Act 1 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1374

Act 1

Act 1 opens on Mrs. Johnstone, who expresses her wish that the narrative about to unfold were “just a story.” The Narrator, who assumes various minor roles during the play, tells the audience about the tragic fates of the Johnstone twins, who end up dying on the same day. A mime of the death of the twins briefly plays out onstage.

The scene shifts to a younger, pregnant Mrs. Johnstone, who has recently been abandoned by her husband. Living a life of extreme poverty, Mrs. Johnstone and her five children often go to bed hungry. However, Mrs. Johnstone is hopeful of the future, because she is due to start a new job soon. She promises they will soon have plenty of food to eat and “live like kings… like Marilyn Monroe.” Throughout the play, Mrs. Johnstone expresses her ambition to be like the actor Marilyn Monroe, whom her husband used to say she once resembled.

Mrs. Johnstone goes to work as a housekeeper at the home of the wealthy but lonely Mrs. Lyons. Mrs. Lyons is often left alone for several months as her husband travels for work. She wishes she could adopt a child to lessen her loneliness, but Mr. Lyons disapproves of adoption.

When Mrs. Johnstone hears the troubling news that she is to give the birth to twins, she fears the Welfare department may deem her unable to provide for two additional mouths and thus place her children in foster care. As a solution to Mrs. Johnstone’s predicament, Mrs. Lyons proposes that Mrs. Johnstone give her one of the babies once it is born. Since her husband is not due home for five more months, Mrs. Lyons can easily simulate a pregnancy and pretend she gave birth to a child while he was away. Though Mrs. Johnstone is reluctant to accept the proposal at first, she is ultimately convinced by the prospect that at least one of her children may have a better life. Mrs. Lyons promises Mrs. Johnstone she will be able to see her child regularly when she comes in to work.

However, Mrs. Johnstone does not immediately inform Mrs. Lyons of the birth of her twin sons. Mrs. Lyons visits Mrs. Johnstone and chides her for attempting to renege on her promise. Mrs. Johnstone requests that Mrs. Lyons let her keep the baby for a few more days, but Mrs. Lyons refuses to wait for her, because her husband is due home the next day. A dejected Mrs. Johnstone asks Mrs. Lyons to take any one of the infants while she looks away. Later she tells her older children that one of the babies “went to heaven.”

As Mrs. Johnstone resumes work at the Lyons house, Mrs. Lyons begins to resent her involvement with the baby, whom the Lyons have named Edward. Fearing Edward may get too attached to Mrs. Johnstone, Mrs. Lyons terminates Mrs. Johnstone’s employment. Not only does she offer Mrs. Johnstone money in exchange for her compliance, but Mrs. Lyons also manipulates Mrs. Johnstone by preying on her superstitious nature. She lies, telling Mrs. Johnstone the twins must never know they are related, because separated twins die the day they realize they are brothers. Terrified, Mrs. Lyons takes the money and exits.

In the next scene, Edward’s twin, Mickey, is seven years old. The Johnstone house is as chaotic as ever. Mrs. Johnstone fears that each knock on the door is from a debt-collector. Preoccupied, Mrs. Johnstone sends Mickey out to play. On the street, a petulant, lonely Mickey laments being bullied by his older brother Sammy. To his...

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delight, he is soon joined by another child his age: Edward. 

The two children immediately strike up a friendship, each attracted by the contrast in the other’s mannerism and temperament. They agree to become “blood brothers,” cutting their palms, shaking hands, and swearing a solemn oath of loyalty. Sammy approaches them with a cocked gun, steals Mickey’s sweets, and derides Edward for being a “poshy.” When Mrs. Johnstone appears on the street looking for Mickey, she is startled to discover that his new friend is Edward Lyons, the baby she gave away seven years ago. Shaken, she forbids Edward from visiting their street again.

Searching for Edward, Mickey visits the Lyons home, where Mrs. Lyons quickly deduces his identity. Sending Mickey away, she slaps Edward and warns him against “mixing with boys like that.” Edward is horrified to see this frightening side of his mother.

In the next scene, Edward watches longingly from his garden as children with toy guns play cops and robbers in the park. Mickey, Sammy, and their friend Linda are among the children. After Sammy and the older children leave, Mickey and Linda go up to Edward, inviting him to play with them. An overjoyed Edward sneaks out from under the garden fence and joins them. Disturbed by Edward’s growing closeness with Mickey and the other street children, Mrs. Lyons considers moving to the country. Though Mr. Lyons initially rejects her suggestion, he acquiesces to his wife when Edward is brought home by a policeman; he had been caught vandalising store windows in the company of Mickey and Linda.

Before the Lyons move to the country, Edward visits the Johnstone home to bid Mickey goodbye. Moved by Edward’s visible sorrow, Mrs. Johnstone gifts Edward a small photograph of her and Mickey, asking him to keep it a secret from his parents. Edward gives Mickey a toy gun as a keepsake.

In the country, Edward’s sadness persists. When Mrs. Lyons tries to show him a magpie to distract him, he covers his eyes and says it is bad luck, revealing a curiously familiar superstitious streak. Back in the city, Mickey is unable to process Edward’s absence. However, in a twist of fate, the City Council assigns the Johnstones better housing in the country. As the neighbours and policemen comically rejoice at the move, predicting a “drop in the crime rate,” Mrs. Johnstone is heartened at the prospect of living in a large house with plenty of “pure” air at their new address, “Sixty Five Skelmersdale Lane.”


Act 1 is rich with symbols and images commonly associated with superstitious beliefs, raising one of the key questions of the play: Are omens and superstitions real markers of human destinies, or are people’s lives largely predetermined by the forces of class and economics? Mrs. Johnstone is shown to be superstitious at the very onset, expressing fear when Mrs. Lyons places new shoes on a table, an act supposed to bring bad luck. Though Mrs. Lyons laughs off the superstition, the choric voice of the narrator is less dismissive. Like after every key development in the plot, it erupts here too, highlighting that

There’s shoes upon a table an’ a joker in the packThe salt’s been spilled and the looking glass cracked.

The ominous images of the cracked mirror, “the lone magpie,” and later, “a full moon shinin’” suggest the irreversible, inexorably tragic arc of the plot. However, the narrative suggests the tragedyis partly made “inevitable” by the actions of the two mothers at the heart of the story. In turn, their actions are driven by a merciless class system and their own insecurities. For instance, though Mrs. Lyons seals her agreement with Mrs. Johnstone over a copy of the Bible, she reneges on her end of the deal by denying Mrs. Johnstone access to Edward. Mrs. Lyons’s actions are both those of an opportunistic wealthy person exploiting the poor and those of a desperate mother who has to resort to subterfuge since her patriarchal husband wants only his “own” child.

The atmosphere of looming tragedy deepens with Mrs. Johnstone’s frequent invocation of Marilyn Monroe. Though the actor is a symbol of glamour and sophistication for Mrs. Johnstone, she is also a tragic figure, having committed suicide at the age of thirty-six. The invocation of Marilyn Monroe illustrates Mrs. Johnstone’s lack of discernment with regards to characters or situations. She is often shown to be out of touch with reality and deceived by superficial glamour, such as when she frequently orders goods from the catalogue without being able to pay for them.


Act 2 Summary and Analysis