An Ideal Husband Essay - Critical Essays

Criticism

Critical Essay on An Ideal Husband

The country in which Oscar Wilde was born was, for many centuries, a territory of the United Kingdom (Britain). Ireland was, then, a colony of Britain, a situation of enforced dependence that most Irish deeply resented. Uprisings against British rule were common until, finally, Home Rule was established in 1921. After this date, most major Irish- British skirmishes pertained to the contested territory of Northern Ireland, a portion of the Irish island that Britain retained owing to Northern Ireland’s large number of ethnic and religious Britons. (Northern Ireland is still British land to this day.)

Of interest to critics lately, in terms of Irish writers such as Wilde, James Joyce, and others, is how these authors’ works might evince patterns of anti-imperial expression. In other words, even if the work in question has little obvious, or no evident, political content relating to the Irish-British relations, how might the writing still be somehow colonial? What might the writing of the colonial writers of the world’s empires have in common?

As of a few decades ago, anybody who thought of Wilde probably thought of him as an English author. Yet, a more accurate description of him, perhaps, is that he is an Irish writer writing in the language of the empire to which his country belonged. Indeed, if it were not for British imperial ambitions, Wilde might have spoken and written in Gaelic, the predominant Irish language that British rulers suppressed. (School children in Ireland now learn Gaelic, but English is still the dominant language in the country.)

While Wilde had political convictions, he did not write much that was overtly political. Yet, he did grow up in a household taken with the cause of Ireland’s quest for independence. His mother was an extremely well known and influential political organizer and writer on the side of Irish independence. She published many books on Irish history and folklore, and, under the pen name of Speranza, she wrote a great deal of political material for the independence movement.

Still, even taking into account his mother’s profound patriotism and his own support of Irish independence, Wilde does not present himself as an obvious candidate to be studied as an Irish writer. He chose to live, after all, in London, the center of the empire; then again, this would be the likely destination of many ambitious writers of the time who were writing in English. Another interesting detail complicating Wilde’s identity and status is that his family was Protestant. That is, they shared Britain’s brand of Christianity, not Ireland’s (Catholicism).

Nevertheless, certain critics have embraced Wilde as a colonial, Irish writer, and what might be anti-imperial about An Ideal Husband will now be addressed in what follows.

One of the most significant aspects of Wilde’s art for colonial critics is the particular nature and focus of Wilde’s wit and favorite themes. His wit, critics say, would have encouraged contemporary audiences not simply to think, but to question the notions that enabled them to construct the secure imperial identities they presumably had. How might a populace support the vast imperial cause of Britain—the imperial project that at one point encompassed colonies stretching around the entire globe? For starters, colonial critics say, Britons had to be very sure of their cultural values and identity, and that these particular values and ways were superior to others: one did not colonize simply for financial gain; one colonized to bring to foreign peoples one’s superior way of life.

How, then, to encourage British audiences to think flexibly about their identities and to question the spreading of British culture? Well, one thing would be to highlight the problem of identity as such; in this regard, Lord Goring’s posing is significant (indeed, the fact that Wilde’s most entertaining characters all believe in the pose is significant). To adopt a pose means to choose how one wishes to come off. It means that there is no real, true self (identity) that one cannot help but express; it means that one can perform and create the self one pleases, that one can create a self from scratch. This notion of making-the-self invests the individual with great critical and moral power. It substitutes the individual for the social body: each person must decide who he or she wants to be, and each person must create his or her own identity. People who believe that they have the power to choose their beliefs are likely to be people who are critical of public opinion, or at least always willing to question it, and public opinion in Wilde’s time, in England, was decidedly on the side of the empire.

In An Ideal Husband, there are a number of instances where Wilde’s wit takes as its target the notion that there is no true and inevitable self to be expressed. The best and clearest example is near the beginning of the play, in an exchange between Sir Robert Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley. Chiltern has asked Cheveley if she is a pessimist or optimist, to which she replies that...

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Tolerance and Compassion in An Ideal Husband

In An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde stitches together multiple and varied elements to produce a seamless work that remains relevant more than a century after it was written. The playwright combines scintillating wit with both farce and melodrama, creating a piece that, over the course of its four acts, offers biting social and political commentary while espousing a philosophy that has the primacy of love and compassion as its focal point. Taken together, these elements compel Wilde’s audience to consider what, exactly, makes a person truly moral.

‘‘Deliciously absurd, morally serious, profoundly sentimental, and wickedly melodramatic, it is primarily a comedy of manners about political corruption, and love’’ is the way Barbara Belford describes the breadth of this play in her book Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius. And, as Mark Nichols points out in his book The Importance of Being Oscar, George Bernard Shaw lavished praise on An Ideal Husband when it first hit the stage, declaring: ‘‘In a certain sense Mr. Wilde is to me our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.’’

Wilde’s stiletto wit is on display throughout the play. Seemingly without effort, he produces one epigram after another. These concise, pithy, often paradoxical statements are uttered by minor and major characters alike and give An Ideal Husband an entirely playful sheen. Nichols notes in his book that Wilde’s son Vyvyan once wrote that his father viewed words as if they were ‘‘beautiful baubles with which to play and build, as a child plays with coloured bricks.’’ It is an apt analogy. Wilde’s wordplay provides an iridescent foundation, each epigram indeed like a beautifully colored brick that helps form the base that An Ideal Husband is built upon.

The baubles are indeed splendid, providing such delight that they would make this play a memorable experience no matter what plot line is constructed around them. Nichols, in fact, spends no time analyzing the story line of An Ideal Husband. Instead, he is content to reel from one epigram to another, as if intoxicated by each indelible line, such as the one uttered by the character Lord Goring, who observes, ‘‘When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.’’

Among the targets skewered by Wilde is the world of high society. Take, for example, this choice remark from the character Mabel Chiltern, who says, ‘‘Oh, I love London Society! I think it has immensely improved. It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what society should be.’’ As rich a subject as that might have been at the end of the Victorian era, it took some nerve for Wilde to sling verbal barbs at social circles he himself was in. This play, though, is substantially more than a collection of witty oneliners and has more philosophical meat to chew on, as well. Part of the main course, so to speak, is the issue of hypocrisy, especially as it applies to the world of politics.

Wilde’s gateway into the rich turf of the political arena is the character Sir Robert Chiltern, a highranking official who built a sterling career by constantly seeking the moral high ground. His integrity is beyond reproach, and his wife Gertrude idolizes him for his goodness, honesty, and dedication to principles. But, beneath all his respectability is a dirty secret: Chiltern’s wealth, and the career in public service it afforded him, derived from Chiltern selling a state secret many years before when he was still a young man. The threat of that secret being exposed by Mrs. Cheveley forms the basis of the plot for An Ideal Husband.

Cheveley, in possession of a highly incriminating letter that proves Sir Robert’s crime, wants Chiltern to lend his support, and the credibility that goes with it, to a scam that would bilk the public treasury. She attempts to blackmail him, threatening to expose his sordid actions if he does not provide assistance for her scheme, an action that would have him betray the public trust he has otherwise so rightly earned. The woman delights in taunting him....

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The Action of the Comedies

Wilde’s least successful play on the stage and his third comedy, An Ideal Husband, was written between October 1893 and March 1894. It was produced at the Haymarket Theatre on January 3, 1895. When Wilde in 1899 corrected the proofs of the play for publication, he said that it ‘‘reads rather well, and some of its passages seem prophetic of tragedy to come.’’ But Sir Robert Chiltern’s predicament, though it bears a tenuous resemblance to Wilde’s, has distinctive melodramatic overtones.

The play concerns itself primarily with Sir Robert Chiltern’s past misdeed on which his fortune and eminent reputation now stand. The past, in the form of Mrs. Cheveley’s immoral ends, revives in order to haunt and...

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Feasting with Panthers: The Rise and Fall of Oscar Wilde

An Ideal Husband opened in London on January 3, 1895. Although considerably longer than either Lady Windermere’s Fan or A Woman of No Importance, it proved to be an enormous success. When the Prince of Wales sent for Wilde on the opening night, the flattered playwright remarked that he would have to cut some of the scenes. ‘‘Pray do not take out a single word,’’ said the Prince, and Wilde was more than happy to leave the play as it was. While a modern audience is likely to be more critical, it cannot be denied that An Ideal Husband is much better crafted than either of Wilde’s earlier comedies. Indeed, no less a judge than George Bernard Shaw was moved by this work to pronounce Wilde...

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The Drama

An Ideal Husband, according to Frank Harris, was based on a story that he had told Wilde about Disraeli’s making money by entrusting the Rothschilds with the purchase of Suez Canal shares. Pearson discounts the significance of Harris’ claim by arguing that ‘‘Sardou must have suggested it to Harris, as it is to be found in that playwright’s Dora.’’ An Ideal Husband was first performed at the Theater Royal, Haymarket, on January 3, 1895, with great success. Henry James, whose own play Guy Domville also opened the same night, saw Wilde’s play at its opening. He felt the play was ‘‘so helpless, so crude, so bad, so clumsy, feeble, and vulgar’’ that he wondered ‘‘How can my piece...

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