This is one of three plays Shaw published as Plays Unpleasant in 1898; they were termed "unpleasant" because they were intended, not to entertain their audiences—as traditional Victorian theatre was expected to—but to raise awareness of social problems and to censure exploitation of the laboring class by the unproductive rich. The other plays in the group are The Philanderer and Mrs Warren's Profession.
The play comprises three acts: In Act I a poor but aristocratic young doctor named Harry Trench and his friend William Cokane are vacationing at Remagen on the Rhine. There, they encounter fellow travelers: Mr Sartorious, a self-made businessman, and his daughter Blanche. Harry and Blanche fall in love and become engaged. Act II opens with everyone back at home in London: Sartorius, in talking to a Mr Lickcheese, whom he employs as a rent-collector, reveals himself to be a slumlord. He discharges Lickcheese for dealing too leniently with tenants. Trench and Cokane arrive to visit, but when Trench discovers that Sartorius makes his money by renting slum housing to the poor, he is disgusted and refuses to allow Blanche to accept money from her father after they are married and insists they must live on Harry's small income. They break up over this, after a bitter argument. Sartorius reveals that Trench's income depends on interest from mortgaged tenements and, therefore, is as dirty as the money made by Sartorious, but the lovers do not reconcile: Blanche utterly rejects Harry because of her wounded feelings. In Act III, Trench, Cokane and Lickcheese return to Sartorius' house to plan a shady business venture. (Trench, disillusioned and coarsened by knowing his income is tainted by its source, no longer takes the moral high-ground.) In the final scene, notable for its erotic tension, Harry and Blanche reunite.