An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde.
An Ideal Husband is a political play by Oscar Wilde, first performed in 1895, the same year as what is probably Wilde's most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest

The action centres around Sir Robert Chiltern, the 'ideal husband' of the title, who is somewhat of a complex man. Wilde describes him in the stage directions:
A man of forty, but looking somewhat younger.  Clean-shaven, with finely-cut features, dark-haired and dark-eyed.  A personality of mark.  Not popular—few personalities are.  But intensely admired by the few, and deeply respected by the many.  The note of his manner is that of perfect distinction, with a slight touch of pride.  One feels that he is conscious of the success he has made in life.  A nervous temperament, with a tired look.  The firmly-chiselled mouth and chin contrast strikingly with the romantic expression in the deep-set eyes.  The variance is suggestive of an almost complete separation of passion and intellect, as though thought and emotion were each isolated in its own sphere through some violence of will-power.  There is nervousness in the nostrils, and in the pale, thin, pointed hands.  It would be inaccurate to call him picturesque.  Picturesqueness cannot survive the House of Commons.  But Vandyck would have liked to have painted his head.
His wife is Lady Chiltern, "a woman of grave Greek beauty, about twenty-seven years of age". The play begins at a party in London hosted by the Chilterns. To their surprise, Mrs. Cheveley arrives. She is -
... tall and rather slight.  Lips very thin and highly-coloured, a line of scarlet on a pallid face. Venetian red hair, aquiline nose, and long throat.  Rouge accentuates the natural paleness of her complexion. Gray-green eyes that move restlessly.  She is in heliotrope, with diamonds.  She looks rather like an orchid, and makes great demands on one’s curiosity.  In all her movements she is extremely graceful.  A work of art, on the whole, but showing the influence of too many schools.
It is revealed that she knows a secret about Sir Chiltern: he made his fortune by selling government secrets. As Mrs. Cheveley puts it,
I realise that I am talking to a man who laid the foundation of his fortune by selling to a Stock Exchange speculator a Cabinet secret.
1899 edition.
She will keep his secret (of which she has proof in a letter), but at a great price: previously Chiltern has been against the building of a canal in Argentina. Mrs. Cheveley tells Chiltern that unless he reverses his opinion and publicly supports the canal she will reveal his secret. He is forced to agree, however when he informs Lady Chiltern of his change of opinion she pressures him to go back on his promise to Mrs. Cheveley, leaving Sir Chiltern in a very awkward position indeed.

As the play progresses the situation gets more difficult and complex, particularly as Lady Chiltern, a moral and rather inflexible character, persists in seeing her husband as 'ideal'. As she says,
Robert, that is all very well for other men, for men who treat life simply as a sordid speculation; but not for you, Robert, not for you.  You are different.  All your life you have stood apart from others. You have never let the world soil you.  To the world, as to myself, you have been an ideal always. Oh! be that ideal still.  That great inheritance throw not away—that tower of ivory do not destroy. Robert, men can love what is beneath them—things unworthy, stained, dishonoured.  We women worship when we love; and when we lose our worship, we lose everything.  Oh! don’t kill my love for you, don’t kill that!
More characters are drawn in as Mrs. Cheveley becomes increasingly determined to see her plans realised. The Chilterns' marriage becomes strained as unrealistic expectations of love and marital unity are tested, and we also see a great challenge of the 'ideal wife'; the 'angel' that haunted some of Virginia Woolf's works: blindly supportive and highly moral. Despite these rather serious themes, this is Wilde - very funny indeed, and entertaining, though perhaps not my favourite. Even so, it's a play I'd very much like to see one day.

And that was my 39th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week another play - Philaster by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.

Comments

  1. i've never read this one; sounds a bit more socially critical than some of the others, having to do with blackmail and all; i guess o.w. could make anything funny, but this plot might have offered a bit of a challenge... interesting. tx.

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    1. It is funny, not quite as sparkling as the other plays, but it has it's moments :) I do love Wilde!

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  2. Again, kudos to you for being able to articulate a Wilde play. I do find him difficult to review. And congratulations for staying on top of your Deal-Me-In Challenge. I'm lagging, as usual, but better some finished than none at all.

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    1. He is very hard to review, very hard indeed. This will be my last Wilde play for a while, it's the last one I own and I don't have any plans to get any more. Not to say I won't ever, I definitely want to read more, just not sure when I'll lay my hands on the remainder :)

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