Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 566
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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