Henry James's moral motive and Oscar Wilde's imaginative imitation
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On January 5, 1895, the opening night of his play Guy Domville, Henry James walked to the Haymarket Theatre to see Oscar Wilde’s new play, An Ideal Husband. Though the plays address similar themes of art, love, morality, James considered Wilde’s play vulgar and feeble; he even prophesized the failure of Guy Domville based on the audience’s warm reaction to An Ideal Husband. As we know, James’s prediction was accurate; Guy Domville struggled at St. Alexander’s Theatre while An Ideal Husband received rave reviews down the street. This incident, and James’s reaction to Wilde’s play, suggests an important distinction between not only the authors’ fashioning of aestheticism(s), but also in their promotions of that aesthetic philosophy within a consumer culture. In trying to understand James’s little read and seldom discussed play, we must also look closely at the conversely popular and often reproduced An Ideal Husband. The plays seem to take opposing positions concerning sacrifice and duty; Wilde’s self-fashioned character Lord Goring treats these subjects ironically, at least in his speech, whereas Guy treats them sincerely. But it is too simple to argue that James was distraught after seeing An Ideal Husband merely because Wilde’s play pokes fun at moral rigidity while James’s own upholds it. Why did James feel that Wilde’s play was such a detriment to his own? And if it is true, as Freedman argues, that James reinforced his opposition to Wilde as a marketing method, why was he so troubled by the success of An Ideal Husband? It is important to read Wilde’s play alongside James’s; through such a comparison, we can begin to understand what James felt was at stake because of his competitor’s production.