George Bernard Shaw, Widower’s Houses: An Unpleasant Play. New York: Brentano’s, 1913. Print.
by Aurora Soriano, Aransa Garcia, DeAndra Williams and Rachel Rosario
“Widower’s Houses” by George Bernard Shaw is a quintessential work of the fin de siècle due to the way the play grapples with topics such as social inequality, gender roles, and burgeoning urbanization in London. Shaw’s three-act play is both a tale of romance but also of the business negotiations of the bourgeoisie. Act 1 begins at a garden restaurant in Remagen, Germany, on a summer afternoon in the eighteen-eighties where we find two Englishmen on vacation. Dr. Harry Trench, a dark-haired 24-year-old who comes from an affluent family, and Mr. William de Burgh Cokane, a balding older man, are waiting for beer in the garden restaurant. While turning his nose up at the foreigners’ habits, Cokane also disparages Trench’s lack of fine dress and manners. It is discovered that Trench has just been made a doctor after only four years in medical school. Trench is jovial with Cokane, but becomes serious and nervous when Cokane mentions “the father,” a distinguished gentleman they both encountered on the boat over. The aforementioned gentleman, a tall, well-dressed, imposing man, arrives at the hotel, with his daughter, a good-looking, energetic young woman. Despite the gentleman’s imperious manner with the hotel staff, Cokane manages to weasel his way into the conversation with the gentleman by mentioning Trench’s affluent aunt, Lady Roxdale. The gentleman invites Trench and Cokane over to his table for tea, and introduces himself as the widower Sartorius and his daughter as Blanche. Cokane and Sartorius make light conversation about a possible church to visit, while the stage directions indicate that Blanche and Trench make eyes at each other. Sartorius and Cokane leave to go visit one of the churches, but Blanche and Trench stay behind. It is revealed that Trench and Blanche already know each other from an encounter on the boat to Germany, and their re-meeting was no accident. Trench attempts to propose, but becomes excessively nervous several times and does not follow through. Finally, after Blanche grabs Trench’s hands, he manages to propose and Blanche accepts. Cokane and Sartorius re-enter upon this scene. Sartorius isn’t entirely displeased by the match of Blanche and Trench, but he needs to know that Trench’s affluent family will accept Blanche. Cokane helps Trench write a letter to Trench’s family, asking if they will accept Blanche into the family, and discovers that Sartorius is a self-made man who rents real estate in London. Cokane finishes the letter, and Blanche and Trench go in for dinner. There is a sense that there may be some kind of ulterior motive on the part of Sartorius; however, things are unclear.
Act 2 commences with Sartorius and the well-bred but motherless Blanche sitting in their library in their villa in Surbiton, England. Blanche is reading “The Queen,” which is a clue as to her position in the story. The Sartoriuses are awaiting news from Dr. Harry Trench on this particular Sunday, when he suddenly arrives with Cokane and an employee of Sartorius in tow. Blanche excuses herself to greet the gentlemen in the foyer. Lickcheese, a shabby and “pertinaous sort of human terrier” arrives to hand over the rent book to Sartorius. This brief exchange between men that ends in Lickcheese being discharged is very telling of how short tempered and frugal Sartorius can be, especially with people of a lower class than his own. Trench presents all of the letters of congratulations from his relations regarding his proposal, and Sartorius goes to break the good news to his precious child. While Sartorius leaves the room, Lickcheese uses the opportunity to talk to Trench and Cokane, hoping they will help him get his job back. He explains to Trench and Cokane how Sartorius obtains his money as a landlord by taking from the poor. Trench claims he will not get involved but is bothered by Sartorius’s methods. Lickcheese depicts the properties that Sartorius owns as being in a desperate and unsafe condition. This servile older man reports that at least three women hurt themselves on the stairs he tried to repair cheaply, and while this story is not glamorous, Cokane and Trench do not intervene when Sartorius returns to dismiss Lickcheese. Sartorius and Cokane depart to take a celebratory stroll and leave Trench and Blanche to join them shortly.
In this interlude, Trench confronts Blanche, and asks her if she can truly love and be satisfied with a man who only earns 700 pounds a year. She playfully insists that her father will match his 700 pounds and that all will be well; however, Trench firmly declines to entertain the idea of taking money from Sartorius. Blanche goes into a rage and breaks the engagement, thus leaving Trench to speak with her father. Sartorius enters when Blanche exits, and Sartorius attempts to talk Trench out of his decision to not take money from him. He explains that the fact that Trench has a mortgage on his property makes him complicit in the whole scheme, and that really what Sartorius is doing is not so bad. Trench is lost between wanting to take the moral high ground and knowing that he plays a part in all of this. Sartorius tells Trench that he is “powerless to alter the state of society,” and thus it is a waste to be perturbed by the truth of where money comes from in the increasingly urbanized society. Meanwhile, an inconsolable Blanche attacks her parlor maid by gripping her by the hair and throat in a private scene between the two. Sartorius enters again and tries to explain things to his poor motherless daughter; however, to no avail she declares that she only wishes to remain in the comfortable position of her father’s dependent.
As act 3 opens, the scene is set in Blanche’s reading room in the winter home in Bedford Square. Lickcheese makes his way back into the story by making a business proposal to Sartorius. Lickcheese has a tiger fur coat, a lovely black silk hat, and a revitalized and youthful countenance. Lickcheese has gotten wind of a plan for a new street which will make Robbins’s Row into an area for a slightly richer clientele than the current clientele Sartorius has. Sartorius and Lickcheese discuss this possibly very profitable business transaction together while Blanche discovers the ledger Lickcheese brought with him that lists all the unsavory dealings of many landlords in the area. Upon reading the ledger Blanche discovers her father has been exploiting the poor, and she realizes this is why Trench would not take the money. Blanche confronts her father about his business, while belittling the poor. The statements of his daughter wound Sartorious, who is a self-made man. Sartorius, growing somewhat tired of his needy daughter, has Lickcheese invite Trench and Cokane to the house to talk business as well as pleasure.
Feigning as though he needs Trench to bare the brunt of the initial costs of renovations, Sartorius asks Trench to consent to the temporary loss of income. When Trench proves himself to be unyielding and unconcerned with the moral and humanitarian reasons that Sartorius and Lickcheese provide, Sartorius then admits that he can afford to take a chance without his mortgagee’s help. Asserting himself as a man of means does nothing to sway Trench toward Sartorius’s cause. Lickcheese then proposes a mixing of business with pleasure; if Trench were to become a more amicable business associate, a relationship with Miss Sartorius may be in his future. Appalled at the very suggestion, all of the men leave Trench to think things over.
Once again, Blanche and Trench are alone. In this moment, Trench’s emotional vulnerability is revealed. He sits beside a piano and holds Blanche’s portrait in his arms and becomes so transfixed by the image that he does not notice when the living, breathing Blanche enters. He drops the painting and feigns disinterest, but Blanche launches into a tirade. She questions his morals and his greed for money. She insults him and all the while he remains silent as the internal workings of his mind are at play. The stage directions indicate that Trench begins to see Blanche’s fury as a kind of sexual or erotic energy. He views her anger as passion and her barrage of questions as a kind of sincere interest. As she further berates him, the stage directions indicate that Trench begins to see this passion as a deeply intimate exchange despite his lack of verbal input. She presses her arms around him and inquires as to what he was doing with her portrait but he does not break his silence. Just as they are nearing reconciliation, Sartorius, Lickcheese, and Cokane return. Blanche simmers, and Trench announces to the gentlemen that he has had a change of heart. The five all exit for supper with Blanche coyly on the arm of Lickcheese, walking ahead of the other three gentlemen.