The play is set in a seaside town and tells the story of Mrs Clandon and her three children, Dolly, Phillip and Gloria, who have just returned to England after an eighteen-year stay in Madeira. The children have no idea who their father is and, through a comedy of errors, end up inviting him to a family lunch. At the same time a dentist named Valentine has fallen in love with the eldest daughter, Gloria. However, Gloria considers herself a modern woman and claims to have no interest in love or marriage.
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In a dentist's operating room on a fine August morning in 1896. Not the usual tiny London den, but the best sitting room of a furnished lodging in a terrace on the sea front at a fashionable watering place. The operating chair, with a gas pump and cylinder beside it, is half way between the centre of the room and one of the corners. If you look into the room through the window which lights it, you will see the fireplace in the middle of the wall opposite you, with the door beside it to your left; an M.R.C.S. diploma in a frame hung on the chimneypiece; an easy chair covered in black leather on the hearth; a neat stool and bench, with vice, tools, and a mortar and pestle in the corner to the right. Near this bench stands a slender machine like a whip provided with a stand, a pedal, and an exaggerated winch. Recognising this as a dental drill, you shudder and look away to your left, where you can see another window, underneath which stands a writing table, with a blotter and a diary on it, and a chair. Next the writing table, towards the door, is a leather covered sofa. The opposite wall, close on your right, is occupied mostly by a bookcase. The operating chair is under your nose, facing you, with the cabinet of instruments handy to it on your left. You observe that the professional furniture and apparatus are new, and that the wall paper, designed, with the taste of an undertaker, in festoons and urns, the carpet with its symmetrical plans of rich, cabbagy nosegays, the glass gasalier with lustres; the ornamental gilt rimmed blue candlesticks on the ends of the mantelshelf, also glass draped with lustres, and the ormolu clock under a glass-cover in the middle between them, its uselessness emphasized by a cheap American clock disrespectfully placed beside it and now indicating 12 o'clock noon, all combine with the black marble which gives the fireplace the air of a miniature family vault, to suggest early Victorian commercial respectability, belief in money, Bible fetichism, fear of hell always at war with fear of poverty, instinctive horror of the passionate character of art, love and Roman Catholic religion, and all the first fruits of plutocracy in the early generations of the industrial revolution.
There is no shadow of this on the two persons who are occupying the room just now. One of them, a very pretty woman in miniature, her tiny figure dressed with the daintiest gaiety, is of a later generation, being hardly eighteen yet. This darling little creature clearly does not belong to the room, or even to the country; for her complexion, though very delicate, has been burnt biscuit color by some warmer sun than England's; and yet there is, for a very subtle observer, a link between them. For she has a glass of water in her hand, and a rapidly clearing cloud of Spartan obstinacy on her tiny firm set mouth and quaintly squared eyebrows. If the least line of conscience could be traced between those eyebrows, an Evangelical might cherish some faint hope of finding her a sheep in wolf's clothing—for her frock is recklessly pretty—but as the cloud vanishes it leaves her frontal sinus as smoothly free from conviction of sin as a kitten's.
The dentist, contemplating her with the self-satisfaction of a successful operator, is a young man of thirty or thereabouts. He does not give the impression of being much of a workman: his professional manner evidently strikes him as being a joke, and is underlain by a thoughtless pleasantry which betrays the young gentleman still unsettled and in search of amusing adventures, behind the newly set-up dentist in search of patients. He is not without gravity of demeanor; but the strained nostrils stamp it as the gravity of the humorist. His eyes are clear, alert, of sceptically moderate size, and yet a little rash; his forehead is an excellent one, with plenty of room behind it; his nose and chin cavalierly handsome. On the whole, an attractive, noticeable beginner, of whose prospects a man of business might form a tolerably favorable estimate.
THE YOUNG LADY (handing him the glass). Thank you. (In spite of the biscuit complexion she has not the slightest foreign accent.)
THE DENTIST (putting it down on the ledge of his cabinet of instruments). That was my first tooth.
THE YOUNG LADY (aghast). Your first! Do you mean to say that you began practising on me?
THE DENTIST. Every dentist has to begin on somebody.
THE YOUNG LADY. Yes: somebody in a hospital, not people who pay.
THE DENTIST (laughing). Oh, the hospital doesn't count. I only meant my first tooth in private practice. Why didn't you let me give you gas?
THE YOUNG LADY. Because you said it would be five shillings extra.
THE DENTIST (shocked). Oh, don't say that. It makes me feel as if I had hurt you for the sake of five shillings.
THE YOUNG LADY (with cool insolence). Well, so you have! (She gets up.) Why shouldn't you? it's your business to hurt people. (It amuses him to be treated in this fashion: he chuckles secretly as he proceeds to clean and replace his instruments. She shakes her dress into order; looks inquisitively about her; and goes to the window.) You have a good view of the sea from these rooms! Are they expensive?
THE DENTIST. Yes.
THE YOUNG LADY. You don't own the whole house, do you?
THE DENTIST. No.
THE YOUNG LADY (taking the chair which stands at the writing-table and looking critically at it as she spins it round on one leg.) Your furniture isn't quite the latest thing, is it?
THE DENTIST. It's my landlord's.
THE YOUNG LADY. Does he own that nice comfortable Bath chair? (pointing to the operating chair.)
THE DENTIST. No: I have that on the hire-purchase system.
THE YOUNG LADY (disparagingly). I thought so. (Looking about her again in search of further conclusions.) I suppose you haven't been here long?
THE DENTIST. Six weeks. Is there anything else you would like to know?
THE YOUNG LADY (the hint quite lost on her). Any family?
THE DENTIST. I am not married.
THE YOUNG LADY. Of course not: anybody can see that. I meant sisters and mother and that sort of thing.
THE DENTIST. Not on the premises.
THE YOUNG LADY. Hm! If you've been here six weeks, and mine was your first tooth, the practice can't be very large, can it?
THE DENTIST. Not as yet. (He shuts the cabinet, having tidied up everything.)
THE YOUNG LADY. Well, good luck! (She takes our her purse.) Five shillings, you said it would be?
THE DENTIST. Five shillings.
THE YOUNG LADY (producing a crown piece). Do you charge five shillings for everything?
THE DENTIST. Yes.
THE YOUNG LADY. Why?
THE DENTIST. It's my system. I'm what's called a five shilling dentist.
THE YOUNG LADY. How nice! Well, here! (holding up the crown piece) a nice new five shilling piece! your first fee! Make a hole in it with the thing you drill people's teeth with and wear it on your watch-chain.
THE DENTIST. Thank you.
THE PARLOR MAID (appearing at the door). The young lady's brother, sir.
A handsome man in miniature, obviously the young lady's twin, comes in eagerly. He wears a suit of terra-cotta cashmere, the elegantly cut frock coat lined in brown silk, and carries in his hand a brown tall hat and tan gloves to match. He has his sister's delicate biscuit complexion, and is built on the same small scale; but he is elastic and strong in muscle, decisive in movement, unexpectedly deeptoned and trenchant in speech, and with perfect manners and a finished personal style which might be envied by a man twice his age. Suavity and self-possession are points of honor with him; and though this, rightly considered, is only the modern mode of boyish self-consciousness, its effect is none the less staggering to his elders, and would be insufferable in a less prepossessing youth. He is promptitude itself, and has a question ready the moment he enters.
THE YOUNG GENTLEMAN. Am I on time?
THE YOUNG LADY. No: it's all over.
THE YOUNG GENTLEMAN. Did you howl?
THE YOUNG LADY. Oh, something awful. Mr. Valentine: this is my brother Phil. Phil: this is Mr. Valentine, our new dentist. (Valentine and Phil bow to one another. She proceeds, all in one breath.) He's only been here six weeks; and he's a bachelor. The house isn't his; and the furniture is the landlord's; but the professional plant is hired. He got my tooth out beautifully at the first go; and he and I are great friends.
PHILIP. Been asking a lot of questions?
THE YOUNG LADY (as if incapable of doing such a thing). Oh, no.
PHILIP. Glad to hear it. (To Valentine.) So good of you not to mind us, Mr. Valentine. The fact is, we've never been in England before; and our mother tells us that the people here simply won't stand us. Come and lunch with us. (Valentine, bewildered by the leaps and bounds with which their acquaintanceship is proceeding, gasps; but he has no opportunity of speaking, as the conversation of the twins is swift and continuous.)
THE YOUNG LADY. Oh, do, Mr. Valentine.
PHILIP. At the Marine Hotel—half past one.
THE YOUNG LADY. We shall be able to tell mamma that a respectable Englishman has promised to lunch with us.
PHILIP. Say no more, Mr. Valentine: you'll come.
VALENTINE. Say no more! I haven't said anything. May I ask whom I have the pleasure of entertaining? It's really quite impossible for me to lunch at the Marine Hotel with two perfect strangers.
THE YOUNG LADY (flippantly). Ooooh! what bosh! One patient in six weeks! What difference does it make to you?
PHILIP (maturely). No, Dolly: my knowledge of human nature confirms Mr. Valentine's judgment. He is right. Let me introduce Miss Dorothy Clandon, commonly called Dolly. (Valentine bows to Dolly. She nods to him.) I'm Philip Clandon. We're from Madeira, but perfectly respectable, so far.
VALENTINE. Clandon! Are you related to—
DOLLY (unexpectedly crying out in despair). Yes, we are.
VALENTINE (astonished). I beg your pardon?
DOLLY. Oh, we are, we are. It's all over, Phil: they know all about us in England. (To Valentine.) Oh, you can't think how maddening it is to be related to a celebrated person, and never be valued anywhere for our own sakes.
VALENTINE. But excuse me: the gentleman I was thinking of is not celebrated.
DOLLY (staring at him). Gentleman! (Phil is also puzzled.)
VALENTINE. Yes. I was going to ask whether you were by any chance a daughter of Mr. Densmore Clandon of Newbury Hall.
DOLLY (vacantly). No.
PHILIP. Well come, Dolly: how do you know you're not?
DOLLY (cheered). Oh, I forgot. Of course. Perhaps I am.
VALENTINE. Don't you know?
PHILIP. Not in the least.
DOLLY. It's a wise child—
PHILIP (cutting her short). Sh! (Valentine starts nervously; for the sound made by Philip, though but momentary, is like cutting a sheet of silk in two with a flash of lightning. It is the result of long practice in checking Dolly's indiscretions.) The fact is, Mr. Valentine, we are the children of the celebrated Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon, an authoress of great repute—in Madeira. No household is complete without her works. We came to England to get away from them. The are called the Twentieth Century Treatises.
DOLLY. Twentieth Century Cooking.
PHILIP. Twentieth Century Creeds.
DOLLY. Twentieth Century Clothing.
PHILIP. Twentieth Century Conduct.
DOLLY. Twentieth Century Children.
PHILIP. Twentieth Century Parents.
DOLLY. Cloth limp, half a dollar.
PHILIP. Or mounted on linen for hard family use, two dollars. No family should be without them. Read them, Mr. Valentine: they'll improve your mind.
DOLLY. But not till we've gone, please.
PHILIP. Quite so: we prefer people with unimproved minds. Our own minds are in that fresh and unspoiled condition.
VALENTINE (dubiously). Hm!
DOLLY (echoing him inquiringly). Hm? Phil: he prefers people whose minds are improved.
PHILIP. In that case we shall have to introduce him to the other member of the family: the Woman of the Twentieth Century; our sister Gloria!
DOLLY (dithyrambically). Nature's masterpiece!
PHILIP. Learning's daughter!
DOLLY. Madeira's pride!
PHILIP. Beauty's paragon!
DOLLY (suddenly descending to prose). Bosh! No complexion.
VALENTINE (desperately). May I have a word?
PHILIP (politely). Excuse us. Go ahead.
DOLLY (very nicely). So sorry.
VALENTINE (attempting to take them paternally). I really must give a hint to you young people—
DOLLY (breaking out again). Oh, come: I like that. How old are you?
PHILIP. Over thirty.
DOLLY. He's not.
PHILIP (confidently). He is.
DOLLY (emphatically). Twenty-seven.
PHILIP (imperturbably). Thirty-three.
PHILIP (to Valentine). I appeal to you, Mr. Valentine.
VALENTINE (remonstrating). Well, really—(resigning himself.) Thirty-one.
PHILIP (to Dolly). You were wrong.
DOLLY. So were you.
PHILIP (suddenly conscientious). We're forgetting our manners, Dolly.
DOLLY (remorseful). Yes, so we are.
PHILIP (apologetic). We interrupted you, Mr. Valentine.
DOLLY. You were going to improve our minds, I think.
VALENTINE. The fact is, your—
PHILIP (anticipating him). Our appearance?
DOLLY. Our manners?
VALENTINE (ad misericordiam). Oh, do let me speak.
DOLLY. The old story. We talk too much.
PHILIP. We do. Shut up, both. (He seats himself on the arm of the opposing chair.)
DOLLY. Mum! (She sits down in the writing-table chair, and closes her lips tight with the tips of her fingers.)
VALENTINE. Thank you. (He brings the stool from the bench in the corner; places it between them; and sits down with a judicial air. They attend to him with extreme gravity. He addresses himself first to Dolly.) Now may I ask, to begin with, have you ever been in an English seaside resort before? (She shakes her head slowly and solemnly. He turns to Phil, who shakes his head quickly and expressively.) I thought so. Well, Mr. Clandon, our acquaintance has been short; but it has been voluble; and I have gathered enough to convince me that you are neither of you capable of conceiving what life in an English seaside resort is. Believe me, it's not a question of manners and appearance. In those respects we enjoy a freedom unknown in Madeira. (Dolly shakes her head vehemently.) Oh, yes, I assure you. Lord de Cresci's sister bicycles in knickerbockers; and the rector's wife advocates dress reform and wears hygienic boots. (Dolly furtively looks at her own shoe: Valentine catches her in the act, and deftly adds) No, that's not the sort of boot I mean. (Dolly's shoe vanishes.) We don't bother much about dress and manners in England, because, as a nation we don't dress well and we've no manners. But—and now will you excuse my frankness? (They nod.) Thank you. Well, in a seaside resort there's one thing you must have before anybody can afford to be seen going about with you; and that's a father, alive or dead. (He looks at them alternately, with emphasis. They meet his gaze like martyrs.) Am I to infer that you have omitted that indispensable part of your social equipment? (They confirm him by melancholy nods.) Them I'm sorry to say that if you are going to stay here for any length of time, it will be impossible for me to accept your kind invitation to lunch. (He rises with an air of finality, and replaces the stool by the bench.)
PHILIP (rising with grave politeness). Come, Dolly. (He gives her his arm.)
DOLLY. Good morning. (They go together to the door with perfect dignity.)
VALENTINE (overwhelmed with remorse). Oh, stop, stop. (They halt and turn, arm in arm.) You make me feel a perfect beast.
DOLLY. That's your conscience: not us.
VALENTINE (energetically, throwing off all pretence of a professional manner). My conscience! My conscience has been my ruin. Listen to me. Twice before I have set up as a respectable medical practitioner in various parts of England. On both occasions I acted conscientiously, and told my patients the brute truth instead of what they wanted to be told. Result, ruin. Now I've set up as a dentist, a five shilling dentist; and I've done with conscience forever. This is my last chance. I spent my last sovereign on moving in; and I haven't paid a shilling of rent yet. I'm eating and drinking on credit; my landlord is as rich as a Jew and as hard as nails; and I've made five shillings in six weeks. If I swerve by a hair's breadth from the straight line of the most rigid respectability, I'm done for. Under such a circumstance, is it fair to ask me to lunch with you when you don't know your own father?
DOLLY. After all, our grandfather is a canon of Lincoln Cathedral.
VALENTINE (like a castaway mariner who sees a sail on the horizon). What! Have you a grandfather?
DOLLY. Only one.
VALENTINE. My dear, good young friends, why on earth didn't you tell me that before? A cannon of Lincoln! That makes it all right, of course. Just excuse me while I change my coat. (He reaches the door in a bound and vanishes. Dolly and Phil stare after him, and then stare at one another. Missing their audience, they droop and become commonplace at once.)
PHILIP (throwing away Dolly's arm and coming ill-humoredly towards the operating chair). That wretched bankrupt ivory snatcher makes a compliment of allowing us to stand him a lunch—probably the first square meal he has had for months. (He gives the chair a kick, as if it were Valentine.)
DOLLY. It's too beastly. I won't stand it any longer, Phil. Here in England everybody asks whether you have a father the very first thing.
PHILIP. I won't stand it either. Mamma must tell us who he was.
DOLLY. Or who he is. He may be alive.
PHILIP. I hope not. No man alive shall father me.
DOLLY. He might have a lot of money, though.
PHILIP. I doubt it. My knowledge of human nature leads me to believe that if he had a lot of money he wouldn't have got rid of his affectionate family so easily. Anyhow, let's look at the bright side of things. Depend on it, he's dead. (He goes to the hearth and stands with his back to the fireplace, spreading himself. The parlor maid appears. The twins, under observation, instantly shine out again with their former brilliancy.)
THE PARLOR MAID. Two ladies for you, miss. Your mother and sister, miss, I think.
Mrs. Clandon and Gloria come in. Mrs. Clandon is between forty and fifty, with a slight tendency to soft, sedentary fat, and a fair remainder of good looks, none the worse preserved because she has evidently followed the old tribal matronly fashion of making no pretension in that direction after her marriage, and might almost be suspected of wearing a cap at home. She carries herself artificially well, as women were taught to do as a part of good manners by dancing masters and reclining boards before these were superseded by the modern artistic cult of beauty and health. Her hair, a flaxen hazel fading into white, is crimped, and parted in the middle with the ends plaited and made into a knot, from which observant people of a certain age infer that Mrs. Clandon had sufficient individuality and good taste to stand out resolutely against the now forgotten chignon in her girlhood. In short, she is distinctly old fashioned for her age in dress and manners. But she belongs to the forefront of her own period (say 1860-80) in a jealously assertive attitude of character and intellect, and in being a woman of cultivated interests rather than passionately developed personal affections. Her voice and ways are entirely kindly and humane; and she lends herself conscientiously to the occasional demonstrations of fondness by which her children mark their esteem for her; but displays of personal sentiment secretly embarrass her: passion in her is humanitarian rather than human: she feels strongly about social questions and principles, not about persons. Only, one observes that this reasonableness and intense personal privacy, which leaves her relations with Gloria and Phil much as they might be between her and the children of any other woman, breaks down in the case of Dolly. Though almost every word she addresses to her is necessarily in the nature of a remonstrance for some breach of decorum, the tenderness in her voice is unmistakable; and it is not surprising that years of such remonstrance have left Dolly hopelessly spoiled.
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