An Ideal Husband premiered in London, England, on January 3, 1895, and was published in 1896. It was the third of Wilde’s four comedic plays to be staged, and it was as big a success with audiences as the previous two. However, critics of the time were not as appreciative as audiences, which was the case for all of Wilde’s social comedies. Critics thought these plays more flippant than substantive; audiences were delighted by the wonderful wit of the dramas. Numerous choice ‘‘one-liners’’ and other pithy witticisms that Wilde’s dramatic characters deliver are still quoted by people today.
An Ideal Husband is often called a ‘‘social comedy’’ because it has both a serious (‘‘social’’) as well comedic plot line. On the one hand, the play is about a prominent politician who is in danger of losing his reputation as a paragon of integrity, owing to a youthful indiscretion that the play’s villain is threatening to expose. Although the politician’s transgression is not exposed, this plot line conveys the idea that there are very few people in the world who are wholly good and to pretend so is hypocritical. This is a message for Wilde’s contemporaries, a late-Victorian group obsessed with purity and goodness but, of course, as imperfect as the people of any other age. On the other hand, the play is supposed to be funny, as it is, thanks to the witty bantering of the characters, especially in moments when the play is not directly concerned with the ‘‘social’’ plot.
Wilde and his play are by now firmly established in the English-language canon of literature, and most libraries hold volumes of the individual or collected plays. The Modern Library editions of Wilde’s collected comedies are the most widespread.