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An Ideal Husband

The Ideology of a Marriage

By Oscar Wilde.
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Harmon Hall, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011 ┬áSeats D–120&121 (center stalls)
Directed by Keith Baxter

A common habit, it seems, is to compare this play and any Wilde comedy with The Importance of Being Earnest. That is a fallacy. Both have witty repartee about social classes, the manners of good society, and the state of any marriage but, whereas Earnest is a pure farce taken to the highest intellectual level possible, An Ideal Husband is a sitcom with some dramatic underpinnings. Perhaps it could be played as farce, or a director could ensure that the comedy trumps the message. Director Keith Baxter, though, gave us a production that balanced the humorous observations on both filial and marital relationships offered up by Lord Goring (Cameron Folmar) and Miss Mabel Chiltern (Claire Brownell) with the serious moral dilemmas tackled by the married couple at the center of the plot, Sir Robert (Gregory Wooddell) and Lady Chiltern (Rachel Pickup).

Thankfully, Wilde’s idea of a moral dilemma is a real one even by today’s standards and not a melodramatic matter of social standing made insignificant in the intervening years. Sir Chiltern, when he was young, leaked state secrets for a fee. With that fee, he built his fortune, and with that fortune he built his political career. He now rides a reputation for honesty and a solid ethical core. The potential exposure of his past by Mrs. Cheveley (Emily Raymond) in a blackmail scheme threatens not only his political career and wealth, it threatens his marriage, as he fears the subsequent loss of his wife’s respect.

It’s a real fear, as it turns out, and here is Wilde’s genius in this play: moral indiscretion comes in many shadings. Lady Chiltern is quick to condemn her husband’s onetime error and contend that past action is present condition; but when suddenly faced with the possibility of scandal on herself, she initially chooses the route of cover-up, too. Of course, this being a Victorian comedy, they both end up doing what’s right and they both are saved from any harm, in this instance thanks to Goring’s intervention.

Along the way, though, this production doesn’t guarantee such a happy ending. Wooddell’s Chiltern wrestled with his dilemma through pained facial expressions and body language, the ramrod, smooth-moving socializer of the first scene walking in flatfooted agitation and speaking in ever-rising urgency as the play transpired. Pickup’s Lady Chiltern was so self-righteous and so sure of the general righteousness of her house that her indignation at Mrs. Cheveley’s claim steamed to the point of potential violence. In such agitation it’s a quick digression into utter horror upon learning the truth. Indeed, the sudden realization that she had been falsely defending her husband probably contributed as much hurt for her as her husband’s past deed.

Wilde slips in many keen and ironic observations on social mores and political ethics, mostly serious but heightened by quips. When Chiltern points out that other men have worse secrets in their own lives, Goring replies, “That is the reason they are so pleased to find out other people’s secrets. It distracts public attention from their own.” Wilde also makes many wry commentaries on marriage, mostly funny, like the women who consider men who talk about their wives as “terribly trivial,” and both Goring and his father, the Earl of Caversham (David Sabin), depict marriage as the saddest state of affairs, even as the latter pushes the former toward it.

The genius in Wilde’s irony is that all of this is played against what is perceived by everybody as a perfect marriage, that of the Chilterns, two clever and correct people genuinely in love with each other. In Baxter’s depiction, however, this marriage ever so subtly split at its seams because of its very perfection. At the end, though Lady Chiltern insisted that she wholly loved her husband and was looking forward to a new beginning, she seemed to have lost a little faith and trust in him, while Sir Chiltern had lost a little admiration and fealty for his wife. Both also looked as if they’d lost some of their moral bearing, and that worried Sir Chiltern in particular.

The real moral core of the story is Goring, and the ultimate success of this production was casting Fomar in the part. He captured the nifty spirit of a Wilde gallant, zinging his satiric comments with sly confidence, but he also served his friends, the Chilterns, with honest counsel and able assistance. It’s no moral dilemma for him to tell a falsehood in order to keep his friends from hurt and to make past wrongs rights. And when he snared Mrs. Cheveley and foiled her plot, he did so not in an “ah-ha!” moment the audience might have expected but with the same deft smoothness with which he kept at bay the wooing of Brownell’s fervently doting Miss Mabel.

Goring does finally become engaged to Miss Mabel, who asserted that she wouldn’t want “an ideal husband.” Her husband, she said, “can be what he chooses.” Which would, in fact, make Lord Goring, rather than Sir Chiltern, the titular figure in this play.

Eric Minton
March 25, 2011

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