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Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin, Ireland to two accomplished parents, his mother being a respected poet and translator and his father a knighted surgeon. Wilde won prizes in classics throughout his youth and received prestigious scholarships to Trinity and then Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won further prizes for his poetry. While at Oxford, he came under the influence of aestheticians Walter Pater and John Ruskin, and joined them in becoming a key figure in the founding of the Aesthetic Movement. After university, Wilde moved to London, where he insinuated himself into London's most glamorous drawing rooms as wit, dandy, and high aesthete. In 1881 he published a volume of poetry and left for an American lecture tour on the arts the following year, during which he met Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Walt Whitman. Upon returning to London, he married, fathered two sons, and published several collections of children's stories and Irish folktales. In 1887 he also took a post as editor of Woman's World magazine.
The period from 1890 to 1895 brought Wilde to the height of his writing career. The Picture of Dorian Grey appeared in 1891, shocking the public with its homoeroticism. A string of hugely successful plays followed: Lady Windemere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Scandalous in their assault on Victorian mores, Wilde's new comedy of manners conquered the London stage. Wilde also spent part of this period in France, befriending members of the Symbolist and Decadent movements and writing his French short drama, Salomé (1891). This period also marked the beginning of Wilde's ill-fated love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, which would soon prove to be his downfall. In 1895 Douglas' irate father, the Marquess of Queensbury, left a card at Wilde's club addressed: "To Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite (sic)". Getting the point, Wilde sued for libel but dropped the charges when the sensational trial turned in his disfavor. He was then arrested and convicted of homosexual practices and sentenced to two years hard labor. Wilde would later write of his time in prison in his last major work, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898). Broken by his public disgrace, Wilde spent the last years of his life sick and poor, wandering Europe and sinking into drug addiction. Ultimately he died of cerebral meningitis in a Paris hotel in 1900.
Biographers suggest that a number of private events foreshadowing Wilde's downfall may inform An Ideal Husband. Around the time of its writing, Lord Alfred had given a suit to his friend, Alfred Wood, who discovered a love letter from Wilde carelessly left in its pocket. Wood confronted Wilde with the intention of blackmail, but the unconcerned author was able to appease the would-be extortionist over dinner. Unfortunately Wood had also given a copy of the letter to two professional thugs, who also approached Wilde with demands for payment. Wilde nonchalantly dismissed them as well, however, reportedly telling the men that he found the idea of such a price being proposed for a piece of his writing quite the compliment.
With respect to historical context, Wilde wrote An Ideal Husband during the decade known as the "Yellow" or "Naughty Nineties," the twilight years of England's Victorian era. In schematic terms, this period was distinguished by England's growth as an industrial and imperial giant and an increasingly conservatism in social mores. Imperial expansion, foreign speculation, and the period's rigid system of mores--involving, for example, notions of familial devotion, propriety, and duty both public and personal--provide the backdrop for Wilde's play. As a primary propagator of aestheticism, Wilde rebelled against Victorian sensibilities, calling for a world judged by the beauty of its artifice rather than its moral value. The aesthete opted to forgo his dreary duties to society in the name of individual freedom, social theatricality, and the pleasures of style and affectation. Ideal Husband dramatizes this clash in value systems rather explicitly, continually posing the figure of the dandy--a thinly veiled double of Wilde himself--against a set of more respectable, "ideal" characters.
In terms of dramatic history, An Ideal Husband should be situated in tension with the popular melodramas and farces that dominated the Anglophone stage of Wilde's day. These melodramas find their roots in the tradition of the "well-made play", a French model of theater elaborated by Scribe and Sardou that emphasized craftsmanship over content. As the name suggests, audiences could count on the well-made melodrama to offer them stock characters (i.e. the "other woman", the virtuous wife, the husband with a secret past) in stock storylines that would culminate in the reaffirmation of pure and undying love--the so-called "happy ending". As we will see, An Ideal Husband's genius lies in the repetition of the melodramatic formula to ironic ends, one that thoroughly subverts what the melodrama would accomplish through its games of Wildean wit.
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