Staging Wilde’s Stage Directions

One of the things that fascinated me the most about Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” wasn’t the story itself, but the stage directions that pop up throughout the narrative. The general rule I have always heard about playwriting is to keep stage directions minimal, to only use them when absolutely necessary, and even then, to be very sparse and plain with your language. As someone who has never read any of Wilde’s plays before, I was struck by the way in which Wilde throws this rule out the window. They are wordy and eloquent and contain details like “Watteau would have loved to paint them” and “He is fond of being misunderstood” (515, 521). I found these stage directions equal parts off-putting and delightful. Off-putting because they were unexpected in this format, delightful because they are so beautifully written. I feel like they are where Wilde’s prose really shines.

However, these stage directions brought up a lot of questions for me as to how this text should be read. I know that it was intended to be viewed as a stage play, meaning the audience would not have necessarily had access to them. They would have been reserved mostly for the actors, and I imagine that some of these details would be quite helpful to them, and some would be quite frustrating. For example, the direction “She is a heliotrope, with diamonds” feels very opaque as a character description, whereas “She has the fascinating tyranny of youth, and the astonishing courage of innocence” is much more specific (517, 516). But the way Wilde mixes prose into this play is extremely fascinating to me. Did he mean to or was it unintended? As modern readers, how should we interpret them? Should we study them like normal stage directions, or as something more?