The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
Oscar Wilde is surely a tragic figure, a victim of 19th and early 20th century prejudice. Then again, I guess it also had something to do with him being quite a well known personality at the time, though in 1895 he was convicted of ‘Gross Indecency’ (namely because he was a practicing homosexual), and sentenced to two years in gaol. While he did survive to see freedom once again, he eventually died in 1900 of meningitis, poor and basically forgotten. Well, not quite, since over time, Wilde has become known as one of the greatest writers of the late 19th Century, and his plays, particularly The Importance of Being Ernest, are still performed to this day. Not only that, but his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey, is considered to be one of the must read novels of the English language. While I would say that his literary output was minimal, despite his greatness, the reality is that before he became known as a playwright, he had written quite a number of short stories and journal articles.
This is actually the second Wilde play that I have seen, namely because when I was in Adelaide once I discovered that The Importance of Being Ernest was playing. Not surprisingly, I booked tickets for the session that night and dragged my brother along to come and watch it with me. Well, I have to admit that I had never laughed so hard at a play, with the exception of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version of A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, which had also surprisingly made its way to Adelaide. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever really laughed at a Shakespearian comedy, with the exception of that one. Anyway, considering how hilarious I found the Importance, when I discovered that the Melbourne Theatre Company was putting on another of Wilde’s plays, I decided that I would have to go and see it, and it was certainly worth it. In fact, it was refreshing to actually see a play performed as it probably was performed back in the 1890’s with none of that “Let’s make it modern to appeal to the modern audience” rubbish.
Interestingly Wilde had been accused of plagiarism, but when that accusation came out, the response was as follows:
Of course I plagiarise. It is the privilege of the appreciative man.
I’m not sure if I can get away with that at university though. Still, since you are allowed to quote sources, and reference your work, I suspect that they have basically taken Wilde’s point to heart. Another thing is that with all this talk about plagiarism, we still must remember that Wilde’s plays are still performed, and very much enjoyed, over a hundred years after he wrote them. The thing is that it seems that the people he borrowed from have basically fallen into obscurity. Furthermore, if we are going to criticise Wilde because he plagiarised, then we also have to criticise Shakespeare because you can hardly consider him original. Yet what they have done is taken a lesser known work, or at least a lesser known work in our minds, and turned it into a masterpiece. In fact, when I was watching the Importance, I could not help be see some of Shakespeare’s genius in Wilde’s work.
The play begins at a party, but then again we probably shouldn’t be all that surprised since we are looking into the world of Victorian London’s high society. The main characters are Sir Robert Chiltern, a politician and a member of cabinet, his wife Lady Chiltern, Lord Cavisham, and Lord Goring, a playboy and a dandy. Well, we can’t forget Miss Marchmont, who you could say is the villain of the piece. In a previous life Goring and Marchmont were dating, but that came to an end, namely because marriage didn’t seem to be something that Goring wanted to experience at that time. As for Chiltren, he is painted as being a very honourable man, and is the ideal husband of the title, at least in the eyes of his wife.
However, things don’t always seem to be as clear cut as they are. It turns out that Chiltern rose to his position because of the Suez Canal. Basically he was working for the government and was approached by somebody who requested that he let him know of any potential money making schemes. When he heard about the British wanting to build the Suez Canal, he let his friend know, and both of them made quite a substantial amount of money out of the venture. The thing was that this is what you could call insider trading. He wasn’t supposed to tell anybody, let alone make a profit out of the knowledge. However, he kept it hidden and has become the made man that he is.
Well, such things tend not to stay hidden all that long because as it turns out, Mrs Marchmont has come across a letter implicating Chiltern in the scheme, and threatens to out him unless he persuades parliament to support her own scheme, namely a canal in the Americas. This probably doesn’t mean all that much to us, considering they eventually built a canal across Central America, however back then the idea seemed to be impossible, and a complete waste of money. Yet Marchmont wanted the backing and ended up blackmailing Chiltern to get that backing.
You can probably work everything out from there, because this is a comedy and we pretty much know that when it comes to comedies everything works out in the end. Mrs Marchmont doesn’t get her way, Chiltern retains his honour, and his wife, who was horrified when she discovered her husband’s skeleton in his closet, forgives him and decides to move on, coming to the realisation that when one sees the perfect man, then one should actually wonder what they happen to be hiding. As one of my pastors would regularly say “you’re not okay, I’m not okay, but that’s okay”.
The Upstanding Gentlemen
This is what I suspect that Wilde is exploring here, and that is the nature of those people who seem to do nothing wrong. They are admirable and they are admired. Yet Wilde seems to think that this is never the case. The thing with these people is that there is always something that they are hiding, something that they have done that they don’t want people to know about. In a way this is true, or at least where I am concerned. I guess it has something to do with me tending to see the worst in people, or at least seeing the side of people that isn’t really all that pleasant.
The thing with admirable people is that they are able to portray themselves as such. It is called charisma, but I think it is much more than that. They are able to market themselves in a way that people only see them as being good, and more so, they simply cannot imagine that they would do anything that is actually wrong. In fact it goes further than that in that even if they are caught out, they are able to spin the facts, and distance themselves, from these events to maintain this aura of respectability. I guess that is why such people tend to repulse me because I generally see through the facade to the reality that is behind them, even if I might not know of any actual things that they have done. That is the thing with the aura – it is fake, it is not genuine, and these people end up coming out as phonies.
Yet it also has something to do with appealing to people that matter. You see this all the time in the work place, particularly large offices. There are people that are absolute cretins, yet for some reason management never seems to see that side of them. They only see the side of them that reflects their magnanimity. You see, they only appeal to the people that count, not to the people that don’t. The reality is that potential employers are not allowed to ask random people what they think of a particular person, they are only allowed to ask the people that that particular person directs them to. True, it does work to protect their integrity, but it is also true that it works to hide a multitude of sins.
Fearing the Past
Yes, we all have secrets, and we all have secrets that we want buried and we want to stay buried. I guess that is one of the benefits of not actually being in the lime light, or being in a position of authority – your past sins aren’t going to have all that much of an effect upon you. Yet people who rise to prominence have a lot to worry about because we have all sinned and we all have skeletons in our closet, skeletons that we desire to remain hidden. In fact we go to incredible lengths to make sure these sins remain hidden, whether it be simply discrediting a person, or going as far as using your influence to silence opposition.
Yet Sir Chiltern is a rather strange character in that he does come across as a particularly good man. Okay, as the Bible says ‘no one is good but God alone’ but the portrayal is that he is an honest man who did a bad thing in the past and has profited from it. The thing is that he doesn’t get angry or vindictive, instead he worries and frets. He confides with his friend Lord Goring, why is beyond me because Goring really doesn’t seem to be all that trustworthy, being a dandy and all, and he worries about what is going to become of him. In fact he goes as far as to retire from politics, despite the fact that the secret remains hidden.
Honestly, this is far from what we get from people in power these days. Sure, things come out, and we have seen many a politician fall from grace due to some skeleton in their closet. In fact here in Australia the deputy Prime Minister one day was riding high and all of a sudden the newspapers told everybody that he had walked out on his wife to move in with one of his staffers. This was really sudden, and in reality wasn’t all that hidden either, since there were hints of this going on at least three months prior. Yet all of a sudden it was splashed all over the media.
One wonders whether he had actually upset somebody that could make this an issue for him, in just the same way that Marchmont made it and issue for Chiltern. This is the catch when it comes to being in power – once somebody has hold of one of your dark secrets, they all of a sudden they have a hold over you. The problem is that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to sweep the past under the rug – it is always haunting you, it is always there, and even if it appears that nobody knows, you can never rest on your laurels because you never know when it is going to raise its ugly head.
I guess this is why Wilde made the comment about saints looking at the past while sinners look to the future. Nobody is truly a saint – there is always something there that is going to rise up and destroy them. In a way they are always looking over their shoulders, waiting for that inevitable day when the truth is finally going to be revealed and everything that they have built up will be destroyed. Yet for sinners, this has already happened, and there is nothing left to hide. The thing is that people have short memories and will soon forget, and while you might be front and centre today, tomorrow they will have moved on elsewhere, and you can now rest in knowing that the shadow that haunted you no longer has any power over you.
Sins from the Past – An Ideal Husband by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me