The scene is the home of Sir Robert Chiltern, in London. There is a large party in progress. A chandelier hangs over the staircase by which the guests ascend, lighting a French tapestry depicting the Triumph of Love. On one side is the entrance to the music room. On the other side the entrance leads to other reception rooms.
The scene begins with conversation between two of the guests, Mr. Marchmont and Lady Basildon. They are very pretty, languid, and clever, but of no particular importance to the play.
Lord Caversham, a gruff but kindly old gentleman, enters and inquires for his son, Lord Goring. He calls him idle and good for nothing. Mabel Chiltern, the young sister of Sir Robert, spiritedly defends the absent Lord Goring. Mabel is described as exquisitely lovely like a Tanagra figurine. (Tanagra was a town in Greece where, in the fifth century a. c., beautiful little terracotta statuettes were produced.)
Lady Markby now enters with Mrs. Chevely. Lady Markby is one of Wilde’s nice, addle-pated ladies whose conversation is full of strange logic and inspired nonsense. Mrs. Chevely is tall, red-headed, and distinctly unusual in appearance. She is dressed in heliotrope (lavender) and wears diamonds. Lady Chiltern steps forward to greet her warmly, but she suddenly recognizes Mrs. Cheveley as someone she has known and disliked. She becomes cool in manner.
Sir Robert Chiltern, a handsome, distinguished politician, enters and is introduced to Mrs. Cheveley. She indicates that she has come from Vienna specifically to meet him and to ask a favour. She mentions a certain Baron Arnheim, a man now dead whom they both knew. Sir Robert is made uncomfortable by this reference.
Lord Goring, a young aristocrat whose fashionable exterior conceals a sharp intelligence, interrupts this conversation. He and Mrs. Cheveley know one another. Sir Robert takes Mrs. Chevely for a tour of his house and its fine paintings. Lord Goring and Mabel Chiltern now have an elaborate flirtatious conversation. It is interrupted when the Vicomte de Nanjac, a young diplomat, offers to escort Mabel to the music room. Mabel has to consent or else appear rude. She is quite annoyed when Lord Goring does not try to stop her. But Lord Goring stays behind to talk to his father, who orders him to keep earlier hours and stop waisting time at parties. Lord Goring is perfectly polite to his father, but he expertly avoids paying any attention to his advice. When Mabel returns, he takes her to another room where supper is being served.
After all the guests have gone in to supper, Sir Robert returns with Mrs. Cheveley. That lady proceeds to get down to business. She has invested heavily in an enterprise called Argentine Canal Company. Sir Robert knows about the scheme. He calls in a swindle. In fact, he is about to submit to Parliament a report, which is highly unfavourable to the Company. Mrs. Cheveley coolly orders him to suppress this report and make some generally favourable remarks about the company. If he does not, she will publish a letter she has. This letter was written by Sir Baron Arnheim to buy Suez Canal shares three days before the British Government announced its own investments in the shares. In other words, Sir Robert began his rise in the world by selling a government secret when he was a secretary to a Cabinet minister. Sir Robert is thunderstruck. Though he protests and struggles, he is, at last, forced to agree to Mrs. Cheveley’s demands.
While Sir Robert Chiltern is outside getting Mrs. Cheveley’s carriage, the other guests and lady Chiltern return from supper. Mrs. Cheveley tells Lady Chiltern that Sir Robert is going to support the Argentine canal scheme in the House of Commons. She then leaves, escorted by Sir Robert, while Lady Chiltern, much troubled rejoins her guests.
Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring are left alone. Mabel finds a diamond brooch on the sofa. Lord Goring takes it. He asks Mabel not to tell anyone that he has done so. He reveals that he once made someone a present of the brooch some years ago. After the guests have gone, gertrude Chiltern asks her husband whether Mrs. Cheveley’s boast is true. Is he going to support the Canal plane? Sir Robert answers that he is going to support it. First he sys that he has changed his mind about it; then he admits that he is doing it oiut of practical necessity.
Lady Chiltern is horrified. She recalls that at school Mrs. Cheveley was a cheat and a liar who was finally expelled for stealing. It is unthinkable that such a person should influence her husband, a man known for his integrity. Then a shocking idea occurs to her. Can it be that her husband has some terrible secret, which forces him to do so as Mrs. Cheveley asks? If this is true, she says she cannot love him. She loves him for his uprighteness, his greatness of soul. He is an ideal to her. If the ideal is shattered, her love is dead.
Sir Robert cannot, after this, admit that his wife’s suspicions are true. He sits down and writes a letter to Mrs. Cheveley, in which he takes back his promise to support the canal scheme. His wife insists on this. The letter is sent to Mrs. Cheveley’s hotel.
It throws light on the tapestry of the Triumph of Love. Again the symbol is appropriate. Love has triumphed. It was love for his wife hat made Sir Robert write his refusal to Mrs. Cheveley, which will ruin his brilliant career.
It is the next day, in the morning room of the Chiltern house. Lord Goring and Sir Robert are present. It is clear from their talk that Sir Robert has confided his entire story to Lord Goring and asked for his help. Lord Goring urges Sir Robert to confide in his wife, but he cannot face that prospect. Lord Robert recalls how baron Arnheim made him understand the glamour of wealth and power. He tells Goring that he got £110,000 from the Baron for the secret information he gave him – enough to start him on his career.
Lord Goring promises to help, though he cannot think of anything at present. He reveals incidentally that he has once engaged to Mrs. Cheveley . Sir Roberts sends a letter to Vienna inquiring into Mrs. Cheveley’s past. He hopes to learn something with which he can counter Mrs. Cheveley’s blackmail.
Lady Chiltern enters. Sir Robert goes off to do some work, and she has tea with Lord Goring. They talk about Mrs. Cheveley and the canal scheme. Lord Goring reproaches gently lady Chiltern for her rigid, unforgiving attitude. He points out that anybody can do something foolish or wrong. Charity and love are needed to make life bearable. In sudden pity, he tells Lady Chiltern to come to him for help if she is ever in trouble.
Mabel Chiltern joins them, and the serious moment is over. Before he leaves, Lord Goring asks for a guest list from the previous evening.
Mabel complains to her sister-in-law that Sir Robert’s secretary, a young man named Tommy Trafford, is always proposing to her. Then Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley come to call. They ask if a diamond brooch has been found; Mrs. Cheveley’ thinks she may have lost it at the party. Nobody knows anything about it (except Mabel who has promised not to tell). Lady Markby leaves on another errand, while Mrs. Cheveley stays behind.
As soon as they are alone, Gertrude Chiltern reminds Mrs. Cheveley of her dishonest past and tells her that she wishes no further acquaintance with her. Mrs. Cheveley orders Lady Chiltern to see that Sir Robert keeps his promise about the canal scheme. As Sir Robert enters, she tells Lady Chiltern about his sale of a state secret to Baron Arnheim. Sir Robert forces her to leave.
Lady Chiltern expresses her revulsion and horror, now that she knows what her ideal man is really like. Sir Robert responds bitterly that she has made a false idol of him. He wants t understanding and love, not worship. Because of her, he has ruined his life. He leaves the room, and Lady Chiltern falls down and sobs on the sofa.
The scene is Lord Goring’s house, which will be the background for a complex game of hide and seek among various characters of the play. Lord Goring is in the library. He is about to go out when he reads a note from Lady Chiltern. She needs his help and is coming to see him.
This changes his plans. He tells Phipps, his butler, that he is expecting a lady, Phipps is to show her into the drawing room. Lord Caversham, Lord Goring’s father, chooses this incovenient moment to visit and lecture his son the necessity of getting married at once. Lord Caversham complains of a draught, which gives his son an opportunity to move him into the smoking room.
A lady arrives on schedule, but it is Mrs. Cheveley, not Lady Chiltern. Phipps, who has not been told what Lady is coming, directs her to the drawing room, as instructed by his master. Passing the library, Mrs. Cheveley sees and reads Lady Chiltern’s note. She misunderstands it. It says: ”I trust you. I want you. I am coming to you.” She assumes it is a love letter. She is about to steal it when Lord Caversham and Lord Goring are heard outside. She retreats into the drawing room.
Lord Goring shows his father to the door. When he returns, he has Sir Robert with him. Sir Robert has come to get more advice. Lord Goring is uncomfortable. Sir Robert Chiltern is in the library, and he learns from Phipps that the lady he expected is in the drawing room. Of course, he assumes she is Gertrude Chiltern.
Sir Robert tells Lord Goring that his wife now knows all about what he did. He loves his wife more than anything – far more than his career- but they have quarrelled, and he is sure that he has lost her. Lord Goring tells Sir Robert to hope for his wife’s forgiveness. If she loves him, she will surely forgive him. Lord Goring hopes that Gertrude Chiltern hears what he is saying.
At this point, a chair is knocked over in the drawing room. Lord Goring tries to stop him, but Sir Robert rushes to see who is there. When he comes back to the library he is furious. He calls her friend treacherous and the woman in the drawing room dishonourable and corrupt. Lord goring has stayed in the library so he does not know that Mrs. Chiveley is the lady in the drawing room. He swears that the lady is guiltless and loves Sir Robert. Sir Robert rushes out of the house.
Mrs. Cheveley emerges, obviously enjoying herself. She offers to return Sir Robert’s letter if Lord Goring will marry her and assure her of a place in good society. He refuses. But he returns the brooch she has lost at the Chilterns’. He transforms it into a bracelet by pressing a secret spring and puts it on her. He then reveals that he gave it to a cousin of his when he got married. Mrs. Cheveley stole it from the cousin’s house. Mrs. Cheveley now wishes to deny ever seeing the jewel, but she does not know how to remove it from her arm. Lord Goring threatens to call the police unless she gives him Sir Robert’s letter to Baron Arnheim. She does not so and he burns it. But before she leaves she steals Lady Chiltern’s note. She will sent it to Sir Robert. She cannot gain anything by this, but it will satisfy her long hatred top Gertrude Chiltern.
It is the next day. The scene is the morning room of the Chilterns’ home. Here Lord Goring is waiting alone. Sir Robert Chiltern is still at the Foreign Office and Gertrude Chiltern has not come down from her room. His father, who has been waiting for Sir Robert in another room, joins Lord Goring. He is still full of peppery reproaches for Lord Goring about his idleness and unmarried state. Lord Caversham also tells son that Sir Robert has made a brilliant speech in the House of Commons condemning the Argentine Canal Company. This is a courageous act, for Sir Robert does not know that Mrs. Cheveley has lost her hold over him.
Mabel Chiltern enters and Lord Caversham leaves. Lord Goring asks her to marry him. She accepts enthusiastically. Gertrude Chiltern now comes in. Mabel goes to wait for Lord Goring in the conservatory.
Lord Goring gives Lady Chiltern the good news that her husband is safe – the dangerous letter has been burnt. But he has tells her that Mrs. Cheveley has stolen her note, which Mrs. Cheveley interprets as a love-letter, and plans to send it to Sir Robert. It is Lord Goring’s advice that Lady Chiltern should tell her husband the whole truth. But she cannot face this. She determines to intercept the letter with the help of her husband’s secretary.
Just then, Sir Robert rushes in. He has received the note – but since it is not addressed specifically to anyone, he assumes that his wife has written it to him. He is full of joy at being reconciled to her. Lord Goring slips out to the conservatory to join Mabel, after mutely urging Lady Chiltern to accept the situation. She does. She also tells her husband that his letter to Baron Arnheim has been destroyed. He is relieved. However, he feels it is only proper for him to retire from public life, and she eagerly agrees.
Now Lord Goring comes in from the conservatory. Lord Caversham returns too, to tell Sir Robert that he is to have a seat in the Cabinet. Sir Robert refuses it, to Lord Cavesham’s disgust. Sir Robert goes to write a letter of refusal to the Prime Minister. Lord goring sends his father into the conservatory to talk with Mabel. Then, alone with lady Chiltern, he tries to show her what a mistake she is making. If she cuts off her husband from his political career, she will ruin his life. Robbed of his greatness, she will become embittered and eventually cease to love her. Lord goring says that a woman’s role is to forgive her husband, not to judge him. A woman’s function in life is to love her husband. Let her not try to do more.
Lady Chiltern is so moved by his speech that, when Sir Robert returns with his letter for the Prime Minister, she tears it up.
Lord Goring now asks Sir Robert’s consent for his marriage to his sister. Grateful as he is to Lord Goring, Sir Robert sadly refuses. Remembering that he saw Mrs. Cheveley in Lord Goring’s house the night before, he cannot believe that Lord Goring loves only Mabel. Lady Chiltern tells her husband the whole truth – that Lord Goring did not expect Mrs. Cheveley; he expected her, for she intended to come and ask his advice. She also tells him the truth about the note from her – which it was really for Lord Goring. But now she addresses it to her husband and gives it to him. Sir Robert gives his consent to the marriage.
Lord Caversham returns with Mabel. He is delighted to hear that she is to marry his son, and that Sir Robert will accept the Cabinet post after all. Lord Caversham orders Lord goring to be an ideal husband. Mabel objects to this. He is to be what he likes. She will try to be a real wife.
– Il Conte di Caversham, cavalliere della Giarrettiera
– Lord Goring, suo figlio
– Lady Chiltern
– Lady Makby
– Sir Robert Chiltern, baronetto, Sottosegretario agli Affari Esteri.
– La Contessa di Basildon
– Visconte De Nanjact, attachà all’Ambasciata francese a Londra
– La Signora Marchmont
– Il Signor Montford
– La Signorina Mabel, sorella di Sir Robert Chiltern.
– Mason, maggiordomo di Sir Robert Chiltern
– La Signora Cheveley
– Phipps, cameriere di Lord Goring
– James e Harold, domestici