The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

This three-act play occurs entirely on John’s well-furnished estate. It is the story of five couples who represent five divergent views of marriage. The primary couple, Ernest and Helen, form the center of the play’s action. They represent options other than marriage for two people to express their love and respect for one another. They enjoy each other’s company, share in each other’s professional work, and are both ready to commit emotionally to each other, yet they feel no great compulsion to formalize their bond with a legal contract. Ernest is a famous scientist whose medical research has saved thousands of lives. Helen is a brilliant scientist in her own right and her assistance to Ernest has been a primary factor in his success and renown. They view each other as equals in all things. The characters’ exchanges—Helen and Ernest’s discussions of the pros and cons of marriage and their coy shyness about declaring their love, and John’s machinations to force Helen and Ernest either apart or into marriage—give the play an objective. John’s interest in the pair stems from his desire to see his sister, Helen, marry a monied man instead of a poor scientist. His primary leverage is his position as a trustee in the institute that employs Ernest. John alternates between trying to lure Ernest to Paris, where his research can go forward, but with the stipulation that Helen remains behind, to threatening to fire Ernest and leaving him without visible...

(The entire section is 581 words.)