Joshua and Edward come out onto the verandah at dawn, where Joshua tells a story of the creation of the Earth and its moon by a "great spirit." Joshua admits, however, that his story is false. "Adam and Eve is true," he tells Edward.
Clive enters with Harry, discussing with him the last night's skirmish between British soldiers and African natives. He describes the soldiers setting a building on fire, thankful that none of the Brits were hurt. Clive then leaves for breakfast with Joshua, leaving Harry and Edward on the verandah. Edward, hurt that Harry has not been talking to him, threatens to tell Clive about their relationship. Harry begs Edward not to, and Edward promises not to let anyone know. Harry upsets Edward again when he tells Edward he will be departing soon, but the discussion ends quickly when Harry leaves as Ellen arrives to get Edward for breakfast. Betty enters when Edward refuses to come to breakfast. When she encounters more resistance from Edward, she threatens to tell his father. Edward remains stubborn, but goes inside.
Ellen stops Betty from following Edward inside to ask about her future as a governess with the family. Betty assures that Ellen will find a good husband and will become a dutiful mother. Ellen again proclaims her love for Betty, even claiming that she would "rather die" than leave Betty. Ellen goes inside, as Clive comes onto the verandah with Harry. When Betty tries to speak with Clive, he dismisses her sharply.
Clive tells Harry that he knows of Harry's romance with Betty, but he quickly assures Harry that their friendship cannot be destroyed by "the weaker sex." Clive then speaks of his pride in England, and lectures Harry on the importance of male comradeship. Harry, perhaps taking Clive's rhetoric the wrong way, "takes hold" of Clive. Clive draws away in disgust, attacking Harry's "perversion" as a "disease." Harry begs for Clive's understanding, but Clive demands that Harry marry Mrs. Saunders.
Clive summons Mrs. Saunders and steps aside to watch as Harry proposes to her. Mrs. Saunders dismisses Harry's request and turns to Clive, informing him that British soldiers have killed Joshua's parents in the recent skirmishes. Harry calls for Joshua. When Joshua arrives, Clive makes a weak attempt to comfort him by offering him the day off.
Betty arrives with Edward to find out what is happening as Joshua exits. Edward asks Harry what has happened, but Harry tells him to leave. Ellen comes out to help Harry and Betty get Edward inside. Finally, Clive insists that Edward go inside. Edward goes, along with Betty and Ellen, as Maud comes outside. Clive forces Maud to go back inside and calls for Ellen to come back outside. At Clive's nudging, Harry proposes to Ellen, and, although she never officially says yes, Clive urges them off to discuss their engagement. Joshua brings Clive a drink and tells Clive of Ellen's miscreant feelings for Betty. Clive cannot accept this and orders Joshua to leave.
On the verandah, Joshua sets up for the wedding of Harry and Ellen. Edward enters with Victoria's doll. Joshua snatches the doll from Edward and, taking a knife, cuts the doll open and allows the sawdust to flow out of it. Joshua tosses the doll under the table for the wedding cake.
Maud, Clive, and Betty enter, and, with Edward they make a triumphal arch for Harry and Ellen. Ellen asks for Betty's advice in dealing with sex and men. Betty instructs her to "just keep still," that she's not getting married for her enjoyment. Ellen exits. Betty then tells Clive that her necklace has been stolen. Edward blames Joshua, but Harry points the blame back at Edward. Edward runs off as Mrs. Saunders enters to announce her departure. Clive, losing control, kisses Mrs. Saunders.
Upon witnessing Clive kissing Mrs. Saunders, Betty attacks Mrs. Saunders. Harry and Clive separate them, and Clive banishes Mrs. Saunders from the house. Betty and Clive begin to reconcile as Edward enters with the necklace. Edward explains that he was taking care of it for his mother.
Clive calls on Harry to make a speech, and Harry does so reluctantly, weakly toasting to his "good fortune." When Harry and Ellen go to cut the cake, Clive notices the doll under the table. Furious, he hits Edward. Gathering himself, he makes a speech wishing Harry and Ellen well. During the speech, Joshua produces a gun with which he plans to shoot Clive. Edward covers his ears as the act ends.
As much as Clive disapproves of Betty's "dark lust," he is far more offended by Harry's homosexuality: Clive calls Harry's desires "a disease more dangerous than diphtheria." Harry's sexual frenzy reaches its peak when he decides to make a pass at Clive. Again, Clive dismisses what he deems perverse sexuality as a result of nature gone awry, not personal choice, and he spends the rest of the act trying to prescribe a "cure" for Harry's perversion. Clive believes that Harry might be rid of his condition by getting married. Moreover, in his assault on Harry's behavior, Clive again connects sexuality with empire, labeling homosexuality "a betrayal of the Queen" an instructing Harry to "think of England" when he proposes to Mrs. Saunders. Essentially, Clive demands that Harry subvert his true sexuality to demonstrate patriotism. Clive's view of empire is unforgiving, however, and it cannot survive. At the very end of the act, Clive is literally shot down and the culture and tradition he represents fall with him.
Churchill waits until the end of the act to fully unleash the real truths that have been lingering under the surface of the farce from the beginning. Only in the last moment of the last scene does the audience discover exactly where Edward stands with his father. Edward's final moment, his covering his ears before Joshua shoots his father, indicates his rejection of his father and what he represents.
On the surface, Joshua's decision to shoot Clive might indicate that Joshua is furious over the death of his parents at the hands of British soldiers. However, Joshua's aggression might be the result of Clive's sharp dismissal, a response to Joshua telling him of a possible sexual interaction between Betty and Ellen. This is the last time that Clive speaks to Joshua before the shooting, and it represents certain hypocrisy in Clive. Clive demands loyalty and honesty from Joshua, but only up to a point that allows Clive to maintain his illusions about his family. When Joshua suggests that Betty might be involved in a homosexual relationship, Clive betrays his own edict, essentially telling Joshua that he has been too honest. This hypocrisy costs Clive dearly.
At the end of Act I, Churchill leaves her characters at different places in their sexual and cultural liberation. Edward seems to finally reject the old ways, but Betty actually reunites with Clive just before he is shot. Victoria ends up just as she started, a doll. Clearly, the family is falling apart and tradition is losing its grip. With the end of the act, Churchill sets the foundation for a second act in which her characters will have to come to terms with the lingering influence of Clive's Africa.