Saturday, January 30, 2016

Classics Club 24: An Ideal Husband

Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband opens with a social gathering at the home of Sir Robert Chiltern, a prominent politician, and his wife Lady Gertrude. At the gathering an unexpected guest  Mrs Cheveley, an enemy of Lady Gertrude's from their school days, attempts to blackmail Sir Robert. The rest of the play deals with how the blackmailing plot is ultimately resolved. Lots of witty repartee, mistaken identities, misunderstandings, crosses and double crosses, even a marriage proposal are involved before  the eventual happy ending - for everyone except the villainous Mrs Cheveley that is.

This is a great rollicking read with many similarities to Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened just a month after An Ideal Husband. Both feature extremely witty dialogue, filled with paradoxes and irony, at least one dandy (a not so subtle representation of the playwright himself), and a clash between conservative Victorian mores and a more modern view. In addition both reflect on the nature of marriage and the relationship between men and women.

Much has changed from the period this play was written and set in, and this play is clearly a comedy. Yet after reading it I found myself pondering a serious question, still as applicable today as ever. To what extent can we expect our politicians and other public figures to be "ideal" and to what extent is it fair to take such people down for indiscretions committed in their youth?

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