An Ideal Husband

by Oscar Wilde

Blackmail, Sex, and Hypocrisy:
An Ideal Husband - a delightful comedy that still resonates.

Made into a middling-successful film two years ago, Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband came just before his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest. In the spring of 1895, both ran triumphantly in parallel at the Haymarket and St James's Theatres in London, when Wilde was arrested, tried and imprisoned for "immoral practices'.

Mocking High Society

Wilde, who had left behind the Dublin of his youth, where he had grown up under his eccentric parents, was one of those Ex-Pats in London perfectly positioned for a satirical look at society. "In satirically exposing the mores of the English upper classes, and in making fun of the Englishman's serious regard for his own social institutions, Wilde follows the lead set by the earlier playwrights of the Irish school. As an outsider - in more senses than one - he is able to view the English national foibles with a fresh eye; and, like Goldsmith and Sheridan before him, he makes use of that most sacred of all English institutions - the language - to far better advantage than many Englishman."

Christopher Fitz-Simon, The Irish Theatre, London: Thames and Hudson, 1983, p.114.

Or as Declan Kiberd put it: "His father had been laughed at by society, so he would mock society first." Kiberd also contended that the "Wilde family were social anthropologists by nature. If Sir William did his research among the dúns of Aran, his famous son studied a rather different set of prehistoric ruins, the English upper classes."

Declan Kiberd, Irish Classics, London, Granta, 2000, p.325.

For our times

Yet, despite having "prehistoric ruins" as its subject, when the film of An Ideal Husband came out, American critics felt the need to point out the parallels with the Clinton Whitewater affair - and remarked of the evergreen topicality of the play. Cash for questions, sleaze and corruption - An Ideal Husband could, on the other hand, have been written for the latter years of Tory rule in the 1990s.

Well, and wouldn't Peter Mandelson have wished to get the Chiltern treatment - rather than being forced to resign twice (To lose one cabinet post could perhaps be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two does smack of carelessness!)? And, to be sure, our own beleaguered Joschka Fischer, facing the morning papers, would agree with Wilde's epigram from the play: "In the old days, we had the rack. Now we have the press."

by Eberhard (Paddy) Bort