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An Ideal Husband | Context

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Critical Reception of An Ideal Husband

Oscar Wilde started working with the idea for An Ideal Husband in summer 1893. He was living in Goring-on-Thames, a village in South Oxfordshire (and the source of a character's name in the play: Lord Goring). He worked through the year but still referred to the play as "a little incomplete" in February 1894. He tried to build on his previous successes in 19th-century English theater by forging a link between one of his earlier works and his new play. Wilde's 1893 play A Woman of No Importance includes a discussion of what an ideal husband would be like (and why he couldn't exist). Like his earlier plays An Ideal Husband uses conventional period plot twists (in this case depending on an old letter and a stolen piece of jewelry) and displays Wilde's wit in full force. However, An Ideal Husband also incorporates commentary on more serious social topics, such as morality, politics, and gender roles. As a result it is sometimes called a "social comedy."

An Ideal Husband opened January 3, 1895. The audience loved it, and the Prince of Wales congratulated Wilde on the play. It ran for more than 100 performances at the Haymarket Theater. When it ended it was scheduled to be performed at another theater, but Wilde was arrested for homosexual activities and the theater suspended the play's run. Due to Wilde's arrest he was no longer credited as the play's author. Despite these setbacks An Ideal Husband opened in New York in March 1895, without as much scandal.

As a writer and a critic Wilde was aware of the critical reception of his work. When he finished An Ideal Husband he said to a friend, "It was written for ridiculous puppets to play, and the critics will say, 'Ah, here is Oscar unlike himself!—' though in reality I became engrossed in writing it, and it contains a great deal of the real Oscar." George Bernard Shaw praised it as superior to The Importance of Being Earnest. Many reviewers praised the play's dialogue, which is as witty as Wilde's other plays, but others noted the numerous logical flaws or unlikely plot twists or simply found the plot unoriginal. Some Wilde scholars have suggested audiences should see the Chilterns' need to protect Sir Robert's political secret as parallel to the Wildes' need to protect their own secret about his homosexuality.

An Ideal Husband is not produced as often as The Importance of Being Earnest, but it is still staged regularly. In addition to stage productions it has been filmed multiple times (in Russia, Germany, England, and the United States), and television, radio, and audio versions have been produced.

19th-Century Literary Models for An Ideal Husband

Wilde drew on several literary models in plotting this play, although he adapts them for his own purposes rather than imitating them slavishly. Wilde uses conventional forms of theater, then twists them in his own unique fashion to make fun of social conventions.

Generally he used the structures of the French "well-made play." This form depends on careful, complicated plotting to create suspense. The playwright resolves all the issues in the play neatly, usually in a single final scene at the play's climax. Action in these plays often revolves around key objects central to the characters' fate or identity. In The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, Wilde used a lost handbag as a clue to Earnest's identity. In An Ideal Husband Wilde builds the plot around a blackmail letter, as well as highly recognizable piece of stolen jewelry. Wilde's audience would be familiar with plays that used physical detail linked to characters' pasts.

An Ideal Husband also owes something to the popular melodramas of the 19th century. Such works featured two-dimensional characters (wholesome heroines, vile villains) and storylines based on simplistic conflicts in which good inevitably triumphs over evil and a happy ending results. Melodramas were also overly emotional as they tugged hard on their audience's heartstrings and were full of unlikely plot twists.

During this period a number of English plays focused on men in politics. These plays, such as Arthur Pinero's 1890 The Cabinet Minister, include debates over how men should act and reflect on the nature of male and female social roles. Such works include discussions of male virtue and often feature a husband who fills a public role threatened by a past crime or sin, which he then hides from his wife. However, Wilde took a new approach to this topic. It was common for the sinning public figure to retire from public life. Instead Wilde has Sir Robert consider retiring but then choose to stay on in a more visible government position.

Scholars have noted that Wilde often borrows his plots from other sources rather than creating them himself. Wilde most often drew on French dramas, but he also borrowed conventions from contemporary Victorian theater. Scholars have also pointed to a more specific model for this play: the 1873 American novel The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and C. D. Warner. It too revolves around a scheming woman who has invested money and tries to blackmail a government representative into making the investments pay off.

19th-Century Gender Roles

During the Victorian era (1837–1901) British society developed very clearly defined roles for men and women. People spoke of men and women inhabiting "separate spheres." These spheres were clearly defined and had very little overlap. Men were expected to be formally educated and work in the public sphere. Women were not required to be formally educated, and their focus was more on the domestic, private sphere. Society expected women to marry and provide moral guidance in the home, not only to their children but also their husbands. Their main public role was to serve as hostesses for social gatherings.

The Victorian era lasted a long time, and by the end of it women were actively challenging gender roles. From the middle of the 19th century on, women fought for and finally achieved more educational opportunities. London University began admitting women to two colleges in 1878. In the 1890s the "New Woman" movement emerged. It supported more formal education for women and changes in divorce laws. British society actively debated what role women should play during the 1890s. Period audiences would hear Lord Goring's comments in Act 4 on the differences between the lives men and women lead as part of this debate. They would also recognize the originality and humor in Mrs. Cheveley arguing in Act 2 that what was needed was higher education for men.

Wilde presents a spectrum of gender roles in this play. The women in the play are as articulate as any of the men. When Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring become engaged, for example, they are a perfect match. They share the capacity for firing off witty epigrams at a high speed. Mabel also shows insight and candor that proves she can equal, and possibly surpass, Lord Goring. The Chilterns' relationship blends conservative and more contemporary elements.

Lady Chiltern certainly doesn't hesitate to speak her mind and attends public meetings of the Women's Liberal Association. Sir Robert supports education for women. But while Sir Robert serves the country in politics, Lady Chiltern provides him with moral guidance at home. Lady Chiltern calls on her husband to be pure, which is in itself a challenge to period gender roles: she's asking him to be pure just as a woman must be. As the play progresses Wilde dramatizes tension between her public "feminism" and her private submission to traditional gender norms. At the play's climax Lord Goring explicitly supports the idea of distinct spheres for the two genders, and Lady Chiltern seems to embrace that perspective when she repeats Lord Goring's words to her husband. Mrs. Cheveley is an example of what happens when these roles go wrong. Women were supposed to seek good marriages and never admit sexual desire, as Mrs. Cheveley seems to do when she says she knew Baron Arnheim "intimately." Women were not supposed to cast morality aside completely, as Mrs. Cheveley does, to pursue amoral self-interest and sexual pleasure. She is unquestionably the villain of An Ideal Husband.

The Suez Canal

The crisis in this play occurs when Mrs. Cheveley attempts to blackmail Sir Robert Chiltern into supporting the Argentine Canal plan. She does this on the basis of information about his involvement in the stock speculation of the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal is over 100 miles long and connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. It is very useful for shipping and military purposes; it lets ships eliminate the entire route around Africa, which is both long and dangerous.

While visionaries had seen how valuable building a canal would be since the 15th century, it wasn't until the 19th century, when the French occupied Egypt, that the canal was finally built. French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps persuaded the Egyptian viceroy the canal was a good idea. In 1858 Egypt gave the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company the right to build and run the canal. It was a very risky venture. The British government opposed building the canal and even labeled it criminal to do so.

Britain at first refused to invest but finally agreed in 1875 only because the Egyptian government needed money. The British government bought shares for 568 francs; but they kept rising in value until they were worth over 3,600 francs by 1900. The audience of Wilde's time would be aware of both the risk involved in building canals and the huge financial payoff and so understand why Sir Robert was tempted and why Mrs. Cheveley would try to repeat this sort of investment. Since the British government had labeled the Suez Canal criminal, then invested in it, Mrs. Cheveley's suggestion that Sir Robert reverse himself is genius because it wouldn't surprise anyone: it would be like history repeating itself.

Wilde's Wit and Wordplay

An epigram is a brief, witty statement, usually a generalization about some aspect of life. Its purpose is to surprise, delight, and often provoke its audience. Epigrams convey big messages in a compact form. Consider President Kennedy's famous epigram: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what can do for your country." The second half of the epigram is startling because it reverses the first, communicating the message that rather than being a passive recipient, listeners should actively participate to help their country.

Short, sharp, and eye opening, epigrams are particularly well suited for satire. This makes them an excellent tool for Wilde, who uses them to poke fun at the rigidity or hypocrisy of society. Wilde's epigrams owe their witty bite to his use of wordplay, a playful or clever use of language, like that found in puns and other forms of verbal humor. Wordplay allows Wilde to subvert his audience's expectations by reversing the meanings or logic of words in order to make a satirical point.

An Ideal Husband is full of snappy dialogue based on epigrams, such as this exchange between Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring in Act 4:

Lord Goring [after some hesitation]. And I'm ... a little over thirty.
Mabel Chiltern. Dear, you look weeks younger than that.
(Act 4)

It is clear he feels self-conscious about admitting his true age to Mabel, the younger woman he wants to marry. In a conventional conversation Mabel would respond with kindness and tell Lord Goring that he does not look his age. When Mabel tells Lord Goring "you look weeks younger than that" it is not comforting but honest and witty. "Weeks" doesn't change his age much at all. Mabel's remark isn't meant to be cruel, simply candid; she can see exactly how old Lord Goring is so his attempt to downplay his age fails, to comedic effect.

In other instances epigrams are windows on broader, more profound, issues. In Act 2 Mrs. Cheveley quips, "Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike." "Morality" refers to a code that defines what society considers good or bad behavior. Logically people should embrace morality in order to lead an ethical, principled life. But Mrs. Cheveley turns the conventional meaning of the word inside out by defining morality as a matter of personal convenience. People "adopt" moral attitudes not because they want to lead a virtuous life but because doing so provides a convenient opportunity for them to feel superior and to condemn someone they dislike. By reversing the expected meaning of "morality" in this sentence, Wilde exposes the hypocrisy of those who pretend to be moral but are actually just the opposite.

At the same time this epigram raises serious questions. If morality is no more than an extension of self-interest rather than a virtuous code of ethics or behavior, it cancels itself out. Wilde's witty words provoke his audience into wondering about the true nature of morality. What does it mean to act ethically? Are people really motivated by selfishness more than a desire to be good? What would a world in which morality was simply another word for self-interest be like? Wilde's epigrams startle his audience into considering an issue from a fresh, and often unsettling, point of view.

Aestheticism and Decadence

Wilde was part of an artistic movement in Europe called aestheticism that began in the early 19th century but was in full bloom by Wilde's time. It challenged the Industrial Revolution's utilitarian worldview, which valued practicality. It also challenged the moral conservatism of the Victorian Era with a more playful, subversive approach to life. Aestheticism rejected rigid social conventions in favor of a flexible attitude to morality. They favored beauty and art for art's sake and saw life itself as a work of art, with pleasure and delight as essential components.

A close cousin of aestheticism was decadence, an art movement that flourished in the late 19th century. Decadence was a reaction against traditional morals of all sorts, including those defining sexuality. Decadence embraced perversity—the resistance to anything considered conventional or morally correct—and considered art and artifice superior to the natural world. A high level of sophistication was paired with a jaded attitude, a sense that the world is in decline so one might as well enjoy it.

Victorians were not amused by what they saw as a rejection of their values. Wilde's sense of humor, which he often used to skewer the conventional morality of his time, owes a great deal to aestheticism. Wilde also includes art and artifacts throughout his work as important symbols, and the stage directions in this play explicitly compare the main characters to works of art. In An Ideal Husband a diamond brooch featuring a snake design plays a key role. One of his characters, Lord Goring, lives an idle life devoted to pleasure and spouts some of the play's most decadent lines, such as his cynical observation, "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance."
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