theatre and in life. In response to my review, Sue Terry of Whispering Gums posed the question “How do you think the current Geoffrey Rush trial and the discussions about what seems to have been accepted or tolerated, in rehearsals and on stage, fits into the issues explored in this play?”

The verdict in Rush’s defamation case is yet to be delivered. The award-winning Melbourne-based critic Alison Croggon has provided a synopsis of the trial so far on her excellent site Witness. Importantly, she points out that neither Rush nor Eryn Jean Norvill is on trial. Rush’s defamation case centres on whether the Daily Telegraph had enough evidence to publish its claims about his alleged behaviour towards Ms Norvill on the set of the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of King Lear.

While I have no further comment on the Rush case, I feel Sue’s question warrants a look at the culture of the Australian arts scene more broadly, particularly as the #metoo movement progresses. This time last year, Alison Croggon wrote an informed and sensitive piece for Witness about the culture of sexism in Australian theatre [this is pay-walled but I encourage you to join]. Croggon wrote:

I put out a call on social media for anyone who wished to share their stories in confidence with me. The result has been some deeply distressing allegations, which run the gamut from harassment and bullying to serial predation and rape. They have come from women and men working not only in companies, as performers, back stage staff and so on, but in performing arts bureaucracies of every kind, in educational institutions, even in youth theatre. They include well known names and unknown names, and every level of theatre, from major state theatre to independent companies and venues.

Croggon also pointed out that inclusion is “are underwritten by a spectrum of behaviours that are in turn conditioned by grim histories, past and present, of sexual violence.”

When we talk about sexual harassment and violence in the arts, there are a couple of issues at play. One issue is how actors are asked to represent sex (and violence) and the implications for their own emotional, bodily and professional integrity, and another is about creating a safe working environment so that sexual harassment is not tolerated either on or off stage. A third issue relates to inclusion and diversity more broadly, and how the largely white, male gatekeepers create jobs for arts workers from certain backgrounds and perpetuate the telling of certain kinds of stories.

With regard to the first issue, I had until recently taken it for granted that rehearsals are negotiations of power and boundaries between performers. Surely, I thought, actors are carrying out a job, and during rehearsals they would agree on boundaries with their colleagues which should carry over to live performances. Boundaries are especially important where violence, physical contact or simulated sexual contact are directed.

But I was wrong to assume this automatically occurred. There is now a burgeoning profession called “intimacy coaching” which seeks to assist actors and directors navigate this space. An intimacy coach is a theatre professional who works alongside a cast to choreograph difficult scenes, but also, as Van Badham points out in an article for the Guardian, “facilitates a conversation between the production and the actors that affirms trust in what’s taking place.”

The ABC’s Beverley Wang spoke to Claire Warden, an intimacy coach based in New York, about the tenets of her practice. Warden says that because “when we’re acting, we have difficulty telling the difference between real and our imagination,” a key aspect of her practice is to help actors develop a shared sign for when a scene stops. She explains this technique as a reminder of the barrier between art and life:

And if you’re telling a particularly taxing emotional story, or if you’re a doing a particularly heavily intimate or sexual scene, it can be difficult if you don’t have a structure around it, and something that continually lets you know that this is work, and that we’re doing this to serve the story — and it isn’t real.

This is important because it draws a clear line. It is not unheard-of for an actor to use the explicit content of the play they are performing to carry on with sexualised behaviour off stage. It would be interesting to ask Ms O’Brien how this technique applies to a method actor, such as Daniel Day Lewis, given they do not distinguish between on and off screen.

It also seems to me that there is some confusion in public discussion about scenes created by two actors who “have chemistry,” and what actually constitutes that chemistry. In the Q&A episode of 29 October, filmed at the pop-up Globe in Sydney, the discussion turned to the negotiation of performances in sexual scenes. Tony Jones asked theatre director Neil Armfield whether the #metoo movement was having a “chilling effect” in the rehearsal room.  Armfield stated:

I think that there is …in the act of playing, whether…and acting, there is… sexual energy, which, in a sense, is part of an actor’s way of connecting to the audience, as much as connecting within the cast. And I just…and I think that means that we have to be particularly mindful and particularly respectful.

Armfield subsequently went on to say that, though respect and trust are important, the ability to engage in play should not be affected. I have paraphrased Armfield here and a long discussion did ensue on the program, so make sure you watch the episode or read the transcript on the website.

My point in raising this, though, is to question whether the connection actors develop with each other is sexual energy in the literal sense. I recently read the excellent addition to Black Inc.’s Writers On Writers series Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee. Dovey discusses jouissance, the psychoanalytic concept of intellectual ecstasy that was developed by the French theorist Roland Barthes. She quotes French actress Juliette Binoche, who has said that when making a film she needs to have an erotic relationship with the director. Dovey explains that La Binoche does not mean she sleeps with the director, but that they have an intense intellectual relationship that gives rise to jouissance. I wonder if it is this form of connection that actors are, or should be, striving towards. Because if it is not- if it’s sexual connection in the literal sense- surely we run the risk of perpetuating the key message underpinning our society’s sexism: that women only amount to their bodies, and what they do with their bodies is determined by other people.

So does Venus In Fur have anything to say about sexual harassment in theatre? Sure. To recap, Ives’ play revolves around a playwright and director, Thomas Novachek, who is staging an adaptation of the (real life) nineteenth century sadomasochistic novel Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. The two main characters of the book (and the play that Novachek directs within the larger play) are Vanda von Dunayev and Severin Kushemski. Thomas agrees to let Wanda, an aspiring actress, do a read-through, during which she displays an uncanny grasp on the character of the fictional Vanda. As the read-through progresses, the line between acting and reality becomes blurred, and power constantly shifts as Wanda probes Thomas’s motivations and interpretations of Sacher-Masoch’s work.

By unsettling boundaries between the audition and the play, the audience is pushed to think hard about which character wields power. This is reinforced by the dialogue which explicitly reflects on the roles of the theatre director and actor. After succumbing to Wanda’s goading, he shows her how he would perform both the roles of Vanda and Kushemski. With the shoe on the other foot, Novachek exclaims “This is so hard. I can’t believe I put actors through this.”

By blurring play and reality, Ives is also able to examine the casting of women in theatre and how the roles written for them are generated within a patriarchal, and, potentially, misogynistic context. Novachek says, “[w]e’re all easily explicable. What we’re not is… easily extricable.” The question “extricable from what?” is left hanging, but it raises the spectre of our socially conditioned biases and how those in power are not pushed to reflect on, or change, their attitudes. Further on this point, as I argued in my original piece, there are suggestions in the play that Vanda’s role is a projection of Novachek’s own unconscious desires, which bleeds into the bigger question in theatre and film of the substance of women’s roles, and how women exercise control over the way we are represented in cultural texts.

As Venus In Fur progresses it gets very heated and there are some scenes that portray physical and sexual contact. While watching the performance, I wished I had been present in the rehearsal room to witness how the action had been choreographed. Given Caroline Stacey directed the play, I can safely assume that teasing out the nuanced performances of Craig Alexander and Joanna Richards would be a great lesson for us in all the negotiation of boundaries and the unpicking of our society’s misogyny.

The Continued Relevance of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband

public and private life are different things. They have different laws, and move on different lines.

 I recently attended a screening of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde, which had been captured live at the Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End (and was staged by former Globe Theatre director Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring company). I studied this play in highschool and was glad to have the opportunity to revisit it. At a certain point the protagonist proclaimed:

 

How many men there are in modern life who would like to see their past burning to white ashes before them!

I sat up. These words, written over a hundred and twenty years ago, capture the angst of the #metoo era. Surely this is a sentiment the many high profile men who have lost their jobs over the past twelve months due to accusations of sexual harassment would echo. Could An Ideal Husband be the play for our times?

An Ideal Husband centres on a husband and wife, Sir Robert Chiltern (Nathaniel Parker), and his wife, Gertrude (Sally Bretton). Each partner idolises the other. Sir Robert is Under-Secretary for foreign affairs, while Gertrude devotes herself to worthy causes and proclaims her husband to be beyond reproach in all his dealings. Her belief in his high ideals is the basis of her affection.

However, Sir Robert has a secret in his past. While in his twenties, Sir Robert sold a cabinet secret which made himself and a few other investors rich. This misdeed is the origin of his entire fortune and underpinned his entry into public life. Sir Robert is certain that if Gertrude were to find out, she would end their marriage. Along comes the underhanded Mrs Cheveley (Frances Barber) who threatens to reveal all if Sir Robert will not assist her in a scheme of her own.

The interesting thing about Oscar Wilde’s work is how difficult it is to adapt from its late nineteenth century context. Unlike Shakespeare or Chekhov, whose work can be set in different social and political contexts from which they were intended- and indeed this is often the most interesting thing about contemporary productions of them- Wilde’s work remains rooted in the late Victorian era. The production at hand was no exception. It opened with the characters ballroom dancing, and entailed a procession of gowns, bonnets and button holes.

Wilde’s dialogue and themes, however, remain contemporary. The play premiered in 1895, shortly before Wilde embarked on the disastrous libel lawsuit against the Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde’s lover Lord Douglas, that ruined him by revealing his homosexuality. Some critics have argued that Wilde’s own sense of his impending downfall permeates the play. Daniel Mendelsohn, for instance, argued in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) that

When the play’s tortured main character, a man revealed to have a terrible secret in his past, addresses a series of lengthy, impassioned, and nakedly illogical pleas for sympathy to his wife—a woman whom he goes on to chastise for having insufficient sympathy for his flaws—it is impossible not to think of Wilde himself.

Emer O’Sullivan, author of a biography that deals with the sexual downfalls of both Wilde and his father, also argues that “these satires on the good wife were connected to the estranged relations with [his wife] Constance… But he also universalised the blackness in his own heart, letting his feelings of fear out in a burst as he pictures Sir Robert’s future.”

Such claims can easily be upheld. In one scene, for instance, Sir Robert entreats to his wife that “no one should be judged entirely on their past.” Gertrude disagrees, proclaiming “One’s past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged.”

I also feel that this exchange is strongly reminiscent of the public discussions that follow allegations of sexual misconduct against yet another high profile man as the #metoo movement continues. How does someone who has behaved badly in the past genuinely atone for their wrongdoing? And what does the public do with this new cache of information?

While the links to Wilde’s increasingly precarious marital situation are apparent in the exchanges between Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern, his use of dramatic irony comically and poignantly reveals broader tensions between public and private morality. Where in Shakespeare insight is often revealed by the fool, in Wilde it is the dandy who speaks the truth. So it is Lord Goring (Freddie Fox), who has an intense commitment to selecting the right buttonhole and “only [talks] seriously on the first Tuesday in every month, from four to seven,” who ultimately emerges as the play’s guiding light. Through some comic maneuvering he saves Sir Robert Chiltern’s reputation and marriage, and, as Emer O’Sullivan points out, “The dandy stands between stage and audience, orientating the public’s moral perception from inside the play…distancing them from their moral expectations with urbane witticisms that reduce the social order to predictable duplicity.” The audience is implicated in the duplicity. Just as Wilde was both a product of his society and a manifestation of its hypocritical moral code, Lord Goring lulls the audience into a false sense of security with his comic armory, then demolishes it as viewers are forced to laugh at themselves.

Ultimately, in An Ideal Husband, as in many of his plays, the foibles and false virtues of Wilde’s society are hidden in plain sight- as are the misdeeds of the men caught up in #metoo. Daniel Mendelsohn summed this up in his NYRB piece:

…in order to do justice to Wilde, to both the life and the art, we must always strive to see not only the exaltation but the humiliation, not only the pathos and suffering but the ubris and arrogance, not only the dazzling clarity of vision about the flaws in his society but a penchant for self-deception that suggested a profound self-destructiveness, not only the beauty but the peril. Wilde himself saw it all too clearly, if too late: an intricate appreciation of the complex and often deceptive relationship between things as they really are and things as we wish them to be.

I’m not suggesting that Wilde’s work is the ideal vehicle for deconstructing modern misogyny. It does not have the force of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The female characters are thinly drawn- although it could be argued that Wilde had an eye for the suffering induced by a stultifying husband. Similarly, a couple of witty epithets does not amount to a reckoning of the systematic violence against women that the #metoo movement seeks to expose. Wilde does, however, impart a salutary lesson on hero worship, by pointing out that commitment to an ideal is often premised on willful blindness. He would subsequently take this concern to extremes in The Importance of Being Earnest, in which two female characters dream of falling in love with men called Earnest, then latch on to men who call themselves Earnest purely to win their affections. The play premiered in February 1895. By May of that year he had been sentenced to hard labor and became the subject of his society’s taunts and jeers.

There is so much more that could be said, if only a director could find a way to stage a contemporary adaptation.

 

Further Reading

Emer O’Sullivan, The Fall of the House of Wilde, Bloomsbury.

Daniel Mendelson, The Two Oscar Wildes, NYRB