Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Fantasy of Clemency: Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband

This is the program essay that I wrote for the 2009 Shaw Festival production of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde. The run of the show is over now, so there seems no reason not to publish it here.

LADY STUTFIELD. Do tell me your conception of the Ideal Husband. I think it would be so very, very helpful.
MRS. ALLONBY. The Ideal Husband? There couldn’t be such a thing. The institution is wrong.
LADY STUTFIELD. The Ideal Man, then, in his relations to us.
LADY CAROLINE. He would probably be extremely realistic.
--- Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance (1893), Act II

On an evening in early May, 1864, the newly knighted Sir William Wilde, father to then nine-year-old Oscar and the most renowned eye-and-ear surgeon in Ireland, was giving a public lecture at the Metropolitan Hall in Dublin. As his audience arrived, they encountered a young woman named Mary Travers, who was distributing a pamphlet she had written under the name “Speranza,” in which she intimated that she had been raped under chloroform two years earlier by a Dr. Quilty and the incident connived at by Mrs. Quilty. Naturally, this caused a buzz: the Quiltys were barely disguised portraits of Sir William and his wife, Lady Jane Wilde, and “Speranza” was the pen-name under which Jane Wilde had become a celebrated writer.

It was apparently the stolen pen-name rather more than the suggestion of her husband’s outrageous misbehaviour that goaded Lady Wilde into action. Months earlier, she had disdainfully returned a letter in which Travers claimed to have been compromised by Sir William. “I really took no interest in the matter,” Lady Wilde later explained. “I looked upon the whole thing as a fabrication.” In fact, she knew all too well of her husband’s proclivities; Sir William already acknowledged three illegitimate children. As for Mary Travers, she had been long familiar to the Wildes as a patient of Sir William’s and a frequent guest in their home since 1854, when she was eighteen.

In that patriarchal day, Lady Wilde clearly saw what her course of action must be: she wrote to Mary’s father, informing him of “the disreputable conduct of your daughter at Bray where she consorts with all the low newspaper boys in the place, employing them to disseminate offensive placards in which my name is given, and also tracts in which she makes it appear that she has had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde.” She added that Mary’s “object in insulting me is in the hope of extorting money.” This was a mistake. Mary Travers found the letter and decided to sue Lady Wilde for libel.

The trial was a great sensation, covering dozens of full pages in The Nation, the major Irish newspaper of the day. Under cross-questioning, Mary Travers’s suggestion of being chloroformed evaporated, and when she admitted that her return visits to the office had included further sexual episodes, it appeared that the allegations of the doctor’s criminality were settling into something more like sustained impropriety. There was much anticipation that the disgraced man might take the stand to complete this defense, such as it was. But, because it was not he, but his wife, who was on trial, he never did.

That decision proved disastrous for Sir William, whose silence was taken as a tacit admission of guilt. Whereas the jury fined Lady Wilde a mere farthing in damages, Sir William’s reputation was ruined. Rapist he might not be, but the doctor was clearly a scoundrel and a target for derision. He removed himself first from public life and then from Dublin altogether, retreating to County Mayo, where he became an unwashed, ill-tempered, shrunken old man.

At the time of his mother’s libel trial, Oscar Wilde was ten years old, and although he had been sent off to school before the trial began, he could not have remained untouched by the scandal that was consuming his family name. One imagines at least that the affair must have helped to shape Oscar Wilde’s response to his own similar scandal and trials thirty years later. In that time, Wilde had come to know other public men whose careers were ruined by scandals. In 1885, a friend of Wilde’s, Sir Charles Dilke, one-time under-secretary for foreign affairs, found his career abruptly ended when he was named co-respondent in a divorce case. Then, in 1889, Wilde was given a more disastrous example: Charles Parnell, the great Irish statesman, a symbol for many of the hope for Irish unity, was discovered to have had an affair with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea. Parnell married O’Shea once she was divorced, but his career was shattered by the incident, and with it, some said, Ireland’s future.

When An Ideal Husband opened in 1895, it was by no means unique in its story of a public figure who is threatened with ruin by the exposure of a scandalous misdeed. Indeed, there was a vogue for such plays. However, Wilde’s play was original in two respects. Most noted was the startling wit upon which the play vaulted to popular success. The other point of originality was perhaps less obvious: that the disclosure of Sir Robert Chiltern’s past indiscretion, in contrast to other plays of this kind, does not automatically result in the end of his public life. Rather, Wilde revolts against the requirement of perfection in public men, and he has the character clearly based upon himself, Lord Goring, attempt to persuade Chiltern’s wife, Gertrude, to reach a merciful moral verdict about her less than ideal husband. Thus, forgiveness from a paragon of feminine moral purity is sought for a political and legal offence ⎯ selling insider information ⎯ as if it were a moral failing of mainly personal relevance.

So, was Wilde attempting in some sense to secure belated exoneration for Parnell, for Dilke and his father? Perhaps. But it is equally likely that he was already considering his own possible fate in the light of his father’s. That is to say, Wilde, now a famous man, dreaded the exposure of his own secret life, and hoped that his wife, Constance, and by extension, society, would prove forgiving should it come to that. Wilde had married Constance in 1884; by 1886, she had given birth to two sons. However, in 1886 Wilde also met Robbie Ross, the Canadian journalist who was to become Wilde’s first male lover and his closest friend. Wilde recognized his true sexuality, and his life changed utterly. With the end of repression began the most productive and brilliant period of his career. But he assumed the burden of a sexuality that was literally criminal according to the laws of the time, a dark secret that was at last dragged out into the light when the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, left a card for Wilde at his club on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” [sic]. Despite his family’s dismal experience, Wilde sued the Marquess for libel, starting off the chain of events that would lead to Wilde’s two years of hard labour for “gross indecency.”

The phrase “hard labour” hardly begins to convey the mercilessly harsh and humiliating conditions of the sentence: two years of solitary confinement, feeding on gruel, sleeping on a plank bed, being flogged for the most trivial infractions, all to punish the “crime” of having sex with men rather than women. “The system,” Wilde confessed, “seems almost to have for its aim the wrecking and destruction of the mental faculties. The production of insanity is, if not its object, certainly its result.” His few loyal friends feared, rightly, that the experience would break him. Bernard Shaw wrote a petition pleading for Wilde’s early release, planning to have it signed by people of high social standing. Not a single willing signatory could be found. Eventually, Shaw gave it up, explaining mournfully to Wilde’s brother that, given his own reputation as a degenerate crank, his solitary signature “would reduce the petition to absurdity and do Oscar more harm than good.” It seemed that the prevailing attitude at this point was best represented by the man who, as Wilde stood shackled in his convict uniform at Clapham Junction, waiting for transfer to Reading Gaol, declared “By God, that's Oscar Wilde,” and then spat in his face.

So yes, Wilde probably felt that clemency should be extended to public figures who had committed indiscretions, and perhaps An Ideal Husband should be seen as a fantasy along those lines. The reality, leading to his exile in France and his miserable decline and death at age 46, is so much more sordid.

Today, in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris, the most visited site is surely the grave of Oscar Wilde. Molière, Sarah Bernhardt, Balzac and Jim Morrison all have their admirers, but hardly a moment in any season passes between opening and closing that there is not a clutch of visitors at Wilde’s grave. And while the grey stone of the art deco sphinx that serves as Wilde’s tombstone has been heavily defaced, it is not with any scrawling of taunts, but rather with lipstick kisses. It seems that Wilde has found his clemency after all.