Many people recognise Oscar Wilde for his famous Gothic-style novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, or his well-known lighthearted comedy The Importance of Being Earnest – both excellent works of fiction. But I have found a new favourite in An Ideal Husband, which was written in 1893 and is charmingly satirical.
The play centres around Sir Robert Chiltern, a high-standing politician being blackmailed by the altogether repellent Mrs Cheveley, a Viennese socialite. We follow his various attempts to control the situation whilst keeping his wife in the dark and preventing a great public scandal. Romantic subplots concerning Chiltern’s wife, best friend and their social group complement the main storyline well and prevent the overall play from appearing overly serious. Typical of its author, the conclusion occurs after at least two cases of mistaken identity, a brooch is stolen, several letters are misinterpreted and there have been some wonderful monologues on contemporary gender roles.
The characters, too, are wonderfully amusing, if a little stereotypical. In particular, I found the ‘flawless dandy’ Lord Goring’s relationship with his traditionalist father quite comical. Goring constantly baffles his father with convoluted statements about paradoxes, buttonholes and triviality whilst Lord Caversham despairingly encourages him to marry. Thankfully, by the end of the play that aim has been achieved with assistance from Robert and his wife.
In classic Wilde style, the play is riddled with witty social commentary and various amusing epigrams, for instance: ‘It is a very dangerous thing to listen. If one listens one may be convinced; and a man who allows himself to be convinced by an argument is a thoroughly unreasonable person’. It is the assured confidence with which these statements are given which stops us from considering the characters to be totally unrelatable and the quick-paced plot prevents the play from descending into farce.
Carefully constructed in a three-act sequence, Wilde’s play offers an interesting insight into the lives of the late nineteenth-century middle-class, and explores the role scandal plays in society. There are actually many parallels to be drawn with modern life and these make the play an intriguing read.
Above all, An Ideal Husband is a lighthearted satire guaranteed to make you smile. The engaging plot is by no means compromised by the straightforward readability of the play. Simple language is all that is necessary to convey the humour of the story without complicating it. Lord Goring puts it perfectly: ‘Oh, don’t use big words. They mean so little.’
Words by Annabelle Fuller