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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Why Marry? is in the tradition of George Bernard Shaw, with an emphasis on dialogue and repartee and with little concern for developing a plot. Neither is there a clear-cut antagonist or protagonist, nor does anything actually happen onstage that would require physical movement (except for the opening scene of Rex forcing his affections on Jean over her protests). There is a type of climax as Uncle Everett tricks Helen and Ernest into declaring their love for each other in the presence of witnesses, then surprisingly produces a license and declares them man and wife.

The set is simple and basic, acting as the terrace of a country house. The only changes necessary are lighting shifts to indicate different times of day.

As a Shavian drama—one that follows in the vein of those written by George Bernard Shaw—Why Marry? values the stage as a platform for the communication of ideas: It confronts the audience with issues of social and political importance, aiming to stimulate not just the hearts but also the minds of New York’s theatergoers. One of the major innovations of Shavian drama was the unusually large role given to thought and debate enlivened with a love of wordplay and paradox. The success or failure of such plays depends on the facility with which such ideas are presented and incorporated into a smooth flow of dialogue. The danger is for the characters to pontificate and wax overly didactic. Why Marry? successfully escapes these dangers by remaining always lighthearted and somewhat sardonic.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Chothia, Jean, ed. The New Woman and Other Emancipated Woman Plays. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Marks, Patricia. Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Murphy, Brenda. American Realism and American Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Newlin, Keith, ed. American Plays of the New Woman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000.

Richardson, Angelique, and Chris Willis, eds. The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin de Siècle Feminisms. New York: Palgrave/St. Martin’s, 2000.

Wilmeth, Don, and Christopher Bigsby, eds. The Cambridge History of American Theatre, Volume II, 1870-1945. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.