Arnolphe has the perfect solution to the mockery chasing husbands with cheating wives. He has arranged the perfect wife, adopting a four-year-old ward, stowing her away in a convent before extracting her at the age of eighteen, still ignorant of worldly matters. Now, in his moment of triumph, Arnolphe’s ward has met a young man spotted passing nearby. And without the knowledge of the “evils” of loving the wrong person, has fallen in love.
Returning from a business trip, Arnolphe brags to his good friend, Chrysale, about plans to marry his long-time ward, Agnes. Given the way that Arnolphe has mocked husbands with cheating wives over the years, Chrysale warns that he is opening himself up to their revenge, should his own, much younger wife begin to stray, but Arnolphe has taken special precautions: Adopting Agnes at the age of four, he has kept her ignorant of the corruptions of society by sequestering her in a convent over the years. Even now, he keeps her away from society, watched over by ignorant servants in an alternate home, where he is known simply by his assumed title, “Monsieur de la Souche.” Arnolphe briefly visits with Agnes, who has spent her time dutifully mending shirts and caps while he was away. Back in the street, he encounters Horace, the son of an old friend, who presents him with a note from his father, requesting financial support. Arnolphe gladly loans him a purse of money, but, unaware of Arnolphe’s assumed name, Horace reports his fascinated attraction to the young woman who lives in the nearby home of the mysterious “Monsieur de la Souche.” He confesses that the servants have allowed him in to visit with the girl, and laughs over the “jealous boob” who has locked her away. He assures Arnolphe that he will put his money to good use, in winning the girl away from her foolish guardian.
Infuriated, Arnolphe returns to his “la Souche” home, attacking the confused servants for their negligence. He delicately interviews Agnes, who readily admits meeting Horace. She recounts how Horace, in passing below her balcony, would bow to her repeatedly, a courtesy that she would return on each repeated pass. But when an old woman complained that this young man was now suffering a broken heart from their encounter, she let him in to the home, where Horace presented gifts for herself as well as the servants, stirring her unfamiliar heart with words of love, and chaste kisses on her arms and hands. Arnolphe fears that Horace might have taken something “more than kisses,” but Agnes admits only to giving him a ribbon, while wondering what these “other things” might be. Arnolphe warns that this guest was attempting to lead her into “mortal sin,” explaining that these joys are only permissible when a couple is wedded. Agnes insists, “well, then wed me right away!” and Arnolphe readily agrees, but, when he finds Agnes actually wants is to be wed to Horace, he grows infuriated, shaming her. He insists that she rebuff any further approaches by dropping a stone on the boy from her balcony.
Arnolphe commends Agnes for successfully rebuffing Horace with the dropped stone, and proceeds to make plans for their marriage. He lectures her about the proper duties of a wife toward her husband, warning her against the cauldrons of Hell. He shares with her a pamphlet intended to instruct young wives on “The Maxims of a Marriage,” and encourages her to read aloud the rules restricting a woman’s indiscreet behavior, denouncing all fancy dress, cosmetics, correspondence, gambling and public entertainments. Alone, Arnolphe delights in his success, even as Horace arrives to lament the return of “de la Souche,” who seems to have forced Agnes to drop a stone on him from her balcony. The good news, however, is that Agnes attached a letter to the stone that she dropped, declaring her love, and complaining of her cruel imprisonment. Horrified, Arnolphe cuts their conversation short, resolving to confront Agnes over her betrayal.
Arnolphe returns, shaken from his confrontation with Agnes, who brazenly returned his silent stare. Disturbed by his increasing fondness for his disobedient ward, Arnolphe talks to himself, even as the Notary arrives to draw up their marriage pact. Too distracted to hear any of the Notary’s replies to his random mutterings, and put off by the Notary’s unawareness of the situation, Arnolphe sends him away, and the Notary assumes Arnolphe must be crazy. Arnolphe play-acts a scene with his servants to make sure they rebuff any of Horace’s advances or bribes, and the servants demonstrate their fidelity by calling Arnolphe all of the rude names that they plan to call Horace, even as they pocket Arnolphe’s money. Horace returns, revealing that Agnes beckoned him to sneak into the home through the back way, pushing him off into a corner when her guardian, “de la Souche” arrived. Even though Horace could not see from his hiding place, he could hear the guardian’s petulant behavior, kicking the dog and throwing things about the room. He explains his plans to return that night with a ladder, climbing up to Agnes’ balcony to steal her away. Chrysalde returns, once again attempting to convince the disturbed Arnolphe that such infidelities are not the worst thing a husband might face, but Arnolphe proceeds to enlist the servants to repel Horace’s ascent to the balcony by battering him with sticks.
Arnolphe is in a panic: his servants, swinging at Horace in the dark, seem to have killed the boy. As Arnolphe is trying to figure out how to explain this to the boy’s father, Horace finds Arnolphe in the dark. He recounts how an inadvertent slip off the ladder saved him from the servants’ blows, and how Agnes came out to find him lying in the dark, and now refuses to return, wanting to run off and elope instead. Fearful that their pre-marital companionship may stir some scandal (and still oblivious to Arnolphe’s dual identity) he asks Arnolphe to watch over Agnes, passing her back to her guardian in the dark. Alone with her once again, Arnolphe shames Agnes for her brazenness, and is shocked to hear her talking back, refusing any disgrace for her behavior. Arnolphe insists that she owes him a large debt for her upbringing, she counters that his investment must have been fairly minimal, given that she grew up learning virtually nothing about the outside world. Arnolphe recoils from his own impulse toward violence, and breaks down, expressing forgiveness and love, promising her jewels, dresses and frivolous pleasures. When she remains unmoved, he resorts to locking her away once more. Horace returns with news that his father, Oronte, has arrived, apparently with plans to marry him off to the daughter of the mysterious “Enrique.” Arnolphe agrees to help him, but when the men arrive, Arnolphe insists that Oronte force his son to obey the commands of his father. Shocked by this sudden betrayal, Horace finally realize that Arnolphe and “Monsieur de la Souche” are the same person. Arnolphe scoffs over Horace’s failed elopement, but, attempting to depart with Agnes, learns that Agnes is actually the daughter of Enrique who, having left his infant daughter behind to make his fortune in the new world, has now returned to match the daughter to the son of his best friend, Oronte. Arnolphe, runs off howling incoherently, and Chrysalde reflects on the good care that Heaven has taken, to see the girl returned to her father, and mated to her true love.
Arnolphe: sometimes presenting himself under the title “Monsieur de la Souche”
Agnes: brought up as ward to Arnolphe
Horace: son of Oronte, in love with Agnes
Chrysalde: friend to Arnolphe
Enrique: brother-in-law to Chrysalde
Oronte: Horace’s father, and friend to Arnolphe
Alain: a peasant, servant to Arnolphe
Georgette: peasant, servant to Arnolphe
Casting note: At least one of the male characters (the Notary) could be played by a woman, and the actor playing that role might also be double-cast in another part, reducing the total cast to eight.
Setting: A house and garden in a small square in an outlying town.
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