'An Ideal Husband' Opens at the Haymarket Theatre in London
One of the issues being worked out in the Victorian theater was the so-called woman question.
Plays like Pinero's The Second Mrs.Tanqueray illustrate the impossibility of accepting a woman for having led "a man's life." It is very like Wilde to take the opposite tack: An Ideal Husband shows that it is impossible for a man to lead a woman's life. The dramatic basis of An Ideal Husband, Lady Chiltern's demand that her ambitious husband be pure and without stain--seems to be a complete reversal of Victorian tradition. But actually, this was an issue: there was great debate at this time whether women were to be allowed the same lassitude as men, or whether men should be held to the same standard of conduct as women. Wilde's ending is very different from the typical ending to this sort of play: the net result is a validation of men's need to work on a different moral plane than women. Wilde is also claiming that the "fallen" position, that of differing from the norms of morality, is one of choice, a positive decision that requires strength and courage.
In An Ideal Husband, Wilde created characters superficially reminiscent of characters in his other plays, though they behave quite differently. Mrs. Cheveley appears like the adventurous Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windermere's Fan, but wants to sacrifice Chiltern for herself rather than sacrificing herself for her daughter. Lord Illingworth from A Woman of No Importance and Lord Goring are both exceedingly clever dandies, but Illingworth was a villain, while Goring is a hero. The kindness of Wilde is more evident in An Ideal Husband than his others. The play shows the universal inability to live up to the ideal: even ideal husbands might be a bit criminal.