The stage directions tell us we're in a large, brilliantly lit room in posh Grosvenor Square. It's a party.
It's Lady Chiltern's house, so she greets the guests. She's 27, beautiful, and deathly serious.
The Chilterns are clearly very well off: there's a big chandelier, an antique French tapestry depicting "The Triumph of Love," and a string quartet in the next room. Not bad.
Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon are chatting on a sofa about boring parties. Then go into the music-room, joined by the Vicomte de Nanjac. He's wearing a fancy tie.
Mason, Robert Chiltern's butler, is announcing guests.
Lord Caversham arrives. He's an old aristocrat and politician. Lord Caversham asks if his troublemaker son, Lord Goring, is here yet. Lady Chiltern says no.
Mabel Chiltern (Lady Chiltern's sister-in-law) joins the conversation. She's probably in her late teens or early twenties, and a natural beauty complete with apple cheeks and rosebud lips, that sort of thing.
Lord Caversham thinks his son's a slacker, but Mabel begs to differ (she likes him).
Lord Goring rides horses, goes to the opera, eats out a lot, and is really into what he wears. He's actually very busy with all that stuff.
Lord Caversham thinks Mabel's adorable.
Two new ladies arrive on the scene: Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley.
Lady Markby is a nice middle-aged woman with good lace, say the stage directions.
But the real dish is Mrs. Cheveley. She is Done Up. Tall and thin, with bright red hair, bright red lips, and dressed in heliotrope with diamonds. Heliotrope? Think bright purple.
Lady Markby introduces this fascinating lady to our hostess, Lady Chiltern. Uh-oh, we smell a fight. Turns out they went to school together and were totally not BFFs.
Mrs. Cheveley drops a hint…she's looking forward to meeting Lady Chiltern's husband, whom she's heard a lot about in Vienna. Lady Chiltern is none too cool with that and says they couldn't possibly have anything in common. She leaves the conversation.
The Vicomte de Nanjac approaches Mrs. Cheveley, whom he knew in Berlin. They have a little flirt.
Sir Robert Chiltern enters and the stage directions give a lot of time to his looks. Your mom would dig this guy – he's 40 but looks younger; he's confident and successful and respected in the House of Commons. His face doesn't quite agree with itself, though; it has a poet's eyes but a businessman's jaw. We sense some inner conflict coming…
This dreamboat greets Lady Markby and requests an introduction to Mrs. Cheveley, whose reputation has preceded her. Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley proceed to have a banter-fest that covers women, philosophy, modern literature, science, and women again. (This happens a lot in Wilde's plays.)
Mrs. Cheveley confesses that she's in London to ask a favor of him. When she mentions a common acquaintance – Baron Arnheim – Sir Robert reacts with a start. It's not a name he wants to hear.
Lord Goring enters, announced by the butler, Mason. The stage directions tell us he is thirty-four but says he's younger. He is a dandy, meaning he pretends that the most important things in life are dressing well, socializing, and being witty.
Sir Robert introduces Lord Goring to Mrs. Cheveley. Sure enough, they already know each other. Mrs. Cheveley teases Lord Goring about his perpetual bachelorhood. He kind of hopes she won't be staying long.
Mrs. Cheveley exits with Sir Robert, and Lord Goring is freed to talk to Mabel. They flirt. Mabel likes his bad boy image.
Lord Goring inquires who on earth invited this Mrs.-Cheveley-in-heliotrope. It was Lady Markby, says Mabel, why?
Because he hasn't seen her in years. Mabel gets jealous.
The Vicomte de Nanjac interrupts with some nonsense about English ladies and good taste. Apparently on the prowl, he asks to escort Mabel in to the music room. She doesn't want to leave Lord Goring, but she does.
Lord Caversham swoops in on his son, Lord Goring, and lays into him. Lord Caversham says his good-for-nothing son dances all night, talks about nothing, and lives only for pleasure. Lord Goring cheerfully agrees with this assessment.
Leaving Dad for pretty Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont, Lord Goring exchanges pleasantries about politics and marriage. The ladies complain about their husbands, who are so good they are boring. The wayward Lord Goring feigns shock.
The conversation turns to Mrs. Cheveley. She's insulted London society and offended the ladies. Mabel joins in the trash talk.
Lord Goring and Mabel go in to dinner. She fusses at him for ignoring her all evening. He tries to smooth her feathers.
Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont complain about how hungry they are. In this play, women clearly can't eat without a man. Luckily the Vicomte de Nanjac comes to Lady Basildon's rescue, and a Mr. Montford saves Mrs. Marchmont.
With the octagon room cleared out, Mrs. Cheveley and Sir Robert come in for a chat. The siren makes her move.
She wants to talk about a venture of the Argentine Canal Company.
He doesn't. This Argentine thing is a moneymaking scam. He's looked into it. There's been no progress on the canal, nobody knows what's happened to the money raised so far, and the whole thing's going to fail.
But Mrs. Cheveley has invested in it. Big time.
Sir Robert asks why the heck Mrs. Cheveley would you do that.
Mrs. Cheveley responds that it's because her dear friend Baron Arnheim has advised her to do so.
Sir Robert doesn't like the second mention of this name. He tries to distract Mrs. Cheveley with some paintings.
She's having none of it.
Sir Robert advises her to get out of this Argentine Canal deal, because the House of Commons (the legislative body in Parliament – kind of like our Senate) will shut the whole thing down once he delivers his report tomorrow.
But Mrs. Cheveley says that Sir Robert shouldn't do it, for his own good. She lays it out: withdraw this negative report and promote the Argentine Canal. Or else.
Sir Robert can't believe she's serious. There's no way he'll do this.
But she'll pay him.
Sir Robert tells her to leave immediately.
Mrs. Cheveley traps him with her fan and drops the bomb. She knows that as a young man, Sir Robert made his fortune by selling a state secret to a Stock Exchange speculator. She has a letter proving it. A letter addressed to Baron Arnheim.
Uh-oh. This is bad for Sir Robert.
Mrs. Cheveley generously offers to barter this letter for Sir Robert's public support of the Argentine scheme. She points out that the moral climate in England is such that politicians like him have to be perfect. Scandals used to be fun but now they are deadly. If the public finds out Sir Robert built his fortune and career on an unethical act – selling state secrets – he is done.
She wants an answer now, or she's going straight to the newspapers. Those vultures will looooove this.
At this point Sir Robert is pretty much ready to be sick. Could he give her money instead?
No way, she says. Make a speech supporting the Argentine Canal, and she will give him the letter. She makes to leave. No time to think about it.
The crowd comes in from dinner and Lady Markby asks Mrs. Cheveley if she has enjoyed herself. Oh yes, she has. Sir Robert Chiltern is very interesting. And Lady Chiltern, says Mrs. Markby, has the highest principles. Which make for boring dinner parties.
Lady Markby leaves on Lord Caversham's arm.
Approaching Lady Chiltern, Mrs. Cheveley complements her house, party, and husband. Then she shares the news: Sir Robert will make a speech supporting the Argentine Canal.
Lady Chiltern can't believe that this is true.
But it's all settled, counters Mrs. Cheveley. She explains that it's a secret until tomorrow, though…so Lady Chiltern can't tell.
Sir Robert comes in to get rid of her. Mrs. Cheveley says goodbye to Lord Goring and goes out with Sir Robert. Lady Chiltern looks on with worry.
Mabel and Lord Goring tease each other and sit down on the sofa, where Mabel finds a diamond brooch.
Lord Goring seems to recognize it – he knows it can be worn as a bracelet. He asks her not to mention that he's keeping it but to let him know if someone asks for it.
Mabel leaves and Lady Chiltern enters. The topic of Mrs. Cheveley naturally comes up.
Lady Chiltern tells Lord Goring that Mrs. Cheveley wants Sir Robert to support to Argentine Canal. They both agree it is impossible for someone as morally sound as Sir Robert to do such a thing.
Sir Robert comes in and wants Lord Goring to stay. He can't – more parties await.
The husband and wife are left alone. He flatters her, saying she's beautiful. She's not biting, and asks him what's going on with the Argentine thing.
Lady Chiltern says that Sir Robert shouldn't trust this Mrs. Cheveley. As a young girl she was manipulative, dishonest, and a thief. And people don't change.
Sir Robert begs his wife not to judge others entirely on their past.
Lady Chiltern takes a hard line, claiming that the past makes the man.
Sir Robert is naturally a little uncomfortable with this statement.
Lady Chiltern can't believe he's going to support something she just heard him describe as a total fraud.
Sir Robert prevaricates (i.e., does a little shuffle around the truth). He was wrong, the report was biased. And besides, private and public life are two different things.
No, she says. A man should be perfect in both.
Sir Robert draws a line. He's made his decision and he doesn't want to talk about it.
Lady Chiltern senses something, and asks if he's telling her the whole truth.
Again, he evades, and gives her some platitudes about the complexity of truth and the necessity of compromise in politics.
She can't believe what she's hearing. Her principled husband talking compromise? What happened?
In her opinion, Sir Robert always stood apart from others, above others, above reproach. That's why she loves him. She worships him. And that love is threatened by what he's about to do. Is there some dark secret he's not telling her? Because if there is, she's out of the relationship.
He lies: nope, nothing she doesn't already know.
Lady Chiltern, relieved, asks him to write Mrs. Cheveley and take it all back. In fact, she's pretty pushy about it.
Sir Robert sends off the letter, and Lady Chiltern gets all lovey-dovey. She's saved him from shame and horror and she'll love him forever because he'll always deserve it.
She kisses him and exits.
Sir Robert sits alone with his head in his hands. He asks Mason to put out the lights.
The only thing illuminated is the tapestry of the Triumph of Love.