Dandies, of which there are many in Wilde’s play, are a phenomenon of nineteenth- and earlytwentieth- century Europe. Dandies were men that were known for their commitment to fashion— usually extravagant fashion—and for their love of all things beautiful in general. Nineteenth-century dandies in the new mega-cities such as, Paris, London, and New York, would stroll elegantly down pedestrian boulevards and frequent fashionable places. It is said that their exquisite nature and distaste for all things rough and vulgar stemmed from their dismay over a changing world. Specifically, these city dandies were witnessing the industrialization of their environment. This involved a change from a world where rural living was dominant to a world where factories in new urban centers were being rapidly built—with all their belching, polluting coal smoke, as well as their horribly exploited and impoverished workers (ten–twelve hour or more workdays, pitifully inadequate pay, and six, sometimes seven-day work weeks). What they saw was ugliness and the worship of money no matter the environmental and human cost, so they rejected the practical and spoke for the value of the ephemeral, the delicate, and the beautiful. It was a way of insisting that the creation of wealth was evil if the quality of peoples’ lives was the price.
Wilde himself was a dandy in dress for some time. After graduating from Oxford, he spent a few years dressing in what was then considered exquisite fashion when he went out in the evenings. He did not go so far as to dress unusually in the daytime, however.
Many photographs of Wilde in one of his ‘‘exquisite’’ outfits exist; and...
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Wit as a type of humor is what Wilde is known for, both in his everyday life and in a number of his writings, including An Ideal Husband. Wit is clever humor—not bawdy, rude, silly, or visual funniness. Wit entails the delivery of an unexpected or surprising insight, or a clever reversal of expectations. For example, at one point in the play, Mrs. Cheveley says, ‘‘a woman’s first duty in life is to her dressmaker, isn’t it? What the second duty is, no one has yet discovered.’’ This would have provoked laughter because the popular saying she is reversing is as follows: ‘‘A woman’s first duty is to her husband.’’ Victorians were known for their commitment to duty and there would have been not one person in Wilde’s audience who had not heard and read the popular axiom many, many times.
Epigram and Aphorism
Epigrammatic turns of speech are short and sweet, and they are somehow surprising or witty. Wilde’s characters’ wit is often epigrammatic. For example, as Mrs. Cheveley says at one point, ‘‘Oh! I don’t care about the London season! It is too matrimonial. People are either hunting for husbands, or hiding from them.’’ Mrs. Cheveley’s purported reason for disliking the London social season is funny. Even funnier is that what makes the season ‘‘matrimonial’’ is not simply the search for husbands.
An aphorism is a brief statement containing an opinion or general truth, which might or might not be witty. Wilde excelled in wit in the form of aphorisms. Lady Cheveley, for example, delivers quite a few aphoristic witticisms in An Ideal Husband. For example, ‘‘Morality,’’ she says, ‘‘is simply the attitude we take toward people whom we personally dislike.’’ Or, as she says elsewhere: ‘‘Questions are never...
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Compare and Contrast
• 1890s: Dandies dress themselves in clothes reminiscent of days gone by; some carry a single flower as an accessory.
Today: A wide range of distinctive clothing that indicates a particular subculture, such as punk, Goth, and hip-hop, can be seen on the street of a typical American city.
• 1890s: Conservative Victorian ideology still rules the day, despite a new generation’s sense that it is becoming ‘‘modern.’’
Today: Alternative lifestyles and a general tolerance of difference coexists in the United States.
• 1890s: Oscar Wilde’s career was destroyed thanks to allegations of same-sex love affairs.
Today: Same-sex marriage is legal in some countries, such as Canada; a debate over whether or not to institute state-sanctioned same-sex marriage is current in the United States.
• 1890s: Queen Victoria, who gave the Victorian era its name, is known as the Imperial Queen; she declares herself Empress of India and Britain’s world empire becomes vast.
Today: The last of the British empire unravels in the mid twentieth century, and major British cities, such as London, are post-colonial, multiethnic metropolises.
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Topics for Further Study
• Research the circumstances surrounding Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment.
• The two years Wilde spent in prison ruined his health. Late-nineteenth-century prison conditions were harsh and hard labor as a punishment was common. Research prisons and the treatment of prisoners in England from 1890, plotting the major prison reforms of the twentieth century.
• Research Wilde’s mother, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, née Elgee. What works of literature did she publish under her own name? What did she publish under the pen name ‘‘Speranza,’’ and what was her role as a political writer in the cause of Irish independence?
• Research the major Irish uprisings against British rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Explore, for example, the Easter Uprising of 1916.
• Research the history of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Are they freedom fighters, or terrorists, in your view?
• Study one or two plays by the eighteenth-century- British playwright William Congreve, a master of the comedy of manners. Compare one of the plays to Wilde’s An Ideal Husband or The Importance of Being Earnest.
• Wilde’s father Sir William Wilde was an aural surgeon and oculist known throughout Europe for his expertise. What was the science of ears and eyes of the time? How successful were the operations of eye and ear surgeons then compared to today? Who were some of...
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• An Ideal Husband was made into a film by a British production in 1947. This film version was directed by Alexander Korda and starred Paulette Goddard as Mrs. Cheveley and Michael Wilding as Lord Goring.
• An Ideal Husband was adapted for television in Britain in 1969 as part of a ‘‘Play of the Month’’ series.
• Another British production made An Ideal Husband into a film 1998. This version was directed by William Cartlidge and starred James Wilby as Sir Robert Chiltern, Sadie Frost as Mrs. Cheveley, and Jonathan Firth as Lord Goring.
• A joint United States and Great Britain production of An Ideal Husband was made in 1999. This widely acclaimed version was directed by Oliver Parker and featured an all-star cast, including Cate Blanchett as Lady Gertrude Chiltern, Minnie Driver as Mabel Chiltern, Julianne Moore as Mrs. Cheveley, Jeremy Northern as Sir Robert Chiltern, and Rupert Everett as Lord Goring.
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What Do I Read Next?
• The play The Importance of Being Earnest (1896) is Wilde’s comedic masterpiece; it premiered a month after An Ideal Husband in 1895.
• The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) is Wilde’s much admired first book of fairy tales.
• Translations (1981) is a play by the well-known Irish playwright Brian Friel. It takes place in 1833, dramatizing Britain’s project of mapping Ireland and, in the process, substituting English names for the original Gaelic ones.
• The conclusion to The Renaissance (1873) by Walter Pater conveys the aestheticist creed that so impressed Wilde.
• Like Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, The Way...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Belford, Barbara, ‘‘A Broken Line,’’ in Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius, Random House, 2000, p. 233.
Eagleton, Terry, Introduction, in Saint Oscar, and Other Plays, Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
Hall, Peter, ‘‘A Warm, Impossible Love,’’ in the Guardian, November 11, 1992, Features Page, p. 4.
Nichols, Mark, ‘‘An Ideal Husband—The Wit and The Legend,’’ in The Importance of Being Oscar, St. Martin’s Press, 1983, pp. 91, 138.
Review of An Ideal Husband, in the Times (London), January 4, 1895, p. 7.
Wilde, Oscar, An Ideal Husband, in The Plays of Oscar Wilde, Random...
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