OK, so "comedy" covers the "light" description of the tone (see "Genre" for more). But how can an author take a simultaneously "satirical" and "sympathetic" view of the story? It's in the presentation of the characters. Wilde paints sympathetic portraits of the main characters, taking pains to describe the reasoning behind their actions. Even Mrs. Cheveley gets somewhat of a pass for growing up poor.
But Wilde also pokes fun at characters, in their own dialogue or in dialogue about them. Satire is all about exaggerating people's flaws to comic effect. Lord Goring is the narcissistic result of the "Boodle's Club" – a gentleman's club in London (1.114). Mrs. Cheveley "really has considerable attractions left," even though, according to Victorian standards, her expiration date is coming up (or past) (3.245). Lady Chiltern is the winner of the "good conduct prize" (1.66). Nobody is safe from Wilde's lampoon.
It's the genre that will never die: the romantic comedy. How many romantic comedies hit the movie theaters every year? How many real-life happy endings start as awkward first dates at said romantic comedies?
Wilde comes out with the melodramatic language (See "Writing Style") to crack open a few heavy ideas about the value of empathy and forgiveness, but let's face it, it's a comedy. And it's a comedy that makes fun of people's faults and bad habits – which makes it a satire. It's filled with fun and zany characters and ends in marriage. And, thanks to Wilde's way with words, it's funny as heck.
An "ideal husband" is what we spend the whole play learning not to want. When we're first introduced to Sir Robert Chiltern, he appears to be just that – a "pattern husband," as Mrs. Markby says. He's powerful, rich, handsome, sensitive, and loving. His wife, Lady Chiltern, worships him. When a secret from his past comes to light, Lady Chiltern judges her husband mercilessly. There's no possibility of compromise or weakness. Her good friend Lord Goring has some advice for her: accept humanity, and stop expecting perfection.
Even the secondary characters have some relationship to the concept of "the ideal husband." The socialites Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont would prefer intrigue and excitement; their husbands are so well behaved they are dull. Man-eater Mrs. Cheveley likes her men with a heaping helping of money – and a good reputation on the side. She unconventionally proposes to Lord Goring, who has no interest in becoming her ideal husband. As a free spirit, he gives no inkling until the final act that he intends to be a husband at all.
Is it possible that any of these pampered, high-maintenance people could ever be satisfied by their husbands or wives? For one thing, they'd miss out on a popular social sport in the world of the play – trashing your spouse in front of your circle of friends.
According to Wilde, the ideal husband (or wife) doesn't exist, and to hold out for one is cruel and pointless. As Mabel says at the end of the play, "Oh, I don't think I should like [an ideal husband]. It sounds like something in the next world" (4.290). She wants to be a "real wife," someone with the natural, spontaneous, indulgent behavior she's shown throughout the play, driven by love of her spouse's talents and forgiveness of his faults.
Like many a comedy before and after it, An Ideal Husband ends with marriage. The pleasant, friendly world that was overturned by (perpetually single) Mrs. Cheveley is restored – improved, actually – and two couples declare and renew vows. Thanks to the impressive go-betweening skills of Lord Goring, the Chilterns enjoy a newly realistic partnership. Instead of pretending to be a hero who always makes the right decisions, Sir Robert can just be himself with his wife. Lady Chiltern (in a troublingly submissive speech – see more under her "Character Analysis") has promised to accept and forgive.
Lord Goring, who at the beginning of the play seemed unlikely to settle down with anyone, ever, is hitching up with Mabel. Perhaps – and this really is speculation – his successful resolution of the Chiltern's problems makes him feel ready to be a husband. All we know is that funny, lively, indulgent Mabel seems to be a good match for him. The end of the play presses home the point that in a relationship, its better to be "real" than "ideal."
Oscar Wilde set this play in his own time. His many references to particular political situations (the Suez Canal, Women's Liberal Association) made the play up-to-the-minute for his audience. A few years later you would probably have to look up the names to know what Wilde means.
What's important is this: it's turn of the century England; Queen Victoria is on the throne and London is seen as the center of the universe. England is getting rich off its colonies. Power and prestige in London mean international power and prestige. We can see the scope of Sir Robert's influence – and how the focus of his attentions shifts – by looking closely at the settings throughout the play.
We start in fashionable Grosvenor Square at a sparkling party full of international movers and shakers and the women who love them. Chandeliers, tapestry, and chamber music complete the picture. The Chilterns are wealthy and classy. The guests are on their best behavior. (If you want to party like a good Victorian, check out "Etiquette for the Ballroom," 1880.) Setting the first scene in such a public arena – even including characters who won't be seen for the next three acts – establishes Sir Robert's reputation and raises the stakes for his struggle.
The settings transition from this public arena to more private ones throughout the play – Sir Robert's morning room and Lord Goring's library. This transition echoes Sir Robert's conflict, and his willingness to sacrifice his career for his wife, if he must.
The morning room is a comfortable room with a fireplace and armchair. It's an appropriate venue for receiving less-intimate friends like Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley. Most of the philosophical debates happen in this room. It's where the hard work of changing minds happens, on the turf of our two serious characters, Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern.
Hard work of another kind happens at Lord Goring's place. Once we see three doors leading into the library, we know we're in for some fun hijinks. A staple of farce, multiple entrances create the kind of misunderstandings and missed connections that keep audiences laughing and plot resolutions up in the air. Once Lord Caversham, Mrs. Cheveley, and Lord Caversham are all tucked into the various pockets of this one small area, Lord Goring is motivated to think fast. He's the kind of guy who does well under pressure.
The last act returns us to Sir Robert's morning room, where everything is tied up in a neat comedic bow. The last moment of the play is its most intimate one. In the same spot where they fought bitterly over Sir Robert's past, he and Lady Chiltern are left alone to reconcile. Gentle with him now, Lady Chiltern remarks that "For both of us a new life is beginning" (4.297).
An Ideal Husband isn't hard to read. The witticisms keep things clipping along. Many elements of the story – a woman with the past, a political intrigue, a problem-solving friend – will be familiar from a million Hollywood movies. Sure, there will be some references you don't get the first time around, but these just serve to situate the play in Wilde's own time. They won't get in the way of understanding what's happening in the play.
You can always recognize Wilde by his epigrams – succinct, witty, paradoxical sayings. Like this one (no offense, rock stars): "Musical people are so absurdly unreasonable. They always want one to be perfectly dumb at the very moment when one is longing to be absolutely deaf" (2.191). Fabulous. Even on his deathbed, the Wilde was funny (see "Trivia").
Most of the characters get to shoot off a few of these epigrams, no matter how they might otherwise seem. How awesome would parties be if everyone were truly this witty. Only ultra-serious Lady Chiltern scores low on the epigram count.
On the melodramatic speech count, however, Lady Chiltern scores high, as does Sir Robert. Lord Goring scores high in both kinds of language. How do we know it's melodrama? Keep an eye out for repetition, reversed word order, and exaggeration. Sir Robert squeezes all three into these words to Lady Chiltern: "All sins, except a sin against itself, Love should forgive. All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon" (2.311). He even throws in a little mid-sentence capitalization for emphasis. You go, Sir Rob.
The Triumph of Love tapestry is from a design by Boucher – perhaps from his "Visit of Venus to Vulcan" (1754), or "Triumph of Venus" (1740). In both, the goddess of love is a triumphant figure – either pointing to the conquered heart of Vulcan or socializing in the ocean with a flock of naked maidens, dudes, and cherubs. The tapestry is highlighted at the end of Act 1, when Sir Robert's just received the directive from Lady Chiltern to reject Mrs. Cheveley's indecent proposal. At this moment in the play, love may triumph, but it's at the expense of all else.
The image appears again in Act 2, as Mabel heads off to a rehearsal of "Triumph of…something" tableaux, just an elaborate excuse for her two suitors, Lord Goring and Tommy Trafford, to vie for her attention.
The snake-shaped diamond brooch/bracelet serves as a symbol of marriage and relationships, though its meanings and uses change throughout the play. It first turns up as a conversation piece between Mabel, who's found it, and Lord Goring, who recognizes it from the past. He makes her promise not to tell anyone he has it – a promise that could be seen as a precursor to their later engagement vows. The brooch emerges as a pretense for Mrs. Cheveley to visit Lady Chiltern and observe the progress of her demolition job on the Chiltern marriage. It finally serves as a trap for Mrs. Cheveley. Her confession of losing it at the party is also a confession of theft, as Lord Goring had given it as a wedding gift long ago. Lord Goring, always resourceful and often secretive, reveals the hidden properties of the bracelet as he cuffs Mrs. Cheveley into submission.
Mrs. Cheveley is the dark figure. She comes onto the scene with a self-absorbed mission: to establish her own wealth and security by unseating Sir Robert's. She's a shrewd woman who's probably done her research – unsettling Lady Chiltern is an extra treat. Her challenge to Sir Robert pits the Chilterns against each other.
The Chilterns' lived-in, happy marriage seemed to guarantee closeness, but Mrs. Cheveley's intervention has cracked open an area of deep misunderstanding between them. They feel like strangers to each other. At this point in the play, many negative outcomes are possible: Sir Robert may be exposed and ostracized, or abandoned by his wife; he may involve England in a fraudulent scheme. Mrs. Cheveley may get everything her corrupt heart desires.
Lord Goring is fighting Mrs. Cheveley, slowly revealing her true nature. She's the woman behind the drawing room door, and she's a trapped criminal: "her face distorted. Her mouth awry. A mask has fallen from her… " (3.284) He also reveals himself as "the philosopher that underlies the dandy" (4.236) in his advice to Lady Chiltern. As these characters assume their true identities, a reparation of everyone else's relations can occur.
The unwelcome interruption of Mrs. Cheveley has actually succeeded in helping the Chiltern marriage grow. Lady Chiltern sees her husband more realistically, and Sir Robert has cleared his conscience. Lord Goring and Mabel embark on a union that's likely to be a little unconventional.
The play starts with a big party filled with glitterati – an expression of the political celebrity Sir Robert has become. Party chatter allows the characters to give their two cents on the Chilterns. We learn off the bat that the Lady Chiltern and Sir Robert are "serious," "brilliant," and "of the highest principles."
Mrs. Cheveley busts out her blackmail plan, and the security that Sir Robert felt just two drinks ago evaporates. If he doesn't endorse her crooked investment, she'll tell everyone he got rich quick by selling state secrets as a young man. What if that whole group of socialites downstairs got the news? We can imagine them silently setting down their silver and walking out, or even more fun, tossing oily artichoke hearts at Sir Robert's head.
Now Sir Robert's really stuck between a rock and a hard place – between two strong women who hate each other. On the one side, Mrs. Cheveley threatens public ruin. On the other, Lady Chiltern will revoke her love if Sir Robert does what Mrs. Cheveley says.
We puzzled about this for a moment. The exciting scene in the library looks like a climax. All the physical symbols of the conflict are in play: the letter to Baron Arnheim, the brooch-bracelet Mrs. Cheveley stole, and Lady Chiltern's letter on pink stationary. It feels like a climax – the usually cucumber-like Lord Goring almost physically attacks Lady Cheveley. And it sounds like a climax, the dialogue full of question marks and exclamations points accelerating to the bell that sounds for Phipps.
Then why the puzzlement? Because the protagonist, Sir Robert, is nowhere in sight, and it's customary for the protagonist to be involved in the climax. In this play, however, Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley are the most active characters, so it makes sense that the climax takes place between them. Take a look at "Character Roles" for a discussion of Sir Robert as the passive protagonist.
We're back at the Chilterns on the morning of the speech, and we don't quite know what will happen. Because Sir Robert doesn't know that the Arnheim letter (i.e., the source for Mrs. Cheveley's blackmail) has been burned, he could still publicly support the Argentine scheme. He could lose Lady Chiltern. His wife could demand that he rent a cave somewhere for them to live in so he's not tempted by power again.
Because of her decidedly submissive speech of love, we know that Lady Chiltern will have Sir Robert's back, no matter what. She's not even going to make him go hermit. The mini-complication in which Sir Robert refuses to let Lord Goring marry Mabel allows Lady Chiltern to come totally clean and further reaffirm her love.
Wilde serves up the classic comic ending. Marriage!
OK, don't worry about the fact that Wilde put his play in four acts and we're talking about three. The Three Act Plot Analysis is just another way of looking at the structure of the play. And maybe, when you direct the play, this analysis will help you figure out where to put the intermission.
Upsetting the Chilterns' good vibe of security and power, Mrs. Cheveley threatens Sir Robert with public humiliation and brings tension to his otherwise happy marriage.
Lady Chiltern finds out about Sir Robert's past crime. He feels like he'll never get her back.
We'd throw Wilde's Acts 3 and 4 in here. Act 3 puts us in Lord Goring's house as he struggles to straighten things out; by the end of Act 4 everyone's happy in love, and seeing their beloved a little more realistically.