The play's story involves Jack Dean, a Professor of Philosophy at a prestigious English university (unnamed, but presumed to be Oxford) who is the primary candidate for the Vice Chancellor-ship after the current Vice Chancellor, Hugo Slate, retires the position. Dean has a wife, Gwendolyn, and two daughters, Stella and Mary. The plot focuses around a petition to ban nuclear weapons (in real life, Bolt's pet political issue), which is introduced by Louis Flax, a strong-willed, opinionated research fellow who is courting Stella. Dean refuses to sign it, even though his wife strongly supports the petition. His unwillingness to commit himself slowly drives his wife insane; she feels herself unloved and unappreciated by her husband, but blames herself for it. Stella becomes pregnant by Louis, and in a subplot a frustrated Stella tries to convince Louis to marry her. At the play's denouement, Gwendolyn destroys a Holbein portrait of the University's founders and pins the petition to it; this convinces her husband to support his wife and sign the petition, even though it will ruin his chances of becoming Vice Chancellor.
The play's original run coincided with Bolt's A Man for All Seasons in 1960. It was more financially successful than Man, although it received mixed critical reviews. Its original cast featured Michael Redgrave as Dean, and daughter Vanessa, in one of her first major stage roles, as Stella.