An Ideal Husband is a play by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde; It is a comedy the themes of which include politics, love and marriage, secrets and lies and blackmail. The action takes place in London in the late 19th century, the present at the time that the play was written. All of the play's major characters are members of the British upper class.
The plot is set in motion when the ambitious politician Sir Robert Chiltern is approached by Mrs. Chevely, an Englishwoman who has recently returned to London after living for some time in Vienna. Mrs. Chevely is apparently involved in a scheme to build a canal in Argentina and wants Sir Robert to speak in favor of it in Parliament. Sir Robert believes the scheme to be nothing but a financial scam and plans to condemn it. Mrs. Chevely, however, plans to blackmail Sir Robert into doing what she wants. She has a letter which proves that nineteen years earlier Sir Robert was paid a large amount of money as a reward for passing on sensitive government information to an investor. The money that Sir Robert received is the basis of his current fortune and, consequently, his current political power. If the truth about Sir Robert became known, the scandal would destroy his political career and his marriage. Sir Robert's wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern, is a person with a strong sense of moral right and wrong. She had been at school with Mrs. Chevely and dislikes her because she knows her to have been dishonest and a thief when she was a girl. Lord Arthur Goring, a good friend of both Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude Chiltern, also knows Mrs. Chevely from the past because he was briefly engaged to be married to her. He is also aware that she is a thief and sees the possibility of using that knowledge to ruin Mrs. Chevely's blackmail plans.
Other characters in the play include Lord Caversham, Lord Arthur Goring's father, and Miss Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert Chiltern's sister and Lord Goring's love interest.
The premiere of An Ideal Husband was at the Haymarket Theatre in London's West End on January 3, 1895. It ran for a hundred and twenty-four performances. It was still in production on April 6, 1895 when Wilde was arrested for "gross indecency" (that is to say, having sexual relations with other men). Some of the actors appearing in An Ideal Husband testified against Wilde at his trial. After Wilde was found guilty on May 25, 1895, performances of An Ideal Husband continued, although Wilde's name was removed from the posters and all advertising associated with the play.
An Ideal Husband is often revived, being the second most frequently performed of Wilde's plays after The Importance of Being Earnest. It has also been adapted for radio, film and television. Together with The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband is generally considered to represent the best of Wilde's dramatic writing.
The play opens at a party held at the London home of the politician Sir Robert Chiltern and his wife Lady Gertrude Chiltern. The guests include Sir Robert's sister Mabel Chiltern, Lord Arthur Goring, a young man in whom Mabel Chiltern clearly has a romantic interest, and Lord Caversham, Lord Goring's father who disapproves of his son's idle life.
A woman known as Mrs. Chevely arrives. She has recently returned to England after having lived for many years in Vienna. She is very eager to talk to Sir Robert. Lady Gertrude immediately recognizes Mrs. Chevely and remembers her from the days when the two of them were at school together. She is clearly not pleased to see her old acquaintance again. It is also evident that Lord Arthur Goring and Mrs. Chevely have met before. Lord Goring also treats the woman coldly.
Mrs. Chevely startles Sir Robert when she casually refers to Baron Arnheim. Shortly afterwards, she says that she has come to England because she wants Sir Robert to speak in favor of the construction of a canal in Argentina. As the young secretary to the politician Lord Radley, Sir Robert had previously been involved in the British government's support of the Suez Canal. The Argentine Canal scheme, however, is considered by Sir Robert to be nothing but a scam. He refuses to support it and tells Mrs. Chevely that he plans to speak against it in the Houses of Parliament. Mrs. Chevely says that she has invested heavily in the Argentine Canal Company on the advice of Baron Arnheim. She reveals to Sir Robert that she has a letter that he wrote to Baron Arnheim several years earlier. The letter advised the Baron to buy shares in the Suez Canal. It was written three days before the British government announced that it would purchase the Suez Canal. Sir Robert therefore sold Baron Arnheim a government secret and was handsomely rewarded for the information that he gave. The money that the Baron gave him forms the basis of Sir Robert's entire current fortune. Mrs. Chevely says that she will pass the letter on to the newspapers unless Sir Robert gives a speech in the Houses of Parliament in support of the Argentine Canal scheme. She rejects Sir Robert's offer of money instead of giving the speech. Knowing that his career and his reputation would be ruined otherwise, Sir Robert gives in to Mrs. Chevely's demands.
Mrs. Cheeely tells Lady Gertrude that Sir Robert has agreed to publicly support the Argentine Canal scheme. Lady Gertrude finds it hard to believe that her husband would do something that she knows to be against his principles.
After Mrs. Chevely leaves, Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring notice a piece of jewelry that has been left on a sofa. Mabel calls it a brooch but Lord Goring says that it can also be worn as a bracelet. Lord Goring says that he gave it to someone as a present several years earlier. He takes the brooch and asks Mabel to tell him if anyone asks about it.
Once all the guests have left, Lady Gertrude asks Sir Robert why he has allowed Mrs. Chevely, someone she knew to be dishonest during her school days, to get him to change his mind and support the Argentine Canal scheme. When Sir Robert says that circumstances have forced him to change his mind, Lady Gertrude says that circumstances should never lead someone to do something dishonorable. She goes on to say that money and power are not important in themselves and that she loves Sir Robert because he has always done the honorable thing. At Lady Gertrude's urging, Sir Robert writes a letter to Mrs. Chevely in which he states that he has changed his mind again and will speak against the Argentine Canal scheme in the Houses of Parliament. Sir Robert gives the letter to his butler and tells him to deliver it to Mrs. Cheevely.
The second act opens the following morning in Sir Robert Chiltern's home. he and Lord Goring are discussing how Sir Robert can get out of the difficult situation in which Mrs. Chevely's attempt at blackmail has placed him. Lord Goring reveals that he was once engaged to Mrs. Chevely. Sir Robert explains that, as a young man who, in spite of coming from a noble family, was not very wealthy, Baron Arnheim persuaded him that money and power were the most important things in life and he did what he could to achieve them. He says that he feels that he has been punished by the guilt that he feels for having sold a government secret to lord Arnheim and that he has tried to make up for the wrong he has done by giving generously to charity. Lord Goring tries to convince Sir Robert to tell his wife the truth about how he made his fortune. Sir Robert says that would destroy the idealized image that his wife has of him and would mean that she would no longer love him. he announces that he plans to write to Vienna to ask about any scandals in which Mrs. Chevely may have been involved, believing that having information about them could weaken any hold Mrs. Chevely has over him. Lord Goring gives half-hearted support to that idea, saying that Mrs. Chevely would be more likely to revel in any scandal than to run away from one.
Lady Gertrude returns home. Sir Robert leaves the room, saying that he has letters to write. Lord Goring asks Lady Gertrude what she knows about her husband's situation. She knows only that Sir Robert agreed to support a financial scheme that she thinks could dishonor him. Lord Goring asks Lady Gertrude to consider a hypothetical situation similar to Sir Robert's true one. Lady Gertrude replies that her husband would never be that foolish. Lord Goring says he fears that Lady Gertrude is not sufficiently aware of people's natural capacity for making mistakes and that she needs to be more loving and forgiving in her attitude. in an unmistakably serious tone, he tells Lady Gertrude that he will offer her support whenever she needs it.
Mabel Chiltern arrives and engages in some lighthearted banter with Lord Goring before he leaves. Mabel announces that a young civil servant named Tommy Trafford has proposed to her again, something that he has done many times before. Although Sir Robert says that Tommy Trafford has a bright future ahead of him, Mabel has no interest in marrying the young man.
Initially accompanied by her friend Lady Markby, who soon leaves, Mrs. Chevely comes to ask if the brooch she lost the night before has been found. She is told that it has not been. After lady Markby leaves, Lady Gertrude tells Mrs. Chevely that she never would have invited her to her home if she had known she was the same person she had known at school. She reveals that she has made her husband write a letter in which he tells Mrs. Chevely that he will not speak in favor of the Argentine Canal scheme. As Sir Robert reenters the room, Mrs. Chevely angrily tells Lady Gertrude that he made his fortune by selling a government secret. Sir Robert orders Mrs. Cheevely to leave.
Lady Gertrude implores her husband to deny Mrs. Chevely's accusation but he cannot. He attempts to approach his wife to console her but she pushes him away. Sir Robert tells Lady Gertrude that she was the one who made a mistake by having an idealized image of him and only loving him because she thought he was perfect. He says that is a mistake which all women make whereas men, in contrast, love women with all their imperfections. He goes on to say that his life is ruined now that Lady Gertrude no longer loves him.
The third act takes place at Lord Arthur Goring's home. Lord Goring's butler Phipps brings him his mail. He recognizes one of the letters as having been written by Lady Gertrude Chiltern. The letter, written in response to Lord Goring's earlier promise that Lady Gertrude could always count on him to support her, reads, "I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you. Gertrude." Lord Goring's name is not at the top of the letter.
Lord Goring's father, Lord Caversham, arrives. He berates his son for not being married, telling him that bachelors are no longer fashionable. When Lord Caversham complains of a draught, Lord Goring suggests they move to the smoking room to continue their conversation. Before leaving the room, Lord Goring tells Phipps that he is expecting a lady to visit. The lady should be shown into the drawing room and nobody else should be allowed to enter that room.
Mrs. Chevely arrives. Phipps naturally assumes her to be the lady to whom Lord Goring had referred and shows her into the drawing room. Knowing that he was not expecting her, Mrs. Chevely wonders who the woman Lord Goring is really expecting is. She sees the letter that Lady Gertrude Chiltern wrote to Lord Goring and assumes it is a love letter.
As Lord Caversham leaves, Sir Robert Chiltern arrives. Lord Goring initially tries to get Sir Robert to leave, telling him that he is busy, but the distraught Sir Robert begins to tell Lord Goring about how his wife learned about his shameful past from Mrs. Chevely. Sir Robert goes on to say that he received no valuable information from Vienna, finding out only that Mrs. Chevely was a respected member of society there and that Baron Arnheim left her a large amount of money in his will.
Phipps informs Lord Goring that the lady has arrived and is in the drawing room. Assuming the woman in the drawing room to be Lady Gertrude, Lord Goring sees an opportunity to reconcile the couple by getting Sir Robert's unseen wife in the neighboring room to overhear their conversation. Lord Goring asks Sir Robert if he loves his life. he replies that he loves her more than anything in the world. Lord Goring says that if that is the case, Lady Gertrude will forgive him. Again, Lord Goring tries to get Sir Robert to leave. Sir Robert, however, wants to tell Lord Goring what he is going to say about the Argentine Canal scheme in the Houses of Parliament.
The sound of a falling chair is heard coming from the drawing room. Although Lord Goring tries to stop him, Sir Robert enters the room to find out who is there. Sir Robert sees that the person is Mrs. Chevely but Lord Goring does not and still believes Lady Gertrude is there. Afraid that Sir Robert will think that he is having an affair with his wife, Lord Goring says that the woman is completely innocent of any wrongdoing. This leads Sir Robert to think that Lord Goring is in a relationship with Mrs. Chevely and is working together with her against him. An angry exchange ensues in which Sir Robert accuses Lord Goring of betraying him.
When Sir Robert leaves, Mrs. Chevely comes out of the drawing room. Lord Goring correctly guesses that she has come to give him the letter from Sir Robert to Baron Arnheim. Mrs. Chevely says that, although she previously became engaged to Lord Goring in the hope of financial gain, she has come to realize that she never loved anyone as much as she did him and that she will give him the letter if he marries her. Lord Goring refuses to marry Mrs. Chevely and says that he cannot forgive her for what she said to Lady Gertrude.
Mrs. Chevely explains that she did not go to Lady Gertrude's house with the intention of telling her about her husband's shameful past but simply to ask if anyone had found her lost brooch. Lord Goring produces the lost brooch and surprises Mrs. Chevely by putting it on her arm as a bracelet. He says that he gave the piece of jewelry to Lady Berkshire as a wedding present. After it disappeared, a servant was accused of stealing it and her reputation was ruined as a result. Mrs. Chevely tries to take off the bracelet but finds that she cannot. Lord Goring explains that it has a secret catch that would have to be shown to anyone first. He then threatens to get the police. To avoid getting charged with the theft of the piece of jewelry, Mrs. Chevely gives Lord Goring the letter that Sir Robert wrote to Baron Arnheim. The bracelet is removed from her arm.
Soon afterwards, however, Mrs. Chevely snatches the letter that Lord Goring received from Lady Gertrude Chiltern. Believing it to be evidence that Lord Goring and Lady Gertrude are having an affair, Mrs. Chevely says that she will pass the letter on to Sir Robert Chevely. To prevent Lord Goring from taking the letter back by force, Mrs. Chevely rings a servant's bell. Phipps enters the room and shows Mrs. Cheevely out.
The final act takes place the following day in the home of Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude Chiltern. At the start of the act, Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude are elsewhere in the building. Lord Caversham and his son Lord Arthur Goring are seen. Lord Caversham speaks about the rousing speech that Sir Robert gave in opposition to the Argentine Canal scheme in the Houses of Parliament. He also once again berates his son for not being married. Lord Caversham tells Lord Goring that he should propose to Mabel Chiltern, although he doubts that Mabel would accept him.
Mabel Chiltern returns home from horse riding in the park. Lord Goring was supposed to have accompanied her but failed to show up. For that reason, Mabel tries not to acknowledge Lord Goring's presence. She eventually asks Lord Caversham to try to get his son to behave better. Lord Caversham says that he has no influence over his son and leaves. Once they are left alone, Lord Goring proposes to Mabel Chiltern. She immediately accepts. Lady Gertrude enters the room and Mabel goes off to wait for Lord Goring in the conservatory.
Lord Goring tells Lady Gertrude that he obtained the letter that Sir Robert wrote to Baron Arnheim and burned it. He also warns her, however, that Mrs. Chevely took what she believed to be a love letter from Lady Gertrude to Lord Goring and plans to send it to Sir Robert as proof of a non-existent affair. Lady Gertrude and Lord Goring devise a plan to get the young civil servant Tommy Trafford to intercept the letter before it reaches Sir Robert. That plan, however, turns out to be unnecessary.
Sir Robert enters the room with the letter Lady Gertrude wrote to Lord goring in his hand. He is overjoyed. Lord Goring's name is not at the top of the letter and since Sir Robert did not see the envelope in which the letter arrived, he naturally assumed that his wife had intended it for him. Sir Robert asks Lady Gertrude if she really trusts him. With a look, Lord Goring urges her to say that she does. Lady Gertrude tells her husband that he no longer has anything to fear from Mrs. Chevely because the letter he wrote to Baron Arnheim has been destroyed. Sir Robert asks his wife if he should now retire from politics. Lady Gertrude replies that he thinks he should.
Lord Caversham enters the room and congratulates Sir Robert on the excellent speech he made denouncing the Argentine Canal scheme. He goes on to say that the prime minister now wants Sir Robert to take up a vacant seat in the cabinet. Sir Robert replies that he will have to decline the offer because he is retiring from politics. Lord Caversham thinks that is a foolish thing to do and is very surprised to hear that Lady Gertrude supports her husband's decision. Lord Caversham and Sir Robert leave the room. Sir Robert goes to write a letter declining the prime minister's offer.
Lord Goring tells Lady Gertrude that she is making a great mistake by getting her husband to retire from politics. He knows that Sir Robert does not really want to do that and only suggested doing so in order to retain Lady Gertrude's love for him. Eventually, however, he will come to resent his wife for making him give up his career. Lord Goring urges Lady Gertrude to do what he considers to be the right thing by saying that women should forgive men rather than judge them.
Sir Robert returns. He gives his wife the letter that he wrote to the prime minister. She reads it and then tears it up. She tells her husband that she cannot allow him to ruin his life and that he accepts that it is her role as a woman to be forgiving.
Lord Goring asks for permission to marry Sir Robert's sister Mabel Chiltern. Sir Robert is reluctant because he still believes that Lord Goring is in a relationship with Mrs. Chevely. Lord Goring and Lady Gertrude are then forced to tell the truth about how Lord Goring had been expecting Lady Gertrude the previous day, how the letter was intended for Lord Goring and how Mrs. Chevely stole it because she wrongly assumed it was a love letter. Sir Robert is not angry with his wife, calling her the image of all good things. He gives Lord Goring permission to marry Mabel.
Mabel and Lord Caversham enter the room. Lord Caversham is pleasantly surprised to hear about his son's engagement to Mabel. He says that he hopes Lord Goring will be an ideal husband, something that Mabel says she does not want. Lord Caversham is also delighted to learn that Sir Robert will not be retiring from politics and will take up the vacant seat in the cabinet.
Before joining the others for lunch, Sir Robert asks Lady Gertrude if she truly loves him or if she only pities him. She replies that she feels nothing but love for her husband and that they can now start their life together anew.
Film versions of An Ideal Husband were produced in Germany in 1935, in the United Kingdom in 1947 and in the Soviet Union in 1980. Two British film versions of An Ideal Husband were released within a few months of each other in 1999 and 2000. The 1999 film An Ideal Husband is set in the London of Oscar Wilde's day. It stars Juliane Moore as Mrs. Cheeely, Rupert Everett as Lord Arthur Goring, Cate Blanchett as Lady Gertrude Chiltern, Jeremy Northam as Sir Robert Chiltern and Minnie Driver as Mabel Chiltern. The 2000 film An Ideal Husband updates the setting to the present day. The dialogue is also partially modernized, although some dialogue taken directly from Wilde's play is used too. The film stars Sadie Frost as Mrs. Chevely, Jonathan Firth as Lord Arthur Goring, Trevyn McDowell as Lady Gertrude Chiltern, James Wilby as Sir Robert Chiltern and Karen Hayley as Mabel Chiltern.