Act I - Part 1:
In Algernon Moncrieff's stylish London flat in 1895, his butler, Lane, arranges afternoon tea. After playing piano in an adjoining room, Algernon enters. He says that while he does not play with accuracy, he plays with "wonderful expression." He asks Lane if he has prepared the cucumber sandwiches for Lady Bracknell's arrival, then takes two of the finished sandwiches and sits on the sofa. They discuss marriage and Algernon expresses the opinion that it is "demoralising" before he excuses Lane. After he muses on the lower class's inability to set a good example for the upper class, Lane brings in Ernest Worthing (who is listed as "John Worthing" in the cast list and "Jack" in the body of the play, although both Lane and Algernon believe his name is Ernest), who has just returned from the country.
When Jack discovers that Lady Bracknell--Algernon's aunt--and Gwendolen, her daughter, are coming to tea, he reveals he has come to London to propose to her. Algernon ridicules the notion of marriage, vowing he will never marry, while fending Jack off from the cucumber sandwiches (which Algernon gladly eats). Jack joins him on the sofa, and Algernon says before Jack can marry Gwendolen, he has to clear up the issue of Cecily. Algernon calls Lane to bring in Jack's cigarette case; he shows that the inscription is from someone named Cecily. Jack says she is his aunt, and that he wants the case back. Algernon is doubtful, since she has written "'From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.'" Jack says his name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country. Algernon says he has always suspected Jack was a "Bunburyist," and now he has proof.
Jack explains that Thomas Cardew, who adopted him, willed Jack to be guardian to his granddaughter, Cecily. Cecily now lives at Jack's place in the country under the guidance of her governess, Miss Prism. Since Jack must maintain a high level of morality to set an example, he needs an excuse to get into town. Therefore, he has invented a ne'er-do-well younger brother named Ernest who lives in Albany. "Ernest's" constant problems require Jack's attendance. Algernon confesses that he has created an invalid friend in the countryside, Bunbury, for when he needs to get out of town. Jack insists that he is through with "Ernest," but Algernon maintains that he will need him more than ever if he marries.
Algernon's throwaway quip to Lane that "anyone can play [piano] accurately but I play with wonderful expression" is a good thumbnail of Wilde's philosophy of art. Wilde was heavily influenced by Walter Pater and the other aesthetes of the Victorian age. They believed art should concern itself only with its aesthetic qualities, that art should exist for art's sake alone. Therefore, art should not be a straightforward representation of reality--it should not be "accurate," as Algernon would say--but rather it should be an extension of its creator's artistic styles. Hence, it should have "wonderful expression."
Wilde, through the skeptical Algernon, makes an immediate critique of marriage as "demoralising," and throughout the scene the best bon mots are reserved for mocking that most traditional romantic covenant. Wilde is the master of the epigram, a concise, typically witty or paradoxical saying. His skill lies not only in coining wholly new epigrams, but in subverting established ones. For instance "in married life, three is company and two is none" captures the monotony of monogamy by playing it against the commonplace "two is company, three's a crowd."
That Wilde chose "Bunbury" as the name for double identities may prove telling. Wilde is one of history's most famous homosexuals, convicted in 1895 for homosexual sodomy with Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"). Prior to that, Wilde made greater attempts to hide his sexual orientation, even marrying a woman. Does Wilde connect his characters' need to Bunbury to his own dual identities: the public heterosexual and the private homosexual? Some critical attention has been given to the word "Bunbury." Separating "bun" and "bury," some read it as a description of male-to-male intercourse. Indeed, it has been confirmed that there are several allusions to London's homosexual world intended for Wilde's contemporary, homosexual audience. However, we can read a homosexual subtext into many of the lines now: "Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it." Aside from continuing the motif of intercourse with the word "part," Algernon clearly relates the need for an alter ego to the oppressive sexuality of marriage.
Another staple of the play is its humorous depiction of class tensions. Lane, the butler, is given his fair share of droll sayings, and even Algernon seems to recognize that the lower class has more power than they seem to: "If the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?" But this is not a serious play, and all the conflicts are quickly resolved through humor; when Algernon is upset over his depleted supply of champagne, Lane deflates the discussion of class and turns the topic to marriage.
We see two great symbols of the upper class here. The sofa is the center of the leisure class's idleness, a comfortable place to while away the afternoon without work. Wilde himself would spend hours in deep thought upon his sofa, but in this play he makes the sofa a place for social chatter. The cucumber sandwiches also become a motif for the hedonism of rich. Algernon supposedly saves them for Lady Bracknell, but he cannot resist devouring them himself.