Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1917
The Au Pair Man opens in the London home of Mrs. Rogers. The doorbell rings, chiming the English national anthem. Mrs. Rogers answers the door. Her visitor is Eugene, an Irishman employed by the furniture company Weatherby and Fitch. He has come to collect payment on a wall unit that she bought some time before but never paid for. She is using it as a room divider, though it should be put against a wall. Mrs. Rogers explains that there was once a wall behind the unit, but it fell down. The wall unit is holding up what is left of the ceiling. Mrs. Rogers denies that she bought the unit, claiming it was a gift. Eugene says that Weatherby and Fitch have sent him, the newest employee, to collect Mrs. Rogers’s debt as an initiative test.
Mrs. Rogers plies Eugene with whiskey. She admires his fountain pen and asks to borrow it. She says that she has no intention of paying for the wall unit but acknowledges that if he fails to collect on the bill, he will be fired. She reassures him that there are other jobs. In fact, she is advertising for an au pair man. Her husband is often away selling his collection of stamps from the British colonies and needs someone to keep his collection in order, write letters, and pay bills. She emphasizes that she needs an au pair, not a secretary, as a secretary is paid but an au pair is not. She adds that Eugene would not be suitable. Eugene at first says he does not want the post as he wants a job with prospects, but then he demands to know why he is not good enough. She lists his failings, including dirty fingernails, ungrammatical speech, and body odor. Eugene is irritated that she is discriminating against him on the grounds of class.
Eugene tells her that some time ago, a previous employee of Weatherby’s called Wilson took all her records and went to her house to collect the money that she owes. He did not return for a long time. When he finally reappeared, he looked emaciated and worn out. He offered to return Mrs. Rogers’s address to the firm in return for being reinstated in his job. Mrs. Rogers reveals that Wilson was her previous au pair man. Wilson had begged her to give him the job, but she had found him lazy, and his fountain pen defective. Two days earlier, he had left without saying goodbye. Though Wilson had told her that he had torn up her records, he was evidently lying.
Eugene says that he would never tell her that he had torn up the papers but would do so in front of her. He does so. Each time he makes a tear, Mrs. Rogers lets out a little groan. He asks her to make him her au pair man. Mrs. Rogers is evasive and vanishes into her bedroom. Eugene, thinking he will have to go back to Weatherby’s, tries to piece together the torn papers. Mrs. Rogers’s head appears through a hatch. She warns him that she is watching him. She asks him who he is. Eugene tells her a story of how he went to the cinema and was groped sexually by an unknown girl. He had reciprocated, but when the lights came on at the end of the film, the girl had looked at him and shouted, “You’re not Charlie.” Mrs. Rogers enters, wearing a negligee. Eugene tells her with some shame that he is not Charlie. She picks up the torn papers and puts them in the waste bin. She says that Charlie was probably tiresome and fondles his hair. As he gazes at her legs, he wonders how Wilson became so emaciated.
Eugene reflects that he feels more cheerful than when he came in. Mrs. Rogers says that this is because she has cultivated the art of being feminine, and she always aims to please men. She promises that she is never jealous or possessive. She offers him the job of au pair man on a trial basis. Eugene agrees. Together, they set fire to the papers in the waste bin. He eagerly follows Mrs. Rogers into her bedroom.
Some time has passed. Eugene is reading aloud from a book. He is dressed in expensive new clothes and his diction is improved. The book consists of points, written by Benjamin Franklin, explaining why older women are better sexual partners than young ones. Mrs. Rogers enters from the bedroom. She is educating Eugene in English history and tells him a story about Queen Elizabeth I. Eugene wonders how practical such knowledge will be; he would rather be instructed in the art of witty conversation. Mrs. Rogers reminds him how well he is being looked after and how comfortable his room is (the area behind the wall unit), with its canopy over the bed to catch the falling plaster. She cannot understand how he could be interested in the world outside her home, which has become a frightening place full of foreigners. Eugene is disturbed to discover that it is not part of Mrs. Rogers’s plan to make him better equipped for the outside world, and that he is her prisoner. He wants a wealthy lifestyle, with fast cars and beautiful women. He also wants to go home dressed in a smart suit to impress his mother. Mrs. Rogers reminds him that she is not possessive and that he can go home one day. But when he mentions that he has been traveling on a bus, she interrogates him about where he went. Then she asks to borrow his fountain pen. He tells her to get her own, as she is wearing his out. She steals it, locks it in a box, and puts the key down her décolletage, challenging him to retrieve it. He refuses and breaks open her box. To his horror, many fountain pens fall out.
One night, Eugene comes in drunk. He has to go through Mrs. Rogers’s bedroom to reach his own. He tries to creep into his room without waking her. She is heard calling him by the names of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorites; she is, perhaps, asleep and dreaming that she is the queen. Eugene takes a shelf out of the wall unit and tries to dive headfirst through the hole, but gets stuck midway, his trousers round his ankles. Mrs. Rogers comes in and switches on the lights. She is angry, telling him that he could have broken the wall unit, and that walls are vital because they provide segregation. She quizzes Eugene about where he has been and with whom, and he admits that he went to a nightclub. He reminds her that she claimed never to be jealous or possessive. Mrs. Rogers says that if she seems possessive, it is because he is untrustworthy. She could not be jealous, as there is no emotional involvement between them. How could there be, she asks, as he is so “sadly underdeveloped”?
Mrs. Rogers adopts a conciliatory approach, saying that friends should have no secrets from one another. She asks him why he drank so much. He replies that when he is drunk, he can remember his homeland. He says that after getting drunk in the club, he picked up a woman and pinned her against a tree. Unfortunately, she turned out to be a policewoman. He stole her police whistle and walked away. He shows Mrs. Rogers the whistle. Jealous of his giving attention to another woman, she taunts and insults him. Furious, he goes to pack his things. She tells him he cannot leave, as “the streets are filled with Australians.” She tries to charm him into staying by promising him his own coat of arms but cannot resist another insult. Eugene kicks the wall unit, and one of the legs flies off. She takes the whistle and blows it to summon the police.
Time has passed. The wall unit is buckling from the pressure of the walls and ceiling. Eugene appears outside, dressed in a suit and bowler hat, and rings the doorbell. Mrs. Rogers, who has invited him, asks him in. She compliments him on his smart appearance. It becomes clear that Eugene has learned the English manners that she was trying to teach him.
Eugene warns her that her house is badly dilapidated and compares it to the Titanic, the British ship that sank in 1912. He reveals that he has a girlfriend called Rose, whose family owns several large houses. They do not work, as they have a rich relative who supports them. Rose does not approve of their idle lives. Mrs. Rogers suggests that marriage to Eugene might correct her attitude. Eugene says he is now working for the estate agent Loman and Selway, as Rose insisted that he have a job. Mrs. Rogers says he must get ahead quickly in his career and then throw it aside, as a gentleman only works as a hobby.
Eugene tells her that he is on another initiative test. He has been sent to evict Mrs. Rogers from her home. She protests that she owns it, but he replies that the land on which it is built belongs to a landlord for whom Loman and Selway acts as agent. He shows her a glossy brochure: the landlord is offering to move Mrs. Rogers to a new development called Runnymede. Mrs. Rogers reacts hysterically. Acting like Queen Elizabeth I under threat, she shouts for imaginary guards, seizes an old sword, attacks Eugene and threatens to behead him, and runs the brochure through. Finally, she plunges the sword into the wall, where it sticks. Eugene points out that the house is a wreck and even the electricity has been cut off because Mrs. Rogers refuses to spend any of her huge wealth on it. Mrs. Rogers tells him to leave. Eugene persists, saying that she has broken the lease by not doing repairs and the house is dragging down the neighborhood. He produces an ancient lease, which states that if she, the tenant, fails to keep the house in order, it will revert to the landlord. In any case, the local authority has slated the house for demolition on public health grounds. Mrs. Rogers reluctantly signs a document agreeing to go to Runnymede. Then she reveals that she is Rose’s rich relative. Eugene, speechless, drops his papers.
Mrs. Rogers tells him that after he left her employ, she arranged for Rose to look after him. She predicts that in ten years’ time, Rose will have lost her rebelliousness and be exactly like her. She has Eugene within her power: if she refuses to go to Runnymede, he will lose his job with Loman and Selway and his marriage prospects with Rose; if she goes to Runnymede, Rose will be angry that she has been dispossessed, and he will also lose her. She suggests that Eugene catch up with the work that needs to be done in her house. As she briefly steps out of the room, Eugene seizes the sword and seems ready to kill her. She comes in carrying the waste bin and orders him to tidy up his papers. He drops to his knees, picks them up, and puts them in the bin. The clock chimes, but the chimes sound like a record that is running down.