The play begins with a detailed description of the stage scenery. A young woman is sitting in a hammock in the garden outside of a small cottage on a hill in Surrey. She is reading and taking notes next to a large pile of books piled on a chair. An unconventionally but neatly dressed man with nice manners and a friendly face approaches and looks into the garden. The man asks for directions to Mrs. Alison’s house, and the young woman says that he is at Mrs. Allison’s house. She returns to her reading, and he apologetically asks if she is Miss Vivie Warren. She answers that she is, but says no more. Apologetically, he explains that he is Praed. Vivie jumps up and goes to greet him, giving his hand a hard shake. She is 22 years old and is well-educated, competent, and very direct.
Shaw’s audience would have instantly recognized a “New Woman” in his characterization of the industrious, self-possessed Vivie Warren. Vivie has the air of being unintimidated by a strange man or isn’t eager to please or impress him. Instead, she is interested in her own pursuits, which appear to be serious and worldly, if the large pile of papers is evidence. At the same time, her resistance to following old ideas about decorum can make her come across as harsh or ill-mannered, especially when compared to the polite and personable Praed.
Praed asks Vivie if Mrs. Warren has arrived. Vivie says she was not expecting her mother. Praed is taken aback, but Vivie says that her mother may arrive without warning to see how Vivie acts when she is alone. Praed apologizes for intruding, and Vivie says it’s not his fault and invites him in, saying he is the only one of her mother’s friends she wanted to meet. They decide to sit outside and talk, but Praed asks if they should go to the station to pick up Mrs. Warren. Vivie says her mother knows the way. Praed is taken aback by this response, but he agrees and sits down.
The unusual relationship between Vivie and her mother begins to emerge, as Vivie reveals that Praed is the first of her mother’s friends that she has ever met. Vivie also seems irritated that her mother did not tell her she planned to visit and suspicious of her mother’s motives. Vivie refuses to follow Praed’s suggestion that they show Mrs. Warren a warm welcome at the station, once again showing little respect for social custom.
Vivie says she hopes Praed will want to be her friend. Praed exclaims that he is very glad that her mother didn’t raise her to be too conventional. He says it was charming of her to say she wanted to be his friend and that modern ladies are splendid. He explains that, when he was young, men and women never spoke about being friends. Instead, men acted chivalrous and women acted modest, while never saying what they meant. Vivie looks at him as if he may be less intelligent than she had thought, and says this sounds like a waste of time, “especially women’s time.”
Vivie rejects the idea that, as a young woman, she needs gentle treatment and protection from the truth. She sees herself as being on equal footing with Praed, even though he is a man and older than she is. When Vivie dismisses the chivalry Praed describes, she shows that she considers many of the outward signs of respectability as foolish and meant to conceal reality.
Praed says that he was thrilled to hear that she tied with the third wrangler in the mathematical tripos. (The third wrangler was the male student at Cambridge University who got the third highest score on a math exam. Women were not given the title of wrangler, so Vivie is said to have tied with that student.) Vivie says that she wouldn’t agree to study for the test again for the same amount of money. Praed doesn’t understand, so Vivie explains that her mother paid her fifty pounds to try to tie with the fourth wrangler, but she should have demanded two hundred pounds considering how much work she put in.
While Praed is impressed by the status Vivie’s academic achievement brings her, Vivie sees her work in purely practical terms. It is not inherently worth her while to do a great deal of work unless she can get something she values in return. While Praed assumes that Vivie is honored to be allowed to participate in the life of a university despite being a woman, Vivie sees her work as no different from anyone else’s.
Praed is shocked at Vivie’s attitude. He says that he would imagine she gained a great deal of culture from all the hard work. Vivie disputes this, saying she knows about mathematics but nothing about how to apply it. Praed switches positions, saying he knew that the tripos exam was ruining “all that makes womanhood beautiful.” Vivie disagrees, saying she will use what she learned to go into business doing actuarial (clerk) work in London. Praed asks Vivie if she doesn’t want beauty and romance in her life. She says she doesn’t, explaining that she likes working and then relaxing with whisky, a cigar, and a detective story.
Vivie views her education as a practical path to a career, while Praed sees it as an activity meant to make Vivie a more refined person with a higher social status—or, in other words, to make her more appealing to men. When Vivie explains that her studies prepared her only for practical work and did not make her a more cultivated person, Praed rapidly changes his position on the recent move to allow women to receive a higher education previously only available to men, declaring that it ruins women.
Praed stands up indignantly, saying that Vivie must not have yet discovered the power of art. Vivie says that she spent six weeks in London, doing actuarial calculations with her friend Honoria Fraser, and had the best time of her life. She made enough money to support herself and learned about the business for free. During that trip, she visited a group of artistic friends from college who took her to museums and concerts. After three days, she couldn’t stand any more of it and returned to Honoria in Chancery Lane. This is the kind of splendid modern young lady she is, she says.
Praed finds practical considerations like the need to earn an income to be boring and unrefined, while Vivie views attempts to enrich life with culture as pointless. Praed had not understood that Vivie viewed her academic achievements not only as a refinement, but also as a path to independence. She tells him this defiantly to see if he will stand by his earlier statement that her modern attitudes are far better than those of his youth once he understands that she means to enter the workforce and take on occupations generally reserved for men.
Abruptly, Vivie asks Praed if he thinks she and her mother will get along. Praed is taken aback, but Vivie presses him for an answer. Very politely he says Vivie may be different from Mrs. Warren’s ideal. He explains that those who are dissatisfied with their own upbringings often try to bring their children up differently. He says that he imagines Vivie knows about her mother’s life, but she interrupts him and says that she has never lived with her mother. She has always lived at schools or with foster families. She is not complaining, because her mother always sent money and her life has been smooth, but she knows very little about her mother.
Vivie moves quickly from challenging Praed to either approve or disapprove of her practical view of the world, to questioning him about what her mother will think. Praed does not wish to comment on a personal topic like Vivie’s relationship with her mother, but Vivie forcefully and rather rudely interrogates him about this even though she only met five minutes before. Praed subtly suggests that Mrs. Warren may not want her daughter to work as Vivie has said she intends to, but Vivie hardly seems to listen, instead explaining in stark terms how little she knows about her mother.
Praed says that Vivie and her mother will naturally get along well and changes the subject. Vivie asks why he won’t tell her about her mother’s life. Praed says it is natural that he doesn’t want to talk behind his friend’s back, but that Vivie and her mother will have a chance to talk when Mrs. Warren arrives. Vivie says she expects her mother will object to her plan to work for Honoria Fraser, but she plans to use her mother’s secrecy about her life against her to win in any argument they may have. Praed says he is sure Vivie would not be so ruthless. Vivie demands that Praed explain why she shouldn’t use that strategy. He says her mother is very formidable when she is angry. Vivie says confidently that she will win any fight between them. Praed decides to tell Vivie about her mother, but he is interrupted by Mrs. Kitty Warren’s arrival.
Praed tries to avoid Vivie’s insinuation that there is something about Mrs. Warren’s life that he refuses to talk about because it is scandalous, but Vivie presses him. Whether or not she is angry with her mother for spending so little time with her while she was growing up, she feels that the independence of her upbringing should entitle her to make her own decisions about how she will live her life. Notably, although Praed will claim throughout the rest of the play to know little about Mrs. Warren’s life, Praed here prepares to concede and tell Vivie a hidden truth.
Mrs. Kitty Warren approaches the garden. She is between forty and fifty, flashily dressed, bossy, and vulgar, but fun-loving and presentable. She is accompanied by Sir George Crofts, a solidly built man of fifty who is dressed like a fashionable young man. He looks like an upper-class man who invests in stocks and enjoys going out on the town to party. Vivie approaches, saying that Praed has been waiting for them. Mrs. Warren immediately says that Vivie should put a hat on to prevent getting sunburnt, then introduces Vivie to Crofts. Vivie says nothing to her mother’s command then looks Crofts up and down and doesn’t shake hands with him until he asks her to. After he asks if he can shake her hand, she shakes his hand hard. He looks surprised and says to Praed that she has a powerful fist.
Immediately upon entering, Mrs. Warren begins to try to assert her parental authority over Vivie. Vivie ignores this order. It was considered unladylike and unattractive for a young woman to get sunburnt, and so Mrs. Warren’s command may be related to her hope that Vivie will attract a husband and live a life of leisure, not work. Meanwhile Vivie immediately judges Crofts as someone who doesn’t share her values. She perceives that he feels entitled to polite treatment and respect from her, but she doesn’t see why she should give him that respect just because she can tell he is a rich aristocrat.
Vivie gets more chairs, and Mrs. Warren tells her to let Crofts carry them. She tosses them to him carelessly, then offers her mother tea. Mrs. Warren says she wants a drink and Vivie goes inside to get her one. Crofts sits down sulkily and puts the handle of his cane in his mouth. Mrs. Warren remarks to Praed that Crofts has been pressing her to introduce him to her little girl for three years, and now he looks unhappy. She tells Crofts to take his cane out of his mouth, and he does.
Mrs. Warren continues to speak with a proprietary tone about Vivie. Meanwhile Crofts is obviously unused to being treated with such little deference and interest. His social position usually guarantees that people will not judge him harshly, even if they do perceive from his clothes and the way he carries himself that he is a womanizer or a heavy drinker.
Praed says he thinks that they should all stop thinking of Vivie as a little girl. He says she merits this treatment because of her academic achievements, but also because she strikes him as more mature than any of them. Mrs. Warren laughs this off, saying that Vivie must be acting self-important and needs to be brought down a notch. She says she knows how to treat her own daughter. Praed shakes his head and walks away to stroll through the garden.
Like Praed, Mrs. Warren believes Vivie’s achievements are meant to give her status, not to allow her to pursue a career of her own choosing. It is clear from her attitude that Mrs. Warren knows as little about her daughter as Vivie reported to Praed that she knew about her mother. Mrs. Warren expects that she will be able to impose her wishes on Vivie, but Praed is less sure.
Mrs. Warren pretends to laugh but looks concerned, and asks Crofts why Praed is acting this way. Crofts says that Mrs. Warren is afraid of Praed. Mrs. Warren denies this. Finding that Praed has strolled back towards her, Mrs. Warren asks him if he is concerned that she will bully Vivie. Praed says he often notices things that Mrs. Warren doesn’t, and she sometimes regrets not taking his advice. Mrs. Warren asks what he has noticed. He explains that Vivie is a grown-up and should be treated with respect. Mrs. Warren scoffs at this.
Crofts’ comment that Mrs. Warren is afraid of Praed raises the question of the nature of Praed and Mrs. Warren’s relationship, a question which the play never resolves. Mrs. Warren’s position is that she has the right to treat Vivie however she likes, because she is Vivie’s mother. Clearly, mother and daughter are headed for a showdown.
Vivie calls for her mother to come inside, and Mrs. Warren leaves Praed and Crofts alone. Crofts asks Praed if he knows who Vivie’s father is. Praed says he doesn’t, but Crofts presses him further, saying he feels attracted to Vivie but can’t be sure she isn’t his own daughter. Praed says Crofts certainly isn’t Vivie’s father, and Crofts asks him again what he knows about Vivie’s paternity. Praed replies that there is no resemblance between Crofts and Vivie. Crofts asks Praed if he is Vivie’s father. Praed explains that he and Mrs. Warren have always had a platonic relationship and have never talked about such things. Praed says that Crofts is old enough to be Vivie’s father, so he should treat her parentally. Crofts says he is no older than Praed, but Praed denies this, saying he was born a boy, while Crofts was born old.
Although it was already clear that there was something scandalous about Mrs. Warren based on Praed’s reluctance to discuss her, this moment shows that she has been promiscuous enough that Vivie’s paternity is in doubt. Crofts finds nothing unusual in pursuing the daughter of his former lover, only worrying that this could inadvertently be the pursuit of his own daughter. At the same time, Praed’s denial that he knows nothing about this part of Mrs. Warren’s life rings somewhat false, because he was ready to tell Vivie about her mother at the moment when Crofts and Mrs. Warren entered.
Mrs. Warren calls Crofts and Praed into tea. As they are going in, a clever, handsome, charming, well-dressed but audacious young man of twenty approaches the gate and calls out to Praed. This is Frank Gardner. He explains to Praed that he is living at home after spending all his money and getting into debt. He asks why Praed is in the area. Praed says he is visiting Vivie, and Frank exclaims that he is glad Vivie knows Praed. Praed explains that he is an old friend of Mrs. Warren. Frank is very curious about Mrs. Warren.
Frank’s first statements show that he, unlike Vivie, does not want to work for a living. Having spent all his money, he moved home to live with his parents instead of looking for a job. Although he does not share her work ethic, Frank is obviously interested in Vivie’s social standing, because he wants her to have cultured acquaintances like Praed and feels deeply interested in who her mother is.
When Mrs. Warren calls loudly to Praed to come in for tea, Frank is surprised and amused by this unladylike behavior. Praed calls to Mrs. Warren that he has met a friend, and Mrs. Warren invites Frank to come in for tea. Frank says he wants to take Praed into his confidence and tells him that Vivie is an amazingly clever girl—and is in love with him. Crofts pokes his head out of the window and tells Praed to come in. Frank is surprised to see someone with Crofts’s rakish appearance at Vivie’s house.
Frank has great respect for Vivie’s achievements and brags about his association with her. For this reason, he is surprised at the manners and look of Mrs. Warren and Crofts. Mrs. Warren’s yelling would not be considered good behavior, while Crofts looks to Frank like the kind of man with whom the studious, serious Vivie would not associate.
As Praed and Frank are going into the house, an elderly clergyman approaches. Praed goes into tea, but Frank remains behind to talk to the man—his father, the Reverend Samuel Gardner. Reverend Gardner was pushed into a career in the church by his own father. He commands little respect, but is loud and pretentious. He refuses to enter the garden until he knows whose house he is visiting. Frank explains that it is Vivie’s house. Reverend Gardner says he has not seen her in church. Frank says Vivie is more accomplished than his father, so she doesn’t need to listen to him preach. Reverend Gardner tells Frank not to be disrespectful, but Frank says it is fine because no one can hear.
Because Reverend Gardner is neither a deep thinker nor a man with strong morals, he tries to project authority by loudly asserting his respectability and shunning anyone who he feels lacks a high social standing. Even though Frank also cares about his acquaintances’ pedigree, he finds his father’s loud refusal to enter a garden until he knows who lives there to be an absurd display. Frank thinks he is intellectually superior to his father and does not pretend otherwise.
Frank says that he is taking the advice his father gave him last July after he paid his debts. Reverend Gardner says this advice was to improve his attitude on life and get a job. Frank says that before his father said that, he told him that since he had neither brains, nor money, he should marry someone with both. Frank says that Vivie is this someone. Reverend Gardner asks about her social position; Frank says he doesn’t care about this.
Frank says that he is much better than his father was at his age. He remembers that his father told him he offered a woman fifty pounds to return letters he had written her. Reverend Gardner fears that someone will overhear what Frank is saying. He says that he only told Frank about that woman so that Frank could learn from his experience, but Frank is now taking advantage of him by throwing it in his face. He continues that the woman had refused to give back his letters, saying that “knowledge is power” and she wouldn’t sell power, but that she never bothered him about the letters. He says Frank is treating him with less consideration than she did. Frank says the woman never had to listen to his father preach at her. Reverend Gardner is hurt and turns to leave. Frank is indifferent to his father’s hurt feelings.
The story Frank refers to is about a secret affair Reverend Gardner had when he was young. It seems likely that the woman was of a different class, and this was why the young Sam Gardner wanted to buy her silence, and thought he could do so with a mere fifty pounds. It is notable that the first time money and sex are linked in the play is as part of the necessity to keep sex that isn’t considered respectable a secret. Reverend Gardner hopes to teach his son not to repeat his early mistakes, but Frank sees his father’s story as evidence that he is a hypocrite in preaching to him now.
As Reverend Gardner is leaving, and Frank is moving to enter the cottage, Praed and Vivie come outside. Vivie says she would like to meet Frank’s father. Frank calls his father back, and Vivie shakes his hand. She calls for her mother to come outside. Mrs. Warren comes out and stands in the doorway, having recognized Reverend Gardner. Vivie begins to introduce the two parents, but Mrs. Warren interrupts her, saying she cannot believe that Sam Gardner went into the church. Reverend Gardner is embarrassed. Mrs. Warren says he must remember her; she has an entire collection of letters from him. Reverend Sam says hello to her, calling her “Miss Vavasour.” Mrs. Warren corrects him, saying she is Mrs. Warren, mother to Vivie Warren.
Vivie and Frank want to introduce their parents, but it turns out they already know one another from a scandalous context. The name “Miss Vavasour” sounds like an alias a sex worker would have taken on, so this is our first suggestion that Mrs. Warren was not only never married, but also worked as a prostitute. Mrs. Warren’s response to Reverend Gardner further suggests that she cannot believe her former client/lover now works to promote traditional religious morality.