The play unfolds throughout the day in London, in the mansion of the couple of Chilterns and in the apartment of Lord Goring, in the early 1890’s.
A party in the octagonal hall of the baronet of Sir Robert Chiltern, occupying the responsible post of Comrade Foreign Minister, is one of the most exquisite rides of high society London. The refined taste of the exemplary couple affects everything – from the paintings of Boucher and Corot on the walls to the appearance of the owners of the house and guests. Such is the mistress of the house, twenty-year-old Gertrude – “the type of strict classical beauty,” the young sister of Sir Robert Mabel – “a perfect example of English feminine beauty, white and pink, like the color of an apple tree.” To match them and Mrs. Cheveley is “a work of art, but with traces of too many schools.” Characterizing the characters of the stronger sex, the playwright also does not miss the opportunity
to note that the elderly dignitary, Lord Goring’s father Lord Caversham “resembles a portrait of Laurence’s brush”
The attention of the secular nobility attracts a new face: in the company of the elderly good-natured lady Markby, on the evening comes a certain Mrs. Cheveley. One of the diplomats met her five years ago in Vienna or Berlin; and Lady Chiltern remembers that they once studied in the same school…
However, the newcomer is not tuned to nostalgic dreams. With male determination, she provokes an acquaintance with Sir Robert, mentioning a common acquaintance in Vienna – a certain Baron Arnheim. Upon hearing this name, Sir Robert shudders, but imitates polite interest.
Alien with a soft sentimentality, she puts the cards on the table. Influential in political circles, Sir Robert is preparing to address the parliament in a speech on the next “scam of the century” – the construction of the Argentine channel, which threatens to turn into such a grandiose trickery as Panama. Meanwhile, she and the people behind her have invested considerable
capital in this fraudulent action, and in their interests, that she was supported by the official circles of London. Sir Robert, not believing in his ears, refuses in indignation, but when she casually mentions a certain letter at her command and signed by his name, she reluctantly agrees.
The forthcoming speech of Sir Robert becomes the subject of discussion between him and Gertrude, who has been entrusted to all his affairs. For a long time despising Mrs. Cheveley, Lady Chiltern requires her husband to notify in writing the impudent blackmailer of the refusal to support the fraudulent project. Knowing that he signs his death sentence with his own hands, he concedes.
Believing his far from irreproachable past, Sir Robert makes a longtime friend of Lord Goring, sympathetic, understanding, condescending and in earnest captivated by his younger sister, Baronet Mable. Eighteen years ago, as Lord Redley’s secretary and without any capital other than the generic name, Robert informed the exchange speculator about the upcoming buying of shares in the Suez Canal; he made a million, and the accomplice was given a substantial interest, which initiated the material prosperity of the current minister’s comrade. And this shameful mystery can be made public any minute and, worst of all, literally adorable husband of Lady Chiltern.
So it happens: not finding Sir Robert, enraged by Mr. Cheveley, throws a monstrous accusation into Gertrude’s face, repeating his ultimatum. She is literally crushed: the heroic halo of her husband in her eyes fades. Returned Sir Robert does not deny anything, in turn, bitterly clinging to the eternal feminine idealism, which drives the weak sex to create false idols.
Bored with his butler, Lord Goring receives a note from Lady Chiltern: “I believe in. I want to see.” I will come, Gertrude. ” He is excited; However, instead of a young woman, as usual inappropriately, his lavish father appears in the library of his luxurious apartment. The embodiment of British common sense, Lord Kaversham reprimands his son for celibacy and idleness; Lord Goring asks the butler to immediately carry out the expected lady to his office. The latter does appear soon; but the exemplary dandy does not know that contrary to expectations he was gifted with a visit from Mr. Cheveley.
The “sentimental woman” who had been feeding him in the past years with a sentimental weakness suggests that the old lover begin all over again. More than that: she is ready to sacrifice the letter of compromising Sir Robert for the sake of renewed affection. But true to his notions of honor, Lord Goring rejects her claims. Instead, he catches a guest on a long-standing vice: on the eve of the evening, a brooch lost by someone caught his eye. Mrs. Cheveley dropped it, but in a diamond snake that can be worn as a bracelet, he recognized the thing he had given to a couture cousin ten years ago and later stolen by someone. Now, fighting with the blackmailer of her own weapons, he closes the bracelet on Mr. Cheveley’s wrist, threatening to call the police. Afraid of exposure, she is forced to part with Sir Robert’s compromising testimony, but in retaliation steals Gertrude Chiltern’s letter lying on the corner of the table. Powerless to destroy the political career of the baronet, she is determined to destroy his family well-being.
A few hours later, Lord Goring, who was on a visit to the Chilternov house, learns that the thunderous speech against the “Argentine project” delivered by Sir Robert in the parliament brought him major political dividends. On the instructions of the Prime Minister, Lord Kaversham appears here, authorized to offer a brilliant speaker to the minister’s portfolio. Soon he appears, with the ill-fated letter in hands that the secretary handed him. However, the fears of the breathless Gertrude and Lord Goring are useless: Sir Robert saw in Gertrude’s letter only the moral support of his beloved wife…
Flattered by the proposal of the Prime Minister, under the pressure of the same Gertrude, he initially refuses, stating that his political career is over. However, Lord Goring eventually succeeds in persuading the inflexible maximalist that leaving the political arena will become the dawn of all existence for his friend who does not think himself out of loud noisy battles. After a little hesitation, she agrees – simultaneously admitting to her husband that the letter that came to him was in fact addressed to Lord Goring. He easily forgives his wife a fleeting weakness of spirit.
The knightly duel of generous generosity ends with the prophecy of the elderly lord Kavershem: “Chiltern I congratulate you, and if England does not go to dust and does not fall into the hands of radicals, you will someday be the prime minister,”