Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the director’s blog for The Hyde Park Community Players’ production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. The sad irony of directors’ blogs, of course, is that we all start them with the best of intentions…and then, as showtime approaches, they wither away and die. We get too busy actually making the show happen to blog about it.
But right now, we’re in the exploratory phase of the process, which is my favorite part. Showtime is still over a month away, I am serenely confident that the set and lights and props will all materialize on time and work perfectly, and we can concentrate on discovering the characters and their relationships. And also, you know, blocking; but to me, that’s part of discovery. In the big scenes that have 13 people in them—yes, Act One of this play is a party with 12 guests and one butler—blocking is mainly about making sure people don’t bump into each other, getting the actors within range of the characters they’re talking to, and putting the main action where people can see it. The Act One blocking was worked out mostly late at night by me, in my office, pushing tiny squares of paper around my map of the Act I set. But about 80% of this play is conversations involving two or three people; and for those scenes, the blocking is about defining and shaping the characters and their relationships. That part of it I love. With one thing and another I’ve read a lot of theory about space and how it shapes everyday life, but there are few things that make this more apparent than the rehearsal process. There are these moments when someone figures out exactly what to do with a chair or a sofa at exactly the right moment, and you think YES, this is IT, we have liftoff.
For my day job, I teach a lot of drama. I have taught An Ideal Husband, in fact, though only once. I discovered after Paul and I did On Baile’s Strand that directing a play actually makes it much harder to teach, so I now stay away from playwrights and plays that are in the rotation. When you discuss a play in the classroom, you’re trying to open up multiple possibilities and to make the ambiguities visible. I worried at first about telling the actors too much, because I’ve been trained not to impose my own reading on other people. But I have at long last grasped the fact that for actors, it helps if you come in with a strong reading of the play and the characters; it sets parameters for what might otherwise become an infinite process, and it gives them something to test their choices against. It is really exciting to see the actors taking these ideas and fleshing them out and building on them. Last night, Michele and David had some questions about Robert and Gertrude’s underlying emotions in their big Act II knock-down drag-out, and so we took a few minutes to talk about what the Chilterns’ marriage has been like and what’s happening to both of them as they realize that it will never be the same again. “See?” I said, at one point. “Isn’t this sad?” And we all just kind of sat there for a while being sad for Robert and Gertrude. They are miserable at this moment not because they don’t love each other, but because they do. The relationship they thought they had has collapsed. They are both devastated. But instead of turning to each other for comfort, and helping each other rebuild, each blames the other for the loss of that illusion. Their dialogue is definitely not going to strike most twenty-first century spectators as ‘realistic.’ But the pain and anger and the fear are real. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to direct An Ideal Husbandinstead of Wilde’s best-known play, The Importance of Being Earnest.
An Ideal Husband premiered about a month before The Importance of Being Earnest, in the winter of 1895. By that time, Wilde had been married to Constance for eleven years and they had two sons, ten and nine years old. He was also four years into a passionate affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (known to his friends as “Bosie”), a young aristocrat and unabashed Oscar Wilde fanboy who claimed to have read The Picture of Dorian Gray fourteen times in a row. At the same time, Wilde was immersed in London’s demimonde, buying sex from “rent boys” and sometimes forming friendships with them. Bosie hated his father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who was in turn enraged by his son’s relationship with Wilde and had been harassing the playwright since 1894.
Though Wilde’s decision to sue Queensberry for libel has sometimes been read as a sign of hubris, I think An Ideal Husband shows that Wilde understood that he was living on the edge of catastrophe. The passage of the Criminal Amendment Act in 1885 had made it much easier to prosecute men for engaging in sexual activity with other men. (Sodomy had been illegal in England since the Offenses Against the Person act of 1861. Neither act banned sexual activity between women.) The parliament that passed the 1885 law—popularly known as “the blackmailer’s charter,” because it exposed every queer man in England to extortion—undoubtedly included men who had engaged in homosexual activity themselves. The hypocrisy that characterized upper-class Victorian society—the dedication to preserving a pure and spotless surface, regardless of what the substance beneath might be—was oppressive in some way to almost everyone who lived with it, but it posed a very specific and concrete threat to Wilde’s life and liberty.
An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest are really both attacking this kind of hypocrisy–as it manifested in daily life, and as it infected the kind of ‘serious’ drama that was at the time monopolizing the London stage. The Importance of Being Earnest is hilarious partly because it pushes the highly conventionalized and artificial conventions governing dramatic plotting and characterization until they reveal their essential emptiness and absurdity. The series of arbitrary events which allows all of Jack’s lies to become true—and thereby allows the four main characters to wind up paired off decently with the ‘right’ people—is hilarious precisely because it is entirely incredible; and yet at the same time, it perfectly adheres to the laws London’s critics insisted on laying down about dramatic ‘construction.’ It’s a savagely funny satire not just on the frivolous lives of the idle rich, but on all the ways in which Victorian idealism, by piling up rule upon rule about what could and couldn’t be done and said, had made it impossible for drama to deal with anything that mattered.
An Ideal Husband is certainly a comedy; it’s very funny and it has a happy ending—or at least an ending in which everyone’s married, which was supposed to be the same thing. But the characters in An Ideal Husband are real people with real emotions who are going through real pain. An Ideal Husband, in fact, is about how painful it is to be a real person in a world where everyone is expected to present as ideal. The tragedy of the Chilterns’ marriage is that Gertrude sincerely believes in the existence of an ideal world that most of the characters around her understand, to some extent, to be imaginary. This isn’t really her fault; it’s what she’s been trained to do since she was a little girl. As an aristocratic woman in Victorian England, in fact, it is really Gertrude’s job to believe in the ideal—to embody the purity, and enact the virtues, that men have to jettison in order to do the dirty job of running the British Empire. She has the misfortune to have married a man who is almost good enough to live up to these ideals, which allows her to sustain her idealism longer than most married women can. Robert, of course, knows about some of the ways in which he’s secretly failed this ideal; but he also idealizes Gertrude as much as she idealizes him, and unlike Gertrude he is never forced to confront that. As far as Wilde is concerned, Gertrude really is as faithful, chaste, and pure as Robert believes her to be, whatever appearances might temporarily suggest.
We can’t believe in Victorian idealism any more when it comes to politics. Our politicians routinely get away with lies, frauds, and thefts much more brazen and destructive than anything Sir Robert Chiltern’s ever done. Where it survives, however, is in our attitudes toward marriage. Despite all the evidence we have of a very different reality, the ideal of marriage—forsaking all others, till death do us part—still dominates our debates about it. I wanted to direct An Ideal Husband in part because of my own ambivalence about marriage, which is rooted in the fact that when I first fell in love with my wife back in 1988, I believed that I was renouncing marriage forever. Neither of us could have imagined then that legal marriage would ever be made available to same-sex couples. We did marry in 2008, and it was deeply meaningful to us; but it was important to both of us to do that in a way that honored the twenty unmarried years we had spent together before that, and acknowledged that marriage—unlike love—is something that the state gives, and which the state can take away.
So that’s the answer to a question I have occasionally been asked: Why An Ideal Husband instead of Earnest? Because ultimately the combination of drama and comedy in An Ideal Husband is a better match for my own feelings as I live through a moment of both extraordinary possibility and—as it turns out—extraordinary danger for LGBT people in the US. Between the time when I proposed this play and the time we started rehearsal, we have seen the beginning of a truly frightening backlash against the social changes of the twenty-first century, including though by no means limited to LGBT equality. The infamous “bathroom bill”—or, as it is legally known, HB-2—rushed into law by the North Carolina state legislature is, even as I type this, destroying decades of work done to give LGBT people some legal protections against the hatred mobilized against them. The world in which Wilde lived—a world in which everyone knew we existed, but we were never to be seen or heard or acknowledged—is still, evidently, an ideal that a significant chunk of the American population clings to. This is a great time to be doing this play; and how lucky I am to be doing it with such an outstanding cast, and such a fantastic production team.
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