“In the old days, men had the rack,” one of the characters in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 “An Ideal Husband” says. “Now we have the press.”
Wilde himself underwent the ordeal of media scrutiny shortly after he wrote this play and “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
The scandal over his homosexuality that broke shortly after they both opened resulted in their premature closing, a prison sentence and the end of a brilliant career. Although it is a century old, “An Ideal Husband” is, for most American audiences, a new play. Peter Hall’s admirable production, which has been the hit of London, has been imported here. Written just before “Earnest,” it has the same wit as the more celebrated and better play. It is the source, for example, of one of Wilde’s most famous aphorisms: “To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”
It is probably less well known because it has an all-too-tidy “well made” plot. An up-and-coming cabinet minister with a scrupulous reputation for probity a political asset, a character notes, given “our modern mania for morality” is being blackmailed by an adventuress. He is saved by a layabout lord whose only exertions are toward womanizing but who understands that “life cannot be lived without true charity.”
The play’s wittiest character, Lord Goring seems a stand-in for the author, and his plea for charity, written presumably before Wilde’s own need for it was patent, adds poignancy to the play. Goring is likely to strike us as a dandy, so the fact that Martin Shaw, who plays the role, can give him affecting humanity as well as aristocratic offhandedness seems especially impressive. Anna Carteret strikes the right tone of brazenness as the adventuress, David Yelland grows more and more touching as the careerist minister and, in a small role, Denis Holmes is quite delicious as Goring’s butler. Much of the acting, however, is of the all-too-tidy British mechanical variety. I sometimes regret American actors’ lack of technique, but actors with only technique can be equally dreary. Carl Toms’ designs are simple and elegant. Whatever its weaknesses, it is unlikely we’ll see a better production of this tricky play. In the long run, you can only regard the arrival of a “new” play by Oscar Wilde as an incredible gift.
“An Ideal Husband,” Oscar Wilde’s melodramatic comedy first produced in London in January 1895, has long been overshadowed by the playwright’s masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which came to the West End just one month later. “The Importance” dazzled just about everybody except George Bernard Shaw, who much preferred the earlier work. Now Peter Hall is giving us the opportunity to rediscover the joys of “An Ideal Husband” in his company’s gorgeous-looking, delectably acted London production, which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.
The official 1995-96 Broadway season thus ends in a fashion that is suddenly, wholeheartedly celebratory. What a way to go!
This gleaming production celebrates not only itself, the genius of Wilde and the strengths of the contemporary English theater but also the potential vitality of Broadway. Not in years has a theater season closed with the last-minute arrival of such a variety of first-rate productions. True, most are revivals, but among them are several so uncommonly fine as to seem newly conceived.
“An Ideal Husband” speaks in a language that remains forever fresh. Listen to it as Lord Goring, the Wilde surrogate figure, delivers this throwaway line on the fate of the unwary practitioner of politics: “A man who can’t talk morally twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician.”
The play is set in the familiar Wildean milieu of grand Belgravia houses where, toward the end of the London season, dowagers, dukes, dandies, unmarried daughters and adventuresses meet to sip tea, exchange gossip, flirt and, in this play, become not quite hopelessly embroiled in politics and blackmail. Among other things, “An Ideal Husband” is about money and the power it confers. It’s also about a kind of frigid English rectitude, mostly public but sometimes private, that can be as immoral as insider trading or the theft of a diamond brooch, both of which are important in Wilde’s marvelously convoluted narrative.
Over the years critics have chided Wilde for using such melodramatic devices, commonplace in the popular theater of the day, as if a playwright of his talent should be above such tricks. Yet “An Ideal Husband” is deliriously funny in part because it is sending up these conventions even as it’s using them with skill and relish. Here’s a well-made play that satisfies for being so well made that one scarcely notices how subversive it really is.
Lest we miss that point, the centerpiece of Mr. Hall’s physical production is a giant reproduction of a burnished Victorian penny. Engraved on it: the left profile of the old Queen who dominated her age apparently by not seeing or being seen. At the beginning and end of each act, this Victoria descends in her majesty to stare off into the wings, oblivious, unloving and seemingly forever. What’s happening on the stage would not amuse her.
At the grand reception that opens the play, Sir Robert Chiltern (David Yelland), an under secretary for foreign affairs, famed for his probity, is approached by Mrs. Cheveley (Anna Carteret), a glamorous English woman of the world who now lives in Vienna. In the most ladylike way, she makes him a disagreeable proposition: if he will reverse his well-known stand against a bogus Argentine canal project, she will return an incriminating letter he wrote 18 years before. If he doesn’t, she’s off to the newspapers.
In a moment of youthful indiscretion, he had provided an Austrian baron, Mrs. Cheveley’s late protector, with secret Foreign Office information relating to Suez Canal shares. As payment he received the money that became the basis of his fortune and of his splendid, otherwise unimpeachable government career.
Sir Robert reports his dilemma to his best friend, Lord Goring (Martin Shaw). In all outward appearances Lord Goring is a social butterfly, out of touch with the world, but his epigrams and paradoxes contain some of Wilde’s bitterest, most unflattering thoughts on men, women, fashion, society, literature and government. He advises Sir Robert to confess all to his wife and to seek her support, but Lady Chiltern (Penny Downie) is so implacable in her own morality, and so convinced of her husband’s, that he refuses.
What follows is probably the most effervescently serious comedy Wilde ever wrote, as well as one of the funniest. The loving, alarmingly stupid Lady Chiltern, whom her husband adores, is far more dangerous than the scheming Mrs. Cheveley. It’s she who nearly wrecks Sir Robert’s career and, as if in retribution, almost loses her own reputation. The elderly but still fashionable Lady Markby (Dulcie Gray) sums up the younger woman: “Lady Chiltern has a very ennobling effect on life, but her dinner parties are rather dull sometimes.”
Among the other, comically ravishing characters: the Earl of Caversham (Michael Denison), Lord Goring’s disapproving father; Miss Mabel Chiltern (Victoria Hasted), Sir Robert’s sister, a bright young thing who fancies (and is fancied by) Lord Goring; and Phipps, Lord Goring’s manservant, who, as played by Denis Holmes, perfectly realizes Wilde’s description of the character in the text: “a mask with a manner,” representing “the dominance of form.”
Most of the principal actors have been playing in this revival since its first London engagement in the 1992-93 season, which may explain the extraordinarily high, consistent quality of the performances. Everybody is thoroughly at ease without being removed from the material. The energy on the stage is palpable. It’s good to see Mr. Denison and Ms. Gray, who are husband and wife and icons of the English cinema of the 1950’s, so full of zest in the 1990’s. If any one performance sets the pace, it’s that of Mr. Shaw who, padded out to achieve Lord Goring’s silhouette of indolent portliness, is a wonder of wit and common sense.
Carl Toms’s sets are sumptuous and so efficient that scene changes are achieved in a flash. Lovely, too, is the lighting by Joe Atkins in association with Mike Baldassari. They help make the stunning opening tableau, with its soft, satinlike highlights and deep shadows, look like something by John Singer Sargent, just back from Madrid and high on Velazquez.
Mr. Hall and his colleagues are once again insuring that Wilde finds favor among the lower orders he disdained, but whose acclaim he couldn’t live without.
The final entry in the Broadway season is Sir Peter Hall’s splendid production of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” a 100-year-old play that, happily or not, is rich with contemporary resonance. It should prove an attractive draw for Broadway crowds seeking comedy with a serious -- read British -- pedigree.
The play concerns a righteous politician whose rep for being clean as a whistle, and his marriage, are threatened when a woman blackmails him with evidence of an early act of malfeasance.
The fulcrum of the play is Lord Goring (Martin Shaw), a Wildean dandy who is an intimate of both the couple and blackmailer, and who brilliantly negotiates the treacherous waters among them to reach a happy conclusion -- and end up engaged, to boot.
That’s the plot. What “An Ideal Husband” really is about, as this production makes exuberantly clear, is forgiveness, on the one hand, and, on the other, the more complicated permutations of morality, or of what Wilde certainly saw as the utter foolishness of moral absolutism. Though “An Ideal Husband” opened the same year as “The Importance of Being Earnest”-- 1895 -- it has always been overshadowed by the latter play. But Hall, whose company first presented the play in London four years ago, makes a strong argument that this is the more serious work, not to mention the more seriously entertaining.
Sir Robert Chiltern (David Yelland), undersecretary for foreign affairs and a rising political star, launched his career with a small fortune won through an act that combined insider trading and political fraud. Since then, he has been a paragon of virtue, admired by all and adored by his wife, Lady Chiltern (Penny Downie), who has, of course, been kept in the dark on his early indiscretion.
Enter the widowed Mrs. Chevely (Anna Carteret), bearing a letter proving Sir Robert’s duplicity and demanding in exchange for the document a similar act that will make her rich. Agreeing to the gambit, Sir Robert confesses all to his wife , whose world is shattered, shattered by the news.
When the play shifts from the Chiltern home to Lord Goring’s, it also shifts from melodrama to farce, as all the participants in this morality tale pass through various doors leading from his library to adjacent rooms while he tries to straighten everything out. It takes some doing.
Pudgy and perspicacious, Lord Goring is a marvelous invention, marvelously played by Shaw. The actor bears a striking resemblance to Wilde, and Hall has allowed the character’s bisexuality to become more pronounced.
His genuine love for both Sir Robert and his wife is what makes his successful resolution of their threatened ruin so delicious. For it involves not only defeat of the avaricious Mrs. Chevely (to whom he was once briefly engaged) , but also his allowing the couple to see one another anew.
To be sure, Wilde’s idea of forgiveness is based on notions of sex that will strike many as ridiculous -- namely that men conform to the straight “line of intellect,” women to the “curve of emotion,” the pinnacle of which apparently is their natural capacity for forgiveness.
Wilde mocks Lady Chiltern for being taken aback by her husband’s dishonesty, not to mention his naked ambition; while the sum total of his reparation is 36 hours of discomfiture. Nevertheless, “An Ideal Husband” is a very grown-up comedy, allowing a reconciliation between two people who truly love one another.
Shaw strikes each of these notes vividly; he appears to be having tremendous fun in the role, and the pleasure is catching. He’s very well matched by Goring’s mirror image, the Mrs. Chevely of Anna Carteret. Mrs. Chevely wears her opportunism like a second skin, and Carteret makes it a natural fit, as the spectacular (and aptly colored) green gown Doreen Brown designed for her.
None of the other casting is quite so felicitous. Yelland and Downey are weightless as the Chilterns; their eyes seem never to meet, and you wonder if this is, after all, a marriage worth saving. As Sir Robert’s sister Mabel, whose love for Lord Goring is known to everyone but him until the end, Victoria Hasted is almost completely without appeal.
Michael Denison plays Goring’s disapproving father like a character actor in a stock company from an earlier era (something not altogether without entertainment value). Denis Holmes sparkles, however, as Goring’s butler, Phipps.
Notwithstanding these quibbles, however, Hall has built a wonderfully entertaining evening with the clarity and simplicity -- notable in Carl Toms’ simple yet elegant settings and Joe Atkins and Mike Baldassari’s unfussy lighting -- that are his directorial trademark. A huge hit in London, it deserves a similar reception here.