An Ideal Husband (1895) is the third of Oscar Wilde’s society comedies after Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and A Woman of No Importance (1893). The play delighted and continues to delight audiences with its mixture of scandal and humour, melodrama and satire. Underneath a surface of frivolity and witty exchanges, Wilde explores the serious question of the relationship between political power and personal morality. After laughing at others, Wilde taught Victorian theatregoers to turn their laughter towards themselves. The play premiered at the Haymarket Theatre in London on 3 January 1895 to popular acclaim, and ran for over one hundred performances.
The play opens at a dinner party at Sir Robert Chiltern’s house in the fashionable Grosvenor Square in London. Lady Markby arrives with an unexpected guest, the witty and ambitious Mrs Cheveley. It transpires that Mrs Cheveley went to school with Sir Robert’s wife, Mrs Chiltern. Mrs Cheveley has returned from Vienna to blackmail Sir Robert, a promising Foreign Office politician. Sir Robert’s wealth, and therefore his career, was founded on a financial reward for selling a cabinet secret about the Suez Canal Company. Throughout the play, Sir Robert goes to great lengths to hide his secret – and the stain on his character – from his wife. Mrs Chiltern puts her ‘ideal husband’ on a pedestal and Sir Robert fears the loss of her love. Mrs Cheveley, eager to benefit from Sir Robert’s situation, outwits him several times before being outwitted herself in the final act of the play. Wilde demonstrates that none of the characters are faultless; indeed even the outwardly flawless Mrs Chiltern makes a foolish mistake of her own by writing a compromising letter to Lord Goring after discovering her husband’s misdemeanour.