When they arrive at the theater, Henry and Basil see firsthand its crude set up and rough-looking crowd. Dorian promises Henry that Sybil will make it all seem quite different, as she stirs the audience in sympathy with her characters. Basil encourages Dorian, saying that such a powerful actress must have given something vital to Dorian’s life and deserves his love.
After the orchestra’s awful introduction, Sybil appears as Juliet. The three men are fascinated by her. Henry realizes that she is as beautiful as Dorian had promised. But though her appearance is divine amongst a cast of plain players, Dorian is shocked that her performance is lack-luster and unfeeling. The change terrifies Dorian. During the famous balcony scene, Juliet’s words are flat and lifeless. Henry and Basil decide to leave. Henry reassures him that she is very beautiful nonetheless. Love is better than art, Basil says. But Dorian is distraught and asks them to leave immediately. He stays through the second act and then visits Sybil backstage. She is aware of the dreadfulness of her performance, but that does not affect her joy at seeing Dorian.
Dorian’s praise of Sybil has been entirely based on her artistic talent and her ability to transform an audience. But now her artistry is gone. Did Dorian imagine it all along, because of his own lack of experience or because of her beauty? That Sybil is aware of how awful her performance was suggests otherwise. That she is happy to see Dorian despite its awfulness suggests that love is now her priority, not theater.
Sybil explains to him that now that she has found real love, she will never be able to act again, that the world of sets and costumes, which had seemed so real, now seems shallow. She seems overjoyed at this revelation but Dorian can no longer bear to look at her. He erupts in an angry tirade, saying that she is now nothing to him without her art. Sybil collapses at his feet, begging him to reconsider but Dorian is annoyed by her pain and leaves her weeping on the floor.
Sybil has given up on art because, to her, life is so much more real, so much more wonderful. She loves Dorian more than her art. But to Dorian, art is the only valuable thing in life. He loved Sybil solely for her art. Sybil wants to drop the curtain. Dorian wants to cover everything in the curtain. Such a conflict can't end well, and of course it is the poor woman who bears the brunt of it.
Dorian, in a kind of trance, wanders the night away through the streets of London, finding himself at a market place as the morning trade begins. He takes a cab back to his house, where the lamps are still burning. Among the luxurious treasure of his home sits Basil’s portrait. Today, something about it causes him to double-take. The expression on the portrait’s face has altered, it looks somehow crueler.
The strange passing of time in these early hours and Dorian’s dazed wandering signals to us that the traditional order of things has been upturned. With the mood of Dorian’s recent cruelty hanging in the air, the alteration of the portrait is unclear. Is the art work supernaturally connected to Dorian’s sins, or is the shameful change in the eye of the of the beholder?
Dorian, disturbed, remembers the sentiment the portrait initially stirred in him and his prayer for the portrait to age in his stead. But he can’t believe the prayer has come so horribly true. And why should the face now wear the expression of cruelty? Dorian considers Sybil but struggles to find remorse, and sees the tragedy as her doing. But the painting will not let up. Dorian stares at it, in a panic. What if the thing that has taught him his own beauty could teach him to despise himself?
Earlier the characters spoke about art and its ability to capture the soul. Now the painting really has captured his soul! And in doing so it makes Dorian even more aware of himself. It preserves the surface that Henry made him believe was his most valuable asset, but forces him to see the impact on his soul of his total dedication to such surface things. Dorian worries that the thing that taught him of his beauty might teach him to despise himself—but it's actually more connected than that. By teaching him to value his and other beauty above all else it has set him on the path toward despising himself. Those two lessons are the same lesson.
Dorian imagines the horrible transformation the portrait would go through. He tries to imagine a sinful life. Some remorse begins to come to him and he resolves to win Sybil back and live happily with her. The morning suddenly seems fresh and romantic again.
The horror shown to Dorian by the portrait inspires him to change, inspires him to act in such a way that the cruelty in his soul is shaped back into joy and happiness. The question is whether Dorian's resolve here is true. Would he really have tried to win Sybil back if he had the chance?