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Theatre / Why Marry?

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Why Marry? is a 1917 play by Jesse Lynch Williams. Helen, older daughter of an otherwise unnamed family, is a research assistant to bacteriologist Dr. Ernest Hamilton, who has done pioneering work in fighting infectious diseases. Helen loves Ernest and Ernest loves her, but she thinks that marriage would get in the way of both of their jobs and he doesn't make enough money to support them, so neither of them will admit their feelings.

Helen's brother, domineering family patriarch John, is determined to keep Helen and Ernest apart and just as determined to marry off his other sister Jean to Rex Baker, a rich suitor—even though neither Jean nor Rex really love each other. John for his part is married to Lucy, a typical subservient early 20th-century wife who eventually reveals herself to be deeply unhappy. John's uncle Everett, a judge, is himself getting divorced, with his wife Julia off in Reno to get the decree.


Why Marry? presents a view of marriage and gender politics that is startlingly modern for 1917. It won the first Pulitzer Prize for drama. Can be read here.


  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Helen and Ernest's discussion of whether or not she should accompany him to Paris for the research job turns into this, as both confess the feelings they've been repressing.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Helen and Ernest marry, and it seems to be for the best, as they love and respect each other. But Lucy is trapped in her loveless marriage to John and Jean, lacking Helen's education, sees no alternative other than to marry Rex.
  • Busman's Holiday: Theodore, who is visiting on his vacation, is called in by the local church to give the Sunday service when their pastor takes ill.
  • The Cynic: The Judge, who is not only bitter and cynical about marriage as an institution but is very jaded about capitalism and the law.
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  • Deadpan Snarker: The Judge gets all the best lines.
    Lucy: Now, if I could only get Helen out of this awful mess and safely married to some nice man!
    Judge: Meaning one having money?
    Theodore: The Hamiltons are an older family than the Bakers, Lucy, older than our own.
    Judge: Meaning they once had money.
  • Divorce in Reno: Aunt Julia, the Judge's wife, is away in Reno getting a divorce. The Judge is pretty happy about it, though everyone else in the family is appalled.
  • Double Standard: Discussed by Ernest, who is concerned about Helen's reputation after she tells him she wants to live together without marriage.
    Ernest: But it's the woman, always the woman, who pays.
  • Exact Words: Jean says "Words cannot describe my happiness" when her engagement to Rex is announced—because she doesn't want to marry him at all.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Starts on Saturday afternoon, ends Sunday night.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar:
    • On multiple occasions, like when the Judge talks about how Theodore's son has syphillis.
    "...think how they rear those beautiful children—in the streets; one little daughter dead from contagion; one son going to the devil from other things picked up in the street!"
    • Or when Jean tells Rex that while she's still a virgin, she has let men feel her up.
    "Oh, I've merely been handled, not hurt. Slightly shop-worn but as good as new."
  • The Ghost: Aunt Julia, who never appears on stage, but is continually sending the Judge telegrams from Reno.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "They all take for granted that I want to make love to you," says Ernest to Helen.
  • Hypocritical Humor: "Out here I'm just a plain, old-fashioned farmer", says John, who lives in a luxurious mansion.
  • I Have No Son!: "Let her go! She's no sister of mine," says John, after Helen announces that she'll be going away with Ernest without benefit of marriage.
  • No Antagonist: As confirmed by Word of God; Lynch wrote in an introduction to the play that "there is no villain", not even domineering, sexist John, but rather society and its expectations are the villain.
  • No Guy Wants to Be Chased: Discussed by Helen, after marriage is referred to as a woman's "career".
    Helen: But a woman cannot pursue her career, she must be pursued by it; otherwise she is unwomanly.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: John, as family patriarch, tries to exercise a Brotherly Marriage Veto.
  • Questioning Title?
  • Unable to Support a Wife: Why Ernest can't marry Helen.
    Theodore: See here! When are you ever going to marry?
    Ernest: When am I ever going to get more than two thousand a year?
  • Wedding Finale: The Judge essentially tricks Ernest and Helen into marrying at the end. Having gotten them both to admit that before God they take each other as husband and wife, he pulls the "by the authority invested in me" line, and it's legal.


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