The play opens at a party at Sir Robert Chiltern's house in Grosvenor Square, London. The party exemplifies much of the play's tendency towards quick and witty conversation. The Chiltern home is regal and their guests are impeccably dressed. Much of the action takes place in the Chiltern home's Octagonal room. Lady Chiltern stands at the top of her regal staircase greeting arriving friends. Behind her, on the back wall, hangs Boucher's "Triumph of Love." The tapestry plays a prominent role in the play, and highlights the theme of love conquering all.
This first scene consists of many conversations between various guests. Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon discuss the tedious, boring and uninteresting Hartlock parties, and the triviality of men. Mrs. Marchmont mentions that she has come to the party to be educated, while Lady Basildon admits she despises education. Mrs. Marchmont notes that Lady Chiltern is often encouraging her and others to expand their educations and find purpose in life, which seems to be a futile pursuit as few in London society take their lives or careers very seriously.
As the act continues, additional characters enter and converse, all announced by the butler who stands at the door. Lord Caversham enters and asks for his 'good-for-nothing' son. Mabel Chiltern asks him why he speaks so ill of Lord Goring, and Lord Caversham explains that his son leads an idle life. Mabel Chiltern disagrees, and Lord Caversham calls her charming. Caversham also admits being sick of London Society while Mabel thinks it is lovely and composed of beautiful idiots and brilliants lunatics, Lord Goring included.
Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley enter next. Mrs. Cheveley is a striking woman who demands attention. She wears a purple (heliotrope) gown, bright red lipstick, and has red hair. Lady Markby greets Lady Chiltern warmly, but Lady Chiltern suddenly recognizes Mrs. Cheveley and greets her with a distant bow. She explains that they knew each other in their school days. Mrs. Cheveley, who has been in Vienna for many years, is obviously overly sweet to her cold acquaintance, and describes her eagerness to meet Sir Robert Chiltern, as he is well known in Vienna. Lady Chiltern is taken aback by this comment and before quickly moving away, assures Mrs. Cheveley that she and her husband have very little in common.
The Vicomte de Nanjac, a young anglophile who spices up the play with comical malapropisms, approaches as Lady Chiltern moves off, and flirts with Mrs. Cheveley. Sir Robert Chiltern enters, greets Lady Markby, and meets and compliments Mrs. Cheveley. She responds by saying that any acquaintance that begins with a compliment is sure to develop into a true friendship. She tells Sir Robert that she knew his wife at school, but unlike Lady Chiltern she never received any good conduct prizes. Sir Robert inquires as to whether she is a pessimist or an optimist and she claims she is neither. Mrs. Cheveley notes that her only pleasure is politics. Next, she asks for a tour of his house, and casually references Baron Arnheim, whom she claims to have known intimately and is a previous acquaintance of Chiltern. Sir Robert starts at the name and appears distraught.
Lord Goring arrives. He is a British dandy, one who plays with life, dresses well, socializes extensively and likes to be misunderstood. Sir Robert introduces him to Mrs. Cheveley, and it appears they have met before. Lording Goring then turns to Mabel Chiltern and the two easily fall into a flirtatious banter. Vicomte de Nanjac interrupts and asks Mabel if he may escort her to the music room. She is clearly disappointed and tries to get Lord Goring to follow them, but he remains in the Octagon room.
Lord Caversham approaches his son and demands to know what he is doing at the party. He accuses him of a wasted life, and claims London society has gone to the dogs. Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont approach Lord Goring and begin complaining about their annoyingly perfect husbands. Lord Goring sympathizes with them, and they soon start gossiping about Mrs. Cheveley.
As the guests all go to dinner, the action returns to Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley, who remain in the Octagon room. Mrs. Cheveley explains her stay in England depends upon him and tells him about the Argentine Canal Company, which she calls a "great political and financial scheme." Sir Robert was involved in the Suez Canal endeavor as Lord Radley's secretary, but he does not think highly of this new venture. While Mrs. Cheveley believes it a daring speculation, he calls it a swindle. She admits to investing heavily in it based on the advice of Baron Arnheim. Sir Robert admits that the following night he will give a report to the House suggesting the scheme will not succeed. Mrs. Cheveley urges him not to make the report in both her interest and in his own, which offends Sir Robert. Finally, Mrs. Cheveley reveals that she possesses a letter Sir Robert wrote to Baron Arnheim when he was Lord Radley's secretary. In the letter, Sir Robert sold a Cabinet secret, telling the Baron to buy Suez Canal shares three days before the government announced the purchase of it. Through this unscrupulous act Sir Robert made his current fortune, and Mrs. Cheveley threatens to hand the letter over to the newspapers if he does not publicly support her scheme. Sir Robert's public image and career would be ruined. Mrs. Cheveley refuses any money in exchange for the letter and leaves no negotiating room. Finally, Sir Robert gives in and tells her he will withdraw the report. He leaves the room.
The guests return from the dining room and Mrs. Cheveley speaks with Lady Chiltern and reveals she has gained Sir Robert's support in the canal scheme. Lady Chiltern does not believe this news and claims her husband's principles are stronger than that. She is quite troubled. Sir Robert returns to escort Mrs. Cheveley to her carriage.
Lord Goring and Mabel converse and Mabel finds a brooch half-hidden in a sofa. Lord Goring immediately recognizes it and explains that he gave it someone as a gift years ago. He asks her to notify him first if anyone asks about it. Mabel agrees and bids him goodnight.
When everyone has left, Lady Chiltern confronts Sir Robert about Mrs. Cheveley's canal scheme claim. She explains that in their schooldays Mrs. Cheveley was dishonest and evil. Sir Robert argues that she should not be judged by her past, but Lady Chiltern claims that the past defines one's character. Sir Robert admits he has agreed to support the scheme, but his wife knows something is amiss. She suspects he has altered his principles, and asks why is suddenly behaving in such a different manner. He explains that circumstances dictate his choice, but she claims circumstances should never change principles. In a passion, Lady Chiltern tells her husband it is never necessary to do the dishonorable deed, and that power and money are nothing in themselves. She claims she loves him because he has always been ideal and honest. She begs him to continue being the honorable man she knows and loves and to not kill her love for him. Sir Robert denies that he has any secrets and Lady Chiltern urges him to immediately write Mrs. Cheveley to explain he will not support the scheme after all. She stands over him, praising him, as he writes the letter. They declare their love for each other. The scene closes with Sir Robert calling the butler to deliver the letter, and the chandelier lighting up the "Triumph of Love" tapestry.
Wilde creates his characters as artistic objects within society, and through their conversations and seemingly carefree banter, explores the themes of love, loyalty and honor. Wilde's writing, which relies on these sorts of conversation, is often referred to as epigrammatic. An epigram is defined as a concise and witty statement that expresses insight and is often ironic in tone. The opening act contains many epigrammatic statements, including Mrs. Marchmont's claim of abhorring education, and Lord Goring's claim that the only thing he knows anything about is nothing. Clearly, neither truly believes these statements, but there is truth to them. Wilde's reliance on epigrammatic conversation forces the reader to determine when there is seriousness in such statements, and when they are simply witty and somewhat false tools used to extend somewhat meaningless conversation. As such, Wilde successfully weaves the most serious themes of the play in with the most frivolous of its banter and conversation.
Throughout the party that takes up the majority of the first act, the guests and hosts are highly concerned with their appearance and the nature of their social interactions. All the guests are members of London "society" and spend much of their lives in similarly superficial scenarios. Thus, they are all present themselves very specifically, through well defined performances. The selves they present in these social interactions are specific to such events, and not necessarily true representations. The most notable character that presents a false veneer in this social event is Mrs. Cheveley. She sees this party as a chance to perform, and brings with her a powerfully false sense of saccharine kindness in her interactions with Lady Chiltern. Even during her interactions with Sir Robert, she maintains a veneer of civility when threatening his very reputation. Wilde's use of the party to introduce each character is fascinating, as the reader learns how the characters wish to be seen in such social gatherings rather than whom they truly are. Here, we begin to see the disconnect between the "ideal" and the "real".
Act I also deals extensively with the role of women in society, and the dialogue between Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley touches briefly on this topic. Sir Robert implies that the issue of the nature of women is a modern topic - he asks her if she thinks science can grapple with the problem of women. His question suggests that he sees women as very complex, but also acknowledges the increasing role women play within society, and the complex issues that arise from this. Mrs. Cheveley's words suggest a more traditional view of women; that women cannot be understood and should be viewed as aesthetic pieces of art. In fact, Wilde describes many of the female characters in this opening act as works of art, and even notes that Watteau would have loved to paint some of them.
The tapestry of the "Triumph of Love" plays a prominent thematic role in this opening act and the remainder of the play. Love and what defines it in its purest and strongest form is clearly of great importance to the main theme of the play, marriage. Lady Markby arrives at the party and notes that people now marry as many times as possible because it is in fashion. When introducing Mrs. Cheveley to Sir Robert she comments that families are very mixed nowadays, and Lord Goring revels in his status as a bachelor. Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont ironically sympathize with each other over their overly perfect husbands, which mocks the idea of a perfect marriage. Mrs. Cheveley states that in the London season, people are "either hunting from husbands, or hiding from them." Much of this act discusses the confusion and conflict inherent in marriage, while Lady Chiltern and Sir Robert represent an ideal marriage.
The conversation between Lady Chiltern and her husband in the conclusion of the first act provides a strong contrast to the frivolous banter that dominated the party scene. They address each other with earnestness, intimacy, and powerful emotion. Lady Chiltern states that her love for Sir Robert rests on his ideal morality, purity and honesty. When presented with his request for a moral compromise, Lady Chiltern refuses. She can only love him in his ideal and pure state. Later on, she will be confronted with her idealistic perspective, but in this act, it dominates and defines their marriage.
Interestingly, the theme of politics is powerfully interwoven with that of love and marriage. In the play, choices regarding ethical political behavior relate directly to the triumph or failure of love. Lady Chiltern clearly represents a strong adherence to the ideal, while Mrs. Cheveley represents the opposite. These two forces of good and evil pull on Sir Robert Chiltern, forcing him to define himself and his life as either an ideal or morally imperfect husband.