Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband seems to us to have a bipolar quality. Its main plot is heavy stuff: everyone thinks the world of Sir Robert Chiltern, but a dark secret haunts him. As a poor young man in the British foreign office, he made his fortune by selling a state secret to a speculator, and now he’s being blackmailed. His idealistic wife will despise him if he gives in, but he’ll lose his reputation and his career if he doesn’t.
But the play is also a comedy about what Lady Chiltern calls the “beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics” that compose London society. Chief among them is Lord Goring, a dandy who devotes himself to clever conversation, opera, and the perfect boutonniere. He flirts throughout the play with Sir Robert’s sister Mabel, with whom he is on the precipice of becoming engaged, and spars with his father, Lord Caversham, who thinks he is a wastrel.
So while parts of the play are farce (a taste of what would make Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, written a year or so later, such a delight), the rest is dramatic tragedy. In this excellent production the contrast is sometimes startling. The second act, for example, ends in full drama mode with a long, impassioned speech from Lord Chiltern (Patrick Galligan) about his predicament. But the third act (right after intermission) picks up with a comic exchange between Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) and his manservant Phipps (Anthony Bekenn) that could also have been played by Algernon and his manservant Lane in The Importance of Being Earnest. Only in the final scene do the farce and the drama finally intersect, as the villainess, Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O’Connell), is stymied and the truth comes out about Lady Chiltern’s much-misunderstood note, “I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you.”
This is the best “An Ideal Husband” we’ve seen. Jackie Maxwell gives equal attention to telling the story and to showing off Wilde’s glittering repartee. The dramatic main plot is so grave that a director could be tempted to downplay the comedy. Not so here; every outrageous epigram is milked for full effect.
There isn’t a weak performance in this show; it’s an awfully good cast. We thoroughly enjoyed Steven Sutcliffe, as Lord Arthur Goring, and his backhanded courtship of Marla McLean, as Mabel Chiltern. Mr. Sutcliffe’s performance helped us understand something we hadn’t quite seen before: by the time he wrote An Ideal Husband in 1893, Oscar Wilde badly wanted his public to understand that there was more to him than the “dandy” image he had cultivated over the years, and that despite his reputation for frivolity and pleasure-seeking he was a man of principle.
That is, Wilde wanted people to see — through Lord Goring, who stands in for the playwright — that he’d grown up. Wilde still gives Lord Goring many of the best comic lines of the play, like this exchange with his father (Lorne Kennedy):
Lord Caversham: I don’t know how you stand society. A lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.
Lord Arthur Goring: I love talking about nothing, Father. It’s the only thing I know anything about.
But he also gives Lord Goring a speech that would grace any soap opera, one so melodramatic as to be laughable — except that for once Wilde does not want us to laugh:
You came here tonight to talk of love, you whose lips desecrated the word love, you to whom the thing is a book closely sealed, went this afternoon to the house of one of the most noble and gentle women in the world to degrade her husband in her eyes, to try and kill her love for him, to put poison in her heart, and bitterness in her life, to break her idol, and, it may be, spoil her soul. That I cannot forgive you.
And in the end he makes Lord Goring the moral center of the play, the character who tells his friend Lord Chiltern that his philosophy of power is “a thoroughly shallow creed.” When Lord Chiltern describes Baron Arnheim as a man of “culture, charm, and distinction,” Lord Goring calls the Baron a “damned scoundrel.” In this show, Mr. Sutcliffe delivers one-liners and pronounces moral judgments with equal pungency.
We weren’t enthusiastic about the non-period, jungle-gym-style set in this show, which certainly didn’t give much of a sense of the opulent London townhouses in which the play is set. But we did get a charge out of some of the extravagant costumes, like the outlandish dressing gown Lord Goring wears during the late-night visits to his apartment by Lord Caversham and Mrs. Chevely and the attention-grabbing dresses of Mrs. Cheveley and young Mabel Chiltern.
We arrived at the Festival Theater in time to catch a fine pre-show talk about the life and times of Oscar Wilde by the Shaw Festival’s Autumn Smith, who was assistant director for this play.