British writer Oscar Wilde started drafting An Ideal Husband in 1893, pretty distracted by his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. That romance and the scandal surrounding it landed Wilde in jail two years later – the same year his plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London. It's interesting to think about "Wilde the Man" writing this play as we admire the craft of "Wilde the Playwright." Did the complexity of Wilde's own relationships (he was also married with two children) affect the play's philosophies? Could he have been writing about himself and his family, or about himself and Lord Alfred?
In An Ideal Husband, a man named Sir Robert Chiltern is faced with public ruin – and the abandonment of his idealistic wife, Lady Chiltern – when a secret from the past emerges. Lady Chiltern goes to her friend Lord Goring for advice. Goring is a dandy – an upper-class man concerned with being fashionable – and stylish wit. He also happens to be a fictional dead-ringer for Wilde, complete with the cape and cane. He argues for compassion in relationships and acceptance of the other's faults. According to Lord Goring, real life demands flexibility, not the absolutes dictated by strict Victorian mores. Therefore, says Lord Goring, forgive your husband's mistakes and stand by him.
Wilde was a master at stretching the popular genre of his time, the "drawing room comedy." The "drawing room comedy" features upper-class people in social and family situations. We also call this kind of play a "comedy of manners" – you know, lots of good jokes about which fork to use.
An Ideal Husband is full of silly plot contrivances inherited from the French well-made play: a letter from the past, a bracelet with a secret clasp. Wilde constantly tinkered with the plot to get the mechanics just right. But the heart of the play is in its relationships.
An Ideal Husband is most definitely a comedy. It's funny, it's silly, and everyone's overdressed. Remove the ruffles and bows, though, and the play is pretty darn serious. It's about how to live with other people. How do we, with our very different personalities and expectations, understand each other? How do we keep from judging others? Should we keep from judging others, or do our judgments give us important information about how we want to conduct our own lives?
These questions are always present in our lives – in how we deal with our friends, how we handle our parents, even in how we vote and decide political issues. Imagine you found out that one of your classmates cheated on an important test. In general, she's a cool person. You like her. She'll probably go on to do great things. But knowing what you know, would you give her an A in the class?
What if she were your sister?
The play argues that, with a loved one, you should accept without judgment. Don't throw the first stone. Turn the other cheek. Follow the golden rule.
But as the play ends and Sir Robert gets off scot-free, there's an irritating little question. Did he deserve it? What do you think?