An Ideal Husband is at times a difficult play to summarize as much of its "plot" happens through rapid-fire, epigrammatic dialogue. Indeed, the pace and subtlety of these turns-of-phrase are what make plot so easy to miss. When summarizing the story, one finds oneself paraphrasing the repartee (repartee is defined as a smart, ready, witty reply or a conversation distinguished by witty responses). To do so, of course, is to kill its wit and humor.
The following summary divides Act I into two parts, the first extending from the beginning to the fatal conversation between Sir Robert Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley, the second starting from that conversation to the end. Act I opens with a dinner party given by Sir Robert in his fashionable Grosvenor Square home; thus it begins with a series of lighthearted conversations between the bantering guests. The entire act takes place in the brilliantly lit Octagon Room.
The first scene shows Lady Chiltern posed at the top of a large staircase greeting the guests. A tapestry representing Boucher's "Triumph of Love" hangs on the back wall. Sitting on a Louis Seize sofa, Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon share the first conversation. Mrs. Marchmont declares that she has come to the soiree to be educated, and Lady Basildon replies that she abhors education. Mrs. Marchmont concurs but jestingly protests that their hostess—Lady Chiltern—is always urging her to find one "serious purpose" in life. Looking around the room—that is, both at the cast and audience—through her opera glasses, Lady Basildon notes that she hardly sees anyone whom one could call a serious purpose around here.
Act I similarly introduces its other players through such instances of banter, each new guest being announced by the butler Mason from the top of the stairs. Throughout this first scene, dialogue is occasionally punctuated by the malapropisms (the ludicrous misuse of words) of the Vicomte de Nanjac, a young anglophile whose awkward English serves as a comically distorted reflection of the group's polished repartee.
The following conversation involves Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert's sister, and the elderly Lord Caversham, father of Lord Goring. Caversham bemoans the idleness of his son and the excesses of London Society. Along with introducing the old-fashioned Caversham, this conversation offers a glimpse at Mabel's affection for the dandified lord.
Suddenly Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley—sporting scarlet lips, a heliotrope gown, Venetian red hair, and rather assertive fan—enter the room. Upon their introduction, Lady Chiltern reveals coldly that she knows Mrs. Cheveley from their school days, and Mrs. Cheveley, having spent many years in Vienna, all too sweetly expresses her eagerness to meet Sir Robert. Lady Chiltern assures her she has little in common with her husband and moves away.
After a comic interlude with de Nanjac ("Ah! You flatter me. You butter me, as they say here."), Sir Robert enters and meets Mrs. Chelevey. Mrs. Cheveley slyly reveals that she knows a man—Baron Arnheim—from Sir Robert's past. She also poses herself against the dreary demands of marriage (the London season, for example, is far too "matrimonial"; Arnheim traveled like Odysseus without the disadvantage of having a Penelope waiting for him, etc.).
Mason then announces Lord Goring, a witty and ironical dandy who, as the stage notes indicate, would be annoyed if considered romantic. Mrs. Cheveley precisely describes him as such upon discovering he is still a bachelor; apparently the two have met before. Mrs. Cheveley and Sir Robert exit, and Goring saunters over to Mabel Chiltern. The two exchange in flirtatious repartee; De Nanjac then kidnaps Mabel to the music room.
After a brief exchange with his father, Goring turns to Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont for a discussion of married life. Bemoaning the unendurable faultlessness of their husbands, Mrs. Marchmont comes to exclaim: "We have married perfect husbands, and we are well punished for it." They then go on to gossip about the scandalous Mrs. Cheveley.
As discussed in the Context, Wilde's later plays both mirror the conventional themes of the Victorian popular stage—such as loyalty, devotion, undying love, duty, respectability, and so on—and undermine them through their brilliantly choreographed banter. The first half of Act I consists almost entirely of this deceptively frivolous party talk.
Wilde's banter is written in witty, epigrammatic repartee. "Wit" is defined here as the quality of speech that consists in apt associations that surprise and delight; the epigram is a brief, pointed, and often antithetical saying that contains an unexpected change of thought or biting comment. The tone of the epigram is often "half-serious," playing on the potential for misunderstanding. Notably, Act I begins by declaring the absence of any serious purpose in the room; one could say that epigrammatic repartee is speech that refuses to speak seriously. Moreover, as this "half-serious" tone is often ironic, such repartee is often speech that the speaker does not speak in earnest either.
Rhetorically, the epigram is usually dependent on a combination of devices: the play between conventionally paired terms, irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, and paradox. Take then, for example, Lord Goring's rejoinder to his father, Lord Caversham, when the latter accuses him of talking about nothing: "I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about." At one level, Goring's epigram is sarcastic; at another, it is paradoxical, as one cannot know anything about nothing. The epigram also shifts between conventionally valorized terms: whereas most people would hope to have something substantive to talk about, Goring loves to talk about nothing.
As one might imagine, the "subversive" potential in these conversational games is the concomitant shift in the social values up for discussion. Thus Goring assures Mabel that his bad qualities are quite dreadful: "When I think of them at night, I go to sleep at once." In this example, Goring revises the meaning of "bad," moving from "bad" as in flawed or even reprehensible to "bad" as in boring. In doing so, the question at hand is no longer one of good and bad character traits, but whether a given trait is—to invoke a famous Wildean phrase—charming or tedious.
Wilde's excessively playful repartee is scandalous as it continually undermines the attempt to have a "serious conversation." Moreover, such speech is also scandalous in that it stands to expose the absurdity of a socially conventional statement, flout convention entirely, or reveal a conventional opinion's true meaning. One might translate the case of Goring's retort to Mabel, for example, with the following: why do good and bad character traits matter when what's truly important is whether these traits are entertaining? Or: perhaps when people describe an individual's good or bad traits, they really mean to say whether they find him amusing or dull. As we proceed to the development of the play's "serious" themes regarding conjugal life, duty, respectability, and so on, we must thus always keep the banter that undermines the ideas presented in mind.
Act I opens at a dinner party, and so we might note that repartee is only possible in social intercourse—what one might describe as the social theater. As members of London Society, Wilde's characters are extremely concerned with their "performances" at various gatherings and how they "look" in various social circles. As a result, their speech is very much part of their social personas—what we might call their "masks" or "poses." We will discuss masks (and unmaskings) in more detail as we go on. Mrs. Cheveley introduces the motif of social theatricality here when she declares that what Sir Robert describes as the "fashionable religions" of optimism and pessimism to be "merely poses"; of course, for Mrs. Cheveley, being natural is a pose as well.
Act I involves a number of conversations on gender as well. These conversations are crucial as one of the play's primary themes consists of varying conceptions of womanliness. Of particular note is a conversation between Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley that relates aestheticism and a certain vision of femininity. As discussed in the Context, aestheticism, a doctrine often abbreviated as a philosophy of "art for art's sake," insists on art being judged by the beauty of artifice rather than that of morality or reason. Beauty is irrational, artificial, amoral, terms conventionally associated with the feminine. Here Mrs. Cheveley poses woman as a sort aestheticist art object. She tells Sir Robert that while men can be analyzed, women are to be merely adored: herein lies their strength. Like art, they resist judgment according to rational or moral categories. They embody the irrational (or at least when well-dressed), and are thus powerful, perhaps even dangerous. Mrs. Cheveley herself is one of these dangerously well-dressed and irrational women.