Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Wilde's An Ideal Husband - When the bar is set too high

Catherine McGregor
Wilde's An Ideal Husband - Catherine McGregor

Mae West famously remarked, "I wrote the story myself. It's about a girl who lost her reputation and never missed it."

Former Ontario Attorney General, Michael Bryant , will tell you how reputation can be crushed in a mere 28 seconds on the very night one celebrates a wedding anniversary. A complete stranger, Darcy Allan Sheppard, father of three, suddenly latched on to his car and only a few days ago, Bryant was exonerated from charges of criminal negligence causing death after the 33-year-old cyclist and bicycle courier was killed during a celebration turned into a nightmare for the Bryants.

Of course, Canada has accumulated its share of juicy political scandals. The Munsinger Affair was our first scintillating national political sex scandal. Gerda Munsinger alleged East German prostitute and Soviet spy, lived in Ottawa and slept with a number of cabinet ministers in John Diefenbaker's government.

Going back to our roots, the Pacific Scandal ultimately led to the resignation of our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald , with allegations of bribery to influence the bidding for a national rail contract. Later, we were subjected to a seemingly never-ending, almost boring Airbus Affair. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney actually accepted cash stuffed in envelopes in a series of hotels.

More recently, Maxime Bernier , former Minister of Foreign Affairs was forced to resign from cabinet, May 26, 2008 after a scandal involving ex-girlfriend, Julie Couillard , with ties to the Hell's Angels. Ah, what Oscar Wilde might do with all that ammunition!

Wilde was prescient as usual with his 1895 production of An Ideal Husband, a play about blackmail, political corruption and scandal that opened Shaw Festival's 49th season this past Thursday to a sold-out crowd of VIPs including David Onley , 28th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell describes it as "my favourite Wilde play - where virtually every character is revealed to be not at all what they seem. A delicious puzzle to unravel for actors and audience alike."

"Sooner or later," Wilde biblically noted," we shall all have to pay for what we do." But he adds later that, "No one should be entirely judged by their past." That aptly summarizes the play's main theme wherein fate and some bad karma catch up to British Government Minister, Sir Robert Chiltern (Patrick Galligan) when the mysterious Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O'Connell), produces a letter which reveals a past misdeed involving the Suez Canal and an impossible choice must be made between public scandal and the private shame of his wife.

At the height of his popularity in the summer of 1893 when the play was written, Wilde himself later that year was arrested for "gross indecency" (sodomy) and his name was publicly removed from the play. He was jailed for two years, and sadly, Husband was his last play. In jail, he wrote the last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a long, terse poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life. Wilde died destitute in Paris at the age of forty-six.

Husband opens during a dinner party at the home of Sir Robert Chiltern in London's fashionable Grosvenor Square. He and his wife, Lady Chiltern (Catherine McGregor), host a gathering that includes his friend, Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe), a bachelor, his sister, Mabel Chiltern (Marla McLean), and other genteel guests when Mrs. Cheveley attempts to blackmail Sir Robert into supporting a fraudulent scheme to build a canal in Argentina. Fearing both the ruin of career and marriage, Sir Robert submits to her demands. In various schemes, intrigues and initiatives throughout the next two acts, the play's denouement is reflected by Shakespeare's title, All's Well That Ends Well.

The play, convincingly autobiographical throughout, represents Wilde at his best and Shaw's skilled cast ensures that it will be a money-maker for Director Maxwell this year at the Festival Theatre.

Judith Bowden   Lorne Kennedy   Marla McLean   Patrick Galligan   Steven Sutcliffe

McGregor and Galligan are an excellent match as idealistic wife and flawed husband, but the dialogue and plot machinations allow Sutcliffe and O'Connell to literally steal the show. O'Connell is the perfect villain, a scheming woman who uses anything including her lovely body draped suitably in red to get her way while Sutcliffe nails the surrogate Wilde character with a grand flamboyance and an unlimited barrage of witty remarks that keeps the house laughing all the way. His beautifully-tailored, extravagant outfits rival even the stunning attire of the ladies. In this production, Shaw has spared no expense with the elegant costumes.

The set designed by Judith Bowden utilizes a clever three-tier approach to mitigate proscenium stage flatness and her extensive metal work provides a hard edge of reality not evident in an earlier "prettier" approach at Stratford.

Minor roles occupied by Lorne Kennedy (Lord Caversham), Lady Markby (Wendy Thatcher) and Marla McLean (Miss Mabel Chiltern) are superbly milked for their humour.

Thanks to Maxwell, An Ideal Husband consists of far more than pithy quips, droll asides and dry witticisms. The cast delivers these items well enough, with appropriate body language, but the audience is caught up in the twists, turns and tensions of the plot.

We feel like a balloon that has been pierced when Galligan's Chiltern, full of repressed emotion and self-regard, finally explodes before his impossibly demanding wife. We wince and wiggle as O'Connell's hateful Mrs. Cheveley turns the screw tighter on both Chilterns in her brazen attempt to prosper in a fraudulent development scheme. And we breathe easier when McGregor's tall, regal and uncompromising Lady Chiltern finally comes back to earth.

Meanwhile, back in contemporary Canadian federal politics, MPs from all parties except (ironically) the Bloc have initially vetoed public access to their expense accounts, but now might have a change of heart. A similar exercise recently created great scandal in the United Kingdom with some brazen MPs trying to justify outlandish expenses such as the cleaning of a moat. Everyone, politician and voter alike, need to see this play, Wilde's wonderful social satire that exposes political society and its naked self-interest.

An Ideal Husband plays at the Festival Theatre in Niagara on the Lake to October 31. Call: 905-468-2172; Web Site:

Moya OConnell
Moya O'Connell

An Ideal Husband - Trailer"

An Ideal Husband West End Trailer

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