The play was first performed in London in 1895 and is set in the world of the upper class in that city. The main characters are Sir Robert Chiltern, a supposedly wholesome, honest rising star in the House of Commons, and his wife who is involved in women's rights. Lord Goring, (named after where Wilde started writing the play), a witty playboy bachelor, the scheming Mrs Cheveley an old schoolmate of Lady Goring's each of whom have a dislike of each other.
Basically the plot is centred around Mrs Cheveley who tries to blackmail Sir Robert Chiltern with evidence she has of political corruption from his past that helped him on the road to success and fortune. She wants him to support a scheme she has invested a lot of money in that would fail without government support.
From this basis emerges a brilliant play of numerous twists and turns that looks at all sides of humanity. It's about trying to live up to other people's expectations, compromise in difficult situations, manipulation, accepting people's faults, loyalty, snobbery, wisdom, to name a few of the traits it explores. The character that initially seems most vacuous, Lord Goring, actually turns out to be the wisest and most loyal, and he has some of the best lines in the play:
"To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance."
"One should never give a woman anything that she can't wear in the evening."
"Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear."
The mix of seriousness and humour is perfect. It would have been very easy at times for the play to fall into farce with all the people involved and the mixed messages and misunderstandings in the plot, but that never happens and that's the genius of Oscar Wilde's writing.
I really enjoyed this production by the Abbey Theatre, and I must say the posh upper class English accents were perfect. The costumes were lovely and true to the era and the acting was superb. If you ever get the chance to see this play go along, you won't regret it.
Photo: Mrs Cheveley and Lady Chiltern (From the Abbey Theatre website)