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15, Jan 2013
Jennie Eisenhower & Luigi Sottile, by Mark Garvin

Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde. Walnut Street Theatre, 2013.

*

Some critics say that this isn’t as good a play as Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Clearly, it hasn’t been produced as often. But An Ideal Husband is a more ambitious and, I would argue, a more interesting play. It is an eloquent plea for individual expression in the face of Victorian conformity.

Wilde’s witty comedies, Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance, satirized the behavior of Victorian society. An Ideal Husband contains that element and also adds a story about political corruption, insider trading and blackmail. The play examines the lives of London’s 1890s elite and the intersection between their personal and public lives.

The action begins at a dinner party hosted by Sir Robert Chiltern, a member of Parliament and one of the leaders of the prime minister’s coalition. Mrs. Cheveley, an old social friend, tries to blackmail Sir Robert, and the plot is afoot.

Years before, we learn, Sir Robert disclosed a government secret about the Suez Canal in order to make a financial profit and gain access to power. Now Parliament is debating the building of a canal across Argentina.

Sir Robert is about to deliver the report of his special investigative commission to the House of Commons about the Argentine project; Mrs. Cheveley, who has invested heavily in the canal project, insists that he must withdraw the report and lend his support to the project or else she will make public an incriminating letter. Sir Robert fears the ruin of both his career and his marriage.

In disclosing his central character’s flaw, Wilde wrote a veiled version of himself. In 1895, the year the play opened, Wilde was arrested for committing “acts of gross indecency with other male persons.” When Sir Robert pleads, “No one should be entirely judged by their past,” that could be Wilde himself speaking.

The script begins awkwardly: Frivolous upper-class party banter abounds while nothing really happens. Perhaps Wilde felt a need to mark time until his audiences were settled in.

(The Italian tenor Giovanni Martinelli told me that audiences, in those days, weren’t ready for serious content until they’d been seated for a while, and consequently Verdi’s opening aria of Aida, “Celeste Aida,” was often omitted.)

But after this slowly paced introduction, Wilde gets into heavy material. His Lady Markby makes a number of questionable references to race and proposes a scheme of “assisted emigration” to address overpopulation problems in London. Thus she is identified with the conservative old order. The troublemaking Mrs. Cheveley adds: “Society has become dreadfully mixed. One sees the oddest people everywhere.”

Lady Markby criticizes the House of Commons for inflicting a blow to marriage by supporting higher education for women. Lady Chiltern disagrees. She has just come from a meeting of the Women’s Liberal Association and thus embodies the new woman, a type reported upon by Wilde during his editorship of Woman’s World magazine.

Later on, we witness a hilariously witty and thoughtful confrontation between Lord Goring (played by Luigi Sottile as the perfect dandy) and his father, Lord Caversham (the superb character actor Ian D. Clark).

Goring’s narcissistic aesthete, clearly a stand-in for Wilde himself, rebels against his father’s Victorian values like devotion to family, respectability and obedience to law. Wilde advocated individual freedom, the pursuit of pleasure, beauty, style and wit — all anathema to Caversham. The older man dispenses fatherly advice that Goring should change his ways and emulate Sir Robert’s successful career — ironic advice, in light of Sir Robert’s own past scandal.

The last act abounds with dizzying complications — a misread note and a complex choreography of entrances and exits — all so delightful that they tend to distract us from the play’s serious themes.

An Ideal Husband is an uneven play, as Wilde summoned wit, farce and political drama to his campaign for acceptance of his individualistic way of life. But imperfection seems appropriate in a play that advocates acceptance of a man’s imperfections.

The real stars of the Walnut’s production were Robert Andrew Kovach’s detailed Victorian sets, changed flamboyantly between scenes to the accompaniment of operetta music from that period.

As for the Walnut’s production, I have only two complaints. The dialogue, especially in Act I, was unnecessarily rushed, at least on opening night. Epigrams were delivered too rapidly to allow the audience to savor each bon mot. Second, Kate Fahrner was either miscast or misdirected as the femme fatale. Jennie Eisenhower as Lady Chiltern had a more beguiling presence.

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