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Wild Performances and Wilde’s Performativity: Film Adaptations of An Ideal Husband

The concept of adaptation opens an endless number of possibilities to reverse the existing order, additionally broadening “a base” of the initial text and allowing us to play with all the possible readings. The figures that are already out of strictly limited and exceptionally limiting social norms prominently illustrate this notion. A notable example is Oscar Wilde, whose flamboyant and queer personality is reflected in his controversial works. His famous plays let us enter into a space suspended between fictional and real worlds, that is, theatre.

This article is going to widen the existing discourse on the film adaptations of An Ideal Husband, a Society comedy by Wilde, taking into account such crucial points of it as artificiality, limits and possible depth achieved through the continuous use of visual elements, the choice of which was dictated by the cultural component of the director’s identity. An Ideal Husband (1980) directed by Viktor Georgiyev and An Ideal Husband (1999) directed by Oliver Parker will be examined with the help of not only perceptible indicators or symbols, but also the messages encoded in films. The comparative analysis will establish the tendencies that can be found in Wilde’s style itself as well as common and different techniques, which are used in the adaptations.

Imperfect Husband

Oscar Wilde was undoubtedly one of the most interesting and scandalous representatives of the Aesthetic Movement, whose life was dedicated to fighting for his place in society and confronting the general rules of life in the Victorian era. Wilde influenced not only the history of literature and became a symbol of the decadence movement, but also inspired many representatives of the LGBTQ+ community to fight for their rights.

Oscar Wilde's childhood home was a shelter for literature and art celebrities created by his mother, Lady Jane Wilde (also known as Speranza - Italian for hope).  This is where his passion for literature originated. Lady Jane played a huge role and appeared in many of her son's works. Although she stood up for women's rights, she still believed that women were an emotional part of he social organism while men remained cool-headed and analytical. That is why, in her opinion, it was important for women to sacrifice themselves for their families.  This perception of Speranza’s reality was transformed into a couple of Oscar’s main and extremely strong characters, for instance, in Vera and The Duchess of Padua, who gave up on their lives in order to save others (Horan 69). She was a poet herself with quite extraordinary views on marriage, romanticizing the alliance of a man and a woman. Still, Oscar eventually developed his sarcastic vision of family life. Sir William Wilde, Oscar’s father, despite being an eye and ear surgeon, also was drawn to literature, writing mainly folklore.

There was no doubt that Wilde would have an interest in literature, establishing a new quirky direction of fiction. Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde demonstrated his interest in literature even at the age of 10, attending Portora Royal School at Enniskillen, located in the north-west of Dublin. “Most of all, Oscar was remembered for the stories he told. The boys would stand around a stove in what was called the Stone Hall, while Oscar extemporized” (O'Sullivan 190). Such a description can already be compared to a TV screen that draws the attention of everyone in the room, making them wait in tension for the next turn on the road of a bumpy story. Wilde himself was as captivating as the works he created, making people shocked with his extravagant personality and exquisite outfits.  

In the early summer of 1881, Oscar met Constance Mary Lloyd, who later became his wife, without whom he felt “incomplete” (Wilde 165).  They were introduced to each other at one of Lady Jane’s parties for art lovers by Otho Holland Lloyd, Constance’s brother, and shortly fell in love, gravitated towards each other by their shared passion for poetry. Although many people believe that Wilde was rather attracted to her family’s wealth than her bright personality, others consider Oscar was genuinely in love, fascinated by her intelligence. Two years after their first meeting Constance wrote to her brother that she was “engaged to Oscar Wilde and perfectly and insane happy” (Wilde 153).  Although Wilde’s family life may seem quite successful and fulfilled, or at least according to the expectations of Victorian society, a sequence of the writer’s encounters with men started with the meeting of Robert Baldwin Ross, a young and enchanting Canadian. Robbie, as everyone called him, was fearless enough to speak up about his homosexuality, when any sexual relationships between men were prohibited by the Criminal Law Amendment Act (O'Sullivan 456).  Becoming Wilde’s initiator to the world of male desire and unlimited pleasure, Ross became his first homosexual affair. Perhaps more importantly, Ross remained Wilde’s true friend throughout his life, never abandoning him, even in the most difficult moments of his life.

This is exactly the moment the imperfect husband Wilde was born. Having numerous affairs and short encounters with men at night, Wilde continued to perform his functions as a perfect Victorian husband during the day. This duality is directly reflected in The Picture of Dorian Gray where one can find a real person and their motionless doubleand indirectly in An Ideal Husband where the man is torn between his obligations and real desires. Originally, The Picture of Dorian Gray is Wilde’s most well-known work, which is often the first association that comes to people’s mind when they hear his surname, and his society comedies are not that popular, especially in our days. Therefore, it is fascinating to take a distance from Oscar Wilde as the writer who created the book about the forever young man and his horrifying portrait and see Wilde with all his charming, unexpected and unknown sides. An Ideal Husband is a great exercise in creativity, as it gives one quite a lot of space for interpretation, yet it establishes the rules one should follow. It is also a loud laugh at the face of Victorian society about a perfect husband written by an imperfect one.

Soviet Ideal Husband

An Ideal Husband (1980) is a Soviet interpretation of Wilde’s work directed by Viktor Georgiyev. The cast of talented and popular actors such as Lyudmila Gurchenko and Yury Yakovlev ensured the film’s appeal upon its release, and their performance combined with the choice of setting and costumes infused the motion picture with brightness of color and unrepeatable charm peculiar to the era when the image of the West itself produced a mixture of disapproval and wonder fused with longing. Yet, the appeal to the contemporary audiences is quite different, both due to the societal and cultural changes, and either nostalgia or resentment in connection with the cinematic performance of Soviet period.  

The adaptation begins with a propagandist “documentary” projection, and the object of the film within the film is to display the glories of the British Empire. This, inset within a satiric work, immediately exposes the hypocritical pride of the society as a whole, as well as sets up the timeframe. In the next sequence, the characters of the story enter the frame, being photographed in the process. Thus, the starting point of the discussion is fully in harmony with the very beginning of this adaptation, drawing spectators’ attention to the film being displayed, and the presence of cameras suggests the artificiality of the whole story. This works as an indicator of a very performative nature of the cinematic piece and also as a sign of the Wilde’s presence in the work. On one hand, it brings the question of gender into discussion that can be read through Judith Butler’s lens. As Butler suggests, gender identity itself is constructed “through a stylized repetition of acts”, which is a performance (519). Therefore, the characters are ready to follow all the predetermined rules and act in the way that is expected from them as the show begins with bringing the spectator to the bridge between an act and an audience, a camera.

On the other hand, since complete disingenuousness is always present and prominent in Wild’s society comedies, the director confronts viewers with the obvious symbols of metacinema, being quite blatantly clear about its quintessential fictionality from the first second. This pivotal decision leads immediately to a few logical conclusions. The first one is that the audience is warned about and aware of all the following events happening at a distance from “the real world.” The second one is that the director is purposefully trying to transfer the play from the theatrical stage to the world of modern performance on the screen, while retaining the presence of “the stage,” clearly pointing out that all the characters are just actors with the roles assigned to them. More objects of the cinematic universe can be traced later in the film, for instance, in the final scene of the wedding, where actors are attacked with the blinding flashes of cameras. This element suggests one more possible reading, which lies in the director’s desire to remind the actors about their identities, and that is precisely what Wilde loves to do with his completely unbelievable sequences of coincidences. He is playing with the readers all the time, and making the game all too obvious. Moreover, as was noted by Fernando Canet, this is a clear sign of the influence that the camera has on the character’s behavior, which sustains the whole idea of cinematic reflexivity (19).

It is important to go in the direction of color and the messages it transmits when exploring picturesque and peculiar visual details in this adaptation. Complex and intricately constructed costumes of the characters cannot be simply ignored, because they hint at no less than two important things simultaneously. Costumes were created by Hanna Hanevskaya, a celebrated Mosfilm costume artist, who had the knack of pushing the dress of the characters into the bizarre and ludicrous when it was needed for dramatic effect. The clothes are evidently out of their time, for their design does not suggest much resemblance to the setting and historical realm of the original text, and their gaudy colors and flamboyant patterns demand to be noticed by the spectator. This is Belle Époque with a vengeance.

First of all, this choice of fashion may be a signal for the viewers to recognize the modern element of the adaptation, bringing the old story to the new world with the same flawed society that keeps on hypocritically condemning others. This idea may also suggest the constancy of human nature and show how the very idea of Wildean society can be of interest even more than a century after the play was staged and published. This would be an almost disappointingly easy reading, which is almost universal. The more sophisticated view on the costumes is the one that connects these attributes of fashion to the characters’ self-portraits as well as the emotions they deliver to the spectators. They also may be seen as “the aura” created through the visual elements of the frame.

Another crucial aspect of the adaptation is its undeniable connection with theater and the use of theatricality to reflect and enhance artificiality. In this, spectator’s attention is drawn through the reproduction of a stage within a cinematic frame. As Duguay stated, “theatricality, as a celebration of performance and as a distancing tool, is an essential tool for analysis since it recognizes the role of the spectator in the artistic process” (27). The staged play allows the audience not only to see a live performance with all the possible unpredictable but forgivable flaws, but to feel the presence of other human beings in the same space. The actors’ role in the theater is not limited to only following the script, as they are also able to deliver more aspects, apart from the message encoded in the source text. Their emotions that cannot be repeated twice while preserving the same energy constitute the essential part of the performance, which ensures that something will always be different. Similar idea of the uniqueness of performance was discussed by Peggy:

Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.

Viewers may change their perception of the story due to the overall character of a certain actor/actress who cannot fully put their real identity away while substituting it with the artificially created one. Although the same may be said about the actors in films, the real-life experience of the physical presence of the actors on the theater stage is crucially different. The vibrant presence gone, the celluloid image becomes deficient in some fundamental way, and needs the support of special props. Therefore, colors used in the costumes sometimes speak louder than the characters and show more than the camera while focused merely on the human figure alone, defining the mood, atmosphere, and frequently initial intentions.

The first and the most prominent example of this technique is the construction of Mrs. Cheveley’s persona (Gurchenko) and her voluble external self which is demonstrated through the use of red elements in her clothes and surroundings. She is illuminated with the halo of danger, warning the spectators about her ambiguous and complex character. Red is conventionally associated in color theory with risk, the unavoidability of physical or mental harm, a warning that something menacing is almost there, hiding behind our backs (Bellantoni 3). Apart from the actress’s ability to inhabit her character through appearance and excellent performance, the visual elements of dress and setting contribute to the effect: they widen her personality and extend it beyond her body, projecting the traces of this femme fatale on everything around her, painting some scenes with the color of her intense, insatiable and destructive desires, making her presence felt even in her absence. If throughout the film we are able to see the existence of red only in the interior or on some random objects around Mrs. Cheveley, at the very end she is wholly covered with it, not only indicating the possibility of danger in the future, but being the embodiment of it. Apart from noticing all the struggles she went through in order to become the menace she is, we also may suggest because of the predominance of color that it is not the end of the story, greater and more horrible things may still be ahead. Mrs. Cheveley enters the frame, getting to the beginning of the wedding ceremony with a black veil covering her face. Red is all around her, making her quite noticeable among other’s black and white stale figures. She waves at the camera with a mysterious grin disappearing in the end with the flash of a camera. She may have lost a battle but it seems like the whole war is coming, carefully planned in her vicious mind. The peculiarity of this scene is also in the fact that it differs from the original text, in which everything is finished after the proposal to Miss Mabel and Sir Chiltern’s approval of this marriage, while here the viewers have a chance to go further. Could it be just a coincidence or does it support the idea of omission purposely created by the director for further interpretation?

On the other hand, Miss Mabel is characterized by the whiteness of her clothes from the very beginning. Although this detail does not really allow her to stand out and become visible in this flow of pastel-colored people, it surely tells us something about her. White represents innocence in popular culture, indicating the candor and guilelessness of a young girl, who is almost always an inexperienced virgin, which makes sense even in the terms of Wilde’s story. Also, it serves as a signal for the spectators, foreshadowing the future wedding, as a young virgin usually becomes a happy bride at the end of banal fairytales.

However, more should be said about representation of women in this particular work, connecting it with Wilde’s usual approach to the depiction of female characters. As was discussed in Importance of Being Paradoxical: Maternal Presence in the Works of Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer was strongly influenced by his mother’s belief in the self-sacrificing nature of women and her purposeful attempts to give up everything she possesses in order to save a man or make his life more bearable (Horan 69). This viewpoint can be found in many of his works, making women just a helpful tool on the road to the achievement of one’s goals. In the adaptation the interesting shift of power and subjection can be seen, as Mrs. Cheveley is seemingly above some of the male characters, enjoying agency and control over the situation.

Even if we ignore all the obvious signs of this in the narrative itself, some scenes in the film may be quite telling in this aspect. First of them is the introduction of Mrs. Cheveley as the fatal woman. She is shown siting in the Chilterns’ house and discussing Sir Robert’s sins, while looking like a part of the painting behind her (see Figure 1). This is one of the times when Mrs. Cheveley’s presence can be felt even without her being in the frame. If she is the element of the interior, it means she is constantly occupying their house, creating this sinister and dark atmosphere and letting it hover even after she disappears from the screen. The woman has such a power that she does not need to be physically there in order to demolish the happiness of others. Cheveley plants the seeds of discord in the Chilterns’ garden and lets the couple water it with their distrust of each other and lack of communication, growing the fruits of the conflict. Her manipulative nature allows her to control others’ lives, and even if it does not last, she is still a few steps ahead of the family.

Wild Performances and Wilde’s Performativity: Film Adaptations of An Ideal Husband
Anastasiia Solovei, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Mrs. Cheveley merging with the picture

Mrs. Cheveley’s next appearance is even more iconic in all the senses of this word (see figure 2). Her outfit is saturated with gold, showing not only the brilliance and brightness of her clothes, but her otherness as well, highlighting the extravagance of her personality and approach. The clock behind her can be seen in a different light, for it becomes meaningful as part of this particular scene. Mrs. Cheveley seems to be above time and able to control the uncontrollable, as she resembles an icon itself, having something almost Biblical in her - she is the wicked Madonna. Moreover, the Aesthetic movement to which Wilde belonged saw fashion to “mediate between women's culture and men's art theory” (Schaffer 44). The blurred lines between femininity and masculinity treasured by Wilde are transferred to the characters of the adaptation through their “fashion choices.” Mrs. Cheveley is a perfect example of style speaking out before its host and representing what aestheticism tried to convey.

Wild Performances and Wilde’s Performativity: Film Adaptations of An Ideal Husband
Anastasiia Solovei, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Mrs. Cheveley as an Icon

While acquiring many new aspects and adapting existing elements, this film lost something quite visible in Wilde’s work. His dandies are always full of something unreachably charming and bewildering about them, possessing charisma and peculiar (queer) attractiveness. As a gay man, Oscar Wilde was able to make his characters appear fashionable and yet non-normative, sometimes even in the most subtle ways. The tension between Lord Goring and Sir Robert Chiltern cannot be denied in the literary text, as the story of Goring’s readiness to be sacrificed in order to save his friend testifies, as well as all the things he does speak out loud. However, in this adaptation, we have a visible and palpable distance between the male characters, whose interaction is minimized. The reduction of the physical interaction is applicable to all the characters, as their relationships feel sometimes too artificial and hollow, as if they were creatures made of plastic.

The theme of sexuality in An Ideal Husband (1980) is pushed away, hidden out of sight just as it was in the Soviet Union itself. We have characters who are brilliant and superficial, and their private life is left for the spectators to fantasize about and invent on their own. On one hand, it is a great way to illustrate the tendencies of Victorian society, which was more interested in the performative and visible part of the family than in the emotional and moral dependency. Ironically, Soviet version picked up and enhanced Victorian hypocrisy in relation to queer sexuality, and Wilde is once more censured and sanitized, made superficial to the bone. The limitations of Georgiyev’s adaptation in the representation of sexuality become especially clear through the contrast with the British version that will be discussed next.  

British Ideal Husband

Although there are five film adaptations named An Ideal Husband, the version of 1999 directed by Oliver Parker deserves special recognition. This work is saturated with complex images and techniques, which mirror Wilde’s style, giving it a new life in the world of cinema. The peculiarity of it lies within the depth of the narrative, extravagant visual codes, and clever use of imagery. The enormous number of themes and messages encoded in the film creates complexity that it is quite difficult to reach in the comedy genre.

Before beginning a discussion of the work itself, it is important to note a tendency in the director’s choice of the cast. Rupert Everett, who played Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), appears once again in the role of Lord Arthur Goring. Everett, an openly gay man, is introduced to the audience once again in the film based on another Wilde’s play. It is quite interesting to highlight that his role is directly connected to the character’s identity, drawing the spectators’ attention not only to the LGBTQ+ visibility in a popular film but also hinting at Goring’s homosexuality that can be traced in many details.

The opening scene is encoded through imagery that directly establishes production’s strong concern with the interconnected concepts of performance and performativity. The spectators see the curtains open in front of them, and this element undoubtedly dictates the direction of further discourse. This particular detail suggests the theatrical theme that appears over and over again in the film, introducing more ways for the depiction of theater in cinema. This very theatricality tells us that we are watching a play, which was transferred from the pages filled with Wilde’s excessive imagery and extravagant characters to the stage and then to the screen. So, let the performance begin!

It is impossible to ignore the evident performative nature of the characters themselves, who go into public spaces, play the roles assigned to them, and pretend to feel something by showing it with such an effort that everyone is aware of the extent of its artificiality. It feels like the characters are almost forced to perform their happiness, acting out the feelings they never had, and showing interest in each other in order to achieve hidden goals. To illustrate this point, Miss Mabel’s actions and reactions can be examined in detail, as she is one of the characters who are always in their acting mode, trying to let everyone know what she has, feels, and sees. For example, she is demonstrative in her fake interest in another man while Lord Goring is looking at her in the theater, and later, during the party, when she and Arthur are walking by other people, she keeps smiling to everyone, while evidently remaining deeply critical if not disdainful of them. This highlights once again the falsity of social interactions as such in the most noticeable way possible, in order to ridicule it. One more example of performance is Sir Robert Chiltern’s excessively patriotic speech, during which he expresses his opinion of the canal scheme. There are spectators everywhere, looking at him and waiting impatiently for his show to start. After all we have seen of this character, his overstatement of his patriotic ardor raises obvious questions.

Overall, the theme of looking and being looked at keeps being evoked in the visual part of the work as well as in its linguistic layer. The characters are always exchanging looks, giving the spectators an idea about their feelings on specific situations. Some looks are those of desire, frequently suggesting sexual tension, like those between Lord Goring and Laura Cheveley; other looks are those of control, like Gertrude’s gaze at the end of the film when she implies that Robert should reject the offer. Some looks feel intruding: for instance, when Miss Mabel uses binoculars to spy on all the other characters in the theater. The idea of peeping, one-sided gaze directed at people not aware of the fact that they are being watched is rather uncomfortable and even perverse, for it implies the voyeuristic element of the situation, turning others into “objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey 16). Thus, Miss Mabel is a reflection of the spectator whose consumption of a cinematic product becomes almost overwhelming. The look of affection appears later, when Lord Goring kisses Mabel’s hand and looks at her, suggesting the spark of love, perhaps, just about to be kindled.

The power of the gaze goes beyond the visual part, finding its place in the characters’ language, demonstrating their awareness of the role it plays in their lives. Apart from the continuous use of the word “looks,” “looking,” etc. which can be heard almost every five minutes in the film, one dialogue is especially interesting. After Robert’s speech in the parliament, Lord Goring sees Miss Mabel and tells her that he “quite like[s] the look” of her, to which she replies “To look at a thing is quite different from seeing a thing.” This sentence illustrates the idea of the whole work with its uncountable details that are right in front of our eyes all the time, but may still remain unnoticed and unseen. Also, it may be a mockery of spectators, as the director is constantly showing us frames that are so overloaded with different elements that it becomes exceedingly hard to discern and react to all of them, and he is totally aware of it. While watching this adaptation, we as spectators are responsible for seeing all the things, and not only looking at them.

One more peculiar detail about this dialogue is the reappearance of this aphoristic phrase in the later talk between Goring and Mabel, when he repeats it verbatim, echoing her own words. This kind of repetition appears in the movie one more time later, when Mrs. Cheveley reuses Goring’s words, saying “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance” and highlighting that it is what one of her friends used to say. Significantly, this repetition only appears in the film, making a point to reiterate one of Wilde’s most famous aphorisms. As can be seen, the duplication, doubling, and reflection are always around Lord Goring’s figure, which leads us to the next image: the mirrors that he is constantly looking at. Ignoring the simplest reading of it as a symbol of self-love/adoration/admiration, a mirror itself suggests the idea of duality that indicates his alternative self in this context. To understand it better, one should remember about Wilde’s personality and way of living. He is known for playing at least two roles all his life. One is an ideal husband performing his duties during the day; another is a man who is free and open to exploring his homosexual desires under the cover of night. This image of the double opens a new discussion on the relationships between Robert and Arthur.

The sexual tension between them is evident, as through the use of quite ambiguous images the wholly new love story can be observed. The first example of it is their conversation in the sauna, where both of them are covered only with towels, sweating profusely in close proximity, with Robert at the very end saying how much he loves his wife. They both discuss marriage, women and the conclusion about love feels rather pretentious and as a kind of reminder to oneself of the proper behavior. Sir Chiltern sometimes behaves in a way that raises questions about his true feelings, as in the scene where he leaves his wife alone in bed after sexual intercourse, going to Goring at night, apparently just to talk. Jealousy is quite prominent throughout the whole adaptation, especially from Robert’s side, when he discovers Laura in Goring’s house at first, and when he rejects Arthur’s proposal to Mabel later. Of course, all of this can be read in other ways, since Chiltern can be upset about Mrs. Cheveley’s presence because he feels betrayed and does not support the wedding due to not seeing Goring as an ideal husband. Yet, taking into account all this tension between them, coincidental suggestive looks and the mutual desire to be a part of one another’s life, the homoerotic element in their relationship cannot be denied (Behrendt 166). Moreover, during their sincere talk, when Robert is telling the story of his past mistake and shares all his fears with Arthur, we see Goring moving closer and closer to his friend, stroking his shoulder and trying to comfort him. This touch feels almost too intimate for someone who is just a friend. 

The adaptation constantly plays with the very idea of touching and different gestures that deliver stories through the characters’ movements and body language. Most of them are very physical, the characters are almost always using parts of their bodies to prove, show, or achieve something. Besides the example with Goring stroking Chiltern’s shoulder, later we have Sir Chiltern doing exactly the same thing to Arthur, as if returning this gesture. Evoking of the theme of giving/returning in connection with gestures, we have one more scene, when Laura, holding a compromising letter in her hands, tries to kiss Lord Goring. He is puzzled at first, but then willingly returns her kiss. We see how differently these gestures work, being a physical embodiment of one’s hidden feelings one time, and a tool for emotional manipulation and seduction another. Even Goring himself talks about love as only giving and not expecting anything in return, and that is precisely what he is doing in their relationships with Robert. Lord Goring is always there, ready to push away all of his problems just to help a friend out, and sometimes he is also ready to lie, to play dirty just for the sake of Robert’s happy future.

One more interesting example of giving and returning is a sequence revolving around the letter sent to Lord Goring by Gertrude that ends up in Robert’s hands. After her husband discovers the letter in the envelope with Goring’s name and address on it, Gertrude is expected to explain herself on this matter. As she is unable to find the right words or to invent an excuse in a flash, Lord Goring and Miss Mable come to rescue. Arthur says that the letter was for Robert, and Mable supports the story, saying that she was going to deliver it to Goring so he could give it to the final recipient. We see how collective imagination helps them not to escalate this conflict, instead saving Gertrude from the need of further explanations. Later, after the proposal and Robert’s persistence on the impossibility of the marriage between Mable and Arthur, Lady Chiltern steps in, returning the favor and restoring the truth. She confesses about lying while saving the couple’s future. The constant exchange of a different kind of communication among characters highlights the complexity of human relationships as well as shows the multiple dimensions in the adaptation which may have been only slyly suggested in the original play.

An additional aspect of performance and performativity can be observed in another added scene in the adaptation: we can see Wilde himself, in the spotlight on the theater stage. Before his appearance, the characters are seen watching the performance of The Importance of Being Earnest. The director not only plays with us, showing and emphasizing the whole theatricality of everything happening on the screen, but also tells the characters directly that they are just a part of the fictional world. The mocking continues with Wilde giving a speech after the performance, saying “I think you think highly of the play as I do myself,” which, to say at least, is ridiculously conceited. The presence of the author of the literary text in the film adaptation is already interesting, but Parker goes even further, giving us the next shot, where Gertrude and Robert look at each other, while Wilde’s silhouette is in the background between them (see Figure 3). It looks like he is tearing them apart as they speak, plotting the development of this relationship in his head. The decision to include Oscar Wilde in the film is quite fitting, as it shows the spectators the theatrical essence of the story, emphasizing the puppet-like nature of his characters and bringing a metacinematic dimension to the work, admitting that there is someone who is telling the story. Patricia Waugh describes a situation of this kind as a break of a balance between “awareness of literary-fictional condition of a work and its desire to create imaginative realities” (130). In the scene, the characters remain oblivious of their connection to the author, in fact, he is displayed on the stage, below them, and his power is disguised by this reversal of levels. However, there might be more in this inverted image of auctor/actor/character – there may be a hint at liberation of the puppets through the intervention of the spectator.

Wild Performances and Wilde’s Performativity: Film Adaptations of An Ideal Husband
Anastasiia Solovei, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Oscar Wilde between the "ideal" couple

Roland Barthes develops the idea of the creator leaving their art for others to fill in with new life in The Death of the Author. While we see Wilde’s figure quite clearly at first, it grows indistinct towards the end of the scene, with Chiltern and his wife in the foreground, and their looks and gestures taking up the attention of the spectator. This may be read as the author becoming irrelevant, remaining at the empty stage with his own intentions and overstated opinions about his work while his work moves away from him. As Wilde in the movie enters the space of fiction, he abandons his personality and ceases to be a historical figure, curiously waiting for what the spectators may make of him, and this can be seen as a mirror reflection of Barthes’s idea: as the birth of the Author He is “adapted” by his readers who reproduce an impression of him, who perform his gestures and reimagine his words. Film adaptation takes this further: the director who reads the play and re-interprets it, also re-imagining the author; his ideas are transformed by the actors, costume and set designers, cinematographers and other members of the film crew; this re-configured vision is passed on to spectators, who in turn begin their work on the words and images. Elin Diamond in Performance and Cultural Politics notes: "In line with poststructuralist claims of the death of the author, the focus in performance today has shifted from authority to effect, from text to body, to the spectator's freedom to make and transform meanings" (3). Thus, in the film adaptation, spectator assumes the role of the artist many times over, painting in strokes a palimpsestic image of an author. The interweaving of whimsical colors which are taken from our palette of theories, ideas and connections and eventually create a unique and new character, taking Barthes’ theory even further and letting viewers play with the figures in and out of a original work. Consequently, the author is born – as a figure on the stage of imagination, less authoritative, but infinitely more absorbent of contemporary sensibilities of his readers and spectators.  

Collision of Cultures

The comparison of these two adaptations of An Ideal Husband (1980, 1999) is productive because the two films were created not only within twenty years of each other, but also almost in the opposite worlds with the completely contradictory ways of perceiving reality and fiction. The earlier version of 1980 was made in the realm of the Soviet Union with all the imaginable technical and ideological constraints, while 1999 British adaptation shows an entirely different aspect of the story, revealing some of its camouflaged elements. It is evident that both films play with their spectators on different levels of cultural perception, understanding, and overall depiction. The most obvious and ostentatious difference is the portrayal of Lord Goring and Sir Chiltern’s relationship.

The hidden nature of their connection is already hinted at in the literary text since, taking into account Wilde’s identity, elements of homoerotic attraction between male characters cannot be simply ignored. In the Soviet movie, there is no hint at anything related to more than just a friendship between men, for the topic of sexuality and gender was pushed away completely out of sight in the Soviet Union and quite carefully avoided. Just as Wilde himself was “transformed into a pariah in the wake of his two-year prison-with-hard-labor sentence for gross indecency” (Adut 214) in the Britain of the Belle Époque despite its definite taste for decadence, the Soviet version perfectly displays similar attitude towards everything that goes beyond heteronormativity.

This striking omission influences the general portrayal of the characters and the narrative itself. In Wild, the ideal husband emerges as a man who is perceived as such due to his disinterest in women, and, consequently, lack of any interest in family life, who merely plays the role assigned to him by Victorian society. The suggestion here is not only of the constraints of social pressures that produce superficial characters, but also of the irony of the situation in which an ideal husband would be a homosexual man whose family life is a theater. In Soviet version, this later aspect is completely lost – the only comedy is that of ridiculously empty characters pretending to have human emotions. However, the British version keeps pushing its viewers to the deeper analysis of the ambiguous and suggestive details, which even when they do not directly refer to sexuality, still raise appropriate associations. Even in the scene where Robert and Arthur spend their time together in the sauna, discussing marriage and women’s role in their life, it is impossible to perceive this episode simply at its face value, without going deeper to see all the ambivalent details – and read the homoerotic tension in the gestures and looks of the two men.

Moreover, the theme of touching is central in the British film, as the spectators see the characters being more open and comfortable with each other. In contrast to the Soviet version, where the distance between them is only too obvious, the British one has many scenes with an emphasis on the contiguity. One of the prominent examples is Sir and Lady Chiltern kissing in bed with the obvious suggestion of the following sexual intercourse – even though the spectator may wonder about the role of this scene and the motives of Sir Chiltern (the scene is preceded by the conversation with Mrs. Cheveley and followed by the scene with Lord Goring). We may wonder if this is still social theater, or a game of appearances for one’s own sake, an attempt to convince oneself of feeling sexual attraction to the object of desire sanctioned by society. Still, the husband and wife are displayed as sexual beings, and ambiguity of this situation fits well with other instances of the film when the spectator feels confused.

The second interesting instance is the game of careful touches between Lord Goring and his ex-bride Laura Cheveley. Continuous close-ups depicting their hands, the direction of touching and the kisses stolen on the edge of revenge, introduce the new aspect of interconnections of desire and betrayal. Such close-ups make the spectator notice the skin, which, apart from its obvious definition, serves as a connecting element, a film that not only covers to conceal, but also allows contact and interaction, and reveals one’s reactions to the outside. As Barker defines it:

The skin is a meeting place for exchange and traversal because it connects the inside with the outside, the self with the other. It also constantly enacts both the perception of expression and the expression of perception; in other words, it perceives the world as the world objectively expresses itself, and it expresses its own act of perception to the world by touching it. The skin, for example, perceives a chill in the air and expresses that perception as visible goose bumps.” (Barker 27)

This interpretation blends together the notions of a human being, a place and material, uncovering an act of touching as an action of giving and receiving simultaneously. The ambiguous meaning of “skin” gives us space to analyze communication without alluding to actual words, through gestures leaving only goosebumps on the film’s skin as signs of a silent conversation. This conversation is projected to the spectator, who might feel the goosebumps because they intuit the hidden meaning of gestures which contradict the spoken words.

Both adaptations relate, in their different ways, to the concept of metacinema. Two directors seem deeply interested in the idea of performance, artificiality of the text, and theatricality in entirely different ways, yet both of their productions are extremely compelling to the spectators. In the Soviet film more prominent is the connection between cinema and story in the cinematic world itself: cameras, flashlights, and screens keep appearing in the adaptation, speaking quite directly. On the one hand, it can work as a symbol of production and a further hint at artificiality and the distance of the story from the real world, which would be the modern interpretation of Wilde’s work. Cinema obviously did not exist in its contemporary form when Wilde was alive, and such details also construct the new setting of the familiar story that is still engaging and understandable for the modern spectators.

However, the British version widens the concept of theatricality and changes the overall presence of the cinematic component in the adaptation, clearly stating that the characters are just actors who may or may not be aware of the hollowness and falsity of their world, but still keep performing. Oscar Wilde, who appears at the very beginning of the film, explicitly tells the characters about the play and even jokes with the spectators in his usual charming way. With his appearance, the focus on artificiality moves from just the visual part of the story to the verbal layer, as now the spectators are able to acknowledge the other level of the film that exists outside the symbolic one. This may be seen as a sophisticated way of giving more depth to Wilde’s story, making it more complex and open to further interpretations. Linda Hutcheon discusses metafiction as “fiction that includes a commentary on its own narrative and/or linguistic identity” (Hutcheon 1), and Wilde’s discussion of his own work makes the spectators of the film distance themselves from the characters (though they are clearly in the foreground), because the viewers are reminded of the fictionality of the story. This distancing allows them to connect with the Author – they are able to view the work from a point of view parallel to his, and form their own commentary. Thus, paradoxically, metafictional distancing works to draw the spectator into deeper engagement with the film.

Cultural differences in the production of the films can be noticed also in the depiction of femininity, masculinity, and heterosexual relationships in general. This can be clearly understood in the scene when Lord Goring tries to get the compromising letter from Mrs. Cheveley to save his friend. In the Soviet version, we see an open fight, in which the characters are literally battling over the object of desire (a letter), running after each other, and creating a scene with dynamics of aggression. Arthur tears the letter out of Laura’s hands, behaving too violently and forcefully. It is as if, not being able to display gestures of sexual desire, the Soviet filmmakers had to reserve to gestures of violence. To contemporary audience, these will appear much more unacceptable than any depictions of hetero- or homosexual desire.

On the contrary, the British film introduces viewers to the sensual world of gentle touches and seduction, showing the physical intimacy between the characters. Lord Goring behaves with visible tenderness, caressing Laura’s face, shoulders, and slowly moving below trying to get the letter out of her hands, but not brutally pressuring her (see Figure 4). When Mrs. Cheverly moves away with the letter, Goring does not show any signals of domination and does not try to forcefully get the object he is so interested in. This example demonstrates the difference in the directors’ approach to the depiction of heterosexual relationships and partly in their understanding of the concept of consent in general. Since the Soviet version is more violent, it may suggest that such attitude towards women that was accepted and approved by society, which justifies the brutality in relation to female characters, especially if they are cruel and manipulative. However, this certainly cannot be said about Oliver Parker’s film, as it shows not only sensitivity and intimacy, but respect and puts the distance between the characters right where it should be. 

Wild Performances and Wilde’s Performativity: Film Adaptations of An Ideal Husband
Anastasiia Solovei, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Seductive gestures

Generally, it is quite interesting to see the differences between these films, connecting it to the country of production and the director’s personal approach to the representation of certain aspects of life. Parker’s film opens a few new directions of analysis, while the Soviet version allows the spectators to move to another part of the adaptation and delve into its symbolic dimension, while trying to find more possible readings of the polysemantic visual part. Both films deserve attention, as they bring new possibilities for the interpretation of the literary text and continue the story in their own ways through the use of completely different cinematic vehicles. Perhaps, to grasp the key difference between the films, we can allude to Anne Ubersfeld’s discussion of the limits of pleasure in terms of spectator’s experience at the theater, who notes that it always goes hand in hand with “the taboo against touching, even against seeing at close quarters, the taboo against seeing (knowing) with certainty” (138). This precisely is the difference between the Soviet and British adaptations: the earlier represents this very taboo and some limitations of the narrative placed by culture, while the latter stands for pleasure, openness, and one’s self-discovery. Each version, however, uniquely captures an aspect of Wilde’s mind and world. Therefore, two completely different works become pieces of a great and multidimensional jigsaw puzzle of Wilde’s initial text, while playing with one another’s reflective surfaces, establishing the ground for the discussion of the themes central to the writer’s fiction. However, the multi-layered nature of Wilde’s texts and even their more complex adaptations open space for further analysis and create a possibility for an enormous amount of readings. This article is more focused on the visual elements and analyzes them in terms of social and cultural impact, discussing topics that were close to Oscar Wilde’s heart. Future research may go in the political dimension of cinematic and textual representation, bringing to the conversation, for instance, the patriotic speech in An Ideal Husband and analyzing it in the context of Wilde’s approach to the government and the authorities. Also, continuing the discussion of female characters in the author’s works, one may carry on research, focusing on representation of women by Wilde and in particular, depiction of women through the gaze of a homosexual man, which opens two discourses at once: gender and sexuality. The depth that can be found within Wilde’s texts allows the audience to change the perspective all the time, opening new ways of approach and interpretation.

Works Cited

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