It's not often that I have reviewed drama in these pages. Some friends and I attended An Ideal Husband, a play from the pen of one of Ireland's favourite and most brilliant dramatists, Oscar Wilde some nights ago and it was so wonderful an experience that I had to review it here. It is directed with magnificent theatricality and verve by Wilde aficionado and expert Neil Bartlett. He teams up with his long-time collaborator, designer Rae Smith, to work with the Abbey for the first time. Well, Rae Smith, take a bow. The set and design are so wonderful that the audience is left in awe. We might as well be in Victorian London at the time of the play's first performance - 1895. It reminded me of the opening scene of the film Cyrano de Bergerac starring the inimitable Gérard Depardieu (1990) with its splendid and sumptuous opening scene.
I came across the following quotation from Wilde. Unfortunately, the Internet site does not give its provenance. However, the quotation is so good that its use here is entirely appropriate. Wilde said: "I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being." This play does indeed share with us the audience a marvellous sense of what its author understands by what it means to be a human being. Let me explain.
As soon as Wilde crops up in conversation, there are only three or perhaps four things that pop immediately into our minds, viz., (i) his absolute genius and his predilection for aphorisms - in short, his wit, (ii) his homosexuality or even pederasty, (iii) his wonderful plays and (iv) his famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. We are not disappointed as regards aphorisms and wonderful lines in the present play, An Ideal Husband. In this play Lord Goring has most of the wonderful lines. Incidentally, the actor who plays him, Mark O'Halloran, steals the show with his wonderful and outstanding performance. While the lead actor Simon Wilson, is by no means a bad actor, he is out-shone and out-classed by O'Halloran. I'll quote a selection of the wonderful lines from this play here for your perusal:
- Even you are not rich enough, Sir Robert, to buy back your past. No man is.
(Usually quoted as: No man is rich enough to buy back his own past.) Mrs Cheveley, Act I
- I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself. Lord Goring, Act I.
- Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do. Mrs Chevely, Act I.
- I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about. Lord Goring, Act I.
- To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance. Lord Goring, Act III
- I don't at all like knowing what people say of me behind my back. It makes me far too conceited. Lord Goring, Act IV.
There are two quotations from the six aphorisms that I have quoted above that are particularly ad rem viz., "No man is rich enough to buy back his past" and "Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do." When Wilde wrote not alone these lines but the whole play he was most aware of their import. As Neil Barlett points out in the programme for the current production, Wilde's life was in chaos in the year leading up to the glittering opening of his play on the London stage:
His marriage was on the rocks, and he was being blackmailed by the proprietor of the homosexual brothel of which he had been a regular client, over a letter written to his lover. His relationship with that lover, the increasingly demanding and violent Lord Alfred Douglas, was so stormy and time consuming that in order to write the first act of the play he was forced to hire a private office whose address he kept secret...(Programme, 2)
Indeed, Wilde could see the writing on the wall. He must have realised all too well that sooner than later he was going to have to pay for the choices he had taken in his past. He himself had experienced being blackmailed and in this play we have that blackmailer supreme - Mrs Chevely - who is played superbly by the wonderful Derbhle Crotty. She actually ends up using two letters for blackmail, not alone one. Sir Robert Chiltern, played very well but not brilliantly, by Simon Wilson, is the same age Wilde was when he wrote the play, is married, meteorically successful and is faced head on with his impending downfall. Like Wilde he was facing a high fall from grace. Unfortunately, things did not work out as swimmingly for Wilde as they do for Chiltern. Lord Goring is like a miniature Wilde with an arsenal of aphorisms and epigrams and is played with a veritable tour de force by Mark O'Halloran, beside whom even a very good actor pales somewhat in effect.
What struck me about this play, that while being looked on as a Society Comedy mainly, is very much more indeed. It deals with big, universal and indeed contemporary themes:- corruption, especially in political circles, to name a prominent theme. It also has a deep humanising theme namely the way we can set our heroes, indeed our very husbands up on pedestals and expect them to be super-heroes or super-humans. This they very much are not. Wilde insists, as all good drama does, that heroes do also have feet of clay. That's why we need drama in our culture, especially the tragedy genre which paints the picture of the flawed hero. Wilde manages, then, to include a deep, almost existential theme, if you forgive a philosophical anachronism on my part, of the fragility and flawed-ness of the hero into this Society Comedy. Yes it sure is comedy, but it is comedy plus plus plus...
As regards intrigue and bribery the dialogue between Sir Robert Chiltern and Mrs Chevely is choc a bloc with what could be reported in current newspapers:
[In her most nonchalant manner.]
My dear Sir Robert, you are a man of the world, and you have your price, I suppose. Everybody has nowadays. The drawback is that most people are so dreadfully expensive. I know I am. I hope you will be more reasonable in your terms.
It was a swindle, Sir Robert. Let us call things by their proper names. It makes everything simpler. And now I am going to sell you that letter, and the price I ask for it is your public support of the Argentine scheme. You made your own fortune out of one canal. You must help me and my friends to make our fortunes out of another!
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN.
It is infamous, what you propose-infamous!
Oh, no! This is the game of life as we all have to play it, Sir Robert, sooner or later! ...
Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do. You have to pay now. Before I leave you to-night, you have got to promise me to suppress your report, and to speak in the House in favour of this scheme.
How contemporary - probably a universal and age-old theme - all this sounds - everybody has a price. There is refreshing honesty in "let's call things by their proper names." This sort of honesty is important. Let's forget all about euphemisms that cover over unpalatable truths. When Wilde wrote the above dialogue all these words were wrung from personal painful experience. And then how can we hear lines like the following without taking into account Wilde's own bitter experiences of life:
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN.
Men who every day do something of the same kind themselves. Men who, each one of them, have worse secrets in their own lives.
That is the reason they are so pleased to find out other people's secrets. It distracts public attention from their own.
Victorian society, possibly the most sexually repressed society ever in cultural history, is the backdrop against which all of the lurid details of Wilde's complex life unfolded.
I also loved the following piece of dialogue between Sir Robert Chiltern and Lord Arthur Goring for its insight into courage and weakness:
Weak? Oh, I am sick of hearing that phrase. Sick of using it about others. Weak? 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. I had that courage. I sat down the same afternoon and wrote Baron Arnheim the letter this woman now holds. He made three-quarters of a million over the transaction.
Or again, that traditional Shakespearean tragic flaw:
I can't tell you how at present. I have not the smallest idea. But every one has some weak point. There is some flaw in each one of us.
Lord Goring's encounters with Sir Robert and later with Lady Chiltern are wonderful exchanges about the morality of judging others and about the flawed nature of every human being:
I hope so. Why do you look at me so strangely, Lord Goring?
Lady Chiltern, I have sometimes thought that . . . perhaps you are a little hard in some of your views on life. I think that . . . often you don't make sufficient allowances. In every nature there are elements of weakness, or worse than weakness.
Then Sir Robert's later encounter with his wife is also wonderfully deep and reflective:
SIR ROBERT CHILTERN.
There was your mistake. There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can't you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men; but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. 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? All sins, except a sin against itself, Love should forgive. All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon. A man's love is like that. It is wider, larger, more human than a woman's. Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. You made your false idol of me, and I had not the courage to come down, show you my wounds, tell you my weaknesses. I was afraid that I might lose your love, as I have lost it now. And so, last night you ruined my life for me-yes, ruined it! What this woman asked of me was nothing compared to what she offered to me. She offered security, peace, stability. The sin of my youth, that I had thought was buried, rose up in front of me, hideous, horrible, with its hands at my throat. I could have killed it for ever, sent it back into its tomb, destroyed its record, burned the one witness against me. You prevented me. No one but you, you know it. And now what is there before me but public disgrace, ruin, terrible shame, the mockery of the world, a lonely dishonoured life, a lonely dishonoured death, it may be, some day? Let women make no more ideals of men! let them not put them on alters and bow before them, or they may ruin other lives as completely as you-you whom I have so wildly loved-have ruined mine!
[He passes from the room. LADY CHILTERN rushes towards him, but the door is closed when she reaches it. Pale with anguish, bewildered, helpless, she sways like a plant in the water. Her hands, outstretched, stem to tremble in the air like blossoms in the mind. Then she flings herself down beside a sofa and buries her face. Her sobs are like the sobs of a child.]
There is also much truth in the exchanges between Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern in the last Act:
We have both been punished. I set him up too high.
[With deep feeling in his voice.]
Do not for that reason set him down now too low. If he has fallen from his altar, do not thrust him into the mire. Failure to Robert would be the very mire of shame. Power is his passion. He would lose everything, even his power to feel love. Your husband's life is at this moment in your hands, your husband's love is in your hands. Don't mar both for him.
All in all this is a wonderful production of an equally wonderful play. The Abbey, its directors and its cast are much to be praised. The rest is silence, as they say.
Above I have uploaded a public domain picture of Oscar Wilde.