Here is yet another of Wilde's sparking and witty plays, complete with blackmail, intrigue, romance, and typical Wilde memorable quotes. Yet there is
something in this one that makes it just a bit more sarcastic, even caustic, or at least biting satire that has a more serious root than some of his other
works. Perhaps it is his impending arrest that bore down upon him—two years hard labor for the "criminal" act of gay sex, which ruined him financially and
socially, and most likely contributed to his premature death a few years after his release. One wonders how many more gems, masterpieces of literary genius,
might have poured forth from this extremely gifted writer's pen had society been less ignorant, condemnatory, and closed-minded. History is filled with
such unfortunate tragedies, which should make us all the more thankful that what he was able to produce has been preserved and made available to posterity.
The play begins at a party in the mansion of Sir Robert Chiltern and his wife, Gertrude, and all but Act III take place at this house. The time frame is a day (one twenty-four hour period). Wilde has included detailed descriptions of the décor, and also compares his characters with an art style. For instance, the first two women to speak are Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon, (whom Watteau would have loved to paint). They speak mostly nonsense, often contradicting themselves, and are not important. Soon other guests arrive, and we are introduced to the players. Mabel Chiltern is Robert's sister, and she greets the crotchety old Lord Caversham, father of Lord Goring, whom he calls "a good-for-nothing." She is in love with Lord Goring, and defends him in a charming way. Caversham is delighted with her. All the ladies, of course, are very pretty.
But next enters Lady Markby, and she has brought her friend Mrs. Cheveley. Though Mrs. Markby is not aware, her "friend" has come to make trouble. She is ruthless, greedy, and corrupt, in addition to having a physical appearance that is striking and attracts everyone's attention: "She is in heliotrope and diamonds. She looks rather like an orchid, and makes great demands on one's curiosity." Soon Lady Chiltern appears, and realizes the two know each other from school. Lady Chiltern knows she is trouble and is outwardly cold. Soon Lord Goring arrives, and he definitely recognized her. In fact, he was once engaged to her. Mrs. Cheveley gets around. She is a woman of the world, wealthy and independent and her main reason for showing up at the Chilterns is to blackmail Robert.
Sir Robert is the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He is in his early forties, and the position carries much prestige. He is wealthy and powerful and has a reputation for being a public official who cannot be corrupted. He and Gertrude have a loving marriage, based on that fact. She thinks he is "the ideal husband."
But he has a flaw from his past—a monster of a flaw, actually. In order to get on the road to where he is now, he committed a seriously dishonorable act—he sold a Cabinet secret to a Stock Exchange speculator concerning the success of the Suez Canal, and now it comes back to haunt him. The person who urged him to take this risk, Baron Arnheim, now deceased, was Mrs. Cheveley's lover, and she has the letter that could ruin Robert's career and life. She demands that he publicly support an Argentine Canal Company in which she is highly invested, but is doomed to fail. She gives him one day to decide.
But fortunately, Mrs. Cheveley has accidentally dropped her brooch, and Lord Goring finds it. This changes everything.
As I mentioned above, this play contains typical Wilde flippancy and charm, humor and silliness, but the ordeal with Robert and his conscience, and his terror that the truth will come out is quite intense. It is not only for his career's sake, but he fears even worse that he will lose the love of his precious wife. Here is part of the contemptuous speech by Mrs. Cheveley to Sir Robert:
"You are ruined, that is all! Remember to what a point your Puritanism in England has brought you. In old days nobody pretended to be a bit better than his neighbors. In fact, to be a bit better than one's neighbor 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. Not a year passes in England without somebody disappearing. Scandals used to lend charm, or at least interest, to a man—now they crush him. And yours is a very nasty scandal. You couldn't survive it."
But lord Goring adds some humor and lightness to a distressing situation when he urges Robert to confess to his wife:
"My dear Robert, it's a very awkward business, very awkward indeed. You should have told your wife the whole thing. Secrets from other people's wives are a necessary luxury in modern life. So at least I am always told at the club by people who are bald enough to know better. But no man should have a secret from his wife. She invariably finds it out. Women have a wonderful instinct about things. They can discover everything except the obvious."
And I will end this review on that humorous quote. This is one of the most popular of Wilde's plays, second only to The Importance of Being Earnest. If you are a fan of Wilde (and you should be!) this is a must-read.
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