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We're in the library of Lord Goring's house; it's a neoclassical room with a roaring fireplace. There are lots of doors: one on the right leading into the hall; one on the left leading into the smoking-room; and a pair of folding doors at the back of the library that lead into the drawing-room.
Phipps, Lord Goring's butler, is arranging newspapers on the writing-table. He is an ideal Butler because no one ever knows what he is thinking.
Lord Goring comes enters. He's dressed to go out for the evening. He's wearing a silk hat, an Inverness cape, and white gloves. He's also carrying a Louis XIV cane (all of which were Oscar Wilde's personal accessories). The stage directions call him the first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought.
Lord Goring asks Phipps for the second flower to put in his buttonhole. But adds that it makes him look too old, and too serious.
Phipps responds dryly that the florist has had a death in her family, perhaps influencing the seriousness of this buttonhole.
Lord Goring observes that the lower classes continually have deaths in the family.
Yep, says Phipps, they're pretty lucky that way.
The joke surprises Lord Goring. Phipps is totally cool.
Three letters have come for Lord Goring, one of which is on pink paper. Phipps goes out, and Lord Goring has a monologue revealing its content.
The letter is from Lady Chiltern and it says: "I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you." It's almost ten o'clock, so now Lord Goring can't go out.
He strategizes about what he'll tell her. To stand by her husband.
Phipps enters, announcing Lord Goring's father, Lord Caversham. Doh! His dad has such terrible timing.
Lord Caversham comes in riled up. He takes off his cloak, takes the best chair, and complains about drafts in the room.
Lord Goring protests that it's a little late in the evening to have a serious conversation.
Cut out the funny business, says Dad. Then he lays out everything: Lord Goring needs to get married. The boy is thirty-four and is wasting his life. And there is a draft in here.
Lord Goring agrees – his father is likely to catch his death with this kind of cold. He tells daddy dearest to leave; they can get in touch tomorrow.
Lord Caversham's not falling for it. He's on a mission. But Lord Goring successfully ushers his cantankerous old dad into the smoking room so he can talk to Phipps.
There's a lady coming to see him and Phipps should put her in the drawing room. And he shouldn't let in anyone else.
Got it, sir, says Phipps. The doorbell rings.
Lord Goring, chillest guy ever, is starting to sweat. He goes into the smoking room to talk to his impatient Dad.
Harold the footman shows in Mrs. Cheveley. The stage directions describe her as Lamia-like – a snakelike demon in green and silver. She avoids giving her name. Under Phipps direction she goes into the drawing room. She's surprised that Lord Goring seems to expect her.
Looking into the drawing room, Mrs. Cheveley calls it drab. She wants to flip it.
Mrs. Cheveley is in the mood for candles. While Phipps goes in the drawing room to light them, she has a little snoop in the library. She finds the pink letter from Lady Chiltern. Oh heck yes, a love note!
But Phipps comes in before she can steal it.
Mrs. Cheveley goes into the drawing room, then peeps back out. She wants to steal that letter. Lord Goring and Lord Caversham are emerging from the smoking room, so she has to retreat.
Lord Caversham wants Lord Goring married. Now. And to a woman chosen by himself.
Lord Goring protests. Then goes outside. He comes back in, flabbergasted, with Sir Robert.
Sir Robert's surprised to find Lord Goring at home, since his servants just said he was out. But he's glad. Lady Chiltern knows everything. He wishes he were dead. What should he do?
The inquiries in Vienna didn't turn up any good dirt. Sir Robert is desperate. For Lord Goring's friendship, and for a drink.
Lord Goring rings for Phipps and gives him instructions. Don't let the lady in after all.
Too late, says Phipps, she's already in the drawing room.
OK, OK, Lord Goring can deal with his. First he talks to Sir Robert. Hasn't Lady Chiltern ever done something she's regretted? Something that had to be pardoned?
Never, replies Sir Robert. She's totally faultless. And they don't have children so if she leaves him, he has no one. But there's something more he has to share.
Enter Phipps with the drink. Lord Goring uses the interruption to try to get rid of Sir Robert.
No dice. Sir Robert has something to say – but is distracted by a chair falling in the next room. Who is in there, eavesdropping this whole time?
Um, nobody. (Lord Goring still thinks Lady Chiltern's in there. It would look really bad for her to be visiting him this late.)
Sir Robert pushes his way through and looks in the drawing room. He starts trashing the lady.
Lord Goring's a little shocked. Talking that way to his own wife, when she loves him so much.
What? Sir Robert thinks Lord Goring is crazy, and that he (Lord Goring) is sleeping with Mrs. Cheveley.
Lord Goring protests. He'll explain everything – but –
Sir Robert rushes out.
And here comes Mrs. Cheveley, sauntering to the door. She's loving it.
Lord Goring can't believe it. What is she doing there?
She's listening through the keyhole, of course.
Lord Goring guesses that she's come to sell him Sir Robert's incriminating letter. Well, what does she want for it?
But Mrs. Cheveley takes her time. She asks him to sit. They take a stroll down memory lane. Lord Goring proposed to her, but broke it off when he saw her messing around with some Lord Mortlake. Lord Goring's lawyer paid her off.
Mrs. Cheveley claims she loved him back in the day. Lord Goring can't believe it – she's too smart for love.
She comes clean. What she really wants is to come back to England and be rich. Have a house, have lots of intellectual parties, that sort of thing. If Lord Goring promises to marry her, the letter is his.
Lord Goring insults her and then complements her. Neither tactic seems to work.
Mrs. Cheveley thinks that Lord Goring should sacrifice to save Sir Robert.
Lord Goring won't do it. Facing his rejection, she gets a little nasty: Sir Robert is a dead duck. Won't you please shake hands, Lord Goring?
No way, he says. Goring refuses to shake hands with the woman who is ruining Lady Chiltern's life (and not to mention what she's doing to Sir Robert). He adds that Mrs. Cheveley is killing love out of spite.
Mrs. Cheveley protests that it wasn't out of spite. She went to the Chiltern's to ask about a brooch she dropped. Lady Chiltern was so uppity that she had to taunt her a little.
The brooch, eh? Lord Goring gets it out and puts it on her – as a bracelet.
Lord Goring then gets into the history of the brooch. He gave this brooch to his cousin for her wedding. It was stolen years ago, and a servant was fired for it. When he found the brooch at the Chiltern's last night, he decided to wait and find out the thief. Lo and behold it is Mrs. Cheveley.
She denies the theft and tries to take it off her wrist. She's trapped, though. There's a secret clasp she can't find.
Lord Goring's going to call the police.
Mrs. Cheveley totally flips out. Usually she is the most controlled character in the play, but now she is starting to lose it. She's scary. She'll do anything to avoid this.
Lord Goring demands the incriminating letter about Sir Robert's earlier mis-deeds.
She gives it to him.
With a sigh Lord Goring burns it with the lamp.
Mrs. Cheveley, always thinking, asks for a glass of water. When Lord Goring turns his back, she steals Lady Chiltern's pink letter.
She puts on her cloak and gets ready to leave. But not before she tells him that she has the pink letter. She'll make Sir Robert think his wife is sleeping with Lord Goring.
Phipps enters and shows her out. As she leaves, the stage directions describe her face: lit up, joyful, young. Lord Goring bites his lip and lights a cigarette.