Let’s set the scene: Lane, Algernon’s servant, is arranging tea on the table in his luxurious morning-room. We hear the sound of piano music in the next room. After it falls silent, Algernon enters.
Algernon checks that Lane has ordered the cucumber sandwiches for Lady Bracknell. When Lane hands them to him, Algernon takes some and flops down on the sofa. They talk about drinking and married life.
Finishing his duties, Lane leaves the room.
To himself, Algernon remarks that Lane's views about marriage are "lazy."
Algernon comments he thinks it should be the job of the "lower classes" (I.17) to demonstrate good behavior for everyone else.
His thoughts are interrupted by Lane, who announces the arrival of Mr. Ernest Worthing.
The two friends discuss where Ernest has been and what activities he's been up to.
Ernest claims he was in the country.
Doubtful about that, Algy tests Ernest—asking if he was in Shropshire. Ernest seems confused, then stutters yes, he was in Shropshire. Uncomfortable, Ernest quickly changes the subject.
Algernon reveals that Aunt Augusta and Gwendolen are coming for tea, but that Aunt Augusta won’t be happy that Ernest is here because he flirts disgracefully with Gwendolen.
Ernest protests that he’s in love with Gwendolen and has come to town specifically to propose to her.
Algernon is startled. "I thought you’d come up for pleasures?... I call that business" (I.37).
Algy kindly comments that he doesn’t think Ernest will ever marry Gwendolen.
When Ernest asks why not, Algy replies that girls never marry the men they flirt with. Plus, Algy says he doesn't give his consent—Gwen is his first cousin.
Algernon follows up: Ernest still hasn't explained the Cecily situation to him.
Ernest claims that he doesn't know of any Cecily.
Algernon is perplexed, and decides to pull out his secret weapon; he summons Lane to get the cigarette case Ernest left on his last visit.
Now Ernest has some explaining to do.
There’s an inscription inside the cigarette case that says: "From little Cecily with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack" (I.68).
Algernon plays with Ernest, asking him pointed questions about this mysterious Cecily while Ernest chases him around the room, grabbing for his cigarette case.
Ernest tries to get out of his sticky situation by claiming Cecily is his aunt and a short woman, which would explain the "little" part. (Actually Jack offers a witty reply that you should definitely check out in the play.)
In the end, the truth is revealed.
Ernest’s name is not really Ernest. It’s Jack. Actually, he explains: it’s "Ernest" in town and "Jack" in the country.
Algernon thinks this reply makes total sense. He then exclaims that he knew Ernest/Jack was a Bunburyist. A what?
Here's the deal: when he was a little boy, Jack's adopted guardian Mr. Thomas Cardew wrote in his will that he was to be the guardian of his granddaughter, Miss Cecily Cardew. Little Cecily calls Jack "Uncle" out of "motives of respect that you could not possibly appreciate" (I.79). She lives out in his country house with her governess, Miss Prism.
When Algernon tries to find out where this country house is, Jack curtly says that’s none of his business, but it’s most definitely not in Shropshire.
Jack explains why he has two different names.
Jack is a very moral and boring legal guardian in the country. Jack invented Ernest, who is supposedly his troublesome little brother. Ernest’s scandalous doings in the city give Jack an excuse to leave the country (on the pretense of clearing up Ernest’s mess) and go to town.
Delighted, Algernon exclaims that Jack is really a "Bunburyist" and, when he sees Jack’s puzzled expression, begins to explain.
Like Jack, Algernon has invented a useful residing-in-the-country pal named Bunbury who is "an invaluable permanent invalid" (I.88). Because of Bunbury, Algernon always has an excuse to get out of social engagements.
In fact, Algernon explains, Bunbury was the reason that he’s able to dine with Jack tonight at Willis’s. (This dinner date is to get out of dining with Aunt Augusta.)
Jack protests that he never invited Algy to dinner, but Algernon pleads with him to come because he’s too embarrassed and bored to dine with his family.
Jack goes back to the original topic and protests that he’s not a Bunburyist since he intends to kill off Ernest very conveniently if Gwendolen accepts his proposal.
Besides, Jack continues, Cecily is a little too interested in Ernest. Which is polite parent talk for "she has a crush on him."
Suddenly, the bell rings, signaling that Aunt Augusta has arrived.
Algernon quickly cuts a deal with Jack: if Algernon can get Aunt Augusta (a.k.a. Lady Bracknell) away from Gwendolen for ten minutes so that Jack can propose, Jack will dine with him tonight at Willis’s as compensation. Jack agrees.
Lane enters to announce the arrival of Lady Bracknell and Miss Fairfax (a.k.a. Gwendolen).
Algernon goes forward to greet his guests. Lady Bracknell is icily cold and polite to Jack, but Gwendolen starts flirting with him immediately.
When Lady Bracknell asks for the promised cucumber sandwiches, Algernon finds—to his horror—that he’s eaten all of them without noticing.
Algernon and Lane improvise, putting on a charade that there were no cucumbers to be found at market that morning, "not even for ready money" (I.118).
Lady Bracknell takes the missing sandwiches kindly since she’s already had crumpets with a friend, Lady Harbury. But she doesn’t take it so well when Algernon informs her he’s not dining with her tonight, since poor Bunbury is sick again.
Lady Bracknell remarks that it’s irresponsible for someone to be so unhealthy. She orders Algernon to tell Mr. Bunbury to be well on Saturday because she needs Algernon to arrange the music at her last party of the season.
Soon, Algernon and Lady Bracknell proceed into the next room to review the music arrangements Algernon has prepared.
Gwendolen, disobeying her mother’s orders, stays behind to talk to Jack.
Jack, with Gwendolen’s encouragement, loses no time in confessing his ardent and undying love for her. She reciprocates, calling him "my own Ernest!" (I.145).
We learn that Gwendolen has always had a fantasy about marrying a man named Ernest.
This is a problem for Jack. So he asks if she really couldn’t love him if his name weren't Ernest? He suggests the charming name, Jack, for example.
When Gwendolen scoffs, Jack suggests that "I must get christened—I mean we must get married at once" (I.154).
Gwendolen protests that he has not proposed yet. Jack doesn’t hesitate. And Gwendolen accepts.
But here comes trouble. Lady Bracknell enters and, horrified, orders Jack to "rise… from this semi-recumbent posture" because "it is most indecorous" (I.168).
Gwendolen tries to stop her mother, protesting that Jack isn’t finished yet.
When Lady Bracknell learns of their engagement, things get messy. She reminds Gwendolen that "when you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father… will inform you of the fact" (I.172).
Lady Bracknell commands Gwendolen to wait for her in the carriage outside. Gwendolen obeys.
Lady Bracknell interrogates Jack.
She tells him he’s not on her list of eligible young men, but she might change her mind if he answers her questions satisfactorily. She makes notes in her book as she asks questions.
Does he smoke? Yes. She's pleased since men should always have some sort of "occupation."
How old is he? Twenty-nine. Lady Bracknell has no problem with his age.
Does he know everything or nothing? Nothing. She’s delighted to hear that his "natural ignorance" (I.184) is preserved.
How much does he make? Seven to eight thousand pounds a year in investments. But, Jack hastens to add, he does have both nice country and town houses. This answer is satisfactory.
What’s his town address? 149 Belgrave Square. Lady Bracknell disproves of the address, but that can change.
What is his political party? Liberal Unionist. Well, that "counts as being a Tory" (I.200).
Just when we think Jack’s got it in the bag, Lady Bracknell asks the tough questions.
Are his parents living? He’s lost both his parents.
She is appalled and asks who his father was. Jack doesn’t know. He explains that he was an orphan, found in a handbag at Victoria Station by a gentleman named Thomas Cardew.
Lady Bracknell is not happy to hear this news. She declares his good social standing is in severe question.
She advises him to try to "acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over" (I.216).
With that, he is dismissed.
From the other room, clueless Algy starts playing the "Weddng March" on the piano. Jack is furious.
The interrogation conveniently gives both of the men a chance to rant about Lady Bracknell, a rant that ends in Jack’s uncomfortable realization that Gwendolen might end up just like her mother.
When Algernon slyly asks if Jack told Gwendolen the truth of his double identities, Jack indignantly replies that "the truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl" (I.236).
In an effort to make himself seem more acceptable to Lady Bracknell, Jack conjures up a plan to have his brother Ernest die of a severe chill in Paris by the end of the week.
When Algernon interrupts that the news of Ernest's death will devastate Cecily, Jack replies that it’ll be good for her.
Algy remarks offhand that he’d like to meet Cecily, but Jack is adamant that he never will because Cecily is "excessively pretty" and "only just eighteen" (I.248).
Jack thinks that if Cecily ever meets Gwendolen they would be great friends, but Algy is more skeptical.
As they’re figuring out what to do for the rest of the evening, Gwendolen enters unaccompanied. She asks Algernon to turn his back so she can something privately to Ernest.
She admits that Lady Bracknell will not let her marry Ernest, but Gwen promises she’ll always love him. She admits that the story of his "romantic origin" has "naturally stirred the deeper fibres of [her] nature" (I.272).
She asks for his country house address. As Jack recites it to her, Algernon stealthily copies it down on his shift-cuff. He tells her he’s only in the country until Monday, and then accompanies her out to her carriage.
Algernon is left alone with Lane, who brings him his daily mail. Algernon announces that he’s going Bunburying tomorrow and will not be back until Monday.
Algernon starts laughing in delight, only to be interrupted by the returning Jack. When Jack asks why Algy is laughing, Algernon jokes that he’s worried about Bunbury.
As Jack leaves, Algernon glances at his shirt-cuff and smiles.