|Gilbert > Plays > Charity
This is one of Gilbert's most interesting plays, anticipating by twenty years some of the themes and concerns of the "problem plays" of the 1890s. The first three acts balance comedy and drama quite well, but unfortunately the fourth act topples over into melodrama. But if nothing else this play shows that Gilbert's attitude to women was much more complex than the chauvinism some people still ascribe to him.
The scene is the house of Mrs Van Brugh, a widow of 35 whose life is occupied in helping those who need it. She has almshouses, and scandalises the village by putting in them not only good Anglicans, but also Catholics, Jews, and even Dissenters. She has a daughter, Eve, who is engaged to Fred Smailey, a serious-minded and rather priggish young man.
Ted Athelney, a friend of the family, learns of their engagement, and is thunderstruck because he realises that he is in love with Eve – just at the moment when the knowledge can do him the least good. Of course, as an honourable man, he must leave the field clear for Fred Smailey, and never let Eve know of his love. As Mrs Van Brugh says of Ted: "There goes a heart of gold with a head of cotton-wool!"
We learn that Fred's father Mr Smailey is going to arrive the following week to arrange the marriage settlement. Mrs Van Brugh also says that her late husband had been married before, and that this marriage ended discreditably. It's made pretty clear that there is a secret to be unravelled here.
A commotion is heard, and a group of servants enters, struggling with Ruth Tredgett, a dirty and dishevelled character who had been found stealing from the pantry. Mrs Van Brugh asks Ruth who and what she is. She says she is a thief, and hints pretty plainly that she is a prostitute. She lives this way because she has never had the chance to do otherwise. She says she was brought up to steal, and at the age of sixteen already had a lengthy criminal record when she was Ruined by a "psalm-singing villain". Mrs Van Brugh offers to give Ruth honest employment, and the act ends with Ruth kneeling in gratitude at her feet.
The same scene, the following week. Mr Smailey, Fred's father, arrives with Mr Fitz-Partington, a private detective whom Smailey has hired to find evidence which will discredit Mrs Van Brugh's marriage. He is posing (not very successfully) as a solicitor for the purposes of this visit. Smailey and Mrs Van Brugh discuss the marriage settlement, and an uncertainty over a point of property leads to Smailey proposing to find a copy of her godfather's will, from which she got most of her property and wealth. Smailey then scolds Mrs Van Brugh for giving employment to a woman of the streets. Smailey holds that "a woman who has once forfeited her moral position shall never regain it," while Mrs Van Brugh's view is that "there is a pardon for any penitent". This is the play's central theme.
Mrs Van Brugh leaves, and Ruth Tredgett comes in. She recognises Mr Smailey as the psalm-singing villain who ruined her twenty years ago: and in this scene Smailey demonstrates the contorted arguments by which he is able to forgive himself "an act of youthful folly" while continuing to condemn the moral lapses of others. Ruth knows something of a fraud Smailey had committed against Martha Vane in those days, and says she has writing to prove it; but she refuses to give up this evidence for money: "I'm square now".
Mrs Van Brugh and Mr Fitz-Partington have a scene next. Fitz-Partington reveals that he is a detective, hired by Smailey to find evidence against her – but adds he is really drawing together evidence against Smailey: Fitz-Partington is one of the good guys. Smailey's plot depends on the will of Mrs Van Brugh's godfather, which was made in the same year as her marriage. If Mrs Van Brugh's marriage was not strictly legal, and if the will describes her as the wife of Captain Van Brugh, then the will is invalid and the money will revert to the next of kin – who happens to be Mr Smailey. Mrs Van Brugh's manner makes it clear that there was, indeed, something wrong with the marriage, and we are not surprised when Smailey re-enters with a copy of the will and reads out the clause in which she is described as "Catherine Ellen, wife of Richard Van Brugh, Esq." – and she collapses into a chair, senseless.
The scene is a morning room in Smailey's house. Both he and his son Fred want the engagement between Fred and Eve Van Brugh broken off, now that she turns out to be penniless. However, each thinks the other is really as honourable and noble as he pretends, and so each hesitates to tell the other his real reason for wanting the engagement to end. Mr Smailey tells Fred that they come of a long and noble line, and that Eve's family is, alas, of tainted stock: which is why the marriage cannot take place. Fred, after a show of indignation, at last comes to agree.
Smailey believes that Mrs Van Brugh's secret is that her husband's first wife was alive when the second marriage took place, so that she is a bigamist. He has advertised for proof that the first Mrs Van Brugh died only within the last eight years.
Mrs Van Brugh arrives, there follows a big show-down with Mr Smailey. He accuses her of being a bigamist, but she replies: "it is bad enough, but not so bad as that". In fact, she never married Captain Van Brugh at all. Smailey thinks this even worse, and gives her a choice: either tell everyone the truth, or he will tell it for her. (Earlier, Ruth Tredgett had told Smailey that she would make sure he was prosecuted for his earlier fraud if he instituted proceedings against Mrs Van Brugh, but had added that anything Mrs Van Brugh said of her own free will was "angels' doin', and... right accordin'." So Smailey's only chance is to make Mrs Van Brugh admit her sin herself.)
Mrs Van Brugh decides at length that it is better for her to tell everyone the truth, and the act ends with all the other characters gathered together and reeling in horror as she does so.
The scene is the library in the house of Dr Athelney, who is a Colonial Bishop-Elect and the father of Ted Athelney, the woolly-brained man in love with Eve Van Brugh whom we met in Act One. (Remember him?) Mrs Van Brugh is ruined, and almost everyone is turning away from her. Dr Athelney is one of the few who has remained to help her: he has given her a home here.
Fitz-Partington the detective arrives: he has come to warn Mrs Van Brugh that Smailey is on the attack again, made bitter by the fact that Society has decided to shun, not only Mrs Van Brugh, but also him. He is pursuing the idea that she is a bigamist, at Fitz-Partington's own suggestion: it's all part of a cunning plan to bring about Smailey's downfall.
Fred Smailey arrives and, very politely and nobly, breaks his engagement to Eve, much to the indignation of Dr Athelney and his son Ted, who happen to be there. Ted is particularly shocked, since he had been a firm believer in Fred Smailey's goodness.
Mr Smailey enters and reveals that he has had an answer to the advert asking for the burial certificate of the first Mrs Van Brugh. The person who answered the advert is brought in – it is Ruth Tredgett! For a moment it really looks as if Ruth were turning against Mrs Van Brugh, but it turns out that the document she has is a forged burial certificate for Martha Vane, which was the first Mrs Van Brugh's maiden name. And the man who forged it? Smailey, of course!
Fred Smailey is genuinely shocked at this: he thought his father a truly moral man. But there is real affection between them, and he will not desert his father in his ruination. As for the Van Brughs, they will go abroad with Dr Athelney to his Colonial Bishopric, where they will be able to start life afresh.
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