Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2053
Act I 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...
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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 her the truth. Mrs. Warren explains that Crofts is not her father and reveals that she is not sure who is.
Vivie handles the news of her mother’s promiscuity dispassionately. Unable to gain sympathy from her daughter, Mrs. Warren becomes increasingly agitated until she reverts to her natural, colloquial tongue and berates Vivie for her lack of understanding. She insists that she had no choice but to live as she had, for she did not have the advantages that she has provided for Vivie. When Vivie argues that her mother must have had some choice concerning her future, Mrs. Warren tells her the details of her difficult life growing up in poverty, arguing that prostitution was the only way she and her sister could survive. She explains that the ‘‘highclass,’’ profitable brothel in Brussels, which she and her sister ran, afforded them a measure of independence in a world where women’s lives were controlled by men.
After listening to her mother’s story, Vivie becomes visibly moved, telling Mrs. Warren that she is ‘‘a wonderful woman . . . stronger than all England.’’ Her mother admits to feeling a combination of shame and pride in her ability to raise her daughter as a ‘‘lady.’’ As Vivie insists that they will be ‘‘good friends now,’’ the two women end the evening in a loving, familial embrace.
In the reverend’s garden the next morning, Frank chides his father for the inebriated stories of ‘‘his fiery youth’’ that he told long into the previous evening. Praed cautions Frank to treat his father with more respect. Frank’s true feelings about Mrs. Warren’s social standing then surface as he admits that his mother most likely went to town that morning to avoid her visit to their home. He warns his father to hide the truth about his relationship with Mrs. Warren and declares his disgust when he thinks about the time Vivie must spend with her.
Later, when Vivie and Mrs. Warren arrive, Vivie warns Frank about making fun of her mother and demands that he show her respect. Frank refuses and scolds her for her newfound ‘‘sentimentality’’ in her attitude toward her mother. Vivie angrily declares that her previous attitude marked her as a ‘‘prig’’ and that she has now come to understand and appreciate her mother’s hardships. They continue to argue about Mrs. Warren’s character and Vivie’s continuing relationship with her until Frank turns romantic, calming Vivie with silly baby talk. Vivie succumbs to his lovemaking for a moment, admitting that she wants to forget about her mother but then abruptly snaps out of her romantic revelry, insisting they are being childish.
When Crofts arrives, Frank leaves. After criticizing Frank’s lack of a profession, Crofts proposes an offer of marriage to Vivie, which includes considerable money and position. Vivie refuses, but Crofts continues to press his case, insisting that she would become a wealthy young widow, due to his advanced age. He then informs her that he has been and still is her mother’s business partner, which shocks Vivie who had mistakenly thought that her mother had given up her life in prostitution. Crofts explains that Mrs. Warren has been quite successful running ‘‘businesses’’ in several European locations and that Vivie would benefit from the family’s profits. When Vivie admits that she knows that these businesses are brothels, Crofts becomes enraged.
Vivie dismisses Crofts’s offer of marriage with ‘‘contemptuous self-possession,’’ as she determines him to be ‘‘a pretty common sort of scoundrel’’ for exploiting her mother for profit. Crofts laughs at her superior air and notes that many in the upper class have been engaged in similarly dubious transactions in order to maintain their wealth. Vivie then recognizes that her education has been paid for by her mother’s gains from her businesses and ashamedly admits that she is ‘‘as bad as’’ Crofts. After Crofts tries to reassure her that no one cares how one gets money as long as one gets it, Vivie angrily rebukes a society that would support the actions of men like him who exploit young women for profit.
As an enraged Crofts threatens her, Frank suddenly appears with a gun, warning Crofts that he can be ‘‘careless’’ with firearms. Before Crofts storms off, he tells Frank that Vivie is his half sister and that the reverend is her father. As Frank takes aim at the departing figure, Vivie seizes the gun and pulls it to her chest, insisting that Frank now fire. Frank immediately drops the gun and holds his arms out to her in a romantic gesture. Disgusted, Vivie turns away and leaves.
Frank and Vivie meet in her office in London. He tries to convince her to enjoy the Saturday afternoon at leisure with him, but Vivie tells him that she has to work. When Frank insists that he does not believe she is his sister and even if she were, it would not alter his romantic feelings for her, she tells him that a sisterly relationship is the only type she wants with him. Frank mistakenly assumes that she has fallen in love with someone else. Praed soon arrives to say goodbye before he leaves for Italy. He tries again to spark in Vivie an aesthetic sensibility, but Vivie insists that there is ‘‘no beauty and no romance in life’’ for her. When
Praed mentions the beauty of Brussels, Vivie’s temper flares, remembering that the city houses one of her mother’s brothels. She warns them both that if they are to remain friends, they must drop the subjects of love and beauty and treat her ‘‘as a woman of business, permanently single and permanently unromantic.’’ Vivie, however, cannot contain her distress over her mother’s continued involvement in her profession and eventually blurts out the truth to Frank and Praed. The two men insist that they will remain her devoted friends, and Praed commends her for her courage. After Vivie retreats to another room, Frank admits to Praed that he could not marry Vivie now, because of the way her family’s money was earned, and he could not allow her to support him.
Mrs. Warren soon arrives, and Frank and Praed leave in order to give mother and daughter some privacy. After Vivie tells her mother that she will in the future support herself and that each of them should live separate lives, Mrs. Warren tries to deter her, insisting that no one will blame Vivie for her mother’s actions. She pleads with her daughter not to turn her back on a comfortable life and ‘‘break [her] heart.’’ Vivie, however, refuses to be swayed, arguing that she would be ‘‘worthless’’ if she took her mother’s money.
When Vivie then demands to know why her mother continued in business after she became financially independent, Mrs. Warren tells her that she is not suited for any other work and that it really does no ‘‘harm.’’ Vivie refuses to give into what she calls her mother’s ‘‘cheap tears and entreaties’’ to stay with her, which throws Mrs. Warren into a rage. The two part with Mrs. Warren refusing to shake Vivie’s hand, and Vivie returns to her work.