It's an election year, in case you hadn't noticed. From Josh Kornbluth's Citizen Josh to Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector, Bay Area theater artists are tripping over themselves to depict this country's so-called democratic process in all its inept and underhand splendor through the glorious medium of art.
Currently playing at the California Shakespeare Theater, Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband appears, at least on the surface, to be the ideal election-year play. Telling the story of a politically ambitious woman's plan to bring down an up-and-coming statesman by exposing a dirty secret from his past, Wilde's potent 1895 social comedy satirizes the sordid deals that line the bottom of many a politician's pockets. When the conniving Mrs. Cheveley returns to London after a long sojourn in Austria, she heads straight for the well-appointed home of a former school friend, Lady Chiltern, and her upstanding politician husband. Cheveley's attempt to blackmail Lord Chiltern into backing a doomed South American canal financing scheme by threatening to expose the fact that he once sold a government secret to a foreign power ultimately fails. The debacle taints not just Lord Chiltern's reputation, but also his wife's, who had set up her husband as a model of perfection.
Combining West Wing–like plot machinations with a caustic wit reminiscent of The Daily Show, the play begs comparison to the current political climate. The upcoming election certainly informed Cal Shakes' artistic director Jonathan Moscone's decision to program and direct it. "Barack Obama inspired countless people because he represented an ideal so far away from the reality of our current administration — an ideal of hope and change," wrote Moscone in a recent e-mail. "But now that Obama is the presumptive candidate, the general election will be filled with mudraking [sic], to be sure. And if Obama wins, how ideal will he be? How ideal can any person be?"
Wilde's play offers answers to Moscone's questions, but many more remain unanswered, because the comedy doesn't comfortably fit the election-year-play mold. In some ways, An Ideal Husband is less than ideal as far as conveying a strong political message goes. As Moscone's engaging if ultimately discombobulating production demonstrates, the play is both brilliantly unsettling and puzzling.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of An Ideal Husband is its sexual politics. As in most of Wilde's plays, the charisma prizes go to female characters. Cal Shakes enables Wilde's women to glow particularly brightly by pitting two luminous actors — Julie Eccles and Stacy Ross — against each other in the roles of Lady Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley. Pristine and purposeful in Meg Neville's flamboyantly uptight frocks, Eccles embodies the Victorian wifely ideal while remaining refreshingly forthright. She is politically active (she attends "Woman's Liberal Association" meetings) and maintains a firm hold over her husband. Ross, meanwhile, swooshes about with the casual confidence of someone who deems herself more sophisticated, articulate, and worldly than anyone else in London. In her flowing, colorful kaftans, she looks like she's stepped out of a quintessential Gustav Klimt canvas, perhaps having killed her lover with that famous kiss. She also gets some of the best lines in the play, which Ross tosses off with spontaneous ease. "Nowadays, with our modern mania for morality, everyone has to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtues," she tells Lord Chiltern, delivering what is perhaps the play's only clear message. "And what is the result? You all go over like ninepins — one after the other."
Yet despite these characters' magnetic power, the fact that the play was written during Britain's burgeoning suffrage movement, and Wilde's well-known anti-establishment views, the playwright adopts a perplexingly reactionary stance toward the political engagement of his women. Mrs. Cheveley's political career revolves around extortion; Lady Chiltern's efforts at political mobilization are swiftly brushed aside. Furthermore, Wilde gives the play's only truly enlightened character — the gorgeously dandyish, thoroughly witty, and unapologetically apolitical Lord Goring – the most condemnatory line of all. "A man's life is of more value than a woman's," he tells Lady Chiltern, apparently without a hint of his trademark irony. "It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions." Lady Chiltern then repeats Goring's axiom to her husband, thus precipitating the comedy's light-hearted conclusion. In Cal Shakes' production, Eccles' Lady Chiltern utters the lines between clenched teeth. Moscone adds a further layer of ambivalence to the ending through the use of canned applause, which rises to a thunderous climax as Michael Butler's Lord Chiltern, his path to political glory now clear, makes his final exit. As inventive as these staging decisions may be, they leave us feeling even more muddled about the play's political message.
An Ideal Husband's preoccupation with art further serves to undermine the work's confusing politics. Wilde's stage directions compare characters to works of art with comical persistence (one character is "like a Tanagra statuette"; another is "like a portrait by Lawrence.") Yet despite being beautifully adorned in Neville's costumes and offset by the warm pastel contours of Annie Smart's Boucher-inspired painted backdrop, most characters fall short of the artistic ideal. Only the dilettante, artistic-souled Goring understands what it means to be human. Unfortunately, aesthetes were never very good at championing causes. As elegantly personified by Elijah Alexander, Goring possesses a silver tongue and the nicest collection of floral buttonholes around. But as far as brokering the play's political viewpoint is concerned, he's pretty hopeless.
Ultimately, the comedy leaves us with a sense of cleverly crafted confusion about how the world works – a feeling of which Wilde would doubtless have approved. Far from deepening our understanding of the political process, An Ideal Husband may be the least ideal of all election-year plays. Why? Because it's a great work of art, and as Wilde famously put it in his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, "All art is quite useless."