Posted by: Mish | August 2, 2010

An Ideal Husband and Being Earnest

In Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert Chiltern is perfect in every way, or so his wife believes. Unbeknown to her, he shared inside government information to advance his young political career. Mrs Cheveley comes along threatening to expose and ruin him politically and socially. But if one’s going to blackmail, one should have a clean record as well. There is also Lord Goring, who although a close friend of the Chilterns is declined permission to wed Mabel, Robert’s sister.

Lady Chiltern: Robert is as incapable of doing a foolish thing as he is of doing a wrong thing.

Lord Goring: Nobody is incapable of doing a foolish thing. Nobody is incapable of doing a wrong thing.

The Importance of Being Earnest is a Wilde take on what’s in a name. Jack and Algernon use false names to escape Society and obligations. Jack is known as Ernest by his ward Cecily in the countryside, but Jack when he’s in London. Jack’s intention to wed Gwendolyn is impeded because his name isn’t Ernest nor is he earnest. Her mother, Lady Bracknell, is also opposed because Jack was found in a handbag and his unknown pedigree won’t help her rise in Society. In order to meet Cecily, Algernon disguises himself as Ernest’s made-up misbehaving brother Jack.

Jack: As a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes.

Wilde believed in art for art’s sake and didn’t pull any punches. His stylish and often humorous commentary makes his works memorable. Opened in 1895, the farces’ satirical stages are set by marriage, money, and morality- the holy mantra during Victorian England’s “Naughty Nineties”. Pro-aesthetic Wilde rebelled against the conforming social standards, preferring individual freedom, beauty over morality, and flair. Wilde’s and Society’s clashing values are predominately dramatized through the dandies against more respectable characters, such as Ideal‘s Lord Goring who says:

Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear… Vulgarity is the conduct of other people… Falsehoods the truths of other people… Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself… To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.

It’s also shown through Ideal’s lines and “escaping” in Earnest. While threatening Sir Robert Chiltern, Mrs Cheveley says:

Remember to what a point your Puritanism in England has brought you. In old days nobody pretended to be a bit better than his neighbours. In fact, to be a bit better than one’s neighbours was considered excessively vulgar and middle-class. Nowadays, with our modern mania for morality, everyone has to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtues- and what is the result? You all go over like ninepins-one after the other.

Wilde’s artistic genius lies in using familiar styles to blatantly mock Society. Ideal is similar to the melodramas and farces of the Victorian era. It has stock characters of the virtuous wife, the husband with a secret past, and the “other woman” in a stock storyline with love, sacrifice, forgiveness, and a happy ending. In the earnest comedy of manners, Jack and Algernon are stock characters who are immoral and use disguises. As per the genre, the scandal around them is upstaged by the witty dialogue. One thing I’ve noticed is that the best and most quoted lines seem to come from supporting characters.

Mrs Cheveley: Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. .. Questions are never indiscreet. Answers sometimes are. .. As a rule, everybody turns out to be somebody else.

Lord Goring: Life cannot be lived without much charity. It is love, and not German philosophy, that is the true explanation of this world, whatever may be the explanation of the next.

Algernon: It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read. .. All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.

One thing that stands out in Ideal is the character descriptions by correlating them with artists and styles. Lady Chiltern is a “grave Greek beauty” and Sir Robert Chiltern’s head could be painted by Vandyck while Mrs Cheveley is “a work of art, on the whole, but showing the influence of too many schools”.

During Earnest‘s premiere, Wilde was brought to court by the Marquess of Queensberry for indecent relations. He was prosecuted and served two years with hard labor. I saw a fantastic production of Gross Indecency: the Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moises Kaufman a few years ago, but still needfully want to read it.

I liked the plays, but enjoyed An Ideal Husband more than the Importance of Being Earnest. I found it funnier and more interesting, partially because of Lord Goring and Mrs Cheveley. I really like Wilde’s writing and will be reading the four plays I haven’t yet read, along with some poetry, essays, and possibly children’s fiction.

I read Ideal and Earnest back to back in July for the GLBT Challenge hosted by Amanda, which is also why I read some of Wilde’s works last year. It was good incentive to read what’s been waiting on my shelves for far too long while getting more familiar with Wilde’s artistic genius.

If you’ve read or seen anything by Wilde, what did you think?

Sir Robert Chiltern: Do you really think, Arthur, that it is weakness that yields to temptation? I tell you that there are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage, to yield to. To stake all one’s life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not- there is no weakness in that. There is a horrible, a terrible courage.

Algernon: It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I”ll certainly try to forget the fact.

Jack: I have no doubt about that, dear Algy. The Divorce Court was specially invented for people whose memories are so curiously constituted.


Responses

  1. Ironically, I just read these two plays and posted about them in a double-review just like this a few months ago… They were my first plays by Wilde (I’d only read Dorian Gray before) and I absolutely adored both of them, especially Earnest.

  2. It seems that I think much the same about Wilde as you do. That he can, and must, be quoted at length. You have picked wonderful quotes, which leave me wanting to urgently read more Wilde.

    I like the point you make about Wilde valuing art for art’s sake. I will try to remember that the next time I get bogged down trying to decipher his morality, because it is probably about art and not morality at all.

    The only work of his which I know really well is Dorian Gray, and some of the fairy tales, which I love. I recently purchased the complete works for 50p but it is such an embarrassment of riches that I hardly know where to begin.

  3. Amanda: Funny that. I was on blogosphere hiatus at the time. I’m glad you liked them, now I wonder how much you’ll laugh at Lady Windermere’s Fan. Wilde’s one of my favourites. Eloquently put that “every line in both of these plays was so perfect and poised”. I don’t think I’ve seen any of the films, but I’ve been keeping an eye out. I started working in a theatre a week after Earnest’s run ended, royal bummer. It would have been hysterically fun.

    Sarah: Yes and thanks about the quotes. I could have easily used more lines. Follow your urge and read more Wilde. You could start with some plays. I’m envious and need the complete works. What I have is not nearly enough.

    Morality was such a big part of the times that I’m thinking Wilde couldn’t not use the word or theme in his essays. “Let me put it in words you understand” type thing. I really liked Dorian Gray’s preface in which Wilde writes:

    “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all… The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. “

  4. I’ve only read Picture of Dorian Gray. Been meaning to read The Importance of Being Earnest forever (ever since I read Dorian Gray some four years ago), but haven’t yet – don’t ask me why!

    Love the quotes, and like Sarah, I think Wilde can be quoted at length. At least three to four of his quotes have made it into my daily vocabulary, including the one I use about compulsive book-buying: I can resist anything but temptation.

  5. Morality saturates Dorian Gray, but I had no idea what, if anything, Wilde was saying on the subject… And ultimately I didn’t care, the writing is fantastic, my quest for meaning was happily abandoned.

  6. Sarah: It’s the writing and liking something that counts. Sometimes I think understanding what’s being said is overrated. Take Ulysses for instance.

    Uncertain: I recall you bringing up the temptation quote for Dorian Gray’s review. You would like Earnest so stop putting it off.


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