Before a mural of shepherds and shepherdesses in modern imitation of Restoration style (Annie Smart’s set), to bowed strings (on tape) guests troop into the home of a Member of Parliament, for a party that will see its host blackmailed to go against his principles by a femme fatale, amid all the frothy talk, in CalShakes’ production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband.
Originally staged the same year as The Importance of Being Earnest—and as Wilde’s scandal and downfall—Ideal Husband has lately been said to have “more substance” than Earnest. For “more substance,” read “story” or even “plot.”
An Ideal Husband seems to be a forerunner of what will later be called “Problem Plays,” in this case about the private lives of public people. But Wilde’s version is not so much melodrama as a comedy of humor in Pirandello’s definition: a sense of the opposite. Everything is found to be other than it purports to be, and events come round full circle, but less through that dramatic device called perpeteia—fate, or a chance downfall—than through Wilde’s sense of masks, of surfaces being more important than the depths which underpin them.
The players prove quite good at their deadly badinage. Stacy Ross as scheming Mrs. Cheveley; Michael Butler as Robert Chiltern, her prey; and Julie Eccles as his too-upright, adoring wife Gertrude, Mrs. Cheveley’s nemesis at school—this triangle would play out perfectly if Wilde’s play were merely a drama adorned with bon mots and larded with wit. Elijah Alexander plays Lord Goring (who, like Algernon in Earnest portrays something of Wilde’s own persona) with a kind of silly abandon, not Oscar’s impenetrable poise. His madcap ingenue, Mabel Chiltern (Sarah Nealis), just misses being a screwball and preserves her comic aplomb. Joan Mankin’s sad, comic visage, spouting absurdities with the odd ring of truth over a flute of champagne as Lady Markby, has something the others are missing from Wilde’s inverted scheme of things.
It might have been the ideal cast, but Jonathan Moscone’s direction takes it in another direction, adorning Wildean deadpan with sitcom mugging and physical routines, making his imperturbable observations, which are a lens trained on society beyond irony or wit, merely funny and forgettable. “Humor is a serious distortion of our world,” said poet George Seferis.
This is most apparent in one of the final scenes, when Lord Goring, after proving to be the saving grace while acting the clueless ne’er-do-well, convinces Gertrude to sacrifice her domestic ideals so her husband may realize his public ambitions, through a homiletic speech she repeats, word for word, to Robert.
The director (and a few critics) take this to be an unfortunate anachronism, Wilde’s sexist slip showing, to shake up a few metaphors. And so the audience gasps, or hisses.
But Wilde is a dramatist, and a humorist. Every meticulous detail, much less an important turn, can only be seen through his eyes examining his characters in society, finding that “sense of the opposite.”
“It is always worthwhile to ask a question, though it is not always worthwhile to answer one.” Wilde was more the pagan philosopher than the activist—or maybe a kind of time bomb. He exposed Anglo-Saxon society in a way it couldn’t challenge or ignore, not in a witty puppet show where the author winks at the audience, twitting it and begging its indulgence.
Like his surrogate, Lord Goring, Wilde did nothing, “and it is a comfort,” not cynical but playfully serious. Like Gore Vidal, Wilde might have said, “I have nothing to say—only to add.”
AN IDEAL HUSBAND
Through July 27 at Bruns Amphitheater,
100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda.