Summary

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Last Updated on January 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1569

First produced: 1910

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First published: 1911

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Social criticism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Locale: London

Principal Characters:

Henry Huxtable

Katherine, his wife

Constantine Madras, Katherine's brother

Amelia Madras, his wife

Philip Madras, their son

Jessica, Philip's wife

Major Hippisly Thomas, Philip's friend

Marion Yates, an employee at the Madras House

Eustace Perrin State, an American, a prospective buyer of the Madras House

Miss Chancellor, and

Mr. Brigstock, also employees at the Madras House

Critique:

THE MADRAS HOUSE is a dramatic work still interesting in the contemporary theater. A problem play of the type popularized by Ibsen and Shaw at the turn of the century, it attempts to deal realistically with several related themes: the contrast between sexual honesty and sexual hypocrisy, the contrast between bourgeois respectability and real honesty in human dealings, the inevitability of social change even in connection with a long-established commercial institution like the Madras House, and the contrast in all personal relations between expressed motive and real motive. As in his other works, the playwright asked his audiences to think about themselves and the standards of the world which they at the time were far too likely to take for granted. If Granville-Barker's dramas seem a little old-fashioned to some persons today, the causes are simple: we enjoy certain freedoms because the characters on his stage talked about them at length. Further, we have had full experience of enjoying those freedoms and find that pursuit of them may at one and the same time free us from old restrictions and plunge us into new ones, ambiguities of human action that the author of THE MADRAS HOUSE did not foresee.

The Story:

Henry Huxtable, his wife, and six spinster daughters lived in dreary middle-class respectability, supported by the income from a great store, the Madras-House. Their lives were in sharp contrast to that of the sales persons who were required to "live in" at store dormitories closely supervised to make sure that the store was actually as respectable as it seemed to be. Another owner was Constantine Madras, Katherine Huxtable's brother, who had retreated from England and respectability and had lived for many years in Moslem countries.

The time had come for the sale of the Madras House; such a sale had been necessitated by confusion in family affairs. On an October Sunday, Philip Madras, Constantine's son, heard that his father had returned to England, and he was distressed by this news of the reappearance of the elderly black sheep. But this was not the only problem that Philip wished to discuss with his uncle, Henry Huxtable. The morale of the store had been upset by the discovery that one of the closely supervised girls at the store, Marion Yates, was pregnant. It was suspected that her betrayer was Mr. Brigstock, another sales person, for he had been seen kissing the disgraced girl. The old immorality of Constantine—who, it was soon learned, had lived as the master of a harem in Arabia—and the current immorality of Marion were threats to what the Huxtables called decency.

First, the Marion Yates situation was inquired into. It was immediately apparent that the young woman would refuse to name the father of her child. Instead, she planned to bear it and bring it up as her nephew or niece; the child, at least, would not be affected by family pressures for which the Huxtables stood.

Another problem that came up concerned the prospective buyer of the store, an American named State. Mr. State distressed everyone by talking in excessively naive terms. All his phrases—such as "the Needs of the Gentler Sex" and "Woman's Noble Instinct to Perpetuate the Race"—seemed to come from his mouth in capital letters; he was a grotesque representative of an early stage of modern advertising. Furthermore, he insultingly believed that his methods were in advance of British ones and that his presence in England would change for the better the English system of merchandising.

To State's unconscious hypocrisy and to the self-conscious respectability of the Huxtables, Constantine Madras opposed himself and his own nature. At great length he defended his own pattern of life, one in which man was free to do what he liked and in which woman learned to like what man did. He pointed out that Arabian culture had not been feminized and intellectualized as, he claimed, had happened in England. To all such remarks, his hearers lent a shocked ear.

A further complication arose when Philip learned that he had a problem of his own: his wife Jessica felt neglected and was ready to fall in love with Philip's best friend, Major Thomas. For the first time Philip was forced to recognize that his wife was a woman and an individual as well as a wife. His reaction to Jessica's problem was complicated by the fact that he felt contempt for sentimentalities displayed during his mother's fruitless interview with her estranged husband Constantine.

Philip's moderately respectable soul was still more disturbed when he learned that his father was the father of Marion Yates's unborn child. But Constantine did not blush at this revelation; he merely demanded care and protection for Marion and favored the company with a discourse on English priggishness. But Constantine, in turn, was distressed when Marion refused any assistance from him. Confused by her lack of social docility and feminine meekness, Constantine retreated to a cab and, eventually, to his Arabian household.

Still unresolved was the relationship between Philip and his wife. He finally recognized her as a person. To please her as well as himself, he gave up his interest in the Madras House, leaving it to Mr. State, the American. His plan was to talk matters over with his wife and to engage in activities useful to society. Both he and Jessica found themselves united by a hope that they could work together to improve the conditions of a faulty society which the sale of the Madras House had called to their attention.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

Near the beginning of Harley Granville-Barker's THE MADRAS HOUSE, the protagonist, Philip Madras, says "what are the two most important things in a man's character? His attitude towards money and his attitude toward women." That states the subject matter of this lively, provocative drama—money, women, and the relationship between them in Edwardian England. Although the play is loosely structured around the pending sale of Madras House, the real action of the play centers on two dynamic characters who challenge the social and moral assumptions of upper-class English society: Miss Yates, an employee of the firm and a soon-to-be unwed mother, and Constantine Madras, the returning black sheep of the Madras family.

Marion Yates's assault on Edwardian propriety comes from the fact that she refuses to accept either of the roles assigned a girl in her situation; she is neither a "bad girl" nor a "victimized" one. She asks no favors, declines to name the prospective father, and, finally, refuses all offers of financial aid.

Constantine presents a different kind of moral challenge. An incorrigible philanderer, he left his wife in England and went to a country, Southern Arabia, where he could indulge his sensual instincts free from social restraints. He found a religion, Muhammedanism, which allowed him to do so without hesitation or guilt. His casual sexuality shocks his proper English relatives, but his rational defenses of his conduct pose severe tests to their moral assumptions. He makes an especially telling point when he compares his "honest" harem to the unnatural "industrial seraglio" maintained at Madras House where the economic system makes "slaves" out of the women. Although it is clear that Constantine's lechery is actually based on a disdain for women, his blatant doctrine of male superiority is refreshing when contrasted with the hypocritical double standard practiced by conventional English gentlemen.

But the focal point of the drama lies in the "education" of Philip Madras. When Marion Yates confronts him with her problem, he is most impressed by her courage, energy, and innate moral sense; he sees the injustice of her situation and feels extremely frustrated because, trapped in his role as an owner of Madras House, he can do nothing to help her. As he confesses: "I have unconventional opinions, but I don't do unconventional things." Philip is also annoyed by his father's refusal to see women as other than objects of pleasure, but he comes to realize that his own disinterested "understanding" is little better. He accepts the justice of his wife's comment that he is an intellectual edition of his father.

Thus, Philip comes to terms with his own attitudes and feelings, especially as they relate to his career and marriage. He at last accepts his wife Jessica as a separate person and includes her in his plans. But, as for her, they both have to admit that, in Edwardian England at least, there is no meaningful social role for her to play.

Jessica's speech merely trails off and MADRAS HOUSE ends on a problematical note. Granville-Barker has dramatically explored the problem of sexual inequality as thoroughly as any playwright of his era and the result is amusing and provocative. But he arrives at no solid conclusions because the answers were not to be found in the society of his time. Nor, perhaps, are they to be found even in our own time.

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