In keeping with Wilde’s idea that life imitates art, rather than the other way around, he makes constant reference to the arts as something superior to life, something worthy of being copied. In his stage directions, for instance, he compares the characters to portraits by painters. Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon, for instance, are two pretty society women with a delicacy of manner that the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) would have loved to paint. By evoking Watteau’s Rococo paintings of aristocratic society, Wilde creates an atmosphere of formal manners, extravagant dress, and theatrical poses. Lady Chiltern, on the other hand, has “grave Greek beauty” (p. 1), indicating a more severe character with moral dimension. At the top of the stairs she stands under a French tapestry with a design made by FranÁois Boucher (1703–1770) of “The Triumph of Love” (p. 1). This may be the erotic “Triumph of Venus,” an allegory by Boucher, which serves as a symbol for the moral of this play, for it is love that eventually wins out over society’s harsh moral judgment. The tapestry is the last thing we see as the lights fade in Act I while Gertrude claims she will always love her husband, as long as he remains her ideal.
Lord Caversham is introduced as like a portrait of Lawrence, and Mabel Chiltern as like a Tanagra statuette. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) was a famous portrait painter of royalty and nobility, president of the British Royal Academy. The analogy implies that Lord Caversham is a traditional upper-class lord, very dignified and formal. Mabel, on the other hand is described as “the English type of prettiness, the apple-blossom type” (p. 3). She is compared to a Tanagra statue, one of the ancient Greek terra cotta figurines that were portraits of real women. This suggests she is real and earthy as opposed to the artificial Watteau women. Mrs. Cheveley is so artificial in her purple dress and diamonds that she “looks like an orchid” (a hot-house flower) and is “A work of art” “showing the influence of too many schools,” a not-so-subtle put-down, implying she is a whore (pp. 4, 5). Sir Robert Chiltern is compared to a portrait by Vandyke (Sir Anthony van Dyck 1599–1641), the Flemish court painter whose realistic portraits of respectable and wealthy patrons suggest Sir Robert’s solid, serious, and practical reputation.
This comparing of people to famous works of art adds to the feeling of artificiality of English high society. Society is a notorious theatrical production. Mabel actually participates in tableaux or posed scenes as a charity project. Wilde makes all the characters part of posed social tableaux.
Game or Battle
Life is compared to a game or battle. One must know the rules and have skill. Lord Goring, for instance, is described as “play[ing] with life, and is on perfectly good terms with the world” (Act I, p. 12). He is self-confident about society because he is aware he is playing a game. His discussion with his butler of how to wear a buttonhole flower in his lapel shows he is up on the latest details, and that no detail is too trivial. When Mrs. Cheveley attempts to blackmail Sir Robert Chiltern, she remarks, “This is the game of life as we all have to play it” (Act I, p. 24). She says she will play fairly with him because she has “the winning cards” (Act I, p. 27). She calls politics “a clever game” (Act I, p. 10).
While Arthur seems to think society is a game that he is good at, his friend Robert thinks of life and politics as war. He tries to explain why he did something dishonorable (selling the Cabinet secret to Baron Arnheim) in his youth. An ambitious man “has to fight his century with its own weapons” (Act II, p. 41). In this case, the weapon was wealth, and he had to cheat to get wealth in order to get power. He claims he will fight Mrs. Cheveley “to the death” and with her own weapons (Act II, p. 49). He tries to spy on her to find her secrets. She calls herself his “enemy” and says she is stronger than he is (Act I, p. 25).
When Arthur tries to make Gertrude sympathetic to her husband’s fall from grace he explains that in practical life to achieve a goal, a man “has to climb the crag” and if he has to, he will “walk in the mire” (Act II, p. 53). It is a constant battle. Sir Robert feels like he is on a sinking ship in a storm as both his wife and Mrs. Cheveley close in on him (Act II, p. 50). He is a ship without a rudder when he thinks he has lost his wife (Act III, p. 86).
Society is like theater where everyone is in costume or disguise. Sir Robert has been put on a pedestal as an ideal husband and statesman. He is unmasked to his wife and friends, if not to the public, as a man with a dishonest past. He accuses women of ruining men by making them into a romantic pattern, “false idols” (Act II, p. 71). He does not want to be her ideal because that is not who he is.
Lady Markby in her usual flippant but uncanny remarks notes that “everybody turns out to be somebody else” as far as society goes (Act I, p. 7). That is what scandal is, after all. Someone appears to be honest and is revealed as false. The paradox is that in this social game of disguises, everyone is anxious to remain unknown but to unmask the next person.
Politics is a career of disguises, especially in terms of one’s speeches and political philosophy. When Sir Robert asks Mrs. Cheveley if she is an optimist or pessimist, she says “they are both of them merely poses” (Act I, p. 9). She speaks about how it is necessary in modern times “to pose as a paragon of purity” (Act I, p. 25).
No one reveals who one is. Even the “Ideal Butler,” Phipps, is described as a Sphinx, “a mask with a manner” (Act III, p. 73). Mrs. Cheveley is disguised as a “Lamia” (Act III, p. 80) or mythical demon woman with a snake form below the waist. She has a diamond snake pin with a ruby eye. Her mask only falls when Arthur threatens to have her arrested.
Baron Arnheim who seduced Sir Robert into committing a crime when he was only twenty-two, is described as a satanic figure in disguise, of “subtle and refined intellect,” “A man of culture, charm, and distinction” who preached a “philosophy of power” and “gospel of gold” (Act II, pp. 42, 43). The Baron is reminiscent of the libertine Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a seeming friend and admirer who seduces the young Dorian into selling his soul for eternal youth. After the Baron dies, his emissary, Mrs. Cheveley is the Lamia or evil demon sent to collect Sir Robert’s soul.