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The Importance of Being Ironic: 
The Inescapable Irony of Oscar Wilde
(or, Wilde—Boucher, baker, or irony maker?)

Erin Thomson


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Wilde criticized the artist Boucher for his “shallowness and artificiality” (Shiojiri 37).  Ironically, these are the same sentiments many of Wilde’s original reviewers shared of his own work. Though the flippantly flamboyant aesthete was far from ordinary, critics such as A.B. Walkley accused Wilde of circumscribing his plays to common humor. As were many of his works, An Ideal Husband was sometimes called banal, and said to lack depth. Yet its composition consisted of a series of internal and external ironies rendering it anything but simple. Like many of his plays, An Ideal Husband contains ironic quips, dramatic, covert and overt irony that shed light on problematic social issues of Wilde’s time.  His characters often appear simple and unrealistic, though they are made up of complex collages formed from various societal influences.  While these collages are the ingredients with which Wilde concocted his humor, they alone do not separate this play from his others.  What initially sets An Ideal Husband apart is its set of explicitly detailed stage directions, which the reader cannot ignore and the theater audience never saw. Their inclusion forced a single composition to diverge into two texts. This separation is one of many distances through which the play’s ironic elements appear. It aided in the development of multiple levels of complexity within An Ideal Husband, extending beyond the strictures of fiction to create irony on a real-life scale. Such an extension affected the audience, critics, and even the playwright himself.
    Though many theatrical reviewers complained to the contrary, Wilde’s characters are not simplistic.  While their personalities were and are never entirely perceivable through the spray of witticisms that engulf the play’s dialogue, the characters are complex in terms of embodied ideas. Unfortunately, many of these character-contained ideologies were lost amid the chaos of stage performance.  Still, they are easily understood through reading the text.
    Two important issues An Ideal Husband addressed were the danger to gender-equality posed by categorical constructions, and the failures of representation. The first was significant in its attempt to point out real rather than “idle” societal issues; the second was a rather astonishing admittance by a self-proclaimed aesthete.
    The divergence of the play into separate texts, as previously mentioned, is surely the most unique aspect of the play. Without reading An Ideal Husband, comprehending the ability of the text to split seems impossible.  However, Wilde plays with this knowledge, dangling it in front of an audience that will surely never get the joke.  Miniature analogies for this separation appear in the form of doubles, which can be understood both by reading and watching the play; and yet, it is only Wilde’s readership who ever fully appreciates their significance.  
    One of the most interesting and foretelling references to the significance of doubles is the brooch Mrs. Cheveley drops, an accessory Lord Goring points out to Mabel and audience can also be worn as a bracelet.  Of course, had Lord Goring not had some previous connection to the artifact, he would never have known its deceptive nature. Similarly, had Mrs. Cheveley not, as is explained at the play’s beginning, been formerly known to both Lady Chiltern and Lord Goring, her status as a self-server might have been discovered too late.
    Returning to the brooch/bracelet contraption, it is significant that Goring addressed its built-in locking mechanism.  Unless one knew the whereabouts of the secret release latch, the jewelry—an expensive “luxury” item—became a trap, from which, without the assistance of Lord Goring, Mrs. Cheveley would have been unable to escape. Wilde’s play, in turn, served as a sort of luxurious trap for his well-bred audience: the very same social class that could afford theater tickets was the one at whom he poked fun in An Ideal Husband.  As Richard Dellamora points out in his essay “Oscar Wilde, Social Purity and An Ideal Husband,” Mrs. Cheveley is possessive, both sexually and in her platonic interactions (at least to the extent that a woman of her character can ever be in relation to another “platonic”).  Furthermore, she engages in conniving, thieving activities and harbors an “obsession with ‘useless luxuries’” (126), which Dellamora and Lippman concur is reflective of the bourgeois class.
    The Psychological Approach to Evolutionary Theory posits the existence of something termed the Madonna/Whore Dichotomy.  This dichotomy seeks to explain in conceptual terms the male tendency to feel attraction toward the woman who demonstrates sexual independence, openness and aggression, but to ultimately respect and devote himself to the more reserved, coy and innocent female (Rossano 256). This provides a respected understanding of the means through which men judge their reproductive options, but can just as easily generalize to embody the manner through which society perceived female independence as problematic during Wilde’s time.  The meek “deserving” Madonna status and the clever “earning” the label whore were assuredly distressing to Wilde who, according to Dellamora, edited The Woman’s World magazine and actively sought political equality for the sexes (120).
     The play directs attention to design flaws of such categorical constructions.  Regardless of her goodness or despite her inherent badness, a woman could never fit entirely into one category or the other.  Wilde used An Ideal Husband as an opportunity to expound upon these and other issues of representation, demonstrating the inherent problems, an accomplishment that—to do properly—Wilde thought entirely impossible.  Mrs. Cheveley is for several reasons a very complex character.  She partakes in unwholesome, selfish and sometimes cruel endeavors, thereby representing problematic traits coursing through the connections of upper-class society.  Conversely, Wilde allotted her a strength he found admirable in women. Her “pursuit of individuality,” unlike Lady Chiltern’s, “is unabashed” (129).  And yet, in spite of her commendable desire to seek independence from males, Mrs. Cheveley too falls short.  Her attempt to manipulate control over a powerful figurehead of British Parliament—ironically admirable considering the great disparity between the power of men and women at the time—fails. She is therefore three things: the embodiment of particular immoral tendencies of the bourgeois, the “fallen woman” of the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, and a demonstration of the possibility of female strength and independence.  
    A volatile and interesting disparity manifests as Wilde's testament to the importance of appearances is interfaced with the actual depth and complexity of his work. Irony is an aspect of life from which no one can escape, some people accept, and others—as Wilde did—embrace. Claire Colebrook, author of Irony, explains that “our very historical context is ironic because today nothing really means what it says.  We live in a world of quotation, pastiche, simulation and cynicism: a general and all-encompassing irony” (1). If life is indeed an “all-encompassing irony” swaddling the repartee, satire and sarcasm, Wilde was more than just a clever sardonian or talented ironist. His life was a consistent thread of paradoxical complications.  He embodied the ironic.  Not only did Wilde infuse his plays with it, he lived it: husband to a wife, yet flagrant homosexual; consumed it: egalitarian and exclusive diner, and, perchance, dreamt it. Terry Eagleton addresses these ironic aspects of Wilde’s personal affairs in “The Doubleness of Oscar Wilde”:
‘A truth in art,’ Oscar Wilde once remarked, ‘is one whose contradiction is also true,’ and of nothing is this truer than of Wilde’s own brilliant, blighted career...  most things about him were doubled, hybrid, ambivalent.  His name, for a start, which yokes the Gaelic Oscar to the English Wilde; his sexuality, as a respectable married man who consorted with rent boys in cheap hotels, and his politics, as a convinced socialist who would frequent only the very best restaurants.  He was a socialite and sodomite, victor and victim, upper-class and underdog, a darling of English high society whose enchanting fables for children are almost all secret revolutionary tracts. (2)    
     Reviews of An Ideal Husband were linked to Wilde on a more personal level than those of his other plays.  He proclaimed, “It was written for ridiculous puppets to play, and the critics will say, 'Ah, here is Oscar unlike himself!'—though in reality I became engrossed in writing it, and it contains a great deal of the real Oscar'” (Ricketts 124-5). Surely this “man of many masks,” as he was commonly referred, had no intention of revealing the “real Oscar.”  It is more likely he meant to suggest a similarity to the play as a construct. An Ideal Husband, which appears to be one type of structure when, in fact, it is entirely another, is very much like Wilde, whose surface suggested one thing while encapsulating a variety of traits.
    An important element in the synthesis of irony is distance. This was no clever strategy on Wilde’s part; distance is a tool that has long served its masters in the creation of both subtle and overt ironic humor.  It also provides a “safe” means of indirectly conveying dangerous, offensive truths.  As Swift did with A Modest Proposal, which facetiously suggested the Irish consume children of the poor to end famine, Wilde used distance and irony to extend the gap between himself, the implied author and his social commentaries.
    He incorporated irony and its methods of construction to create multiple levels of distance (and subsequently, depth) in and beyond the seemingly shallow work of An Ideal Husband. Distance manifested in many forms in both script and performance: character misinterpretation of situation; physical separation between actor and audience; a dichotomy betwixt implied author and authorial voice; the appearance of shallowness and simplicity within a composition of intricate design; the level of wit and humor gleaned from reading the play versus watching it; the intentional address of two distinct audiences via one medium, and its subsequent divergence into separate texts.
    The most simultaneously important and hidden distancing occurs as An Ideal Husband diverges into separate texts.  This separation is initiated through the incorporation of an explicitly detailed list of stage directions that are most unusual for any play—even one of Wilde’s. One text addresses an audience of theater-goers and play critics; the other operates more stealthily, speaking to a readership that is never mentioned nor implied during the play’s performance.  It is this reading audience who is made privy to some of the cleverest witticisms that occur within the subtext of the play.      
    A normal stage direction is very brief, simple, affects performance value in some regard, and rarely gives the character any depth beyond that which the actor provides. It will usually resemble these lines from The Importance of Being Earnest, which state “Gerald shrugs his shoulders and looks irritably over at his mother.  Enter Lady Caroline” (135).  Yet in An Ideal Husband, the stage directions go far beyond such brief descriptions.  They are very detailed, bringing an ironically strange, novel-like quality to the text:  
Mabel Chiltern is a perfect example of the English type of prettiness, the apple-blossom type.  There is ripple after ripple of sunlight in her hair, and the little mouth, with its parted lips, is expectant, like the mouth of a child.  She has the fascinating tyranny of youth, and the astonishing courage of innocence.  To sane people she is not reminiscent of any work of art.  But she is really like a Tangara statuette, and would be rather annoyed if she were told so. (166)
    The inclusion of these stage directions was ironic, as they had no impact on the actual performance.  It would have been impossible to convey that Mabel possessed the “fascinating tyranny of youth” or “the astonishing courage of innocence.”  These are the sorts of details one might expect from a novel, not a play.  Of course, the director could have cast a young girl for the part of Mabel, but there would have been no guarantee (and in fact, it was quite unlikely) that the audience would glean from this Mabel’s inherent possession of a “fascinating tyranny.”  Still, these are powerful, descriptive terms.
     A distancing effect that appears several times throughout An Ideal Husband is the academically imposed division of audience. A marked example of this is Wilde’s on-set inclusion of a tapestry by Boucher entitled The Triumph of Love.  According to Shiojiri, Wilde avidly disliked Boucher, stating “The tapestry’s design after Boucher, whom Wilde elsewhere has criticized for shallowness and artificiality, is obviously didactic and synthetically romantic” (37). This is ironic for several reasons; each will be laid out in accordance with the medium (i.e. reading versus performance) through which it appears. The stage directions with which An Ideal Husband begins are as follows:
The room is brilliantly lighted and full of guests...  At the top of the staircase stands Lady Chiltern, a woman of grave Greek beauty, about twenty-seven years of age.  She receives the guests as they come up…  Over the well of the staircase hands a great chandelier with wax lights, which illumine a large eighteenth-century French tapestry—representing the Triumph of Love, from a design by Boucher—that is stretched on the staircase well.  On the right is the entrance to the music-room.  The sound of a string quartet is faintly heard.  The entrance on the left leads to other reception-rooms.  Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon, two very pretty women, are seated together on a Louis Seize sofa.  They are types of exquisite fragility.  Their affectation of manner has a delicate charm.  Watteau would have loved to paint them. (165)
    Though the detailed description of the set is odd, it is not so different as to draw any significant attention upon first glance.  However, it is the insertion of comments such as “Watteau would have loved to paint them,” which makes them so unusual; this strangeness is increased by the broader fact that Wilde painted his characters into the description in such a manner as to make it easy for the reader to meld them into an overall image of the set; comparing them to objects of artistic interest merely intensified this combination of character and scenery.  Thus, a reader must imagine an abstract and scenic character on a set of distinctive character. Wilde’s theater audience was never asked to grapple with nor made privy to this conundrum.  
    The implied significance of Boucher’s The Triumph of Love is also dependent upon audience.  It is very unlikely that a theater-goer would think, “Ah, Boucher!  Triumph of Love—interesting,” drawing a connection between the title of the tapestry and the title of the play, An Ideal Husband.  One would presume, as the title centers on a label of matrimony, that the play would relate on some plane to love and other aspects of marriage.  As it is doubtful the theater audience would glean any significant ironies from relationship between tapestry and thematic elements of the play, the joke is lost.  
    Yet, when a reader is able to see before him this title, Tapestry of Love, an alarm should sound and a connection would (hopefully) be made.  Once this basic connection has occurred, it should lend to an understanding of the tapestry as a foreshadowing device promising clever readers a “Happily Ever After.”  Of course, this last bit of the scenario could go in the opposite direction, resulting in a clever but embittered reader who prayed for a cliché-free conclusion only to have his high hopes prematurely quashed.        
    Foreshadowing aside, there is a third element relating to The Triumph of Love that could invariably alter the level of humor perceived by an audience: the knowledge that Wilde disliked Boucher, thinking him artificial and shallow, as is mentioned in the above Shiojiri quotation.  This joke is reserved for only a very select few: those who either knew Wilde well enough to recall his sentiments toward the artist, or those who have studied Wilde and read of these complaints.  Taking into consideration that Wilde called the work of The Triumph of Love’s creator shallow and artificial, that it sits in a play called An Ideal Husband and that, generally speaking, Wilde seemed to enjoy mocking more than sentimentality, it would appear that the tapestry is actually meant to trivialize the idea of love, or perhaps to address the impossibility of properly representing such a uniquely human characteristic.
    The deepest understanding of Wilde’s wit depends upon intelligence and education; many of Wilde's aesthetic or artistic inclusions, like Boucher’s tapestry, require a general knowledge of art history or an intimate understanding of Oscar.  Possessing both would be preferable but having even one is unlikely. It would seem that with these multiple tiers of humor there is something in Wilde’s work to please every audience.
    Theater critics, of course, who were unaware of these unique stage directions and the divergence of texts, would have disagreed. The presence of such peculiarities would never affect the theater audience’s perception of the characters; they provided only impossible-to-portray characteristics for actor inspiration.  What, then, was their intended purpose?  
    Wilde chose to write a play, not a novel. These “subliminal” yet vocal directions seem very strange; plays are meant to be performed for an audience without the expectation that the crowd will have previously read the script.  The inclusion of these novel-like descriptions strongly supports the notion that An Ideal Husband was not written primarily for theater-goers.  Wilde intentionally went over the heads of the yuppies and “puppies” of his assumed audience, addressing in secret his literarily-inclined readership.
    Though he did not pause in his review of An Ideal Husband to theorize how Wilde might have done it, George Bernard Shaw was one of the few individuals–audience member or critic–who addressed the absence of some unknown element within or beyond the play. He did not say for certain what he suspected amiss; but Shaw detected the absence of a deeper, funnier, complex vessel of irony to which the theater audience was not privy:
It is useless to describe a play which has no thesis: which is, in the purest integrity, a play and nothing less.  The six worst epigrams are mere alms handed with a kind smile to the average suburban playgoer; the three best remain secrets between Mr. Wilde and a few choice spirits. (177)                
Even the reception of the play’s ironic aspects, which were not overtly separated between texts, differs greatly between audiences.  For instance, when William Dean Howells complained that An Ideal Husband “resolves, or is apt to resolve, the leading characters to types; and that such sense of their personality as we have is not such as the author gives them, but such as the actors give them” (CH 186), it is humorous; Wilde purposely leaves his characters hollow.  They are casts of a social group that was itself in many ways empty, trivial, and “idle”—as Lord Caversham labels his aristocratic son, Lord Goring, within the first 35 lines of the play.  Grasping this particular concept is interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, easier for a reader. A reader need not see a person actually attempt to convey a lack of substance or humanity, when a flat, cold text page more aptly makes the point.
    Critics have posed that Wilde's plays contain only banal humor.  Some have also suggested that much like his works, he was no more than a single-dimension façade.  A few who reviewed the play after its initial opening were particularly harsh, condemning Wilde for his lack of creativity, while others, such as William Archer, who is quoted in the Shiojiri excerpt below, complained that the humor in An Ideal Husband was confounded by too much wit, as he sardonically states “An Ideal Husband is a very able and entertaining piece of work, charmingly written, wherever Mr. Wilde can find it in his heart to sufflaminate his wit.  There are several scenes in which the dialogue is heavily overburdened with witticisms, not always of the best alloy” (175).
    George Bernard Shaw provided an amusing and “Wildeishly” toned review.  He touches upon real, satirical situations formed from Wilde’s ability to pull irony beyond the bounds of his plays, allowing it to co-mingle with his “comparatively stupid audience” and critics. (177) The audience is a collective dunce because it laughs at itself without knowing; the critics’ intelligence wavers whilst they laugh knowingly (and in ill-humor) at themselves. Shaw recognized the irony of the negative reviews that condemned Wilde for being quite un-funny. The problem was not, in fact, that such critics considered Wilde boring or trivial. Their beef with the Irish/English dandy was his ability to make them laugh, and laugh loudly, chiefly and cheekily at their own expense.  Shaw, a critic himself, seemed perfectly prepared to recognize Wilde’s successful weaving of fictional irony and the real irony it spurred:
They protest that the trick is obvious, and that such epigrams can be turned out by the score by any one lightminded enough to condescend to such frivolity.  As far as I can ascertain, I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. (176)        
Though other critics asserted the play’s possession of entertainment value, they failed to recognize its complex structure and depth. Whether the reviews were favorable, indifferent, or excessively critical, each one missed the most structurally interesting and clever elements Wilde wove—or purposely concealed—within An Ideal Husband.
    Perhaps the most ironic critique came from H.G. Wells, who emits a bright, albeit brief glimmer of recognition regarding Wilde’s covert complexity.  Toward the end of his review, he compared An Ideal Husband to the likes of Wilde’s other works, including A Woman of No Importance and Lady Windermere’s Fan.  He contrasts the newest addition to the Wildean collection with some of its well-received predecessors.  Though Wells admits the play is “at least excellently received” (173), he contests the new piece fails to make its mark.  Yet, just after condemning An Ideal Husband to the rank of cheap entertainment fix, Wells goes on to say something quite interesting and contradictory:
It may be this melodramatic touch, this attempt at commonplace emotions and the falling off in epigram, may be merely a cynical or satirical concession to the public taste.  Or it may be something more, an attempt to get free from the purely clever pose, that merely epigrammatic attitude, that has been vulgarized to the level of the punster. (173)
    For a brief moment, it seems as though a reviewer actually grasps Wilde’s motivation.  Wells homes in on a bit of complex commentary, looking past the obvious quips and, instead of condemning them entirely for their simplicity, recognizes their double purpose: they, at once, amuse and mock the audience.  Unfortunately, Wells concludes his review without complimentary remarks, reverting to a decidedly unfavorable opinion, as he says, “But, taking it seriously, and disregarding any possibly imaginary tendency towards a new width of treatment, the play is unquestionably bad” (my italics, 173).
    Shiogjiri expands upon the earlier idea Wells consecutively created and quashed, discussing in detail the very cleverness of such “un-clever” humor. The most basic form of irony within An Ideal Husband appears in Wilde’s epigrams. Shiogjiri discusses how even these seemingly simple quips hone An Ideal Husband’s overall wit.  Their overabundance appears at first to hinder the play’s bid for cleverness.  Yet, without their inclusion it would have fallen short of reaching beyond the bounds of common humor:
Its epigrams do indeed “threaten to become all trademark and no substance” and its moralizings do sound hollow; but they do so intentionally.  Wilde is aiming at a certain crucial effect that cannot be appreciated or even identified as long as we judge An Ideal Husband by the yardstick of the well-made play its melodramatic vein often beguiles us into expecting, or by that of a psychological realism which assumes an organic connection between a character’s psychology and his or her utterance. (35)
    This play is significant similarly to and beyond Wilde’s other works because it interacts with the audience members and critics upon whom it comments, as well as with those whose business it is to comment upon it.  While Wilde’s acted play and his read play contain the same dialogue, the comprehension of this implied idiocy and idleness of the upper class is altered by differing implied readers and added descriptions of characters and set details. For safety’s sake (from a societal standpoint), Wilde must have planned for this.
    The reaction to An Ideal Husband by critics and audiences, which often missed its most subtle but significant ironies, demonstrated the amount of irony Wilde’s work was able to achieve.  The ironic appeared within the text itself, but also without.  These reactions helped to develop a paradox between what was understood by those who had seen the play performed live, and those who read and analyzed it with the assistance of complex stage directions in lieu of actor interpretation.                      
    This particular piece manufactures an occasion in which a text transcends itself, adopting an element of hidden complexity that allows it to work beyond a literary construction.  It plays games with its theater audience, fools its presumably well-read and professional critics, holds the hand of its reader, and works both for and with its author.  Thus, it becomes unexpectedly potent and complex (despite contrary accusations), escapes the normal confines of fiction, and assumes a role in reality.
    This position works to support the sentiments Wilde conveys regarding the impossibility of proper representation.  Even this play—this fictional version of reality that manages to step beyond the bounds of its faux world and interact in real life—fails to aptly capture those it portrays.  So too, it would seem, it is impossible to adequately represent love, which Wilde emphasized with his purposeful selection of The Triumph of Love.    
    An Ideal Husband is fashioned much like a layer cake.  The supportive base contains the overt dramatic irony consistent throughout the play.  The second layer serves as a point of separation.  Suspended at this level are Wilde’s theatrical audience and critical reviewers.  The third layer holds Wilde’s readership:  his privileged audience.  Atop the cake sits a solitary figurine—Wilde, who from this vantage can see and laugh at all below. From the inside out, beginning with the basic “banal” humor (which actually opens discussion for real social dilemmas), working into the “hidden” stage directions, moving through the character complexities, and eventually drawing on the irony of critical press, An Ideal Husband is indeed a methodical construct: the multi-tiered cake whose rich, deceptively poisonous layers operate within and beyond the context of the play itself.  The clever dandy, mocking upper class idiosyncrasies, also pointed out the failures of representation—even in his own attempts further mocking the idleness of the upper class and the ineptitude of his critics.








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