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Lord Goring and Sir Robert are in Sir Robert's morning room. Lord Goring, dressed to the nines, is chilling in an armchair; Sir Robert is pacing up and down nervously.
Sir Robert has just confessed his conundrum to Lord Goring.
Lord Goring thinks he should have told Lady Chiltern the truth right away. You can't hide things from your own wife, he says, because they'll always sniff it out.
Impossible, says Sir Robert. She would have left him.
Lord Goring can't believe Lady Chiltern's so perfect herself, and proposes to have a get-real talk with her. Sir Robert's pretty sure it won't make a dent.
Lord Goring thinks Sir Robert should have come clean years ago.
Easy for someone else to say, says Sir Robert. Confessing fraud doesn't exactly reel in a girl like Lady Chiltern.
Okay, says Lord Goring, he has a point. But most people would judge his action – selling state secrets – pretty harshly.
While they were doing the same thing themselves, explodes Sir Robert. He was young; he was poor; he was ambitious. He made a mistake. Should it ruin him forever? Is that fair? Besides, wealth is the only god this century worships, and the only way to get power.
Lord Goring still can't wrap his head around it. Why did Sir Robert do it?
He was coached by Baron Arnheim, who preached the philosophy of power and gospel of gold. The Baron invited the young Sir Robert to his home, showed off his bling, and said only wealth could bring power.
Lord Goring, surprisingly serious in the scene, calls this philosophy shallow.
Sir Robert defends it. After all, wealth is what gave him the power – the freedom – that has made his life so meaningful. The Baron gave him the chance of a lifetime. When state documents passed through his hands that could make the Baron some money, Sir Robert informed him. The Baron made three-quarters of a million pounds on the deal; he gave Sir Robert 110,000. Sir Robert went into the House immediately and continued to grow his fortune. He's always had luck with money.
And no regrets? asks Lord Goring.
Sir Robert says no. He simply fought with the weapons of the times. And won.
After a long pause, Sir Robert confesses he's paid a lot of guilt money over the years. He's donated twice the bribe amount to public charities over the years.
In the first joke of the scene, Lord Goring feigns shock. To public charities! Then he's done a lot of damage after all.
Lightening up a little, Lord Goring promises to help Sir Robert however he can. He doesn't think a public confession would help things. Nowadays a politician needs morality on his side. Nope, what he has to do is tell Lady Chiltern.
Oh god, says Sir Robert, not that. Can't he get something on Mrs. Cheveley? Lord Goring knew her before.
It turns out that Lord Goring was engaged to Mrs. Cheveley. For three days. It didn't work out. By the way, has Sir Robert tried to bribe her? Money used to work wonders on her.
Alas, not this time. She wouldn't bite. Sir Robert fears that public humiliation is in his future.
Lord Goring melodramatically strikes the table and the scene goes a little Batman and Robin. There's got to be a way to stop her! We've just got to find her weak spot!
Sir Robert decides to write to Vienna to get dirt on her. He wonders why Baron Arnheim was in her power.
Smirking, Lord Goring has an idea.
Sir Robert seems to cheer up, but Lord Goring is less optimistic. He knows the woman and she is T-U-F-F.
Lady Chiltern enters. She's just come from the Women's Liberal Association, where she enjoyed the part when they clapped for her husband.
Lord Goring thinks they should have clapped for her super-cute hat.
Au contrair, Lord Goring, says Lady Chiltern. We liberal ladies are serious; we debate Factor Acts, Female Inspectors, the Eight Hour's Bill, the Parliamentary Franchise.
Another hat joke from Lord Goring, and Lady Chiltern exits.
Sir Robert thanks Lord Goring for listening and letting him unload the truth. Lord Goring quips that he always gets rid of the truth as soon as possible.
Lady Chiltern comes in as Sir Robert is going out. She cautions him not to work too hard. He exits and she sits down with Lord Goring for a little chat.
It's about Mrs. Cheveley. Lady Chiltern made Sir Robert take back his terrible promise about the Argentine scheme. It would have been a black spot on his record. And Sir Robert should be above other men. Right?
Listen, says Lord Goring, success requires compromise. Ambition demands flexibility.
Lady Chiltern's hackles start to rise. She wonders what he means.
Well, frankly, she's a little judgmental. She's not forgiving. What if, he proposes – and this is totally, totally hypothetical – what if some public man like Lord Caversham, or Sir Robert, say, had written a compromising letter…
There's no way Sir Robert could do something that wrong, says Lady Chiltern.
Lord Goring believes anyone can do wrong. And he believes that we should all be able to forgive, and love. He makes an earnest offer to Lady Chiltern to come to him any time she is in trouble.
This kind of freaks her out. He's being so serious.
Thank goodness Mabel Chiltern arrives for some comic relief. She doesn't like this seriousness at all and asks Lord Goring to cut it out.
Mabel invites Lord Goring to ride horses with her tomorrow at 10 am. And doesn't he want to hear more about her adventures? On that note, Lord Goring leaves.
Mabel and Lady Chiltern have some girl talk time. Tommy Trafford has proposed to Mabel again – three times in 48 hours. The annoying thing is that it's never with a splash.
Lady Chiltern thinks Tommy would make a good match. He's a great secretary with a lot of promise.
Mabel is so not interested. That's OK for someone with character, but geniuses bore her to death.
Mabel goes out, and comes right back in. Guess who's come for a visit? Lady Chiltern's favorite people: Mrs. Markby and Mrs. Cheveley are led in by Mason.
Mrs. Cheveley is introduced to Mabel, who has to leave for rehearsal. It's a play benefiting the "Undeserving." Lord Goring is president.
How apt, says Mrs. Cheveley.
Lady Markby asks whether the Chilterns have found a diamond brooch Mrs. Cheveley lost. Lady Chiltern hasn't seen it, but offers to call the butler.
No matter, says Mrs. Cheveley. She must have dropped it at the opera. Lady Markby isn't surprised. There's so much jostle at all society events that she's surprised they don't end up naked every night.
Mason comes in. Mrs. Cheveley describes the brooch: snake-shaped, made of diamonds, with a large ruby on its head. Mason hasn't seen it.
Lady Markby hates losing things. She also hates her husband. She thinks the House of Commons is the worst thing for marriages since the education of women. She has a million other opinions that she squeezes in to this little scene before she leaves the two foes alone.
Then it's face-off time.
Lady Chiltern tells Mrs. Cheveley frankly that, if she'd known who she was, she wouldn't have invited her last night. When someone's done something terrible in the past, they'll probably do it again. And they don't deserve invitations to nice dinner parties.
Mrs. Cheveley is clearly getting a kick out the irony here.
Lady Chiltern reveals that she encouraged Sir Robert to write the letter rejecting Mrs. Cheveley's proposal. You're going to regret that, says Mrs. Cheveley. She adds that Sir Robert is just as low as she is.
Now Lady Chiltern's getting angry. She can't believe Mrs. Cheveley puts Robert in her league.
Speaking of the devil…Sir Robert enters.
Mrs. Cheveley reveals everything: this house was bought by fraud; Sir Robert's fortune was made in a dirty deal. If Sir Robert doesn't give the speech she wants him to, he's done.
Sir Robert rings the bell for Mason. Mrs. Cheveley looks both of the Chilterns in the face, then makes a proud exit.
When the couple is alone, the accusations start. Lady Chiltern is shocked and hysterical as she confronts Sir Robert with his past.
Sir Robert tries to calm her, wants to explain how it all happened.
She doesn't want him to touch her. She basically calls him a liar, prostitute, thief and slave, all in one breath. Her ideal image of him has been totally shattered.
That's the problem, says Sir Robert. She put him up on a pedestal. Men accept and love their wives, faults and all, but women need a man to be perfect.
Sir Robert continues that love means forgiveness. But apparently, Lady Chiltern is not big enough for that. She ruined his life last night when she made him retract his promise. Because she can't accept him, she has buried him.
Sir Robert leaves the room and Lady Chiltern is left alone in anguish. She cries alone.