The test of a man or woman’s breeding is how they behave in a quarrel


A womanly woman?

JULIA: (rising) That woman again!

SYLVIA: Another row! Go to it, Julia!

CRAVEN: Hold your tongue, Sylvia. (He turns commandingly to Julia.) Now look here, Julia.

CHARTERIS: Hallo! A revolt of the fathers!

CRAVEN: Silence, Charteris. (To Julia, unanswerably.) The test of a man or woman’s breeding is how they behave in a quarrel. Anybody can behave well when things are going smoothly. Now you said to-day, at that iniquitous club, that you were not a womanly woman. Very well: I don’t mind. But if you are not going to behave like a lady when Mrs. Tranfield comes into this room, you’ve got to behave like a gentleman; or fond as I am of you, I’ll cut you dead exactly as I would if you were my son.

by George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950)
from The Philanderer (1898)
Act IV
image – tibchris


I love the stage direction, “To Julia, unanswerably.”

I see an arched eyebrow and unswerving gaze from Craven. You might guess that he is an old world gentleman who thinks he is and forever should be the arbiter of social right and wrong. From the Julia and Sylvia I imagine rolling eyes and maybe a shrug or a sigh. Charteris might be a rabble rouser.

Just this little bit tells us how these characters might fit together.

The prose in plays is relatively sparse and non-conversational, in the form of stage direction – unless you count the occasional soliloquy. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale uses the famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear,” to reveal what is about to happen offstage. In a novel, pages could be devoted to the chase and eventual outcome. In a script, more is left to the dialogue.

In case you were wondering about the characters in The Philanderer, here’s a brief run-down:

  • Sylvia is Craven’s daughter. She is an overt feminist. She wears pants, smokes in public and speaks her mind.
  • Julia is also Craven’s daughter. Before moving on to her younger sister Sylvia, Charteris seduced Julia.
  • Charteris is the philanderer, an opportunist who uses the emerging independence of women to his advantage. Elsewhere in the play he says, “Besides, it was nothing but a philander with Julia–nothing else in the world, I assure you.”
  • Craven is the father of Sylvia and Julia. In the 1980’s he would have been an “angry white guy.” In the late Victorian period he is a symbolic presence of an old order that would prefer to shelter women and shun sexual predators like Charteris.

Do you wonder if Craven will stop lecturing his daughters about behavior that shows “good breeding” and go after Charteris instead? No such luck; this is the last act. Maybe next time?

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