The action takes place in London in the late eighteenth century. 

Act One, scene 1

The salon of Lady Sneerwell

Lady Sneerwell schools the audience in the art of spreading scandalous gossip. She introduces her henchman, Mr. Snake, and they delight in mutual admiration. Lady Sneerwell reveals to Snake her true intentions. She is in love with Charles Surface, but Charles is interested in Maria, an heiress and ward of Sir Peter Teazle. To get rid of her rival, Lady Sneerwell is intriguing to help Charles’s brother Joseph Surface to marry her instead. 

Joseph Surface enters and the unholy trinity plot together. Snake sneaks out as Maria arrives fleeing the attentions of Sir Benjamin Backbite and his uncle, Mr. Crabtree. Mrs. Candour bursts in bearing delightfully vicious gossip. Joseph displays his duplicitous nature. Sir Benjamin and Crabtree come in and can’t wait to spread the latest scandals. 

Maria, tired of all the gossiping, tries to change the conversation to something more edifying. 

By the time her innocuous story spreads around the room from one person to another, it is mangled beyond recognition into something quite lurid. Frustrated, she departs with the other guests in hot pursuit. 

Joseph and Lady Sneerwell anticipate the glorious outcome of their scheme. 

Act One, scene 2

The home of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle

Once a confirmed bachelor, Sir Peter Teazle complains about his new, much younger wife from the country. She has instantly transformed herself into a fashionable spendthrift city woman and become impossible to live with. 

Sir Peter complains to Rowley about the Surface brothers. He believes Charles is a wastrel drunk and an extravagant gambler, whereas Joseph is a model of virtue. Rowley, who was once a servant to their family, believes that Charles will yet be redeemed. He also bears news: Sir Oliver, the uncle of the Surface brothers and an old friend of Sir Peter, has unexpectedly arrived early from 15 years away in the East Indies. Sir Oliver has a plan to test the brothers’ characters. Rowley departs.  Sir Peter berates his wife for spending too much money on flowers. Lady Teazle winningly deflects his criticisms. Despite the disapproval of her husband, she heads off to Lady Sneerwell’s. Though frustrated, Sir Peter still finds his wife charming. 

Act One, scene 3

The home of Lady Sneerwell

Malicious gossip is in full swing when Maria and Lady Teazle arrive. Lady Sneerwell arranges for Joseph to have some private time with Maria while Lady Teazle proves herself adept at the gossip game. 

Sir Peter enters and is horrified at everyone’s behavior. He is banished. Lady Sneerwell takes her guests into the next room so Joseph and Maria can be alone together. Joseph tries to woo Maria but is interrupted by the return of Lady Teazle. He tries to pretend that nothing is going on but Lady Teazle doesn’t believe him. He invites her to someday view his library. Lady Teazle seems to like the idea of taking Joseph as a platonic lover. 

In an aria, Joseph explains why he is carrying on with Lady Teazle. She can influence her husband, Maria’s guardian, in his quest to marry Maria. He doesn't love either woman but he is greedy for Maria’s inheritance. He fears exposure. 

Act One, scene 4

The home of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle

Sir Oliver delights in the news of Sir Peter’s marriage. Charles is clearly his favorite nephew. 

Sir Oliver teases Sir peter about his marriage. Sir Peter stands up for Joseph. Sir Oliver and Rowley reveal their plan to test the Surface brothers’ worthiness to receive an inheritance. The fictional Mr. Stanley, a supposed distant relation of the brothers’ mother has written to both Surface brothers for money. Joseph has ignored him but Charles is doing everything he can to help. Since neither of the brothers have seen Oliver since they were very young, Oliver is going to pretend to be Mr. Stanley to judge their true characters. Sir Peter is dubious but agrees.

Monopoly, a money lender, arrives with a new twist. He is planning on bringing someone to lend Charles money, a Mr. Premium. Sir Peter suggests that Oliver also pretend to be Mr. Premium and see Charles to ascertain his true character. Monopoly teaches Oliver the tools of the money lending trade and they go off to put their plan into action. 

Sir Peter corners Maria and tries to build up his case for Joseph to marry her. Maria is appalled and storms off.

Lady Teazle asks for shopping money. The Teazles argue again, but this time it gets worse, and they furiously threaten to get a divorce. Sir Peter ultimately gives her the money but his exasperation is enormous. 


Act Two, scene 1

The home of Charles Surface

Charles and his equally inebriated friends sing a rousing drinking song. He toasts Maria. 

Sir Oliver, introduced by Monopoly as Mr. Premium, is welcomed. Charles bargains for a loan. He offers his uncle’s wealth as collateral. Sir Oliver asks for some other form of insurance, but everything has already been sold to pay Charles’s debts except the family portraits. Charles happily auctions off his many ancestral portraits to Mr. Premium, though he refuses to part with the portrait of Sir Oliver, who has been his benefactor. Sir Oliver is most impressed with this as proof that Charles is worthy and exits with Monopoly. 

Charles gives Rowley part of the proceeds to aid Mr. Stanley. Charles thanks the portraits of his relations for their assistance and hurries off to gamble with the rest. 

Act Two, scene 2

The library of Joseph Surface 

Joseph and Lady Teazle flirt. Lady Teazle is reluctant to give her husband cause for jealousy. A servant announces the arrival of Sir Peter. Panicked, Lady Teazle quickly hides behind the screen while Joseph pretends to read.

Sir Peter has come to Joseph for advice about his wife. He comes perilously close to finding Lady Teazle behind the screen. He confides that he fears she is having an affair with Charles. He confesses his enormous love for her and how he won’t stand in her way if she wants a divorce. Lady Teazle overhears every word. He changes the subject to talk about Joseph and Maria. The servant announces that Charles is downstairs. Sir Peter is about to try to hide behind the screen but he detects a skirt.  Joseph is forced to improvise a lie about a French milliner he is hiding. Sir Peter conceals himself in a closet instead.

Charles arrives. Joseph reveals that Sir Peter thinks Charles is having an affair with his wife. Charles categorically denies it. Sir Peter is hauled out of the closet. He apologizes to Charles for misjudging him. Servant whispers to Joseph that Lady Sneerwell is below. Joseph exits reluctantly, leaving Sir Peter and Charles together. 

Sir Peter reveals that Joseph has a woman behind the screen. Disbelieving him, Charles pulls down the screen to reveal Lady Teazle, just as Joseph re-enters the room. Joseph tries to lie his way out of it. Charles is dismayed by his brother and leaves. Lady Teazle accuses Joseph of hypocrisy and asks Sir Peter’s forgiveness. She leaves crying, followed by Sir Peter.

The servant announces Mr. Stanley (Sir Oliver, in disguise) who presses Joseph for a loan. Joseph begs lack of funds and pushes Stanley out. Rowley informs Joseph that Sir Oliver has arrived in London and is coming over in 15 minutes. Joseph panics. 


Act Two, scene 3

The home of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle

Mrs. Candour and Sir Benjamin ecstatically compare notes on the scandal involving the Teazles. They disagree about a lot of details. Lady Sneerwell delightedly joins in deciphering the scandal. Sir Benjamin claims there was a duel with swords and Sir Peter was wounded. Crabtree insists that it was with pistols! They all argue about the details, but they are sure Sir Peter is lying upstairs wounded. Lady Sneerwell slips out to get better intelligence. 

The gossips mistake Sir Oliver for a doctor. He has no idea what they are talking about. Nor does Sir Peter, who miraculously arrives unharmed. He throws the gossipers out of his house.

Rowley and Sir Oliver tease Sir Peter and they are all brought up to date on events. Sir Oliver exits to meet them at Joseph’s house later.

Sir Peter sees his distraught wife crying in the next room. He leaves to reconcile with her.

Act Two, scene 4

The library of Joseph Surface 

Lady Sneerwell is in a fury with Joseph but he believes that all is not lost. There is a knock at the door. It must be Sir Oliver. Lady Sneerwell hides in another room.

Instead, Joseph sees that it is the man he believes is Mr. Stanley. Furious, he tries to push him out before his uncle Oliver arrives. Charles comes in and chastises his brother for pushing out the man he believes is Mr. Premium. No matter. Uncle Oliver is coming and he mustn’t find either of them here. 

The Teazles, Rowley, and Maria arrive and identify Sir Oliver. They all denounce Joseph. Though Charles is fearful for his own fate, Sir Oliver reconciles with him. Lady Teazle tries to reconcile Charles and Maria, but Maria accuses him of longing to be with Lady Sneerwell.

Lady Sneerwell enters and attacks Charles. Snake arrives to clear up the mess. He is a double agent and has betrayed Lady Sneerwell’s plot.  Lady Teazle denounces Lady Sneerwell for a letter that she and Snake have forged pretending that she and Charles were having an affair. Enraged and defeated, Lady Sneerwell exits, followed by Joseph. Snake begs the rest not to reveal the fact that he has done a good deed. Maria and Charles are reconciled.

The cast encourages the audience to go home and make a little bit of scandal of their own.