For my birthday, we travelled to Washington, D.C. for an evening of dinner and theatre. Dinner was at Jaleo’s (there is a whole new category for blogs some day: restaurant reviews) and the Shakespeare Theatre production Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. If you have every seen Wilde’s plays, or heard his numerous witticisms, you know that you should start with the title as a bit of sarcasm, thus this husband (and all, perchance) are not ideal.
The plot revolves around youthful error, political scandal, blackmail about revealing the secrets of one’s position in society, and the character’s efforts to keep the presentation of life more evident than the principles of one’s conduct. I do not know whether the script or the pacing of the performance had some weaknesses, but the first 90 min. appeared to struggle between the melodrama of developing the characters and plot twists, and the cutting social comments so often quoted from Wilde. This gave the pace something of a local tram progressing with frequent stops. However, after the intermission, the tram rolled smoothly along to the finish. I will credit the short roll by Floyd King, the servant of the dandy Lord Goring, as pushing the tram over the crest for the downhill ride. King had but one repeated line, more or less, “Yes, M’ lord” but filled the silences before and after with the most hilarious expressions and subtle gestures. The butler always knows what buffoons the masters are.
Gregory Wooddell presents a brooding Sir Robert Chiltern, who is haunted by the youthful error that has lead to his wealth and social position. Rachel Pickup, as Lady Chiltern, stands by her ideal of her husband even as the scandal develops with mounting accusations. She is the only character who espouses and tries to keep her principles, even when she is caught in the hypocrisy of her own circular arguments. Emily Raymond schemes across and around the stage, as Mrs Cheverley, who desires to further her own position by bringing others down. The dandy, Lord Goring (Cameron Folmar), flits about the drawing rooms for most of the production, trying to evade any engagement in all these events and sentiments, except to denounce it all as silliness, only to become the player who can right all the pillars of society to prevent the collapse of the structure.
As much as Wilde’s plays thrive on the language, the Shakespeare Theatre’s technical crews have mastered how we view the elegance and intrigue. As the lights darken, an illuminated Victorian coin affronts us on the curtain, with the bold words, “Life, Joy, and Empire”. Most of the play occurs in the grand-stair case entry room of Lord and Lady Chiltern’s London mansion, during “the season”. The staircase, ascending a full three levels, forms a huge key-hole shape with the same words “Life, Joy, and Empire” encircling the curved upper stairs. Is this the key to unlocking wealth and success? Is this the key hole through which we clandestinely hear the secret of those who control the government and business? Is this the key hole through which we voyeuristically watch as men and women try to seduce each other for position and pleasure?
The second image of the set is that of a mirror. The black and gold floor, walls, pillars, and ceiling are all highly polished. Thus throughout the play, we not only see the characters going about their activities and reciting their lines, but we see them reflected in multiple perspectives. The ceiling and floors show them up-side down. The pillars distort their shapes to tall beams of color. The walls reflect blurred images, as those in a dream which we cannot quite recall. How distorted are our images of the powerful from any direction. Yet, even what we see clearly on stage is but a distortion that each character tries to craft. Again, Lord Goring makes many comments about how no one is authentic. But, his own position in society is based on this, so he distorts his own perceptions to avoid having to toil at something mundane such as business, government, marriage, or family. He wants his only obligation to be to admire himself.
A criticism of Wilde’s script (this was his third play) was that he attacked the social norms, but resolves the play by having society supported in the status quo. The Shakespeare Theatre brilliantly uses piano music to tell us that these characters will be haunted still by their attempts to keep up the norm. As that Victorian coin illuminated the opening curtain, harsh cord filled the auditorium. They quickly dissolved into the pleasant salon piano that would accompany a dinner event in London season. After the closing lines, in which Lord Chiltern resolves to take the cabinet position offered to him. He begins to ascend that grand-stair case, surrounded by the admiring society which believes he is without fault. The lights dim on all the stage, except where he stands looking back through that key-hole toward the audience, with a horrific stare at us as those harsh cord resound again. We know that he is a fraud.
So what does a Victorian play, denouncing Victorian society, business, and politics with clever lines and plot twists have to do with our lives, other than amusing us or making us feel elite about seeing a classic production? In our current political arena, we are full of scandals and threats of scandals. We elected a president who had little credits other than “community organizer” in a whirl-wind election. We have a governor who pushes through legislation to strip state employees of collective bargaining rights, who complains about “union” influence, while his campaign accepted 11 million in funds from David and Charles Koch *. When Senator Byrd died, $22 millions was spent to “elect” the quickly resigned governor of WV to his senate seat. Of that half was “out of state, undisclosed interests”. We may all live with the results of these power games in our employment, taxation, and commodity prices. They shall have to live with the haunting knowledge of what they have done, while we peep through the key-hole and try to figure out what is reflected in the distorted images on the ceilings, walls, and floors of society.
* The Koch brother are long time advocates of deregulation at all levels of government. Their wealth is in inherited from the oil-business of their family. Forbes (2010) listed them as tied for 5th place in the wealthiest Americans with assests around 42 billion each.