In Oscar Wilde’s day, London was ruled by Society. Although Wilde passed through the rooms of Society, he was not a part of it. It was a closed order—you could only be in it if you were immensely wealthy or had a title. At this time, the British Empire controlled vast swaths of the world, and London was the most powerful city in the world. It was a particularly beautiful period, recorded in many pictures by the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent (the inspiration for Robert Perdziola’s costumes). So it was an amazing confluence of power, fashion and wealth. They didn’t know, as we know, that it was the last, glorious sunset of the British Empire. Wilde’s plays show a Society that was about to disappear, and that gives them a particular poignancy.
Lady Windermere’s Fan was his first success in 1892. He followed it in 1894 with A Woman of No Importance. Then in 1895, An Ideal Husband triumphed in front of a first-night audience that included the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister. And he followed it a month later with his masterwork, The Importance of Being Earnest.
But by the time he wrote An Ideal Husband, his life had undergone a sea of change. His obsessive love for the beautiful but corrupt Lord Alfred Douglas had overwhelmed him. It had also driven him to despair, and it is possible to hear in the play Wilde’s cynicism about Society and the world in which he lived. “What this century worships is wealth. The God of this century is wealth. To succeed one must have wealth. At all costs one must have wealth.” In its discussion of insider dealing, financial schemes and scams, the play has a great deal of resonance today.
In Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance, the tensions are domestic, and concern a small group of people. In An Ideal Husband, he wrote about a section of England that was the most powerful echelon of government and of wealth, and that’s a different kettle of fish. It’s not just a domestic crisis that is being dealt with: it is a major political crisis. I feel very much that the background is not as frivolous as it was in the other two plays. I think it reflects Wilde’s own increasing sense of cynicism about the world that he was living in.
People go to Wilde’s plays expecting witty dialogue and ladies and gentlemen beautifully dressed. Of course you get that, but what you also get in An Ideal Husband is a kind of arrogance. The principal character has committed a crime which has made his fortune. It’s still a wonderful comedy, but it also mirrors Wilde’s arrogance that he could get away with anything—flouting the rules of Society in his own life. At the beginning of 1895, Wilde was at the peak of his success, and within a few months, he was in jail. Society shut the door on him. That’s the way that England worked.