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