Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1191
Rites begins with a procession of workmen dressed in white overalls, who construct the walls and cubicles of a public lavatory (the British term for restroom). They then bring in a large mirror, toilet bowls, and cisterns. They bang and hammer away, and this is followed by a sound of simultaneous flushing. The workmen then bring two large chairs, a notice about venereal disease clinics, a sanitary towel machine, and a perfume spray.
Two women enter. Meg begins cleaning, while Ada, the manager of the facility, sits at the mirror and begins putting on her make-up, admiring the results.
As she cleans, Meg complains about her job. She hopes that Ada will get her expected promotion and take her with her, but Ada refuses to promise anything. Ada discusses the man she was with the previous night; it becomes clear that by night she is a prostitute. She spends so much time at the mirror because she wants to make the best of what she has, so that she can charge a higher price.
Meg and Ada turn away an old woman who normally eats her breakfast in one of the cubicles because the woman is too early and they are not yet open. Meg admires Ada for being clever and Ada says she learns what she knows from the financial pages of the newspaper. Meg, however, is more interested in the daily horoscopes and persuades Ada to read some of them to her.
After the old woman returns and goes to the first cubicle to eat, three office girls enter, chattering about the date one of them had the previous night. After using the toilets, the second office girl and Norma complain to Ada about obscene graffiti on the walls. The three girls claim to be shocked and say that only men could have done it.
Meg takes up her knitting; the finished product will be a Christmas gift for a man, and Ada chides her for taking so long to complete it. The conversations continue in a disjointed kind of way. Norma announces that she wants to take the day off work; Ada reads some financial news out loud; Norma recites something from a romance novel she memorized, and Ada responds by talking to Norma about relations between the sexes in terms of assets and takeover bids. The office girls discuss a newspaper advice column and one girl cracks a joke that makes them all scream with laughter.
Nellie and Dot, two respectably dressed women in their sixties, enter. Nellie remarks how she used to clean her husband's shoes every day of their life together. The office girls say they would never do that, but acknowledge how different things were for women of that generation. Norma remarks how terrible it must be to be old. Nellie continues to describe the dull routine she shared with her late husband. As the women talk about baldness, hair and wigs, the office girls get Elizabeth I (who wore a wig) mixed up with another historical figure, Mary Queen of Scots, who was beheaded.
Norma complains about being at the beck and call of her boss, and Ada says she wouldn' t stand for it. But the girls say their office jobs are better than being on a factory production line or in the typing pool. Ada proudly says that she works for no man, and Nellie comments that her husband would not allow her to work. Now she and Dot are widowed, but they manage to keep themselves occupied with shopping and other trips. They have their pensions so do not...
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have financial worries, which prompts Norma to remark that it sounds as if they are better off without their husbands. Taking up the topic of men, the first office girl complains that you cannot talk to them, unless they are married.
After more conversation, a girl comes in, buys a towel from the machine and goes to the second cubicle. The women discuss the matter of privacy, and Dot explains that there is more privacy than in the "gents" lavatory and describes how she once went to one.
Two women enter, leading in a toddler boy (who is represented by a realistic doll). The first woman picks him up and makes a fuss of him, while the other women make some observations: Nellie says they grow up too fast, while Ada thinks that some of them never do, and tells the woman that the toddler is too old to be brought into the women's restroom. Meg wonders how Ada knows the toddler is a boy, since according to Nellie he looks more like a girl. They decide to find out. Ada takes down the boy's trousers and his loose, long-legged pants. The women make remarks about his penis, and Ada even alludes to castration, but then they say they mean no harm and are only looking. The two women dress the boy, and Ada bitterly criticizes the others' attitudes toward love and relationships.
There is a crash from the second cubicle. The women ask the girl inside if she is all right, but there is no answer. The third office girl crouches down and looks under the door. The girl inside has her head in the pan, and blood is visible. After some discussion of what they should do, the third office girl climbs up and gets into the cubicle and opens it from the inside. The women haul the girl out and discover that she has cut her wrists, but the damage appears to be superficial. The girl calls out the name of a man and then cries. She has obviously been jilted.
Except for Ada and the stricken girl, the women then begin to dance the latest version of a dance called the shake. They chant that they do not need men. As they dance, the derelict old woman who has been eating her breakfast in the first cubicle, emerges. The women encircle her and aggressively sing a song called ‘‘Knees up Mother Brown.’’ This is repeated until it reaches a frenzy, and the old woman cowers in fear.
Then another figure, dressed like a man, emerges from one of the cubicles and tries to run to the exit. Ada calls him a spy, and all the women, including the old woman who has just been tormented, fall upon the figure. During a violent scuffle, there is a scream and then another cry. The crowd of women breaks apart, revealing a tattered figure wrapped in bloody clothing. Horrified, Norma announces that it was a woman, not a man. The other women are shocked. They decide to stuff the body down the incinerator.
The lavatory gradually empties. The office girls help the injured girl to her feet and leave. Nellie and Dot go back to discussing their hats, and then they leave also. Ada tells the two women with the toddler to leave. Ada then shoos the old woman away and goes back to the mirror and retouches her make-up. Meg resumes her cleaning, and she and Ada continue the kind of conversation they were having when the play began.