Sheehan : An Ideal Husband
Dramaturg Cathleen Sheehan blogs about An Ideal Husband
Cathleen Sheehan is a writer, lecturer and teacher who teaches Shakespeare and Advanced Shakespeare (among other courses) at the Urban School in San Francisco. She has served as a dramaturg for Marin Shakespeare for the past four years, and also as a dramaturg for California Shakespeare Theater. She holds an AB and MA in English Literature from Stanford University and pursued graduate studies in Victoria Literature at Oxford University.
“Man is least like himself when he talks in his own person.
Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” —Oscar
Masks serve two purposes: they present a certain face to the public—the
persona one is willing to share—and they hide something else,
less presentable, perhaps. I like the above quotation for its suggestion
that we need the protection of the persona to reveal our true selves.
In other words, the mask both reveals even as it conceals. This
seems an apt quotation both for this play and for Wilde himself.
“An Ideal Husband”— the title itself suggests
an impossibility— especially in light of the following Wilde
quotation: “I think that God in creating man somewhat overestimated
his abilities.” Can a person embody an ideal? Isn’t
an idealized image necessarily a false one or at least an incomplete
one? This play addresses a man’s public life as well as his
private life— and the mistake in his past that may destroy
both. In An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert Chiltern must maintain a certain
public persona if he is to be a successful politician— and,
as the title suggests, a successful spouse, as well.
Wilde used his words— his plays and his epigrams— as
his masks, as a way to play with the truth and the importance of
a sense of self. Wilde was a man who in many ways had masks placed
upon him posthumously almost as much as he chose his masks in his
lifetime. He carefully cultivated his own public image, and his
rise to fame as a playwright ensured that he would always have an
audience for his wit— which was exceptional. However, he can
be somewhat reduced by the labels often placed on him, and he possessed
a multifaceted and somewhat conflicted identity.
So, what defines a man most? This is one of the questions of this
play, I think, and one which relates to Wilde’s life as well.
What makes Sir Robert who he is— an indiscretion of the past,
or his integrity in the present? Do we want his public mask to be
discredited and removed? An Ideal Husband centers on the
importance of possessing both a spotless public image and an unquestionable
private integrity. But as the play suggests, these qualities or
ideals of human behavior may well be beyond human ability and may
not even be as desirable as we might think.
In his plays and one novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray),
Wilde seems to know exactly how society works in London and to take
great pleasure in both embracing its conventions and challenging
its flaws. For this reason, it is sometimes easy to forget that
Wilde was an Irishman and that however much he embraced and was
embraced by English society, he was also an outsider—or perhaps
an insider with an outsider’s critical eye.
Although produced in the same year as The Importance of Being
Earnest, An Ideal Husband is a more bitter comedy.
For all the play’s wit and humor, there is a real danger here
to people’s lives in the form of a potential scandal. In An
Ideal Husband, we are not really in a world of easy distinctions—
although the society in which we circulate here seems to want to
function as a place of clear denotations. Although witty beyond
our reality, Wilde’s characters possess greater dimension
than stock farce characters and challenge overly simplistic distinctions
of what is right and wrong, good and bad. Sir Robert Chiltern is
an upstanding man, irreproachable politician, and an ideal husband,
it would seem. But again, Wilde knew the impossibility of a man
being completely defined by a perfect persona.
It is difficult not to see in this play a foreshadowing of the
very public scandal that ruined its author. Wilde did not know what
would happen to him when he wrote this play, but what did happen
to him leaves us with a dark sense of irony. He seems to understand
the very real threat of a scandal in this play—a threat to
both the public and private lives of a man—and yet, in some
ways, he brought about his own scandal.
The very year this play was produced, Wilde engaged in the legal
suit that would eventually lead to his destruction. Wilde possessed
both a compelling public image and drawing room persona— and
was taken down by a particularly brutal scandal. While he seemed
to construct his own persona effortlessly, churning out more witticisms
than seem humanly possibly, Wilde himself embodied more complexity
and contradiction than his public image conveyed.
Wilde’s identity is often reduced to simple phrases. While
he seemed at times to court a kind of superficial assessment—
projecting the pose of the dandy, for example— Wilde does
not fit easily into the categories often used to define and therefore
reduce him. Yes, he was a dandy of sorts, a writer, most certainly,
and an Irishman, less obviously. He was also a husband—married
to Constance Lloyd in 1884 and the father of two sons. His sexual
identity fueled not one but three trials, and his affair with a
man of capricious temperament— a man who may well have been
the love of this life—eventually ruined him.
Oscar Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglass in 1891. The son of a pugilistic
father, the Marquess of Queensbury, Douglas was young and attractive,
the would-be poet who famously wrote of the love that dare not speak
its name. By all accounts I’ve read, Wilde was utterly besotted
with him. Douglas also had a tendency to throw tantrums in public—
something that certainly drew negative attention to Wilde.
The details of the scandal itself and of the trials that followed
would almost be amusing if they did not have such dire consequences
for Wilde. Queensbury, distressed at the information he was gaining
about Wilde’s relationship with his son, went to Wilde’s
club and left a note for Oscar Wilde, the sodomite— or rather
he intended to write “sodomite.” What he actually wrote
was “somdomite.” What followed was a series of bad decisions
on the part of Wilde.
Apparently fueled by the influence of Douglas, Wilde sued Queensbury
for criminal libel. In the course of that trial, Wilde became the
focal point of the Crown's desire to expose him as a homosexual.
There were anti-sodomy laws on the books, and Wilde was just in
the wrong place at the wrong time—or in the right place at
the right time if you were looking for someone to make a public
The transcripts of the trials read as almost farcical at times—
but then descend into something much darker. Wilde could hardly
control his tongue and throughout much of the trial, certainly was
wittier than his opponents. However, after a misstep or two when
Wilde more or less admitted to homosexual behavior, the tables turned
He dropped the suit, but it was too late. The Crown was planning
to put him on trial for Gross Indecency. He friends told him to
leave. He refused—again, it’s thought at the urging
of Douglas, but his mother also influenced him to stay, drawing
on her notion of Irish patriotism in the face of English persecution.
The first trial of the suit brought against Wilde concluded with
a hung jury; the second ended with Wilde being found guilty and
sentenced to the stiffest punishment under the law—two years
Wilde, not a physically strong man, spent two years (1895-1897)
in Reading Gaol. Following his release, he left England for France.
He and his wife corresponded, but he never saw his children again.
Much to the dismay of some of his friends, he reconciled with Alfred
Douglas. He contracted meningitis which proved fatal to him and
is famously quoted as having said on his deathbed, “Either
that wallpaper goes, or I do.” What he is far less well remembered
for is his deathbed conversion to Catholicism. He died in 1900 at
the age of 46.
Wilde was a man who defied labels much as they are still used to
describe him. Hardly surprising then that he would write a play
such as An Ideal Husband one which defies the ability of a label
to define human nature—and indeed challenges the idea that
one can or should be so ideal a politician or person. He also understood
the necessity of masks, however, and we perhaps very appropriately
project different images of ourselves in different contexts. Wilde’s
own multifaceted personality may have seemed to contradict itself
or be split into dualities of identity, but there was truth in them
As you watch this play, perhaps consider truth. What do we need
to know about our politicians? Our spouses? What do we need to know
and what do we need to reveal about ourselves? An idealized image
is a fragile one, after all.