The action of An Ideal Husband takes place within about twenty four hours. Act 1 takes place at Sir Robert Chiltern’s house, which is located in the fashionable part of London. The Chilterns are hosting a reception. The first two speakers of the play, two minor characters, Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont, set a witty tone. They are pretty, young married women, and they speak to each other languidly and cleverly. Attention then moves to various new arrivals at the reception, such as the Earl of Caversham, who inquires after his son Lord Goring, and Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert Chiltern’s sister, who chats with the Earl of Caversham. The most important arrivals, however, are Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley, because the latter is the play’s villain.
That something serious will be occurring in this otherwise comic play becomes clear when Lady Markby introduces Mrs. Cheveley to Lady Chiltern. Lady Chiltern realizes that she knows Mrs. Cheveley, but under a different name—the name of her first husband. Mrs. Cheveley clearly disturbs Lady Chiltern, and Lady Chiltern appears to dislike the other woman intensely.
Mrs. Cheveley has come to the party to speak to Sir Robert specifically, and, soon enough, the two find themselves alone. What she wishes to talk about is blackmail: if Sir Robert does not support what is in fact a doomed South American canal scheme in a speech to the parliament the next day, she will reveal the terrible secret of his youth, which will destroy his life and career. Shaken to his core, Sir Robert agrees to do her bidding.
At the end of act 1, Lady Chiltern succeeds in getting her husband to admit that Mrs. Cheveley has persuaded him to change his mind about the canal project. She is outraged and convinces her husband to write to Mrs. Cheveley immediately, telling her that he will not support the project in his parliamentary speech. Wondering what kind of power Mrs. Cheveley has over her husband, Lady Chiltern declares that it had better not be blackmail—that he better not be one of those men who pretend to be pillars of the community but who in fact have shameful secrets.
Act 2 opens the next morning, once again at the Chiltern residence. Lord Goring and Robert Chiltern are speaking; Chiltern is telling his good friend Goring everything. At one point, Chiltern bitterly wonders why a youthful folly has the power to ruin a man’s career, even when that man has spent so many years doing good works. To this Goring replies that what Chiltern did was not folly but fairly ugly and very grave: he sold a state secret for money.
Chiltern tries to explain, saying that when he was young he was poor, so that it did not matter that he came from a good family because his prospects were limited by a lack of funds. He tells how he was seduced by the teachings of Baron Arnheim, who turned his head with ‘‘the most terrible of all philosophies, the philosophy of power.’’ The baron ‘‘preached to [him] the most marvelous of all gospel, the gospel of gold,’’ he says. Chiltern says he was ferociously ambitious, and that when the chance came to make his fortune, it did not matter that it depended on a crime; he took it.
Lady Chiltern comes home while the men are conversing. She has been at a ‘‘Woman’s Liberal Association’’ meeting, where, as she says, they discuss things such as ‘‘Factory Acts, Female Inspectors, the Eight Hours Bill, the Parliamentary Franchise,’’ and so on. Soon, Robert Chiltern leaves and Mabel Chiltern takes his place, asking Goring if he will meet her the next morning. Goring agrees and then leaves. Next, Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley are announced. Mrs. Cheveley is inquiring about a diamond broach she lost the day before, asking whether it was found by anyone at the reception. (Lord Goring found the broach and still has it.)
When Lady Markby leaves, Lady Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley are able to speak to each other frankly. Lady Chiltern makes it clear that Mrs. Cheveley is...
(The entire section is 1,267 words.)