Wednesday, December 23, 2015

An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde

My final book for the Back to the Classics Challenge -- and naturally, the shortest read took me the longest to select. I don't normally read plays, though I've actually been going to the theater more the last few years since I started visiting New York, and because I have a daughter who's very active in her school drama club. I kept waffling between different plays -- Shakespeare? Agatha Christie? Ibsen? Finally, I settled on my original idea -- a play by Oscar Wilde. Since I read and loved The Importance of Being Earnest for a classics book group a few years ago, I'd been meaning to read more of his work. And I was really glad I chose Wilde, because even his more serious works have laugh-out-loud, highly quotable moments. 

The story begins at a society party in 1890s London. The hostess, Lady Chiltern, is the wife of Lord Chiltern, a prominent Member of Parliament. Among the party goers are her sister-in-law, Mabel Chiltern; her husband's best friend, Lord Goring, who is kind but idle; and Mrs. Cheveley, who wangled an invitation so that she could speak privately to Lord Chiltern. Lady Chiltern remembers Mrs. Cheveley from school, and the frosty reception makes it clear that she does not have fond memories of her old classmate. 

We soon learn that Mrs. Cheveley is indeed a bad lot, and is trying to blackmail the almost saintly Lord Chiltern into doing something corrupt. A man of impeccable reputation, Chiltern made a youthful mistake and now she wants him to pay for it. He's desperate to get out of the situation without losing his position, his reputation, and most of all, his wife's love. Lady Chiltern has elevated her husband on such a high pedestal that he's terrified of disappointing her.

The real star of the show is actually Lord Goring, who is witty and charming and has a handle on the situation; also, he has by far the best lines. This being Oscar Wilde, everyone has their share of bon mots, but Goring is my favorite character. Here's a mere sample of the amazing dialogue, an exchange between Lord Goring and his manservant, Phipps, at the start of Act III:

GORING: You see, Phipps, fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear. 

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.

GORING: Just as vulgarity is simply the conduct of other people.

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.

GORING: And falsehoods the truths of other people.

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.

GORING: Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is one's self.

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.

GORING: To love one's self is the beginning of a life-long romance, Phipps.

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord.

GORING: . . . For the future, a more trivial buttonhole, Phipps, on Thursday evenings.

PHIPPS: I will speak to the florist, my lord. She has had loss in her family lately, which perhaps accounts for the lack of triviality your lordship complains of in the buttonhole. 

GORING: Extraordinary thing about the lower classes in England -- they are always losing their relations. 

PHIPPS: Yes, my lord. They are extremely fortunate in that respect. 

An Ideal Husband was adapted into a film back in 1999, and I vaguely remember seeing it in theaters, but I didn't remember at thing about it except that Lord Goring was portrayed brilliantly by Rupert Everett (he also played Algy in the film version of The Importance of Being Earnest, co-starring Colin Firth). I've already requested both DVDs from my library so I can view them again, and I'm trying to track down a copy of The Good Woman, an adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan set in the 1940s on the Amalfi coast of Italy.

Any other play recommendations, bloggers? 


  1. WAIT YES YES I have play recommendations, I have loads of them, hang on. Okay. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (cause I love my sweet Brownings). Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. Constellations by Nick Payne. The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. The Lady's Not for Burning, by Christopher Fry. Just about anything by Tom Stoppard, but in particular Arcadia and The Invention of Love.

    1. I really wanted to read Rosencrantz and Gulidenstern are dead for this category, but it isn't 50 years old yet! I think I'm going to borrow my daughter's copy and read it anyway.

  2. I love that dialogue you quote, so funny. Reminds me a tiny bit of Wooster and Jeeves. This sounds like a great read and also to see the production of it.

  3. "Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is one's self."

    Haha, oh dear, I suddenly feel a terrible need to read some Oscar Wilde!


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