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A Problematic Election Year Play

July 9, 2008

It's an election year, and theatre companies are tripping over themselves to put on plays with political content.

One such play, Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, is currently receiving a revival at the California Shakespeare Theater. Wilde's potent 1895 social comedy is, at least on the surface, an ideal kind of election year play. Telling the story of a politically-ambitious woman's attempt to bring down an up-and-coming statesman by exposing a dirty secret from his past, the work satirizes the sordid deals that underpin many political careers, showing us that life in Victorian England isn't so very different from American culture today.

Yet for all of Wilde's incisive comments about the less-than-pristine realities that go hand in hand with politicians' outwardly high moral stance, the play doesn't fit into the political play mold easily. From a political perspective, it's an unsettling work at best and at worst, brilliantly confusing.

One of the tricky things about An Ideal Husband are its sexual politics. As in most of Wilde's plays, the most charismatic characters in this comedy are its women. Yet despite their power and the fact that the play was written at the height of Britain's burgeoning Suffragette Movement, Wilde takes what seems to be a reactionary view towards the political advancement of his female characters. Mrs. Cheveley's political career revolves around blackmail; and Lady Chiltern's efforts to mobilize women politically are affectionately brushed under the carpet. Then, at the end of the play, Wilde delivers what must have come across as a bit of a bombshell to enlightened female audiences of his day: He has the one character with any sense -- the gorgeously dandyish and completely politically-uninterested Lord Goring -- spoil his forward-looking sensibilities by uttering the following lines, apparently with none of the character's usual irony: "A man's life is of more value than a woman's. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions."

What does Wilde mean by ending his comedy like this? And how to pull off these lines in front of a 21st century audience without undermining the strength of the core political messages of the play?

The problem brings Kate's last speech in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew to mind. Should Kate speak those lines about being utterly subservient to her husband as if she means them? Or should she sound like she is under duress? I've seen it done both ways many times to greater or lesser effect.

Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone goes for the latter solution by having Julie Eccles, in the role of Lady Chiltern, utter the lines back to her husband between clenched teeth. The ambivalent ending is further underscored by Moscone's use of thunderous canned applause, when Michael Butler's Lord Chiltern, having had his political career saved by his wife, exits with his hands held aloft in the pose of the great statesman. It's discombobulating stuff.

Another problem with seeing the play as a vehicle for making a political statement is to do with the author's preoccupation with art. Most of the characters are compared to works of art in the stage directions. In Cal Shakes' production, they all look like works of art in Meg Neville's flamboyant period costumes too. Goring, who is in many ways the play's hero, is an archetypal aesthete. He puts art above politics and is, though affected in his way of dressing, is one of the most unpretentious of all the characters on stage.

So where does all this leave us then, experiencing the play in an election year? It leaves us thoroughly entertained and not a little bemused. There are no great and worthy truths about the democratic process to take home from the production. Only a sense of cleverly-crafted confusion about the way the world works, of which both Wilde and Lord Goring would have approved. At the end of the day, the play covertly undermines its political theme completely. An Ideal Husband may be the least ideal election year play. Why? Because, as Wilde famously put it in his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray: "All art is quite useless."

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