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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Sunday November 19 2006

The reason for the business – the busy-ness, that is to say - of my weekend, alluded to in the previous posting, is that tomorrow, I am participating in another recording of a classic play, for the internet, for this enterprise.

The play in question is An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde, and I am reading the part of the politician, Sir Robert Chiltern, who is being blackmailed by the wicked Mrs Cheveley from Vienna.  So, for the last day or so I have been intermittently ranting crazily to nobody, trying to get under the skin of my part, to the astonishment of any neighbours unfortunate enough to be hearing anything.

Sir Robert Chiltern is an imperfect individual, not merely in having based his political fortunes on a piece of corrupt insider trading, but in the cruel way that he lashes out at his wife as if his consequent difficulties were all her fault.  But, I suppose this is how how cornered rats often behave.  Furthermore, when obliged to confess his past misdoings to his friend Lord Goring, he wallows in the completeness with which he then tells the truth, thereby still, it seems to me, enabling him to think of himself as virtuous.  But again, I suppose, very human.  Cleanse yourself of your crime by confessing it completely, in the most elevated prose you can lay tongue to, which is very elevated indeed if you have Oscar Wilde to write your speech.

Chiltern seems to be a self-mythologiser, like a lot of politicians, I suppose.  He confronts a succession of disasters, and each time he tries to create a character to perform in the new drama that the disaster has created.

The issues this play deals with are just as alive now as they were a century ago, and in many ways more so.  Corruption; the way the money buys politics, and politics repays the favour, this way or that; the eagerness of immoral journalists to go after any immoral politicians they find out about, especially those politicians who have, like Chiltern, tried to present themselves as above averagely virtuous.  This is all very contemporary stuff to us, a hundred years later.  Wilde didn’t really foresee fascism and communism in all their horror – who did? (well Dostoyevksy maybe) - but our current world is a lot like his.

The cynicism expressed by Chiltern’s friend, Lord Goring, about the harmful effects of charity, and of good intentions generally, make, if anything, more sense now than they probably did then.

Chiltern: I don’t say that I suffered any remorse.  I didn’t.  Not remorse in the ordinary, rather silly sense of the word.  But I have paid conscience money many times over.  I had a wild hope that I might disarm destiny.  The sum Baron Arnheim gave me I have distributed twice over in public charities since then.

Goring: In public charities?  Dear me!  What a lot of harm you must have done, Robert!

Chiltern: Oh, don’t say that, Arthur, don’t talk like that!

Goring: Never mind what I say, Robert!  I am always saying what I shouldn’t say.  In fact, I usually say what I really think.  A great mistake nowadays.  I makes one so liable to be misunderstood.  As regards this dreadful business, I will help you in whatever way I can.  Of course you know that.

Chiltern and Goring are the equivalent duo in this play of Jack Worthing and Algy in The Importance of Being Earnest.  But in this version of the relationship, the Worthing figure is, for all his public celebrity, the weakling, and all the strength and cunning comes from the Algy figure.  Earnest is more of a comedy, and Algy is the one who revels in comedy, and of course stirs up a lot of himself.  Jack Worthing, along with Lady Bracknell, is the social engineer.  An Ideal Husband is more melodramatic, and it is Chiltern who is swept up in that, and who reacts to his misfortunes it by making further melodramatic speeches and accusations.

Both plays are a ringing endorsement of the value of ‘society’ as a necessary artifice, as a vital protective contrivance, without which civilisation would collapse.  And not only are these plays about this contrivance, they are about people who actively make it their business to keep this contrivance going, who prop up the scenery when it wobbles, so to speak.

At the end of Earnest, the two leading protagonists of that drama, Jack Worthing and Lady Bracknell, come face to face like opposing military commanders, and negotiate a bloodless settlement which they both know to be a contrivance, and happiness reigns.  In An Ideal Husband, the apparently ineffectual and frivolous Goring rescues his friend from disaster, by routing the villainous Mrs Cheveley (the dramatic equivalent in An Ideal Husband of Lady Bracknell).  And having done that, Goring also prevails upon Chiltern’s wife to allow Chiltern to continue his political ascent.  The Robert Chilterns of this world are not perfect, but they are as good as we’ll get.  Meanwhile, Goring himself bows gracefully to the demands of matrimony.  Life, both public and private, must go on.  Matrimony, in which public and private life are joined, must triumph.  Wilde’s happy endings are not mere recipes for theatrical contentment.  They are recommendations.  This is what we should all do, says Wilde.  Hypocrisy is not the worst vice, as the twentieth century was about to confirm hideously.

It is very hard not to speculate about how Wilde’s famously homosexual proclivities, and also his rather less well known and remarkably happy marriage and family life, caused him to think about all these matters more deeply than he might have otherwise.  Both of these plays appear to me like, among other things, hymns of praise to that closet which, until recently, homosexuals were confined within, and within which many homosexuals still choose to remain confined.  Yes, society is a contrivance, and often a false one.  But it is essential, and to throw it aside in the name of mere public virtue or mere personal consistency is, Wilde argues, the ultimate frivolity, far more deplorable than the mere contrary jokiness of a Goring, or of an Algy Moncrieff.  (Nationalising society, as we have done so largely in our time, is almost as bad, for nationalising society corrupts it.) Wilde, who was denied full membership of the society of his own time by his sexual nature, was all the more aware of what he was missing, and begged those who thoughtlessly benefitted from society not to throw that society away with equal thoughtlessness, or in any other way to mishandle it.

Well, all that spilled out in rather a rush, in between studying my lines.  I hope it made approximate sense.  Tomorrow, after doing the play, perhaps I will think quite differently about it.  The main thing I want to say is that Oscar Wilde’s plays are often thought of as mere empty comedies, about nothing at all and all the better for it, just one enormous outpouring of Algyness.  This is nonsense.  Not even Algy is about nothing.  But the notion that Wilde’s plays are about nothing has probably taken hold because the ideas that Wilde’s plays are actually about are still unwelcome, to our own version of polite society.