Oscar Wilde was a prolific writer at the turn of the nineteenth century, initially as a journalist and then as a playwright. His plays were witty and light-hearted, yet also revealed some underlying truths about the social times of London during the late 1800’s. For these reasons, many of his plays continue to be popular in modern times.
My favourite Oscar Wilde play is An Ideal Husband (1895).
The story centres on a couple, Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude Chiltern, who are at the height of political acclaim in London society and who represent what is true and noble about British life. The scene opens at a political party given by the Chiltern’s at their Grosvenor Street home.
Mrs Cheveley, an old school acquaintance of Lady Chiltern’s, has lately arrived in London from Vienna with the specific purpose of being introduced to Sir Robert. At the party, she manages to have a private interview with him where she attempts to blackmail him with a secret from his past. She holds a letter that Sir Robert wrote when he was a secretary to a Minister of Parliament, in which he divulged a Cabinet secret to a stockbroker for money. In return for this letter, she hopes to get his public support in Parliament for a failing investment, namely her shares in the Argentine Canal scheme.
Gertrude Chiltern instinctively distrusts Mrs Cheveley and, not knowing her husbands past, she makes him refuse Mrs Cheveley’s demands in the form of a letter.
Sir Robert Chiltern: No one should be entirely judged by their past. Lady Chiltern: One’s past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged.
Sir Robert, now placed between two implacable and immoveable women, unburdens himself to his closest friend, Lord Goring, telling him the whole story. Lord Goring, a rich aristocratic bachelor, advises him to tell his wife the truth at once, but Sir Robert is afraid that it would destroy her love for him. In an attempt to help the situation, Lord Goring tries to soften Gertrude towards her husband and his unknown blemishes, and ends by pledging his assistance to her should she ever be in need of it.
A sub-plot of the emerging relationship between Lord Goring and Sir Robert’s sister, Mabel Chiltern, occurs throughout the play. It is a light and playful contrast to the deepening drama occurring with the other characters.
Mrs Cheveley, having misplaced her diamond brooch, comes to visit Gertrude Chiltern to see if it has been found. She uses the opportunity to suggest that Gertrude should encourage Sir Robert to acquiesce to her demands, and reveals to her the origin of her husband’s wealth and career. Sir Robert enters the room during the conversation and is left no recourse but to admit the truth to his wife. Lady Chiltern is devastated.
Lady Chiltern: You were to me something apart from common life, a thing pure, noble, honest, without stain. The world seemed to me finer because you were in it, and goodness more real because you lived. And now – oh, when I think that I made of a man like you my ideal! The ideal of my life!
Lord Goring, at home in his stately apartments, receives an ambiguous letter from Lady Chiltern, imploring him for help and announcing her intention to visit him immediately. “I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you now. Gertrude.” What follows is a comedy of errors, where Lord Goring is visited by numerous people, beginning with his father, Lord Caversham. Whilst Lord Goring is being a dutiful son, Mrs Cheveley, who is mistaken by the servant as Lady Chiltern, is shown into the drawing room. To complete the picture, Sir Robert arrives as Lord Caversham departs, and Lord Goring, thinking it is Lady Chiltern concealed in the neighbouring room, begins to talk to Sir Robert about his wife in an attempt to reconcile them.
Upon discovering Mrs Cheveley listening to their conversation, Sir Robert leaves in disgust. Mrs Cheveley, who had once been engaged to Lord Goring, then announces her reason for visiting – that she desires to marry Lord Goring and will promise to give him Sir Robert’s letter in return for his self-sacrifice. Lord Goring refuses.
The conversation turns to the brooch she lost at the Chiltern’s party, which Lord Goring has found. He returns it to her, clasping it on her hand as a bracelet, and tells her that he knows who she stole it from. In a panic, she agrees to surrender Sir Robert’s letter to him, rather than being turned over to the police. However, as she leaves she steals Gertrude’s somewhat compromising letter from the desk, intending to use it to destroy the Chiltern’s marriage.
Lord Goring visits Lady Chiltern to apprise her of the danger she stands in, and suggests she tell her husband the situation immediately. Afraid of the consequences, she pretends that she had meant the letter to be for Sir Robert, and not Lord Goring. However, when Sir Robert refuses to allow Lord Goring to marry Mabel Chiltern because he believes him to be involved with Mrs Cheveley, Lady Chiltern has to admit writing the letter to Lord Goring in order to clear up the misunderstanding. In the end, Lord Goring and Mabel are happily engaged, Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern are happily reconciled, and Sir Robert has a new position in the Cabinet of the Government!
The play contrasts the notion of private moral integrity with public moral integrity, where private integrity is how you conduct yourself behind closed doors, and public integrity is how your conduct appears to others. Sir Robert Chiltern has exceptional public integrity and is celebrated for his appearance of upright character, yet his private decisions in his past demonstrate a moral code that has been unduly influenced by temptation.
Sir Robert Chiltern: …Gertrude, public and private life are different things. They have different laws, and move on different lines. Lady Chiltern: They should both represent man at his highest. I see no difference between them.
Lord Goring, in contrast, has a solid private integrity, refusing to marry Mrs Cheveley even to save his friend. He even refuses to agree with Sir Robert’s reasons for making his disastrous choice, whilst still being sympathetic to his friend’s predicament. Yet his father, Lord Caversham, believes him to have very poor public integrity, comparing him negatively to Robert Chiltern on a number of occasions.
Lord Caversham: I wish you would go into Parliament. Lord Goring: My dear father, only people who look dull ever get into the House of Commons, and only people who are dull ever suceed there. Lord Caversham: Why don’t you try to do something useful in life? Lord Goring: I am far too young. Lord Caversham: I hate this affectation of youth, sir. It is a great deal too prevalent nowadays. Lord Goring: Youth isn’t an affectation. Youth is an art.
This issue of dual areas of morality in character is not clearly resolved. Wilde instead presents them as both important, even though both are treated differently. In private life, it is the people you love who extend arms of forgiveness for moments of error. However, in public life there awaits scandal and humiliation that crush a man for his moments of error. These different consequences of essentially the same moral decisions means that the characters have to deal with them differently. It is therefore appropriate that Sir Robert confesses fully to his wife, but it is not appropriate that he confess to the public.
The title “An Ideal Husband”, represents two very different types of “ideal” in the play. Lady Chiltern makes an ideal of her husband, Sir Robert, putting him on a pedestal and worshiping his goodness. Unfortunately, this type of relationship allows no room for any imperfections and therefore there is no space for forgiveness. Lady Chiltern is required to change her view of “an ideal husband” in order to be reconciled to Sir Robert.
Lord Goring, as a rich and eligible bachelor, would make a very ideal husband and is even sought after by two of the principal characters, Miss Mabel and Mrs Cheveley. However, both Lord Goring and Mabel are well aware of each others faults and are happy to accept and live with them.
Lord Caversham: And if you don’t make this young lady an ideal husband, I’ll cut you off with a shilling. Mabel Chiltern: An ideal husband! Oh, I don’t think I should like that. It sounds like something in the next world.
Wilde seems to appreciate that life is not perfect. Problems arise in any relationship, but if love remains constant then forgiveness is always possible.
“An Ideal Husband” – the movie (1999)