Sir Robert Chiltern enters the room – a handsome, worried-looking man in early middle age. He chats with Lady Markby, who offers to introduce him to her interesting new friend, Mrs. Cheveley. They talk pleasantly, though Mrs. Cheveley alludes a little condescendingly to Lady Chiltern’s schoolgirl past, which was distinguished only by “good conduct.” They exchange witticisms, mostly about Mrs. Cheveley’s charm and her unwillingness to be classified – not because she believes in naturalness, which she thinks is merely “a difficult pose to keep up,” but because women in general are mysterious. She does not believe that women should be romantic until late middle age, however.
In this scene, we learn a bit more about Mrs. Cheveley’s ideas and values. To her, “good conduct” is something to be ashamed of, something worth mocking. Goodness, politeness, and obedience, are failures of imagination, symptoms of a boring and naïve worldview. Her sort of dandyism is amoral, or even anti-moral. Her preference for overtly artificial behavior is anti-moral as well, though there is no necessarily link between artificiality and amorality.
Sir Robert asks why Mrs. Cheveley has decided to visit London, and, in the midst of a flutter of verbal play, she mentions that she has come to ask Sir Robert for a favor. They discuss a deceased mutual friend named Baron Arnheim, whose name seems to cause Sir Robert some anxiety.
Mrs. Cheveley is setting the stage for a very unpleasant reveal. She is setting it with a lot of pleasure, a lot of artistry: she is evidently looking forward to a conversation that will be very painful for Robert.
The next guest to enter is Lord Goring, a handsome man over thirty. The stage notes specify that he is “a flawless dandy,” and “fond of being misunderstood”; also that he, too, does not wish to be considered romantic until late middle age. Sir Robert introduces him to Mrs. Cheveley, but the two have met before. Mrs. Cheveley wanders off, and Lord Goring banters sweetly with Mabel Chiltern, who jokingly chides him for his “bad qualities,” which, she implies are both too exposed and too hidden. Lord Goring asks Mabel about the interesting Mrs. Cheveley, implying that he once knew and admired her. Mabel acts charmingly jealous, and then leaves to talk to the Vicomte de Nanjac.
Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley both oddly protest against the idea of romance. They seem to think that romance is incompatible with youth, though they don’t explain why – most likely, it seems too mushy, too dull, too sentimental, an artificial attempt to recreate the passions of youth. Both Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley value youth very highly, and have considered it very carefully. To them, the art of youth is precise and well-considered. In their obsession with youth, and their idea of youth as an art, both are archetypal dandies.
Lord Caversham walks up to his son, Lord Goring. He chides his son for his idle, pleasure-seeking lifestyle, but Lord Goring explains lightly that pleasure is all there is – “nothing ages like happiness.” Lord Caversham calls him heartless, but Lord Goring gently waves off the accusation.
Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont come to talk to Lord Goring. They are surprised to see him at a “political party,” but he explains that no one ever talks about politics at political parties, and if anyone does, the trick is simply not to listen. The women complain charmingly about their husbands, who are too perfect and upstanding to be any fun, and gossip cattily about Mrs. Cheveley and her rapid entrance into London society.
Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont are also dandies. Their dandyism mostly takes the form of contrariness. Almost everything they say is charmingly the opposite of what one would expect. The two women are pleasure-seekers, and they find the greatest pleasure in mildly socially subversive wit.
Mabel joins the conversation. Mrs. Marchmont remarks that she likes “looking at geniuses, and listening to beautiful people,” and everyone seems to agree. Lord Goring walks away with Mabel, who complains that he has not been sufficiently attentive. The two society women walk to the dining room with the Vicomte; though they’re hungry, they pretend they never eat.
Here, the two society ladies carry on being contrary. Mrs. Marchmont’s quip seems frivolous, but is actually quite meaningful: she likes to observe the hidden, flawed, undeveloped aspects of people. When the two women pretend not to be hungry, they’re actually mocking women who sincerely pretend never to eat.