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...
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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...
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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 threaten him. Just as, in the three other plays, the past proves a force that motivates the thematic action, so here time seems to be the concept that governs the complication and resolution of the plot. The play deals with the problem of how well man, confronted with the alterable modes of his life, can adjust or adapt himself to the needs of changing situations. Where an absolute standard is obeyed despite the criticism of it by experience and actuality, there result irony, distortions, and absurdities that arouse ridicule and laughter.
Notice first how the scenes of the play shift from the ‘‘social’’ crowded atmosphere of the Octagon Room at Chiltern’s house (Act I) to a ‘‘private’’ room (Act II), then to...
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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 ‘‘our only thorough playwright.’’
The play centers around a group of characters who have by now grown into easily recognizable types. Once again we have a woman of high moral principle—Lady Chiltern. We have a character with a secret past (her husband, Sir Robert Chiltern), a dandy (Lord Goring), and a fashionable woman of questionable reputation, Mrs. Cheveley. But these characters show a new degree of depth. If Lady Chiltern is a good woman, she is seldom so one dimensional as Mrs. Arbuthnot. And if Lord Goring affects a dandylike pose, he is much more complex than either Lord Darlington or Lord Illingworth.
Sir Robert Chiltern is ‘‘the ideal husband’’ referred to in the title of the play. Lady Chiltern...
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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 do anything with a public with whom that is a success?’’ James was at least partly right, for his own play closed February 2 to make room for the The Importance of Being Earnest.
Wilde’s third comedy, An Ideal Husband, presents in Lady Chiltern another Puritan who cannot forgive anyone who has ever done a wicked or shameful deed. Her husband Robert, whom she idealizes, has long ago made his fortune by dishonorably selling a government secret. Mrs. Cheveley, a dishonest former school acquaintance of Lady Chiltern, attempts to blackmail Sir Robert into supporting a fraudulent Argentine canal project. Sir Robert is certain he will lose his wife if his secret is revealed, but Lord Goring, the Wildean dandy,...
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