Wilde is at his best when he's being serious, and there's a fair amount of seriousness in An Ideal Husband. But there's also plenty of the more easily recognizable Wilde—the witty Wilde, the society Wilde, the Wilde who can't take anything seriously. Which makes one wonder if there isn't more than a little autobiography going on in this play.
At first it's difficult to determine who the main character is. Is it the moral paragon and political up-and-comer, Sir Robert Chiltern? Is it the beautiful but conniving and entirely unscrupulous Mrs. Cheveley? Or is it Lady Chiltern, even more of a paragon than her husband at the expense (one suspects) of the gentler features of her womanhood?
But of course, no, it is none of these. The real main character of An Ideal Husband is Lord Goring, who bears an almost impossibly strong resemblance to Oscar Wilde himself. Lord Goring is in his mid-thirties but pretends to be younger; Lord Goring is a wonderful conversationalist and wit; Lord Goring takes nothing seriously; Lord Goring is a dandy; Lord Goring is wise.
The plot revolves around a scandal in Sir Robert Chiltern's past of which his wife knows nothing and of which Mrs. Cheveley knows everything, a knowledge she attempts to wield to destroy Chiltern's reputation and get rich in the process. We might wonder why Chiltern doesn't just tell his wife about his past underhandedness, until we realize she idolizes him and believes him to be (literally) perfect.
At the center of all this is Lord Goring, who puts himself at great pains to help everyone do the right thing and to give them a more realistic picture of human nature and the importance of grace and forgiveness. Some of his monologues are reminiscent of Wilde's masterpiece, the poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which is a beautiful reflection on redemption. But many of his lines are just hilarious one-liners, too.
In the end, it's pretty clear who the ideal husband is, and it's not Chiltern. There are definite aspects of political satire here, as Wilde delivers a pretty cynical view of the moral integrity of politicians, but ultimately this part of the plot is just a foil for the real point—that human beings are only just human beings and that the only way to get along is to realize that.
The real theme that emerges, then, is one of artifice and reality. Wilde spent a lot of time reflecting on and writing about the purpose of art, and some of his many asides in An Ideal Husband directly reflect this preoccupation, including his famous idea that "life imitates art far more than art imitates life." Whether or not that's true, this play is a wildly entertaining exploration of the ways people present themselves, and how that presentation does or doesn't reflect their true nature. Highly recommended!
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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