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An Ideal Husband is an 1895 comedic stage play by Oscar Wilde which revolves around blackmail and political corruption, and touches on the themes of public and private honour. The action is set in London, in "the present", and takes place over the course of twenty-four hours. "Sooner or later," Wilde notes, "we shall all have to pay for what we do." But he adds that, "No one should be entirely judged by their past." Together with The Importance of Being Earnest, it is often considered Wilde's dramatic masterpiece. After Earnest it is his most popularly produced play.
In the summer of 1893, Oscar Wilde began writing An Ideal Husband, and he completed it later that winter. His work began at Goring-on-Thames, after which he named the character Lord Goring, and concluded at St. James Place. He initially sent the completed play to the Garrick Theatre, where the manager rejected it, but it was soon accepted by the Haymarket Theatre, where Lewis Waller had temporarily taken control. Waller was an excellent actor and cast himself as Sir Robert Chiltern. The play gave the Haymarket the success it desperately needed.
After opening on 3 January 1895, it continued for 124 performances. In April of that year, Wilde was arrested for 'gross indecency' and his name was publicly taken off the play. On 6 April, soon after Wilde's arrest, the play moved to the Criterion Theatre where it ran from 13–27 April. The play was published in 1899, although Wilde was not listed as the author. This published version differs slightly from the performed play, for Wilde added many passages and cut others. Prominent additions included written stage directions and character descriptions. Wilde was a leader in the effort to make plays accessible to the reading public.
Many of the themes of An Ideal Husband were influenced by the situation Oscar Wilde found himself in during the early 1890s. Stressing the need to be forgiven of past sins, and the irrationality of ruining lives of great value to society because of people's hypocritical reactions to those sins, Wilde may have been speaking to his own situation, and his own fears regarding his affair (still secret). Other themes include the position of women in society. In a climactic moment Gertrude Chiltern "learns her lesson" and repeats LORD GORING's advice "A man's life is of more value than a woman's." Often criticized by contemporary theatre analyzers as overt sexism, the idea being expressed in the monologue is that women, despite serving as the source of morality in Victorian era marriages, should be less judgemental of their husband's mistakes because of complexities surrounding the balance that husbands of that era had to keep between their domestic and their worldly obligations. Further, the script plays against both sides of feminism/sexism as, for example, Lord Caversham, exclaims near the end that Mabel displays "a good deal of common sense" after concluding earlier that "Common sense is the privilege of our sex."
A third theme expresses anti-upper class sentiments. Lady Basildon, and Lady Markby are consistently portrayed as absurdly two-faced, saying one thing one moment, then turning around to say the exact opposite (to great comic effect) to someone else. The overall portrayal of the upper class in England displays an attitude of hypocrisy and strict observance of silly rules.
An Ideal Husband opens during a dinner party at the home of Sir Robert Chiltern in London's fashionable Grosvenor Square. Sir Robert, a prestigious member of the House of Commons, and his wife, Lady Chiltern, are hosting a gathering that includes his friend Lord Goring, a dandified bachelor and close friend to the Chilterns, his sister Mabel Chiltern, and other genteel guests. During the party, Mrs. Cheveley, an enemy of Lady Chiltern's from their school days, attempts to blackmail Sir Robert into supporting a fraudulent scheme to build a canal in Argentina. Apparently, Mrs. Cheveley's dead mentor and lover, the Austro-Hungarian Baron Arnheim, convinced the young Sir Robert many years ago to sell him a Cabinet secret, a secret that suggested he buy stocks in the Suez Canal three days before the British government announced its purchase. Sir Robert made his fortune with that illicit money, and Mrs. Cheveley has the letter to prove his crime. Fearing the ruin of both career and marriage, Sir Robert submits to her demands.
When Mrs. Cheveley pointedly informs Lady Chiltern of Sir Robert's change of heart regarding the canal scheme, the morally inflexible Lady Chiltern, unaware of both her husband's past and the blackmail plot, insists that Sir Robert renege on his promise. For Lady Chiltern, their marriage is predicated on her having an "ideal husband"—that is, a model spouse in both private and public life that she can worship: thus Sir Robert must remain unimpeachable in all his decisions. Sir Robert complies with the lady's wishes and apparently seals his doom. Also toward the end of Act I, Mabel and Lord Goring come upon a diamond brooch that Lord Goring gave someone many years ago. Goring takes the brooch and asks that Mabel inform him if anyone comes to retrieve it.
In the second act, which also takes place at Sir Robert's house, Lord Goring urges Sir Robert to fight Mrs. Cheveley and admit his guilt to his wife. He also reveals that he and Mrs. Cheveley were formerly engaged. After finishing his conversation with Sir Robert, Goring engages in flirtatious banter with Mabel. He also takes Lady Chiltern aside and obliquely urges her to be less morally inflexible and more forgiving. Once Goring leaves, Mrs. Cheveley appears, unexpected, in search of a brooch she lost the previous evening. Incensed at Sir Robert's reneging on his promise, she ultimately exposes Sir Robert to his wife once they are both in the room. Unable to accept a Sir Robert now unmasked, Lady Chiltern then denounces her husband and refuses to forgive him.
In the third act, set in Lord Goring's home, Goring receives a pink letter from Lady Chiltern asking for his help, a letter that might be read as a compromising love note. Just as Goring receives this note, however, his father, Lord Caversham, drops in and demands to know when his son will marry. A visit from Sir Robert, who seeks further counsel from Goring, follows. Meanwhile, Mrs. Cheveley arrives unexpectedly and, misrecognized by the butler as the woman Goring awaits, is ushered into Lord Goring's drawing room. While she waits, she finds Lady Chiltern's letter. Ultimately, Sir Robert discovers Mrs. Cheveley in the drawing room and, convinced of an affair between these two former lovers, angrily storms out of the house.
When she and Lord Goring confront each other, Mrs. Cheveley makes a proposal. Claiming to still love Goring from their early days of courtship, she offers to exchange Sir Robert's letter for her old beau's hand in marriage. Lord Goring declines, accusing her of defiling love by reducing courtship to a vulgar transaction and ruining the Chilterns' marriage. He then springs his trap. Removing the diamond brooch from his desk drawer, he binds it to Cheveley's wrist with a hidden device. Goring then reveals how the item came into her possession. Apparently Mrs. Cheveley stole it from his cousin, Mary Berkshire, years ago. To avoid arrest, Cheveley must trade the incriminating letter for her release from the bejewelled handcuff. After Goring obtains and burns the letter, however, Mrs. Cheveley steals Lady Chiltern's note from his desk. Vengefully she plans to send it to Sir Robert misconstrued as a love letter addressed to the dandified lord. Mrs. Cheveley exits the house in triumph.
The final act, which returns to Grosvenor Square, resolves the many plot complications sketched above with a decidedly happy ending. Lord Goring proposes to and is accepted by Mabel. Lord Caversham informs his son that Sir Robert has denounced the Argentine canal scheme before the House. Lady Chiltern then appears, and Lord Goring informs her that Sir Robert's letter has been destroyed but that Mrs. Cheveley has stolen her letter and plans to use it to destroy her marriage. At that moment, Sir Robert enters while reading Lady Chiltern's letter, but as the letter does not have the name of the addressee, he assumes it is meant for him, and reads it as a letter of forgiveness. The two reconcile. Lady Chiltern initially agrees to support Sir Robert's decision to renounce his career in politics, but Lord Goring dissuades her from allowing her husband to resign. When Sir Robert refuses Lord Goring his sister's hand in marriage, still believing he has taken up with Mrs. Cheveley, Lady Chiltern is forced to explain last night's events and the true nature of the letter. Sir Robert relents, and Lord Goring and Mabel are permitted to wed.
The play proved extremely popular in its original run, lasting over a hundred performances. Critics also lauded Wilde's balance of a multitude of theatrical elements within the play. George Bernard Shaw praised the play saying "Mr. Wilde is to me our only thorough Playwright. He plays with everything; with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre."
An Ideal Husband was originally produced by Lewis Waller, premiering on the 3rd of January, 1895 in Haymarket Theatre. The run lasted 124 performances. The original cast of the play was:
Mr. Alfred Bishop, THE EARL OF CAVERSHAM, VISCOUNT GORING, Mr. Charles H. Hawtrey, SIR ROBERT CHILTERN, Mr. Lewis Waller, VICOMTE DE NANJAC, Mr. Cosmo Stuart, MR. MONTFORD, Mr. Harry Stanford, PHIPPS, Mr. C. H. Brookfield, MASON, Mr. H. Deane, JAMES, Mr. Charles Meyrick, HAROLD, Mr. Goodhart, LADY CHILTERN, Miss Julia Neilson, LADY MARKBY, Miss Fanny Brough, COUNTESS OF BASILDON, Miss Vane Featherston, MRS. MARCHMONT, Miss Helen Forsyth, MISS MABEL CHILTERN, Miss Maud Millet, and MRS. CHEVELEY, Miss Florence West.
Oscar Wilde was arrested for "gross indecency" (homosexuality) during the run of the production. At the trial the actors involved in the production testified as witnesses against him. The production continued but credit for authorship was taken away from Wilde.
An Ideal Husband was revived for a Broadway production featuring the Broadway debut of film stars Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray. Denison and Gray had earlier starred in a West End Theatre revival that had proved extremely popular for English audiences.
It was adapted once more for the screen in 1999. It starred Julianne Moore, Minnie Driver, Jeremy Northam, Cate Blanchett and Rupert Everett. The film adapts the play to some measure, the most significant departure being that the device of the diamond broach/bracelet is deleted, and instead Lord Goring defeats Mrs. Cheavley by making a wager with her: if Sir Robert capitulates and supports the scheme in his speech to the House of Commons, Goring will marry her, but if he sticks to his morals and denounces the scheme, she will give up the letter and leave England.
The BBC produced a version which was broadcast in 1969 as part of their Play of the Month series. It stars Jeremy Brett and Margaret Leighton and was directed by Rudolph Cartier. It is available on DVD as part of The Oscar Wilde Collection box-set.
BBC Radio 3 broadcast a full production in 2007 directed by David Timson and starring Alex Jennings, Emma Fielding, Jasper Britton, Janet McTeer and Geoffrey Palmer. This production was re-broadcast on Valentine's Day 2010.
L.A. Theatre Works produced an audio adaptation of the play starring Jacqueline Bisset, Rosalind Ayres, Martin Jarvis, Miriam Margolyes, Alfred Molina, Yeardley Smith and Robert Machray. It is available as a CD set, ISBN 1-58081-215-5.
LORD GORING: Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN: All sins except a sin against itself, love should forgive.
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN: It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. It is when we are wounded by our own hands, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us – else what use is love at all?
LORD GORING: Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear. Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.
MRS. CHEVELEY: Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.
PHIPPS: I will speak to the florist, my lord. She has had a loss in her family lately, which perhaps accounts for the lack of triviality your lordship complains of in the buttonhole.
LORD 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. 
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