The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The first act of this two-act play, presented in seven scenes, shows the destruction of Mary Haines’s marriage. When the curtain opens, Mary is absent. Four women sit playing bridge, smoking and gossiping as Sylvia Fowler complains about her husband. He expects her to stay home and keep house despite their wealth and servants. The other players include the young Peggy; Nancy, a writer; and Edith, a colorless and sloppy woman unhappily pregnant. When Edith leaves the room, Sylvia tells the others of Edith’s husband’s unfaithfulness. Sylvia has also heard that Stephen Haines has a mistress. By the end of the scene, Sylvia plans to take Mary to the beauty shop, where Mary will hear about her husband. The second scene takes place in that shop. Nancy, a professional woman whose next book, she later suggests, will be titled Gone with the Ice-Man or Sex Has No Place in the Home, tries to convince Mary that appearance does not matter if a man loves a woman, but Mary accepts the superficial values of her other friends. She stays, and a manicurist, making conversation, reveals Stephen’s affair with Crystal Allen. In the third scene, in Mary’s sitting room, her mother, Mrs. Morehead, tries to persuade her to ignore the affair. Mrs. Morehead whisks her daughter off to Bermuda.

In the fourth scene, two months later, Mary has returned and meets Crystal in a dressmaker’s shop. Sylvia, upset by Mary’s acceptance of the situation, hints that Crystal will alienate the affections of Mary’s children. This is pure malice: In a later scene, it is obvious that Crystal wants nothing to do with the Haines children. Sylvia’s suggestion, however, causes Mary to ignore her mother’s advice and to confront Crystal. Sylvia keeps Mary’s friends informed, and, in scene 5, in a beauty shop, Edith reveals that she told a newspaper gossip columnist about the Haines’s marriage. She claims to have forgotten she was talking with a gossip columnist. The affair now is made public, and Mary feels compelled to confront Stephen. In scene 6, Mary’s maid, an Irish American girl, Jane, and the new cook, Maggie, discuss the confrontation during which Mary felt it necessary to ask for a divorce. Marriage, Maggie points out, exists for the family,...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Luce was an admirer of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, even visiting Shaw at his home in England. Shaw’s Candida: A Mystery (pr. 1897, pb. 1898) was among her favorite plays, and Mary, in her warmth, home-centered values, and sympathy for others, strongly resembles Shaw’s heroine. While Candida’s marriage is threatened by a young artist who wants to save the heroine from the boring life of middle-class marriage, in Luce’s play the enemies of marriage are more impersonal. Sylvia, Edith, and Crystal resemble the figures of a medieval morality play. Sylvia embodies the traditional sin of envy: Discontented with herself, her husband, and her life, she enviously tries to destroy the happiness of others. Edith is a figure for laziness, traditionally called sloth: Her unwanted pregnancies, her inadvertent talk with the gossip columnist, and her sloppy appearance and behavior betray a person who cannot exert herself to care about others. Crystal embodies greed. The helpless anger of the poor is made understandable through many of the minor characters, but Crystal wants more than just survival; she wants wealth, pleasure, lovers, and to see the last of Little Mary. The minor characters who share their hardships and misery constitute a traditional dramatic chorus.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Great Depression
In the fall of 1929, the United States economy was devastated by a collapse of the stock market. Now known...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Women is set in both New York City and Reno, Nevada, in locations frequented primarily by women. The settings...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1930s: The United States is in the midst of the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in the history of the nation. Unemployment...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

The Women was originally written, produced, and set during the era of the Great Depression. Learn more about the history of the...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Women was adapted to the screen as a major motion picture in 1939. This film version was directed by George Cukor and starred Joan...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938) was one of Luce’s most successful plays. This farcical comedy concerns the antics of a Hollywood...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Blanchard, Jayne, ‘‘Conniving World of Women,’’ in Washington Times, February 7, 1999, p. D3.


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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Fearnow, Mark. Clare Boothe Luce: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Lyons, Joseph. Clare Boothe Luce. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Martin, Ralph G. Henry and Clare: An Intimate Portrait of the Luces. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1991.

Morris, Sylvia Jukes. Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce. New York: Random House, 1997.

Shadegg, Stephen. Clare Boothe Luce: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.


(The entire section is 98 words.)