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Wilde’s scintillating drawing-room comedy revolves around a blackmail scheme that forces a married couple to reexamine their moral standards. A supporting cast of young lovers, society matrons, and a formidable femme fatale exchange sparkling repartee, keeping the action of the play at a lively pace.
The octagon room at Sir Robert Chiltern’s house in Grosvenor Square.
[The room is brilliantly lighted and full of guests. At the top of the staircase stands LADY CHILTERN, a woman of grave Greek beauty, about twenty-seven years of age. She receives the guests as they come up. Over the well of the staircase hangs a great chandelier with wax lights, which illumine a large eighteenth-century French tapestry—representing the Triumph of Love, from a design by Boucher—that is stretched on the staircase wall. On the right is the entrance to the music-room. The sound of a string quartette is faintly heard. The entrance on the left leads to other reception-rooms. MRS. MARCHMONT and LADY BASILDON, two very pretty women, are seated together on a Louis Seize sofa. They are types of exquisite fragility. Their affectation of manner has a delicate charm. Watteau would have loved to paint them.]
MRS. MARCHMONT. Going on to the Hartlocks’ to-night, Margaret?
LADY BASILDON. I suppose so. Are you?
MRS. MARCHMONT. Yes. Horribly tedious parties they give, don’t they?
LADY BASILDON. Horribly tedious! Never know why I go. Never know why I go anywhere.
MRS. MARCHMONT. I come here to be educated.
LADY BASILDON. Ah! I hate being educated!
MRS. MARCHMONT. So do I. It puts one almost on a level with the commercial classes, doesn’t it? But dear Gertrude Chiltern is always telling me that I should have some serious purpose in life. So I come here to try to find one.
LADY BASILDON. [Looking round through her lorgnette.] I don’t see anybody here to-night whom one could possibly call a serious purpose. The man who took me in to dinner talked to me about his wife the whole time.
MRS. MARCHMONT. How very trivial of him!
LADY BASILDON. Terribly trivial! What did your man talk about?
MRS. MARCHMONT. About myself.
LADY BASILDON. [Languidly.] And were you interested?
MRS. MARCHMONT. [Shaking her head.] Not in the smallest degree.
LADY BASILDON. What martyrs we are, dear Margaret!
MRS. MARCHMONT. [Rising.] And how well it becomes us, Olivia!
[They rise and go towards the music-room. The VICOMTE DE NANJAC, a young attaché known for his neckties and his Anglomania, approaches with a low bow, and enters into conversation.]
MASON. [Announcing guests from the top of the staircase.] Mr. and Lady Jane Barford. Lord Caversham.
[Enter LORD CAVERSHAM, an old gentleman of seventy, wearing the riband and star of the Garter. A fine Whig type. Rather like a portrait by Lawrence.]
LORD CAVERSHAM. Good evening, Lady Chiltern! Has my good-for-nothing young son been here?
LADY CHILTERN. [Smiling.] I don’t think Lord Goring has arrived yet.
MABEL CHILTERN. [Coming up to LORD CAVERSHAM.] Why do you call Lord Goring good-for-nothing?
[MABEL CHILTERN is a perfect example of the English type of prettiness, the apple-blossom type. She has all the fragrance and freedom of a flower. There is ripple after ripple of sunlight in her hair, and the little mouth, with its parted lips, is expectant, like the mouth of a child. She has the fascinating tyranny of youth, and the astonishing courage of innocence. To sane people she is not reminiscent of any work of art. But she is really like a Tanagra statuette, and would be rather annoyed if she were told so.]