Oscar Wilde wrote An Ideal Husband during the decade known as the "Naughty Nineties," the twilight years of England's Victorian era. This period was distinguished by England's growth as an industrial and imperial giant and an increasing conservatism in social mores. Imperial expansion, foreign speculation and the period's rigid system of mores -- involving, for example, notions of familial devotion, propriety and duty both public and personal --provide the backdrop for Wilde's play.
The play dramatizes a clash in value systems rather explicitly, continually posing the figure of the dandy -- a thinly veiled double of Wilde himself -- against a set of more respectable, "ideal" characters.
The action of An Ideal Husband takes place within about twenty four hours. While Wilde has a serious plot and message in An Ideal Husband, the play is mostly comic. As such, it is close to a form of dramatic comedy known as the comedy of manners. Comedies of manners are mostly associated with eighteenth century Europe, although they date back to the beginnings of European drama.
A comedy of manners is a play whose purpose is to satirize human vagaries. They focus on a particular stratum of society and make fun of that group’s pettiness, hypocrisies, vanities, failings, and so forth. In An Ideal Husband, for example, Wilde satirizes the hypocrisy of the English ruling classes through his portrait of Sir Robert Chiltern.