On This Day in 1952: “An Ideal Husband” Must Face Charges of Infidelity

Tomorrow, I am once again crossing the border for a weekend up north in Manchester, England. “Crossing the border” may seem a rather bombastic phrase, considering that I won’t have to show my passport, get fingerprinted or have my luggage inspected at customs. Yet, as I learned after moving from New York City to Wales, the border to England is much more than a mere line on the map, very much guarded by those whose thoughts are kept within that most rigid and impenetrable of confinements—the narrow mind. Urbanites can be most provincial. Thoroughly walled-in, they are often ignorant of a fact stated by Oscar Wilde in An Ideal Husband (1895): “Families are so mixed nowadays. Indeed, as a rule, everybody turns out to be somebody else.”

That the proud and prejudiced lack discernment is rather what I’m counting on when next I walk over to the Royal Exchange Theatre, which is currently promising seats at Separate Tables. During my previous visit to Manchester, I was fortunate to catch a splendid production of What Every Woman Knows (as mentioned here).

Indeed, Jenny Ogilvie portrayed Barrie’s heroine, the knowing Maggie Wylie, so brilliantly that I was quite disappointed when, sauntering over to the theater of the mind, I took in a Theatre Guild on the Air adaptation of the play only to find it wanting, notwithstanding the valiant efforts of Ms. Helen Hayes to act against the clock.

It was on this day, 30 March, in 1952, that the Theatre Guild presented An Ideal Husband, with Rex Harrison as Lord Goring and Lilli Palmer as the scheming Mrs. Cheveley. Now, An Ideal Husband, not unlike the plays of George Bernard Shaw, is scripted with such novelistic attention to stage business that it is nearly impossible to perform as the text attempts to dictate.

I mean, who, beyond the second row, would be able to discern that Mrs. Cheveley has “gray-green eyes” or that Sir Robert Chilterns’s “romantic expression” contrasted with a “nervousness in his nostrils”? That “Vandyck would have liked to have painted his head” is an interpretative aside reserved for the reader and unlikely to become legible to the theater audience, however attentive.

Plays like An Ideal Husband were designed to counter the crudeness of Victorian melodrama, which was appreciated for its staging rather than its writing, lines borrowed, bowdlerized, or anonymously penned. The late-Victorian playwrights insisted on being authors— and accordingly approached drama as a composition to be published as well as performed.

Radio theater can—and must—do without such minutiae. It must permit audiences some liberties in designing the set, in staging and casting a play. The voices of the actors will curtail that freedom, suggesting the age, gender, origin, and cultural background of the speaker. Harrison is not altogether suited for the part of Lord Goring, whom I picture as suave, rather than gruff; but perhaps my mind’s eye, long conditioned visually, simply could not see beyond Harrison’s memorable impersonation of Professor Henry Higgins. I have become too accustomed to his face to allow his voice to suggest another.

It is Lord Goring who takes center stage in Arthur Arent’s adaptation, whereas the “ideal” husband being put to the test in Wilde’s play is Sir Robert, a man who comes to regret having made his fortune by dubious means. The moral dilemma of a powerful politician who becomes the prisoner of his secret, both the telling or keeping of which may cost him not only his social standing, but his marriage to a morally upright woman, is sacrificed to telescope the intricacies of the plot, which are played strictly for laughs in the radio version.

I’m not sure whether this is altogether a loss, since Wilde’s paradoxical bon mots seem at odds with his less than convincing exploration of morality. The last time I saw a production of An Ideal Husband was in April 1996, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City. As I noted in my diary (still written in German at that time), the hideously chintzy production, starring Martin Shaw, was very much a disappointment. The staging was too Ibsenesque, I thought, and wit was its casualty. I would have been only too glad to do away with the moral ideals to savor the play’s beyond-good-and-evil twists. Arent’s adaptation made these cuts for me—but was the play being acted out for me still An Ideal Husband or an act of unprincipled imposture instead?

As I put it forward in the current broadcastellan survey, American radio of the 1930s, ‘40s, and 1950s often stood in as an everyman’s theater. Dating back to the early 1920s (as evidenced by the above picture, from a 1923 magazine), it is a concept and a function of broadcasting culture I explore at some length in my dissertation. The drama of the air is potentially boundless—and it often falters when it tries to recreate the stage or dwell in its precincts.

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