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Celebrating Wilde's 'Ideal' World

Revivals of 'An Ideal Husband' show off the playwright at his brilliant peak, after which his life crumbled.

September 01, 1996|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic

'Handsome woman," comments Lord Goring, offending the woman he is speaking to, but not of. "Please don't praise other women in our presence," the lady responds stiffly. "You might wait for us to do that!" Says Lord Goring, "I did wait."

This is one of the many delicious exchanges in Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband," a comedy of manners about politics, corruption and love, with lines polished to that faultless gleam that only Wilde could produce. The play, currently a hit on Broadway directed by Peter Hall, opens Friday at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, directed by Martin Benson and starring Philip Anglim as Lord Goring. In addition, L.A. Theatre Works and KCRW will record a radio version of the drama starring Jacqueline Bisset in January, to be broadcast on National Public Radio.

But beneath the glittering bons mots of "An Ideal Husband" lies a fragile and poignant document, a picture of how Wilde envisioned his own, ideal place in the society he observed so brilliantly. "An Ideal Husband" illustrates just how fully Wilde wanted, and indeed expected, to be petted and rewarded for his brilliance. But only five months after the play opened on the West End in January 1895, Wilde was sentenced to two years' hard labor for indecency and sodomy. Prison and disgrace ended his career and he died soon afterward.

"With what a crash this fell!" wrote Wilde in April 1895, describing his demise. The great playwright was finally comprehending that all of his literary skill and clever remarks could not help him in a scandalous court battle that he was clearly losing. In a moment of bad judgment and hubris, Wilde had sued the Marquess of Queensberry over an insult. Queensberry had been infuriated by Wilde's refusal to stop seeing his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, a petulant literary wannabe and father-hater. Wilde lost his suit and was then sued by the state for sodomy and indecency.

At the time, Wilde had two new plays in the West End, both among the most sparkling and epigrammatic ever written. "An Ideal Husband" opened Jan. 3, "The Importance of Being Earnest" on Valentine's Day. The glory that these works brought Wilde was shockingly brief. In a grim foreshadowing of the day when Wilde's wife, Constance, would change her name and the names of Wilde's children, the theaters removed the playwright's name from their marquees in April. Soon after, the plays closed altogether.

Wilde's story, one of the sorriest--and most engrossing--tales of individual injustice in literary history, is well known and documented. "An Ideal Husband" offers insight into the tragic flaw of the doomed playwright. "Husband" represents the world as Wilde wanted it to be, the world he believed his genius could create. His tragedy was that he could only create it in the theater.

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The character who most clearly represents Wilde in "An Ideal Husband" is Lord Goring, a gentleman with just the kind of extraordinary insight and wit Wilde was famous for. Others describe Goring as a dandy, but Wilde describes him as "the first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought." Goring is not the protagonist of the piece, for he does not change. Like his epigrams, he is perfect right from the start.

But Goring is the play's hero in that he pulls together all the strands of an intended political blackmail and saves the day for the play's more conventional leads, Lord and Lady Chiltern. In return, he is rewarded with--after a witty and entirely sexless courtship--the hand of Lord Chiltern's sister, Mabel, a young woman who can verbally spar with the best. Mabel is a perfect match for Goring--the exchange of banter seems to be her only desire.

Goring decides to wed only after being ordered to do so by his father, the authoritarian blowhard Lord Caversham. (Caversham is a de-fanged version of Queensberry, and if Queensberry had in fact turned out to be more like Caversham, we almost certainly would have had the pleasure of more plays from Wilde.) But Goring resists his father at first, if only because it is so pleasant to be an indolent, witty bachelor in society. Mabel understands this perfectly. When her sister-in-law Lady Chiltern asks Goring to be serious, Mabel offers him a perfect defense: "Don't say such a dreadful thing to Lord Goring. Seriousness would be very unbecoming to him. . . . Pray be as trivial as you can."

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