Gilbert created several plays for the Haymarket Theatre, managed by John Baldwin Buckstone and starring William Hunter Kendal and his wife, Madge Robertson Kendal, sister of the playwright Thomas William Robertson, in the early 1870s. Gilbert wanted to use what he perceived as Mrs. Kendal's capabilities as a tragedienne, and, after abandoning his original plan of a vindictive villainess, he composed one of his most powerful women's roles for her in this play.
The play analyses and critiques the contrasting ways in which Victorian society treated men and women who had sex outside of marriage, anticipating the "problem plays" of Shaw and Ibsen. 1874 was a particularly busy year for Gilbert. He illustrated The Piccadilly Annual; supervised a revival of Pygmalion and Galatea; and wrote Charity; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a parody of Hamlet; a dramatisation of Ought We to Visit Her? (a novel by Annie Edwardes), an adaptation from the French, Committed for Trial, another adaptation from the French called The Blue-Legged Lady, a play, Sweethearts, and Topsyturveydom, a comic opera. He also wrote a Bab-illustrated story called "The Story of a Twelfth Cake" for the Graphic Christmas number.
Edward "Ted" Athelney, Eve's "amateur brother" is announced, and Fred tries to claim Eve isn't at home, to her confusion. However, though Eve thinks her behaviour with him thoroughly decent, Fred sees him as a potential rival - an amateur brother can so easily slip into something more - and managess to convince Eve to pull back a bit with her behaviour towards Ted. Unfortunately, on learning of her impending marriage, Ted suddenly realises he was in love with Eve, and spends the rest of his time there trying to hide it, before finally, after Fred and Eve leave, admitting it to her mother, when she sees him in pain. He, however, cares too much about Eve to ever let her know, now that she's engaged to be married.
Dr. Athelney arrives, and, after he thanks Mrs. Van Brugh for doing a favour for a former curate of his, she asks him for his advice on the matter of what to settle on Eve, as Fred Smailey's father intends to do nothing, claiming all his money is tied up. In the course of conversation, Mrs. Van Brugh's husband's first wife is mentioned, but the discussion is soon interrupted by servants dragging in Ruth Tredgett, a tramp who was caught trying to steal from them. She arrogantly admits to the theft and begins to prepare for the coming trial. Mrs. Van Brugh instead plans to attempt to reform her, and, having learned Ruth's history - born into poverty, raised among thieves, falling victim to a "psalm-singing villain" who had his way with her then abandoned her - Athelney's attempts to keep the high moral ground fail, and he declares her life was "what God knows it couldn't well have helped being under the circumstances." Mrs. Van Brugh promises to do everything in her power to help Ruth out of criminality, and Ruth, stunned, agrees to it.
|MR. SMAILEY: ...Moreover, I have been informed that you have, for some years past, been in the habit of searching out women of bad character who profess penitence, with the view of enabling them to earn their living in the society of blameless Christians.|
|MRS. VAN BRUGH: I have.|
|MR. SMAILEY: I tell you at once that I am loth to believe this thing.|
|MRS. VAN BRUGH: (with indignant surprise) Why are you loth to believe this thing?|
|MR. SMAILEY: Because its audacity, its want of principle, and, above all, its unspeakable indelicacy, shock me beyond power of expression.|
|MRS. VAN BRUGH: Mr. Smailey, is it possible that you are speaking deliberately? Think of any blameless woman whom you love and honour, and who is loved and honoured of all. Think of the shivering outcast whose presence is contamination, whose touch is horror unspeakable, whose very existence is an unholy stain on God's earth. Woman—loved, honoured, courted by all. Woman—shunned, loathed, and unutterably despised, but still—Woman. I do not plead for those whose advantages of example and education render their fall ten thousand times more culpable.... (With a broken voice) — It may be that something is to be said, even for them. I plead for those who have had the world against them from the first — who with blunted weapons and untutored hands have fought society single-handed, and fallen in the unequal fight. God help them!|
|MR. SMAILEY: Mrs. Van Brugh, I have no desire to press hardly on any fellow-creature; but society, the grand arbiter in these matters, has decided that a woman who has once forfeited her moral position shall never regain it.|
|MRS. VAN BRUGH: Even though her repentance be sincere and beyond doubt?|
|MR. SMAILEY: Even so.|
|MRS. VAN BRUGH: Even though she fell unprotected, unadvised, perishing with want and chilled with despair?|
|MR. SMAILEY: Even so. For such a woman there is no excuse — for such a woman there is no pardon.|
|MRS. VAN BRUGH: You mean no pardon on earth?|
|MR. SMAILEY: Of course I mean no pardon on earth. What can I have to do with pardon elsewhere?|
|MRS. VAN BRUGH: Nothing. Mr. Smailey, when you have procured the will, I shall be ready to see you; but before you go let me tell you that I am inexpressibly shocked and pained at the terrible theory you have advanced. (He endeavours to speak.) Oh, understand me, I do not charge you with exceptional heartlessness. You represent the opinions of society, and society is fortunate in its mouthpiece. Heaven teaches that there is a pardon for every penitent. Earth teaches that there is one sin for which there is no pardon — when the sinner is a woman!|
|— Act II|
Smailey says he has no desire to be hard on her, but that "it is a fraud", causing Ruth to point out he was guilty of fraud, and she has evidence to prove it. Smailey tries to buy it from her, but she's respectable now: She won't take his money, though she keeps the papers as she "ain't a fool". Smailey leaves in confusion, attempting to backtrack. Fitz-Partington interviews Ruth, to her confusion. Mrs. Van Brugh re-enters, and Fitz-Partington tries to warn her about Smailey, explaining that his detective agency was called on to find out about Smailey's fraud, but as Smailey then hired him to investigate Mrs. Van Brugh, they had combined the cases. However, Fitz-Partington goes on to ask several further questions about Mrs. Van Brugh's marriage, and she begins to realise what Smailey is looking for: if Mrs. Van Brugh's godfather had called her Captain Van Brugh's wife in his will, her secret might be revealed. Smailey returns with the will, and reads out the relevant section about the farm, ending with the section referring to her as "Catherine Ellen, wife of Captain Richard Van Brugh." She faints into a chair.
Ruth arrives with a message from Mrs. Van Brugh requesting to meet with Smailey. Ruth asks Smailey what's wrong with Mrs. Van Brugh, and Smailey announces that ruin will soon befall her, and he begins to tell Ruth "what she has been". Ruth interrupts and points out that what Mrs. Van Brugh is now is more important than what she was, and that his past was hardly blameless. Ruth tells him to take what's his, but no more. As Smailey stands to benefit if he can get Mrs. Van Brugh removed as beneficiary of her godfather's will, he plans to commence proceedings to get what's his. Ruth is furious and announces that if he does so, she'll reveal the evidence of his past fraud in turn. Smailey tries to weasel out of it, saying that "Mrs. Van Brugh would admit the justice of his claim", and he gets Ruth to agree that if Mrs. Van Brugh makes a statement of her own free will, Ruth will let it pass. As Ruth leaves, Smailey rants about the injustice of his past sin being held over his head, whilst planning to condemn Mrs. Van Brugh for her past.
Eve and Fred arrive with Mrs. Van Brugh, and the young couple go out to the garden together. Mrs. Van Brugh confesses to Smailey that she believes that a flaw in the will may have left her penniless. Smailey reveals that he knows this and accuses her of being part of willful bigamy with her "husband", as his first wife died after Mrs. Van Brugh married him. She tearfully confesses that it was not that bad, and that she had never married him, but merely lived with him as his wife. Smailey is shocked at this and leaps to the attack, insisting, despite her pleas for mercy, that he "will spare her nothing" and that she must confess all, even to her own daughter. She pleads with him, offering to sign any deed he asks, to spare her the shame, but he holds a public announcement of her acts over her head if she does not submit to his will. She pleads further, holding up all her good deeds as evidence of her atonement. Smailey retorts that all her good works spring from her desire for forgiveness and taunts her with her previous criticisms of his own hard-heartedness. She cries 'enough', and, rallying, takes the shame onto herself in her own terms: "So let it be. You are strong — for you have the world on your side. I am weak — for I am alone. If I am to die this moral death, it shall be by my own hand." She calls everyone to her, asks Eve to kiss her once more before the truth is revealed, then confesses all. Eve faints into Ted's arms. Ruth recoils, and Smailey and Fred watch, emotionless.
|MRS. VAN BRUGH: This is monstrous beyond expression. I have borne my terrible pubishment to this point patiently, and without undue murmur, but I will bear no more. Let that man know this. He has roused me at last, and I will meet him face to face. Let him know that, helpless and friendless as he believes me to be; crushed as I am under the weight of the fearful revelation he has extorted from me; shunned as I am, and despised even by those who all despise but I, I am yet strong in this, that I have nothing more to lose. He has made me desperate, and let him beware. There are men in these days as hot in the defense of an insulted woman as in the days gone by, and he shall have a legion of them about his ears. I have been punished enough. I will be punished no further.|
Mr. Smailey then arrives, and asks, when Ted is done shaking his son, for everyone to pay attention to him. He felt it his duty as a magistrate to disbelieve Mrs. Van Brugh's statement that she hadn't married Captain Van Brugh, and so prove her guilty of a greater crime, and his advertisement for proof that Captain Van Brugh's first wife was not dead at the time of the current Mrs. Van Brugh's marriage has been answered. Ruth arrives, to the confusion of all, bearing the proof - but the proof turns out to be of Mr. Smailey's former fraud. He is arrested, though Fred promises to stay with him to the end, and the Athelneys, Ruth, Eve, and Mrs. Van Brugh plan to sail off to Australia together, where Dr. Athelney has been granted a bishopric, and they can live "humbly as become penitents, cheerfully as becomes those who have hope, earnestly as becomes those who speak out of the fullness of their experience" and teach "lessons of loving-kindness, patience, faith, forbearance, and charity."
Foreshadowing is also used in Mrs. Van Brugh's first entrance:
MRS. VAN BURGH: Well, I've done for myself now; go away from me; I'm a pariah, an outcast; don't, for goodness' sake, be seen talking with me.
EVE: Why, mamma, dear, what on earth have you been doing?
MRS. VAN BURGH: Doing? Listen and shudder! I've put a dissenter in one of my almshouses!
RUTH: ...I got sick and tired of it all, and began to think o' putting a end to it, when I met a smooth-spoken chap - a gentleman, if you please - as wanted to save me from the danger afore me. Well, wot odds? He was a psalm-singing villain, and soon left me. (Act I)
We soon learn who the "psalm-singing villain" is, in Act II, when Mr. Smailey confronts Ruth. This happens soon after the scene in the side box:
MR. SMAILEY: Stop, woman. (She [Ruth] turns and advances.) Don't—don't approach me—we have nothing in common. Listen at a distance. Mrs. Van Brugh has thought proper to place you on a pedestal that levels you, socially, with respectable Christians. In so doing, I consider that she has insulted respectable Christians. She thinks proper to suffer you to enter my presence. In so doing, I consider she has insulted me. I desire you to understand that when a woman of your stamp enters the presence of a Christian gentleman, she——
RUTH: (who has been looking at him in wonder during this speech) Smailey! That's never you! (Mr. Smailey falls back in his chair.)
RUTH: Aye, Smailey, it's Ruth Tredgett.
MR. SMAILEY: (very confused) I did not know whom I was speaking to.
RUTH: But you knowed what you was speakin' to, Jonas Smailey. Go on. I'm kinder curous to hear what you've got to say about a woman o' my stamp. I kinder curous to hear wot Jonas Smailey's got to say about his own work.
His son, Fred, turns out to be a similar character. In the following scene from Act III, Fred has already agreed to break things off with Eve. She and her mother have arrived, and his father is about to confront Mrs. Van Brugh with evidence of her impropriety with Captain Van Brugh, which he presumes to be bigamy, although it turns out they never married in the first place. In the meantime, Fred takes Eve to the garden:
FRED: If the arbour were a consecrated arbour, and I had a licence in my pocket, we might take a turn - in the garden - that would surprise our dear friends.
EVE: What, without a wedding-dress and bridesmaids, and bouquets and presents, and a breakfast? My dear Fred, it wouldn't be legal!
RUTH: No, I never had no father—my mother was such as me. See here, lady. Wot's to become of a gal whose mother was such as me? Mother! Why, I could swear afore I could walk!
DR. ATHELNEY: But were you brought up to any calling?
RUTH: Yes, sir, I were; I were brought up to be a thief. Every soul as I knowed was a thief, and the best thief was the best thought on. Maybe a kid not long born ought to have knowed better. I dunno, I must ha' been born bad, for it seemed right enough to me. Well, it was in prison and out o' prison—three months here and six months there—till I was sixteen. I sometimes thinks as if they'd bin half as ready to show me how to go right as they was to punish me for goin' wrong, I might have took the right turnin' and stuck to it afore this. At sixteen I got seven year for shop-liftin', and was sent out to Port Phillip. I soon got a ticket and tried service and needlework, but no one wouldn't have me; and I got sick and tired of it all, and began to think o' putting an end to it, when I met a smooth-spoken chap—a gentleman, if you please—as wanted to save me from the danger afore me. Well, wot odds? He was a psalm-singing villain, and he soon left me. No need to tell the rest—to such as you it can't be told. I'm 'most as bad as I can be—as bad as I can be!
MRS. VAN BURGH: I think not; I think not. What do you say, Doctor?
DR. ATHELNEY: (struggling with his tears) Say, ma'am? I say that you, Ruth Tredgett, have been a most discreditable person, and you ought to be heartily ashamed of yourself, Ruth Tredgett; and as a clergymen of the Church of England I feel bound to tell you that—that your life has been—has been what God knows it couldn't well have helped being under the circumstances.
Charity lost money and closed in March. Its failure was disappointing to Gilbert, particularly after the success of his earlier "fairy comedies" at the Haymarket, and he grumbled that "pieces written with anything like an earnest purpose seldom seem to succeed." Charity did have a good provincial tour, and Augustin Daly produced a successful run at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City, but this gave Gilbert no pleasure, as Daly added characters and revised the text without asking permission. The American courts would not issue an injunction to prohibit this, since British copyright was unenforceable in America at that time (as Gilbert and Sullivan would experience anew with H.M.S. Pinafore and their later hits).
It would not be until the rise of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw in the 1880s and 1890s that the British public would accept such blunt challenges to their world-views on stage. However, by then Gilbert's play had been forgotten.