When Harry Trench, an energetic, idealistic young man, takes a trip to the Rhine to celebrate his recent graduation from medical school, he falls in love with Blanche, a fellow tourist traveling with her father, the intimidating Sartorius. Discovering the couple in the improper midst of proposal and acceptance, Sartorius agrees to their engagement on one condition: Harry must be absolutely sure that his aristocratic, well-connected relatives will welcome Blanche into their lives. Knowing Sartorius to be a wealthy gentleman, Harry is confused as to the reason for his social caution. Upon arriving in Sartorius’ comfortable country home, however, with his reassuring letters in hand, Harry meets Lickcheese, a rent collector whom Sartorius has recently dismissed from service, and learns the ugly truth about the massive amount of money to which Blanche is heir. Discovering that Sartorius is a notorious slumlord who takes his income from the worst homes in London, Harry tries to convince Blanche that they can do very well on his meagre income, but Blanche, horrified at the thought of keeping house on 700 a year, is convinced that Harry is trying to break their engagement, and flying into a temper, orders him from the house. It is not until some months later when Lickcheese, now grown triumphantly wealthy on the proceeds of keeping his eyes and ears open where matters of real estate and public works are concerned, returns and offers Sartorius a financial opportunity, an opportunity which can only be taken if Harry Trench -- who, to his dismay, turns out to draw his own income from a mortgaged tenement in the heart of Sartorius’ slums -- will take part in the deal. Broken hearts are mended, morals are compromised, and pragmatic, unavoidable hypocrisy rules the day in Widower’s Houses, George Bernard Shaw’s first play, which is part social comedy, and part scathing critique of the social conditions in which slums, and those who own them, endure and profit.
Widowers' Houses guide sections