An Ideal Husband

"An Ideal Husband" is an 1895 comedic stage play by Oscar Wilde which revolves around blackmail and political corruption, and touches on the themes of public and private honour. The action is set in London, in "the present", and takes place over the course of three days."Sooner or later," Wilde notes, "we shall all have to pay for what we do." But he adds that, "No one should be entirely judged by their past."


In the summer of 1893, Oscar Wilde began writing "An Ideal Husband", and he completed it later that winter. At this point in his career he was accustomed to success, and in writing "An Ideal Husband" he wanted to ensure himself public fame. His work began at Goring-on-Thames, after which he named the character Lord Goring, and concluded at St. James Place. He initially sent the completed play to the Garrick theatre, where the manager rejected it, but it was soon accepted by the Haymarket Theatre, where Lewis Waller had temporarily taken control. Waller was an excellent actor and cast himself as Sir Robert Chiltern. The play gave the Haymarket the success it desperately needed. After opening on January 3, 1895, it continued for 124 performances. In April of that year, Wilde was arrested for 'gross indecency' and his name was publicly taken off the play. On April 6, soon after Wilde's arrest, the play moved to the Criterion Theatre where it ran from April 13-27. The play was published in 1899, although Wilde was not listed as the author. This published version differs slightly from the performed play, for Wilde added many passages and cut others. Prominent additions included written stage directions and character descriptions. Wilde was a leader in the effort to make plays accessible to the reading public.

"Dramatis Personae"

*The Earl of Caversham, K.G.
*Lord Goring, his son. Goring spouts such witticisms as "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance." His father is the Earl of Caversham and Goring, after an insistence on bachelorhood, by the end of the play is engaged to marry Mabel Chiltern, the sister of his best friend, Sir Robert Chiltern. His Christian name is Arthur.
*Sir Robert Chiltern, Bart., Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs
*Vicomte De Nanjac, Attache at the French Embassy In London
*Mr. Montford
*Mason, butler to Sir Robert Chiltern
*Phipps, Lord Goring's 'friend'
*James, a footman
*Harold, a footman
*Lady Chiltern
*Lady Markby
*The Countess of Basildon
*Mrs. Marchmont
*Miss Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert Chiltern's sister
*Mrs. Cheveley


"An Ideal Husband" opens during a dinner party at the home of Sir Robert Chiltern in London's fashionable Grosvenor Square. Sir Robert, a prestigious member of the House of Commons, and his wife, Lady Chiltern, are hosting a gathering that includes his friend Lord Goring, a dandified bachelor and close friend to the Chilterns, his sister Mabel Chiltern, and other genteel guests.During the party, Mrs. Cheveley, an enemy of Lady Chiltern's from their school days, attempts to blackmail Sir Robert into supporting a fraudulent scheme to build a canal in Argentina. Apparently, Mrs. Cheveley's dead mentor and lover, Baron Arnheim, convinced the young Sir Robert many years ago to sell him a Cabinet secret, a secret that suggested he buy stocks in the Suez Canal three days before the British government announced its purchase. Sir Robert made his fortune with that illicit money, and Mrs. Cheveley has the letter to prove his crime. Fearing both the ruin of career and marriage, Sir Robert submits to her demands.

When Mrs. Cheveley pointedly informs Lady Chiltern of Sir Robert's change of heart regarding the canal scheme, the morally inflexible Lady, unaware of both her husband's past and the blackmail plot, insists that Sir Robert renege on his promise. For Lady Chiltern, their marriage is predicated on her having an "ideal husband"—that is, a model spouse in both private and public life that she can worship: thus Sir Robert must remain unimpeachable in all his decisions. Sir Robert complies with the lady's wishes and apparently seals his doom. Also toward the end of Act I, Mabel and Lord Goring come upon a diamond brooch that Lord Goring gave someone many years ago. Goring takes the brooch and asks that Mabel inform him if anyone comes to retrieve it.

In the second act, which also takes place at Sir Robert's house, Lord Goring urges Sir Robert to fight Mrs. Cheveley and admit his guilt to his wife. He also reveals that he and Mrs. Cheveley were formerly engaged. After finishing his conversation with Sir Robert, Goring engages in flirtatious banter with Mabel. He also takes Lady Chiltern aside and obliquely urges her to be less morally inflexible and more forgiving. Once Goring leaves, Mrs. Cheveley appears, unexpected, in search of a brooch she lost the previous evening. Incensed at Sir Robert's reneging on his promise, she ultimately exposes Sir Robert to his wife once they are both in the room. Unable to accept a Sir Robert now unmasked, Lady Chiltern then denounces her husband and refuses to forgive him.

In the third act, set in Lord Goring's home, Goring receives a pink letter from Lady Chiltern asking for his help, a letter that might be read as a compromising love note. Just as Goring receives this note, however, his father, Lord Caversham, drops in and demands to know when his son will marry. A visit from Sir Robert, who seeks further counsel from Goring, follows. Meanwhile, Mrs. Cheveley arrives unexpectedly and, misrecognized by the butler as the woman Goring awaits, is ushered into Lord Goring's drawing room. While she waits, she finds Lady Chiltern's letter. Ultimately, Sir Robert discovers Mrs. Cheveley in the drawing room and, convinced of an affair between these two former loves, angrily storms out of the house.

When she and Lord Goring confront each other, Mrs. Cheveley makes a proposal: claiming to still love Goring from their early days of courtship, she offers to exchange Sir Robert's letter for her old beau's hand in marriage. Lord Goring declines, accusing her of defiling love by reducing courtship to a vulgar transaction and ruining the Chilterns' marriage. He then springs his trap. Removing the diamond brooch from his desk drawer, he binds it to Cheveley's wrist with a hidden device. Goring then reveals how the item came into her possession: apparently Mrs. Cheveley stole it from his cousin years ago. To avoid arrest, Cheveley must trade the incriminating letter for her release from the bejeweled handcuff. After Goring obtains and burns the letter, however, Mrs. Cheveley steals Lady Chiltern's note from his desk. Vengefully she plans to send it to Sir Robert misconstrued as a love letter addressed to the dandified lord. Mrs. Cheveley exits the house in triumph.

The final act, which returns to Grosvenor Square, resolves the many plot complications sketched above with a decidedly happy ending. Lord Goring proposes to and is accepted by Mabel. Lord Caversham informs his son that Sir Robert has denounced the Argentine canal scheme before the House. Lady Chiltern then appears, and Lord Goring informs her that Sir Robert's letter has been destroyed but that Mrs. Cheveley has stolen her letter and plans to use it to destroy her marriage. At that moment, Sir Robert enters while reading Lady Chiltern's letter, but he has mistaken it for a letter of forgiveness written for him. The two reconcile. The ever-upright Lady Chiltern then attempts to drive Sir Robert to renounce his career in politics, but Lord Goring dissuades her from doing so. When Sir Robert refuses Lord Goring his sister's hand in marriage, still believing he has taken up with Mrs. Cheveley, Lady Chiltern is forced to explain last night's events and the true nature of the letter. Sir Robert relents, and Lord Goring and Mabel are permitted to wed.


*One's past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged.

*Women have a wonderful instinct about things. They can discover everything except the obvious.

*One should never give a woman anything that she can't wear in the evening.

*"Lord Goring": You see, Phipps, Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.:"Phipps": Yes, my lord.:"Lord Goring": Just as vulgarity is simply the conduct of other people.:"Phipps": Yes, my lord.:"Lord Goring": Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.:"Phipps": Yes, my lord.:"Lord Goring": To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance, Phipps.:"Phipps": Yes, my lord.

*I adore political parties. They are the only place left to us where people don't talk politics.

*"Lord Goring": Love, about which I admit I know so little, love cannot be bought, it can only be given...To give and not expect return, hmm? That is what lies at the heart of love.

Film and television adaptations

1947 film

"main|An Ideal Husband (1947 film)

A lavish 1947 adaptation was produced by London Films and starred Paulette Goddard, Michael Wilding and Diana Wynyard

1998 film

"main|An Ideal Husband (1998 film)

It was adapted for the screen in 1998. It starred James Wilby and Jonathan Firth

1999 film

"main|An Ideal Husband (film)

It was adapted once more for the screen in 1999. It starred Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett and Rupert Everett

The BBC produced a version which aired in 1969 and starred Jeremy Brett and Margaret Leighton. It is available on DVD as part of the "The Oscar Wilde Collection".

L.A. Theatre Works produced an audio adaption of the play staring Jacqueline Bisset, Rosalind Ayres, Martin Jarvis, Miriam Margolyes, Alfred Molina, Yeardley Smith and Robert Machray. It is available as a CD set, ISBN 1-58081-215-5.

External links

* [ Text]
* [ Background information and study quizzes on "An Ideal Husband"]

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