Text: Wilde, Oscar. “An Ideal Husband.” The Plays of Oscar Wilde. New York: Modern Library Edition, 1932.
Summary of Act One
The stage directions tell us that the scene takes place in the Octagon Room at Sir Robert Chilton’s house in Grosvenor Square in London (1895). The room is full of people and Lady Chiltern stands at the top of the stairs receiving guests. She is a twenty-seven year old woman with a classic Greek beauty. A string quartet is heard playing in the music room. We hear the conversation of two guests, pretty women of affected manners, sitting on a sofa.
Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon speak in bored voices of the parties they must attend. Mrs. Marchmont confides that she comes to this house to be educated, as Gertrude Chiltern has told her it is important to have a serious purpose in life. Lady Basildon replies she sees nothing serious here since the men who took them to dinner spoke of trivial matters, such as their wives. They call themselves martyrs.
Lord Caversham is announced and enters. He is an old gentleman of seventy. He asks Lady Chiltern if she has seen his “good-for-nothing young son” (p. 3). She replies that Lord Goring has not arrived. Just then, Mabel Chiltern, the sister-in-law of Lady Chiltern, comes up to Lord Caversham and asks him why he speaks of his son that way. She is pretty, young, and direct in her speech. He answers that his son is idle. She defends him, saying he goes riding and to the opera and changes his clothes five times a day. Lord Caversham is delighted with her youth and wit. Mabel and Lord Caversham agree that London society is boring and full of “beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics” (p. 4).
Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley arrive. Lady Markby is a pleasant older woman and Mrs. Cheveley, a garish young woman with red hair and a violet colored gown and diamonds.
Lady Chiltern says she already knows Mrs. Cheveley when they are introduced. Mrs. Cheveley says she has been out of England so long she does not remember where they have met. Lady Chiltern says they were at school together. The two speak coldly to one another because it is obvious they do not like each other. Mrs. Cheveley says she came to meet Lady Chiltern’s husband, Sir Robert, famous for his work in the Foreign Office, and spoken of even in Vienna where she has been living.
Sir Robert Chiltern enters. He is a man of forty, a politician with a very respectable reputation. He exchanges pleasantries with Lady Markby whose husband is in the House of Commons with him. Lady Markby tells him about Mrs. Cheveley, lately arrived from Vienna, who seems to have friends with lots of scandals about them. She introduces the two. Mrs. Cheveley remarks that she was at school with Lady Chiltern, who always won the good conduct prize.
Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley carry on a witty conversation with what turns out to be serious undertones. They speak of political philosophy as a series of poses and the relationship of the sexes as irrational. She admits: “Politics are my only pleasure” (p. 10), and she calls it “a clever game” (p. 10). He wonders why she is in London, and she admits it is to see him. She has heard from Baron Arnheim that he had beautiful paintings in his house.
Sir Robert is startled by the name she has dropped and asks if she knew the Baron. She replies that she knew him intimately and asks if Sir Robert knew him. He says he did at one time.
Lord Goring (Arthur) enters, a man of thirty-four, a handsome and witty London dandy, an idle man of fashion. Sir Robert introduces him as the laziest man in London to Mrs. Cheveley. She claims never to have met him before. Lord Goring then goes to Mabel Chiltern and begins flirting with her. It is obvious they are interested in each other from their jokes. He asks her about Mrs. Cheveley and mentions he has not seen her for years.
Mabel, Lord Goring and Vicomte de Nanjac, a French attachÈ, chat pleasantly and then Mabel goes out with Nanjac to the music room as Lord Caversham approaches his son, Lord Goring, to reproach him for his idle life. Lord Goring does not deny that he lives only for pleasure, and his father calls him “heartless” (p. 15).
Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont discuss marriage with Lord Goring, saying that their husbands are unfortunately boring and faultless: “We have married perfect husbands” (p. 16). Mabel joins the group, and complaining that Lord Goring should pay more attention to her, asks him to supper. They leave together. Vicomte de Nanjac takes Lady Basildon to supper, and Mr. Montford takes Mrs. Marchmont.
Sir Robert enters with Mrs. Cheveley and they begin a serious discussion of politics. She asks him to publicly support a financial scheme involving an Argentine Canal Company. He replies that the Suez Canal was a great project, but that this Argentine scheme is a swindle, and he cannot support it. She mentions she has invested heavily in the deal, advised by Baron Arnheim.
Sir Robert says he is about to release a report on the fraudulent Argentine Canal scheme to the House of Commons tomorrow night. She tells him to withdraw the report or she will ruin him. Twenty years before when he was secretary to Lord Radley, he sold a government secret to Baron Arnheim. The Baron was able to invest in the Suez Canal before it was publicly announced and made a fortune. He paid off Sir Robert who was poor at the time but became wealthy. The start of Sir Robert’s great political career was thus based on a bribe. Mrs. Cheveley now owns that letter that he wrote to Baron Arnheim and will sell it to him if he supports the Argentine Canal. Sir Robert begs for mercy and offers to pay her blackmail money for the letter, but she is adamant that he must support her scheme. He agrees and exits in distress.
The guests enter with Lady Chiltern and speak to Mrs. Cheveley, explaining to her that Sir Robert married Lady Chiltern, a lady of high principle. When the guests leave, Mrs. Cheveley tells Lady Chiltern that she has gotten Sir Robert to approve of the Argentine Canal project. Lady Chiltern is shocked, for she knows it is a fraud and that her husband had planned to expose it. Sir Robert enters in time to escort Mrs. Cheveley out on his arm, showing that they are allies.
As Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring are flirting with one another, they find a diamond brooch dropped by one of the guests. He picks it up and explains it can also be a bracelet. He puts in his pocket and tells Mabel to let him know if anyone comes to claim it. He once gave the brooch to someone many years ago.
After the party, Lady Chiltern and Sir Robert argue in private over Mrs. Cheveley. She warns him not to listen to Mrs. Cheveley because she has been dishonest since childhood. He says no one should be judged by the past, but she insists that one is one’s past. She asks why he, a politician of spotless reputation, would support her fraudulent scheme? He says perhaps he was mistaken about the Argentine Canal, but she must understand that politics is all about compromise. She says he has changed, for he used to be a man of principle. That is the man she loves and worships. He is her ideal. If he gives in to Mrs. Cheveley, it will kill her love for him. She makes him write a letter to Mrs. Cheveley on the spot, canceling his agreement to her.
Commentary on Act One
This is one of Wilde’s popular drawing-room comedies about the upper classes of England in the late Victorian era. There are some serious issues underneath all the banter, but the wit is most evident as the characters come up with surprising epigrams or one-liners. Wilde’s humor is based on reversal of expectation, irony, and paradox.
The characters are exaggerated types. Though they are all attending a fashionable party at Sir Robert’s house, they act terribly bored and speak of trivial matters, showing they are the privileged classes who do not have to work or think about serious matters. The women introduced are empty-headed and complain about their boring lives and boring husbands. In their midst are the charming and bold lovers, Lord Goring and Mabel Chiltern, who act exactly the opposite of restrained Victorian lovers in novels, thus providing comedy for Wilde’s audience.
Victorian lovers in the romances of the day were very prim and proper, with the heroine virtuous, fainting, and passive, and the man as the noble hero. Wilde upsets these stereotypes. Lord Goring is not heroic but vain and idle and proud of it. Wilde’s women, like the women in George Bernard Shaw’s plays, are aggressive and know their own minds. Mabel knows how to play Lord Goring’s social game of being rebellious and fashionably shocking by saying contrary things. Instead of being shy, she reproaches him for not paying enough attention to her and commands him to invite her for dinner. He enjoys her frankness. She is equal to him.
Mabel and Lord Goring are the comedic lovers, while Sir Robert and Gertrude are the serious lovers. Act One sets up the Chilterns for a possible tragedy, not only because Sir Robert is threatened with blackmail and political scandal, but because Gertrude worships her husband as an ideal, and the marriage would be destroyed as well as his career, if the secret were found out.
He is torn between two women fighting over him. Mrs. Cheveley is an unscrupulous opportunist who uses others to get ahead. Gertrude, on the other hand, known for her high principle, fights for Sir Robert to do the moral thing. He tries to explain the idea of political compromise to her, but she is young and idealistic. He is afraid of losing her love.
In this first act, Wilde sets up the themes of lies vs. truth, showing society to be based on elaborate lies. At the end of the scene, Gertrude erroneously believes she has saved her husband from wrongdoing by getting him to refuse Mrs. Cheveley. He knows, however, that he is simply committing suicide and that his whole life is about to come to pieces.