The play opens on a summer afternoon in the garden of Hindhead View, a cottage south of Surrey, England. Twenty-two-year-old Vivie Warren lies in a hammock, reading and making notes, until she is interrupted by Mr. Praed, a middle-aged gentleman who is her mother’s friend. During their opening conversation, Vivie reveals her negative attitude toward traditional women’s roles. Praed appreciates her unconventionality until she admits that she has no interest in romance and beauty, which shocks his strong aesthetic sensibility. When Vivie asks Praed whether he thinks she will get along with her mother, with whom she has spent little time, he suggests that Mrs. Warren may be disappointed in her unconventionality. Vivie admits that she knows little about her mother’s life, which clearly embarrasses Praed as he struggles to find an appropriate description of her. Vivie begins to grow suspicious about her mother as she notes Praed’s unease.
Mrs. Warren arrives with Sir George Crofts. As Vivie prepares for tea inside, Praed advises her mother to ‘‘treat her with every respect,’’ noting that Vivie is a grown woman and most likely ‘‘older’’ than the rest of them. Mrs. Warren dismisses this notion and goes into the cottage to help Vivie. While chatting with Praed in the garden, Crofts asks him whether Mrs. Warren has ever revealed to him the identity of Vivie’s father. Praed admits he does not know and insists that the matter should be of no concern, for they must ‘‘take [Vivie] on her own merits.’’ Crofts admits that he is attracted to Vivie and wonders whether he could be her father.
After Crofts enters the cottage, Praed is hailed by Frank Gardner, the son of the local rector, who admits that he is staying with his father after running up considerable debts. He tells Praed that he has been spending time with Vivie, whom he considers a ‘‘jolly girl.’’ Before Frank can tell Praed how serious his affection is for Vivie, his father appears and Praed goes in to tea. When the two are left alone, Frank reveals his feelings toward Vivie to his father, who subsequently criticizes her social position. After the reverend notes Frank’s extravagant lifestyle, his son reminds him of an incident in his father’s past when he offered a woman money to retrieve letters he had written to her. Alarmed that someone might hear, the reverend begs Frank to drop the matter. When the two join the others for tea, Mrs. Warren exclaims in front of them all that she still has the letters the reverend has written to her, which leaves him ‘‘miserably confused.’’
That evening Frank flirts with Mrs. Warren, insisting that she come to Vienna with him. She gently rebuffs him but then gives him a kiss. Angry with herself, she tells him to turn his attentions to Vivie. However, when Frank admits that he has, she is outraged until he insists that his intentions are honorable. Later, when Mrs. Warren considers the possibility of Vivie and Frank’s union, the reverend deems it ‘‘impossible.’’ His avoidance of any explanation suggests that he thinks that he might be Vivie’s father. Before the matter is settled, Crofts declares that Vivie cannot marry Frank, because he is penniless. Mrs. Warren overrides Frank’s protests that Vivie will marry for love, not money, by declaring, ‘‘if you have no means of keeping a wife . . . you can’t have [her].’’ Undeterred, Frank determines to ask Vivie to marry him immediately.
At that moment, Vivie and Praed enter the cottage, and the discussion is dropped. After the others go in to dinner, Frank and Vivie stay behind, yet Frank does not bring up the subject of marriage. Vivie condemns ‘‘wasters’’ like Crofts, ‘‘shifting along from one meal to another with no purpose, and no character, and no grit,’’ and determines that she will never end up like him. When Frank admits that Croft’s ability to get by without employment is appealing, Vivie cuts him short, exclaiming that he is getting ‘‘tiresome.’’
Later, when Crofts reveals his interest in Vivie, Mrs. Warren adopts a protective, motherly tone and insists that he is not good enough for her. Crofts ignores her insult and presses her, arguing that the three of them could live together ‘‘quite comfortably.’’ He then attempts to buy her approval, but she angrily refuses. Enraged, Crofts runs out when he hears the others come in.
Praed, Crofts, and Frank depart for the Gardner home to retire for the evening, leaving Mrs. Warren alone with her daughter. The two soon get into an argument about how Vivie will now live. When Mrs. Warren insists that she has the right to determine her daughter’s future, Vivie admits that she knows nothing about her mother and begins to quiz her. Mrs. Warren becomes quite flustered, especially when Vivie demands to know who her father is. Suspecting that her father might be Crofts, Vivie declares that she will leave the next day unless her mother tells...
(The entire section is 2053 words.)