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...