Themes: Many of the themes of An Ideal Husband were influenced by the situation Oscar Wilde found himself in during the early 1890s. They stressed the need to be forgiven of past sins, and the irrationality of ruining lives of great value to society because of people's hypocritical reactions to those sins. This is the case in the play when Mrs. Cheveley attempts to blackmail Sir Robert to support a fraudulent scheme to build a canal in Argentina. As it turns out, Sir Robert gained inside information on the Suez Canal when he was quite young and made his enormous fortune as a result. Now he could be ruined for life. Wilde may have been speaking to his own situation, and his own fears regarding his affair (still secret). Anyway, Sir Robert’s wife is inflexible regarding her morals and attitude to life and insists that Sir Robert is “an ideal husband”. That soon changes when she finds out about Robert’s past. She could not forgive him! However, Lord Goring, something of a playboy, convinces her to forgive him and Robert remains the ”ideal husband” once again.
Other themes include the position of women in society. In a climactic moment Gertrude Chiltern "learns her lesson" and repeats Lord Goring's advice "A man's life is of more value than a woman's." Often criticized by contemporary theatre analysers as overt sexism, the idea being expressed in the monologue is that women, despite serving as the source of morality in Victorian era marriages, should be less judgemental of their husband's mistakes because of complexities surrounding the balance that husbands of that era had to keep between their domestic and their worldly obligations. Further, the script plays against both sides of feminism/sexism as, for example, Lord Caversham, exclaims near the end that Mabel displays "a good deal of common sense" after concluding earlier that "Common sense is the privilege of our sex."
A third theme expresses anti-upper class sentiments. Lady Basildon, and Lady Markby are consistently portrayed as absurdly two-faced, saying one thing one moment, then turning around to say the exact opposite (to great comic effect) to someone else. The overall portrayal of the upper class in England displays an attitude of hypocrisy and strict observance of silly rules.
The play was read over two meetings and our group had lots of laughs and delightful opportunities to overact. The issues raised stimulated our group into lengthy discussion for some time after the reading ended. In all, a most enjoyable experience.
Our next reading is the Australian play Summer of the 17th Doll by Ray Lawler.