Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1240
The entire play takes place in the home of Leonard and Charlotte Ardsley, situated in a small country town outside of Canterbury, England. One afternoon, Mrs. Ardsley takes tea with her son Sydney, who has become blind as a result of war injuries. She tells him that her daughter Ethel has arrived and that her husband, Howard, will pick her up later. The two discuss Howard’s drinking problem and his relationship with Ethel.
Ethel arrives with Gwen, a family friend, whose pitying tone toward Sydney becomes quite annoying. Mrs. Ardsley’s younger daughters, Lois and Eva, soon come in from playing tennis with Wilfred Cedar, Gwen’s husband, and Collie Stratton, another family friend. As Eva leaves to get the maid, the others discuss the fact that Eva never got over losing her fiancé during the war. Gwen makes ignorant remarks about class in front of Ethel, who has married beneath her, and the others upbraid Gwen for it.
Wilfred decides to stay and play another game of tennis and talks Gwen into leaving him there, which she reluctantly agrees to do. Sydney tells the others how much he appreciates how well Eva takes care of him. Collie and Wilfred discuss Lois’s limited marital prospects in the small town. Collie admits that he is having financial problems with his auto business and asks Wilfred for a loan, but Wilfred refuses.
After Wilfred leaves, Eva appears with tea and they discuss her care of Sydney. She tries to encourage Collie to find a wife, but he rebuffs her suggestion. Leonard arrives; he offers his sympathy and advice about Collie’s financial problems. After the rest leave, Mrs. Ardsley discusses her medical problem with her brother, a doctor.
When they are alone, Wilfred tells Lois that he is “crazy about” her and suggests that she run off with him. Lois refuses his advances, insisting that he is old enough to be her father. Howard arrives and, after quickly assessing the situation, tells Wilfred to leave Lois alone. When Gwen appears, Wilfred becomes livid, calling her a fool for her jealousy and insisting that she leave immediately. After Howard falls into a drunken sleep, Ethel tries to defend him to Eva. Eva soon leaves to play chess with Sydney, a game she admittedly loathes.
Eva gets increasingly agitated as she and Sydney argue while playing chess until finally, she throws all the pieces on the floor. Eva declares that she does not want to be his caretaker any longer and is sick of “being a drudge.” Mrs. Ardsley tries to get Eva to sympathize with Sydney’s situation, but Eva cannot, insisting that she has already given enough—the man that she loved. Eva fears that she will never have another opportunity for marriage. After she rushes out of the room in tears, Sydney tells his mother that he understands Eva’s feelings and does not blame her for them.
Gwen arrives and tells Mrs. Ardsley that she thinks her husband is in love with Lois. Mrs. Ardsley advises her to ignore him and says that nothing will come of it. Lois soon appears wearing a pearl necklace that she claims is fake, but that Gwen suspects is real. Her mother tells Lois that she thinks she needs a rest at her aunt’s for a week or two. Later, Lois confronts Wilfred about whether the pearls he gave her are real. When he admits that they are, Lois insists that she cannot accept them, but he soon changes her mind. He confesses his love again and asks her to run away with him.
Lois tells Ethel of Wilfred’s proposal and Ethel tries to talk her sister out of it. Their conversation shifts to Ethel’s relationship with Howard, who Lois says is “common.” Ethel admits that she had a strong physical attraction for him when she met him and that she fell in love with him. Lois concludes that she is not as romantic as her sister. She tells Ethel that she will not run away with Wilfred but admits that “it’s rather exciting to have the chance.”
Later that afternoon, Ardsley informs Collie that Collie will most likely be sent to jail for the bad checks that he wrote on his overdrawn account. Collie complains that a naval hero should not be treated so poorly and asks Ardsley for his help. Ardsley insists that there is little that he can do.
After Ardsley leaves, Eva appears and begs Collie to let her help him by lending him money. Collie refuses, noting the impropriety of her offer. Eva admits her feelings toward him and suggests that they become engaged, which would make it easier for him to accept the money. When Collie rejects her, suggesting that some day she will find someone that she “really like[s],” Eva is humiliated. Collie apologizes and leaves.
When Lois later criticizes Howard’s drinking, he admits that he likes “to have a good old laugh now and again,” but that Ethel does not. Howard tells Lois that she appears to be “a bit of a devil” and asks for a kiss. Ignoring her protests, he kisses her, which makes her furious. He tries to convince her that she is “missing out” and invites her up to his farm. His obvious desire for her makes her pause, but Mrs. Ardsley’s appearance breaks the tension. When Mrs. Ardsley tells her daughter that she has made arrangements for her to visit her aunt, Lois agrees.
Later, Wilfred confronts Lois, begging her not to leave, but she refuses. He convinces her to keep the pearls and insists that he would do anything for her. The others come in and discuss Lois’ trip when Ardsley bursts in and tells them that Collie has shot himself. Eva breaks down, blaming all of them for not trying to save him, and insists that she and Collie were engaged.
When Lois and Howard are left alone, Lois admits that she is attracted to him. Later Sydney expresses guilt over Collie’s fate and blames the government for not taking care of the men who served in the war. When his father tries to defend the country, Sydney argues that men were sacrificed to the government’s “vanity, their greed, and their stupidity” and that patriotism and glory are “bunk.” Howard admits that he enjoyed the war since it was more exciting than his life now.
Mrs. Ardsley’s doctor tells Mrs. Ardsley that she needs an operation or she will not live more than a few months. Realizing that she has cancer, Mrs. Ardsley refuses. Mrs. Ardsley concludes that the knowledge that she is going to die gives her “a funny sort of thrill” because she is now free.
Gwen appears and informs Mrs. Ardsley that Lois and Wilfred are running off to London. She begs Lois not to go, insisting that she will never give her husband a divorce. Lois later admits to Ethel that she does not love Wilfred, but she enjoys having power over him. Eva walks into the room, drugged, and announces that Collie is coming. In the final scene, Ardsley appears, telling his family how wonderful it is to have them all together and praises England “and all it stands for.” The play closes with Eva singing “God save the King,” “in a thin and cracked voice,” which horrifies everyone.