The play opens in the richly furnished study at Werle's house. It is the evening of a dinner party celebrating the return of Werle's son, Gregers, from the Hoidal mines. Gregers has not come home for fifteen years. The dining room adjoins to the left; to the right, a baize door leads to Werle's office. Pettersen, a servant, and Jensen, a hired waiter, put the room in order. The sound of a toast is heard in the next room.
Pettersen declares that Werle is droning on about his lover Mrs. Sorby; the two men bawdily joke about their affair. Suddenly Old Ekdal, dressed in a threadbare overcoat and a dirty red-brown wig, appears from the right, begging to be let into the office. Warning him against appearing in front of the company, Pettersen lets him pass.
Pettersen explains to the waiter that Ekdal was once an army officer and partner to Werle at the Hoidal works. He apparently played some dirty trick on Werle and went to prison; now he works as one of Werle's copyists.
The dining room bursts open, and the jovial guests appear. Mrs. Sorby sends the servants to prepare coffee in the music room. Glancing dejectedly at Hialmar Ekdal, Werle remarks to Gregers in a low voice that it would seem no one noticed that there were thirteen at the table.
All except Hialmar and Gregers move to the music room. Hialmar, who has overheard the conversation between father and son, remarks that Gregers should not have invited him since he is outside his father's circle. Gregers insists that he had to catch up with his boyhood friend. When he compliments Hialmar's "outer man," the latter confesses an inner gloom in the wake of his father's scandal. Apparently Hialmar had feared that Gregers bore him ill will. Werle's father at least had given him this impression and instructed him to give up all contact with his son.
Hialmar tells of his life after his father's disgrace. To Gregers surprise, Werle urged him to leave the university, helped him begin his photography studio, and made it possible for him to marry. Coincidentally, his wife, Gina, worked in Werle's house during the last year of Mrs. Werle's illness. They met through Werle's interventions as well. Despite Werle's assurances that he had regularly written his son with news, Gregers has known nothing of these events.
The party reappears. Werle notes that Hialmar is studying an album of photographs. The other guests begin to banter, and Gregers urges his writhing friend to join in. Werle invites his son to a toast. When Gregers does not move, he invites Hialmar instead.
Suddenly Graberg, the Bookkeeper, appears at the baize door. He has been locked in and needs to cross the study to exit; he also has someone with him Werle gives them permission to cross. When Old Ekgal appears, he gasps in disgust. The party immediately turns silent and Hialmar pretends to ignore his father.
The first scenes of The Wild Duck largely concern themselves with the structure of social space both in terms of class and family line. The play begins from an eccentric space. Two servants appear outside a dinner party of privileged guests in the next room. The study serves as an intermediary space, or threshold, for the encounters across class (i.e. between the servants and the chamberlains) as well as between clans (i.e. the Werles and the Ekdals).
The action of the party involves a number of transgressions of social boundaries. Certainly the principle interloper at this party is Hialmar, the "thirteenth guest" who comes from outside the father's circle. Hialmar's awkwardness among the bantering chamberlains makes the fact that he is out-of- place clear. Notably, Hialmar has been invited to the banquet by another interloper of sorts—Gregers, the guest of honor, who will cross over to the Ekdals' household in the following act.
If Hialmar appears the social inferior among the chamberlains, his father and Werle's former partner, Old Ekdal, are taboo, objects barred from Werle's threshold. The accidental intrusion of this abject figure brings the party to an abrupt halt and elicits an exclamation of disgust from his old party; even Hialmar must deny his presence.
Ekdal's tabooed quality lies in the enigmatic origin of the play's action: the scandal of the woods that brought Werle to near-ruin and, upon Werle's apparent betrayal, led to Ekdal's arrest and disgrace. He forces the public return of a suppressed past. As we will see, the events that follow will come to figure as the legacy of this unspoken crime shared by the play's two patriarchs, as elaborations of an enigmatic past that demands resolution. Within the play's much-vaulted "realist" frame, the founding enigma assumes almost mythic proportions. As Ekdal will later observe, the resolution this past demands is vengeance, what he mysterious dubs the revenge of the woods. This vengeance will ultimately claim the life of a child who as easily belongs to either clan.
In the first act, the mythic also of course makes itself felt in the play with Werle's superstitious reference to the thirteenth guest. Again, this guest is manifestly Hialmar, the invitee from outside Werle's circle. The figure of the thirteenth guest also becomes tabooed in the course of the play. Note, for example, how Hialmar reports in the following act that either twelve or fourteen guests were at Werle's table, pointedly avoiding the unlucky digit in question.
As we will ultimately learn, it is Gregers' whose destiny is to be the "thirteenth at the table." Gregers also returns from outside his father's circle, ending a self-imposed exile in the Hoidal woods to force the return of a past long suppressed make reparations for his father's betrayal. The figure of the thirteenth guest of course also alludes to the traitor Judas at the last supper; Gregers' rival, Relling, will identify this thirteenth guest as the devil. In insinuating himself into the Ekdals household, the well-meaning Gregers will come to occupy both positions of loving traitor and antichrist, preaching a gospel that only brings ruin.