Summer is essentially over today with the yellow school buses fanning out through the cities and towns, but summer theatre festivals are still going strong, especially at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario's Shaw Festival. I caught a recent production of An Ideal Husband, always trying to find the other Oscar Wilde plays no matter how far away.
Wilde's An Ideal Husband is companion to his better known The Importance of Being Earnest, a play considered the finest comedy of the last millennium, making it a formidable companion at best. The two plays premiered in the same year - 1895 - certainly the apex of Wilde's London success, and unfortunately, the harbinger of the tragedy that was to mark the end of his career. Both plays were still on stage when the playwright was jailed for gross indecency (for more on this, see Moisés Kaufman's brilliant Gross Indecencey: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde).
While An Ideal Husband may be the lesser of the two plays, it is still much more than the series of epigrams it initially appears. As staged by director Jackie Maxwell, who is in her eighth season as the Shaw's artistic director, An Ideal Husband is a portrait of a mature marriage, and in doing so, it is the portrait of moral relativity and open-mindedness so needed in Wilde's reality. That is not to say that An Ideal Husband is deadly serious. The play also introduces us to a superhero character that is tragically missing from today's comics - Lord Goring. But more on him later.
On its surface, An Ideal Husband is a story of extortion with gorgeous costumes (also more on this later), but the undertone is the story of an adult marriage. Whereas The Importance of Being Earnest is all trivialities about engagements and many of them, An Ideal Husband is about the compromises of the middle-aged when faced with the realities of disappointments and human frailties. Hardly the stuff of familiar Wildean comedy.
Above: Catherine McGregor as Lady Chiltern and Patrick Galligan as Robert Chiltern. (Photo by David Cooper)
Forty year old Sir Robert Chiltern (Patrick Galligan) is faced with a sin of his youth that threatens to undermine all the achieved ambitions of his career. His wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Catherine McGregor) is a 27 year old woman of "grave Greek beauty," grave being the operative word here. Chiltern must keep his secret from his wife at all costs, thinking she will not understand. How the marriage stands up to the disclosure is what makes An Ideal Husband relevant today; so few modern stories - whether television, movies, or theatre - depict the challenges of a grown-up relationship, Everyone Loves Raymond being the exception that proves the rule.