By Jesse Lynch Williams
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Jesse Lynch Williams (1871-1929) was born in Sterling, Illinois and educated at Princeton. He wrote news stories, short stories, and novels in addition to plays. His first play, "Why Marry?" was originally "And So They Were Married." It garnered the first Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1918. In 1919, Williams was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Princeton. In 1922, he wrote a play about divorce entitled "Why Not?" It was a companion play to "Why Marry?" but it was not a sequel. Love, marriage and divorce were also themes in his 1925 play, "Lovely Lady."
Helen is Ernest's lab assistant, and she fears that marrying him would distract him from his work. Since Helen is a modern career woman, she believes that living with Ernest without the formal contract of marriage would eliminate any stressful constraints, and the couple plan to leave together for Paris in pursuit of their work. Helen's wealthy brother John and his "old-fashioned" wife Lucy are appalled at Helen's wayward thinking.
Helen and John's younger sister Lucy is engaged to Rex, a wealthy neighbor. Lucy never prepared for a career like Helen did, and she desires someone to provide well for her. In the meantime, Uncle Everett's wife Julia is in Reno seeking a divorce. Throughout the play, Cousin Theodore attempts to counsel all the parties involved.
At play's end, Helen and Ernest are tricked into marriage ("In the eyes of God, I do take Helen to be my wife --- but ---" "I take Ernest to be my husband in the eyes of God, but ---") because as Everett states, "bad as marriage is, until we reform it, it is the best we have to offer you." The play ends with the words, "Respectability has triumphed this time, but let Society take warning and beware! beware! beware!"
descriptions per the playwright
JEAN, the host's younger sister, who has been brought up to be married and nothing else (Lotus Robb).
REX, an unmarried neighbor, who has not been brought up to be anything but rich (Harold West).
LUCY, the hostess, who is trying her best to be "just an old-fashioned wife" in a new-fashioned home (Beatrice Beckley).
UNCLE EVERETT, a Judge, who belongs to the older generation and yet understands the new --- and believes in divorce (Nat C. Goodwin).
COUSIN THEODORE, a clergyman and yet a human being, who believes in everything --- except divorce (Ernest Lawford).
JOHN, who owns the house and almost every one in it --- and does not believe in divorce (Edmund Breese).
HELEN, the host's other sister, whom every one wants to marry, but who doesn't want to marry any one (Estelle Winwood).
ERNEST, a scientist, who believes in neither divorce nor marriage but makes a great discovery (Shelley Hull).
BUTLER (Richard Pitman).
FOOTMAN (Walter Goodson).
Comedy, three acts.
Produced in New York at the Astor Theatre by Selwyn and Company, December 25, 1917, directed by Roi Cooper Mergue. 120 performances.
Scene is weekend at a country house "not far-away," on a Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning, and Sunday evening.
The play examines the relationship between love, marriage, commitment, and money in the dawn of the new century. Women were exploring possibilities beyond just the household, rebelling against "old-fashioned" ideas instituted by men, and making a differentiation that being single by choice was different than being a spinster with no choice.
The playwright employs much circuitous dialogue, which makes the play arduous to follow at times.
Theodore: "But if you love him truly --- marriage, my dear, brings together those who love each other truly."
Helen: "But those who love each other truly don't need anything to bring them together. The difficulty is to keep apart."
Almost one hundred years later, the shocking topics presented in this play seem tame. In Williams' advance notice of the play, he related a story about how the older generation was somewhat scandalized by the play's plot, and the younger generation was not. A young lady said to him, "We are too young to be shocked." Williams wrote, "That little incident...struck me as socially significant. There never were two generations inhabiting the same globe simultaneously with such widely separated points of view." This is an interesting statement, because if Williams could see the world today, a gap exists between every generation, and he would be incredulous at the differences in the generations "inhabiting the same globe simultaneously." The same may be said for us, if we could look ahead one hundred years from now.
Another play that explores the topic of couples living together without marriage is Eugene O'Neill's play, "The Personal Equation."
. Bordman, Gerald, "Oxford Companion to American Theatre," New York: Oxford, 1984.
. Bronner, Edwin, "Encyclopdia of the American Theatre 1900-1975," New York: A.S. Barnes, 1980.
. Mantle, Burns, "Best Plays of 1909-1919," New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1945.
. Williams, Jesse Lynch, "Why Marry?" New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925 edition.
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