The genius of An Ideal Husband is that Oscar Wilde breaks every convention of a standard morality tale, and leaves the audience convinced that they have spent a light-hearted, uplifting evening.
During the space of 24 hours, the main characters’ lives are thrown up into the air, tossed about, and land – exactly where they started. Even their self-regard and philosophies of life remain the same. The puritanical, clueless wife still has to be fed her lines by a family friend. Her purpose in life is to consume, not question. The villainous businesswoman exits stage right with a “win some, lose some” shrug of her shoulders and goes off to look for a fresh victim, one presumably less protected by a powerful elite.
The crooked politician has not wavered from his belief that the ends justify the means, and that fraud has no victims. Particularly interesting is that Wilde specifically makes his initial crime involve the betrayal of his boss and his country. That, not theft, is what would assign him a front-row seat in Dante’s inferno.
Sir Robert Chiltern enters. Not popular—few personalities are. But intensely admired by the few, and deeply respected by the many. . . The firmly chiselled mouth and chin contrast strikingly with the romantic expression in the deep-set eyes. The variance is suggestive of an almost complete separation of passion and intellect. –An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde (1895)
This, by the way, is one of the reasons I enjoy reading Wilde’s plays, as well as watching them. The detailed thumbnail sketches of his characters are exquisite.