Persons of the Play (unimportant characters not listed): Sir Robert Chiltern, Lady Gertrude Chiltern, Mabel Chiltern (sister to Robert Chiltern), Lord Arthur Goring, Mrs. Cheverly, Lady Markby, The Earl of Caversham (Lord Goring's father)
In the summer of 1893, Oscar Wilde began writing An Ideal Husband, and he completed it later that winter. At this point in his career he was accustomed to success, and in writing An Ideal Husband he wanted to ensure himself public fame. His work began at Goring-on-Thames, after which he named the character Lord Goring, and concluded at St. James Place. He initially sent the completed play to the Garrick theatre, where the manager rejected it, but it was soon accepted by the Haymarket Theatre, where Lewis Waller had temporarily taken control. Waller was an excellent actor and cast himself as Sir Robert Chiltern. The play gave the Haymarket the success it desperately needed. After opening on January 3, 1895, it continued for 124 performances. (From Wikipedia)
An Ideal Husband is set in the London of 1895, and the opening scene takes place at a dinner party hosted by Robert Chiltern. The party includes all over the listed persons above, and several other genteel guests. Mrs. Chevely is introduced by Lady Markby to Lady Chiltern as a personage from Vienna, and is remembered by Lady Chiltern as having being a schoolmate. During the dinner party, Mrs. Chevely tries to blackmail Robert Chiltern, who is currently the Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs into supporting a scheme to build a canal into Argentina. Mrs. Chevely produces a letter Robert Chiltern wrote to Baron Anheim in his younger days (the Baron may be viewed as a sort of mentor to Robert Chiltern), advising the Baron to buy stocks in the Suez Canal several days before the British Government announced its purchase. Fearing for his position, Robert Chiltern acquiesces to her demands.
But when Mrs. Chevely meets Lady Chiltern and informs her of her husbands apparent change of heart, Lady Chiltern demands that Robert Chiltern write a letter informing Mrs. Chevely that he will in no way support the scheme of the Argentinean Canal. Lady Chiltern is a high principled woman, and requires her husband to be as strict in his morals in his private life as he is in public. Submitting to his wife's demands, Robert Chiltern writes the letter, apparently sealing his fate.
Towards the end of the Act, Lord Goring and Mabel Chiltern find a piece of jewellery that Mabel insists is a broach, but is actually known to Lord Goring to be a bracelet. Lord Goring takes it, and tells Mabel to inform him if anyone inquires after it.
In the second act, Lord Goring urges Robert Chiltern to fight Mrs. Chevely instead of submitting to her demands. Robert Chiltern does not think much of the plan, but wires to Vienna to attempt to find out if Mrs. Chevely has any skeletons in her closet. Lord Goring tells Robert that he does not think that that plan will come to much, since Mrs. Chevely obviously does not mind scandal. But Robert replies that he lives on hope now. Mrs. Chevely comes later in the day to see if she left her broach at Robert Chiltern's house, and commences an argument with Lady Chiltern, ultimately exposing Robert to his wife. Lady Chiltern denounces her husband and refuses to listen to his pleas.
In Act 3, Lord Goring receives a letter from Lady Chiltern, having told her that she may rely on him if need be. However the letter, scantily worded, may be read amorously. The Earl of Caversham drops in on his son, demanding him to marry, and Lord Goring leaves with instructions to Phipps, his butler, to show 'a lady' into the drawing room. A visit from Robert Chiltern follows after his father leaves, and the butler, mistaking Mrs. Chevely for Lady Chiltern, shows her into the drawing room. Mrs. Chevely sees Lady's Chiltern's letter and is about to steal it when the door is opened by Robert Chiltern. When he sees that Mrs. Chevely, he becomes convinced that see and Lord Goring are involved as lovers, and he storms out of the house.
Once Robert Chiltern is gone, Mrs. Chevely offers herself in marriage to Lord Goring in exchange for the damaging letter against Lord Chiltern, revealing that they had been previously engaged. Lord Goring refuses, saying that she defiles love by treating it as a barter of sorts. Removing the bracelet from his person, he springs it on her, clasping it onto her wrist. Mrs. Chevely tries to remove it, but cannot do so, because of a hidden spring. Lord Goring then shows her that he knows how she came by that bracelet- she stole it from his cousin years ago, and now to be rid of the jewelled handcuff, she must give the letter to him. Mrs. Chevely does so, but manages to steal Lady Chiltern's letter, and is out of the house before Goring can stop her. Lord Goring burns the letter concerning Lord Robert..
In the Fourth Act, returning to Robert Chiltern's house in Grosvenor Square ends the play happily. Lord Goring proposes to Mabel Chiltern and is accepted. The Earl of Cavesham tells him of Robert Chiltern's latest oratory triumph in denouncing the Argentina Canal scheme. Lady Chiltern is informed that the threat of Mrs. Cheveley has passed, and she is advised to forgive her huband. Also, she is told that her letter has been stolen and mailed to Lord Chiltern. She plans to intercept it, but it is shown to Robert before she can do so. However, he thinks that it is a missile of forgiveness directed to him, and they both reconcile. Lord Goring is permitted Mabel's hand in marriage after a slight misunderstanding.
This play is a really nice read. I love Oscar Wilde's descriptions of all the characters as much as the dialogue of the play. The Importance of Being Earnest is better, but this one does really well too. Four out of five.