The curtain opens on the flat of wealthy Algernon Moncrieff in London's fashionable West End. While Algernon (Algy, for short) plays the piano, his servant (Lane) is arranging cucumber sandwiches for the impending arrival of Algernon's aunt (Lady Bracknell) and her daughter (Gwendolen). Mr. Jack Worthing (a friend of Moncrieff's and known to him as Ernest) arrives first. Jack announces that he plans to propose marriage to Gwendolen, but Algernon claims that he will not consent to their marriage until Jack explains why he is known as Ernest and why he has a cigarette case with a questionable inscription from a mysterious lady.
Jack claims that he has made up the character of Ernest because it gives him an excuse to visit the city. In the country, however, he is known as Jack Worthing, squire, with a troubled brother named Ernest. At first he lies and says the cigarette case is from his Aunt Cecily. Algernon calls his bluff, and Jack confesses that he was adopted by Mr. Thomas Cardew when he was a baby and that he is a guardian to Cardew's granddaughter, Cecily, who lives on his country estate with her governess, Miss Prism.
Similarly, Algernon confesses that he has invented an imaginary invalid friend, named Bunbury, whom he visits in the country when he feels the need to leave the city. After speculating on marriage and the need to have an excuse to get away, the two agree to dine together at the fashionable Willis', and Jack enlists Algernon's assistance in distracting Lady Bracknell so that Jack can propose to Gwendolen.
Wilde sets the tone for hilarious mischief in this first scene. The many layers of meaning work together to entertain and to provoke thought. He makes fun of all the Victorians hold sacred, but in a light-hearted, amusing wordfest. His humor has multiple layers of meaning: social criticism of the upper and middle Victorian class values, references to the homosexual community and its culture, use of locales and landmarks familiar to his upper-class audience, and epigrams — short, witty sayings — and puns that not only provide humor but also reinforce his social critique.
First, Wilde must introduce his characters and setting. Both Jack and Algernon are living their lives through masks; deliberately, their double lives parallel Wilde's living as a married man with a clandestine homosexual life. Both characters are also recognizable to the upper- and middle-class audiences as stock figures.
Algernon is a stylish dandy — a young man very concerned about his clothes and appearance — in the pose of the leisure-class man about town. His fashionable apartment in a stylish locale immediately tells the audience that they are watching a comedy about the upper class. After introducing Algernon, Wilde turns him into a comic figure of self-gratification, stuffing his mouth with cucumber sandwiches. Self-gratification is ammunition against the repressive Victorian values of duty and virtue. In fact, as Algernon and Jack discuss marriage and Gwendolen, food becomes a symbol for lust, a topic not discussed in polite society. Much of what Algernon says is hopeless triviality, beginning a motif that Wilde will follow throughout the play: Society never cares about substance but instead reveres style and triviality. Wilde seems to be saying that in Victorian society people seem unaware of the difference between trivial subjects and the more valuable affairs of life.
Jack is a little more serious than Algernon, perhaps because of his position as a country magistrate and his concern over his unconventional lineage. Helplessly a product of his time and social standing, Jack knows the rules, the appropriate manners, and the virtue of turning a phrase beautifully. He is an accepted upper-class gentleman, mainly because of the Cardew fortune. Novels written during this period, such as those of Charles Dickens, often turned on melodramatic plot devices such as the orphan discovering his real identity and winning his true love. Wilde hilariously turns this popular orphan plot on its head by having Jack found in a handbag in a major railroad station. Absurdity is Wilde's forte.
Both men are living a secret life, Jack with his Ernest identity and Algernon with his friend, Bunbury. Even Lane, Algy's servant, seems to have a second life in which he filches champagne and sandwiches from his "betters." Wilde seems to be saying that in a society where all is respectable but dull, a fictitious identity is necessary to liven things up. The classic nineteenth-century farce often turned on such mix-ups.
The deliberate use of the name Ernest is calculated. Earnestness, or devotion to virtue and duty, was a Victorian ideal. It stood for sincerity, seriousness, and hard work. Duty to one's family and name was a form of earnestness. Wilde turns these connotations upside down, making Ernest a name used for deception. Some critics suggest that earnest (in this context) means a double life. Other critics believe that earnest is understood in some circles to mean homosexual. By using the name Ernest throughout the play, and even in the title, Wilde is making references to social criticism, his own life, and his plot devices. He playfully makes a pun using earnest/Ernest when Algernon says, "You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life," following his discussion of Ernest as Jack's name.
Marriage in Victorian England comes under fire throughout the first act. Wilde saw marriages filled with hypocrisy and often used to achieve status. Wilde also saw marriage as an institution that encouraged cheating and snuffed out sexual attraction between spouses. When Lane says that wine is never of superior quality in a married household, Algernon questions Lane's marital status. Lane flippantly mentions that his own marriage resulted from a "misunderstanding." The nonsense continues as Jack explains that his purpose in coming to the city was to propose. Algernon replies that he thought Jack had "come up for pleasure? ...I call that business." Algernon humorously explains that to be in love is romantic, but a proposal is never romantic because "one may be accepted." Marriage brings about an end to the romantic excitement of flirting: "...girls never marry the men they flirt with. Girls don't think it right." Each of these references to marriage or courtship trivializes a serious subject and turns around accepted values. Wilde corrupts the maxim, "Two's company; three's a crowd," to humorously chide the conservative audience. Algernon says, "In married life three is company and two is none." So much for the joys of wedded life. In short, Wilde seems to say that marriage is a business deal containing property, wealth, and status. Family names and bloodlines are deathly important.
Wilde uses food and eating as symbols for the sensual and/or for lust. Victorians did not discuss such subjects in polite society. Mouthing platitudes about the reverence of marriage, duty, and virtue, Victorian males often conducted extra-marital affairs with the blessings of a hypocritical society. Wilde expresses their repressed sexual drives with the hilarious scenes of his characters eating voraciously and discussing food. He also refers to sex and vitality with the euphemism of "health." When Algernon says that Gwendolen is "devoted to bread and butter," Jack immediately grabs some bread and butter and starts eating greedily.
Class warfare is also a subject of this first act. While the servants, such as Lane, wait on the upper classes, they also observe their morals. They might not comment, but their facial expressions betray their understanding of their own role in life, which involves waiting and doing, but not commenting.
Style and manners also come under attack. In Victorian England, style and correct manners were much more important than substance. Algernon feels his style of piano playing is much more important than his accuracy. Triviality is the witty, admired social repartee of the day, a perfect homage to style over substance. In fact, the characters in this play often say the opposite of what is understood to be true. In this way Wilde shows his audience the hypocrisy of their commonly held beliefs.
Victorian culture is also a target. Algernon's quip, "More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read," is a reference once again to hypocrisy. Read something scandalous to be in style, but do not speak of it in polite company. Double standards abound. Daily newspapers come under Algernon's attack as the writings of people who have not been educated and who think of themselves as literary critics. Perhaps Wilde is saying that the critical reviews of the day should be in the hands of people who are educated to understand art.
Wilde's upper-class audiences, far from being angered by his attack on Victorian values, were actually mollified by references to locations and cultural names with which they were familiar. British names of real places such as Willis', Grosvenor Square, Tunbridge Wells in Kent, or Half Moon Street, would have been well-known references in their world. Upper-class London audiences recognized these familiar locations and knew the character types that Jack and Algernon represented.
Some critics have suggested that Wilde began his writing projects by accumulating a group of epigrams he wished to explore. (Often, these sayings about life were widely known but not really examined closely.) He turned these hackneyed phrases upside down to suggest that, although they knew the clichés, most British audiences did not stop to think about how meaningless they were. For example, "Divorces are made in heaven" (a corruption of the familiar "Marriages are made in heaven") suggests that divorce contributes to happiness — perhaps a greater truism than the familiar phrase given the tenor of Victorian society. Wilde makes fun of peoples' trivial concerns over social status when he says, "Nothing annoys people so much as not receiving invitations."
Wilde's use of language as a tool for humor continues with his hilarious puns. A pun is a wordplay that often involves differing understandings of what a word means and how it is used in a given context. In speaking of dentists and their impressions, Jack says, "It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn't a dentist. It produces a false impression." Algernon counters, "Well, that is exactly what dentists always do." False teeth, dental impressions to mold them, and social impressions are all wrapped up in this pun. In a society where turning a phrase and witty repartee were considered much-admired skills, Wilde was at his best.
Half Moon Street a very fashionable street in London's West End; its location is handy to gentlemen's clubs, restaurants and theatres.
"slight refreshment at five o'clock" known as light tea, served to people who visit at this time of day.
"Shropshire is your county" a reference to Jack Worthing's position as county magistrate.
Divorce Court Before 1857, divorces could only be granted by Parliament at great expense, and they rarely happened. In 1857, Divorce Court was passed by Parliament, making divorce easier.
Tunbridge Wells a fashionable resort in Kent.
The Albany Ernest Worthing's address on his calling cards was actually the home of George Ives, a friend of Wilde's and an activist for homosexual rights.
Bunbury the name of a school friend of Wilde's. Here, someone who deceives.
sent down to act as a lady's escort for dinner.
corrupt French Drama possibly a reference to the plays of Alexander Dumas in the 1850s.