The first act opens during a party at the Chilterns’ house, a lovely, opulent home in a fashionable part of London. Lady Chiltern, a beautiful woman in her late twenties, is receiving her guests in stiff, formal manner at the top of a spiral staircase. Meanwhile, Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon – two pretty, slightly affected young women – are sitting together on an antique sofa, complaining to each other about the dullness of society parties. They don’t seem to mean anything they say; every well-turned phrase is only meant to delight and amuse. Their quick verbal play amounts to a dismissal of serious life purpose, marital fidelity, and sincere compliments.
The play begins in the middle of an extraordinary setting, filled with nearly priceless antiques and exquisitely beautiful women. But in the world of the play, it is an ordinary scene, perfectly representative of a certain lifestyle and worldview. The lifestyle is pleasure-seeking, and the worldview is one that always puts pleasure first. But it is an incredibly particular kind of pleasure. Its elaborateness, as seen in the women’s tortuous wit, is its main reward.
Lord Caversham enters the party and asks after his son, Lord Goring. He complains about his son’s leisurely, purposeless life, and Mabel Chiltern – Sir Chiltern’s flower-like younger sister – jumps in to defend him. She notes that the demands of Goring’s social obligations and intricate wardrobe keep him very busy. Lord Caversham dislikes London society, but Mabel observes cheerfully that “it is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics” – though she believes Lord Goring is something else entirely. Lord Caversham is pleased that the charming girl thinks well of his son, but he can’t quite keep up with her banter.
The differences between Lord Caversham and his son Lord Goring are representative of a certain generational divide. Older people, like Lord Caversham and Lady Markby, seem incapable of understanding the younger people’s beloved social games. But characters like Lord Goring and Mabel Chiltern take their games very seriously. Lord Caversham cannot understand this mild oxymoron: his definitions of the serious and the trivial are very concrete and old-fashioned.
Two new guests enter: a nice older woman named Lady Markby, and a striking red-haired woman named Mrs. Cheveley, who has recently come from Vienna. Lady Chiltern realizes, with visible displeasure, that she went to school with the woman now named Mrs. Cheveley. Mrs. Cheveley takes note of Lady Chiltern’s coldness, and mentions Sir Chiltern in a manner that seems at once jovial and vaguely threatening. She turns away to flirt with a man named Vicomte de Nanjac.
Right away, we can see that Mrs. Cheveley is also a woman who likes to play games. She is mysterious and allusive. But they are games of a different sort. Mabel’s games, for example, are oblique but innocuous: their obliqueness is only meant to delight. Mrs. Cheveley’s are oblique because they wish to conceal something, and to use that secret to her advantage.