‘The Dear Departed’ was first produced in Manchester in 1908. Here, Houghton satirizes the degradation of moral values in the British middle-class.
The writer of this play, William Stanley Houghton was a famous English dramatist. He was a prominent member of a group of playwrights known as the Manchester School of Dramatics. His plays are set locally in Northern England, but represent universal aspects of human nature. He had a remarkable gift for dialogue that is evident in ‘The Dear Departed’.
The story of the play begins with Mrs. Slater telling her ten years old daughter, Victoria, to go upstairs and put on her white frock with a black sash. Her husband Henry Slater comes home after sending a telegram to his sister-in-law, Elizabeth, and her husband Jordan to come to talk over Grandpa’s affairs who is presumably dead. Henry wonders if they would come because Elizabeth has said she would never set foot in their house again. But Mrs. Slater says she will come. She asks her husband to wear Grandpa’s new slippers and proposes Henry to replace their shabby chest of drawers with the valuable bureaus of Grandpa. After some hesitation he agrees. Mrs. Slater fastens the front door and they carry the old chest of drawers upstairs. Mrs. Slater tells her daughter not to open the door till they come down.
Mrs. Jordan throws her husband Tit-Bits, and tells him to try to look as if they had been waiting for them. Victoria ushers in Ben and Mrs. Jordan. Sisters kiss each other and men shake hands. Mrs. Jordan says that he has gone at last and asks he sister whether she had sent for the doctor. Mrs. Slater says that she sent Henry at once for Dr. Pingle but he was out. Mrs. Jordan says that she should have sent for another doctor because many people have been resorted to life after they were thought to be gone. Then they talk about his paying the premium. Mrs. Jordan says grandpa did pay his premiums. Mrs. Slater gets tea ready. They consider putting the announcement in the papers and think of some appropriate verses. Then they say that they will look through his things and make a list of them. Mrs. Slater tells Victoria to run upstairs and fetch the bunch of keys on her Grandpa’s dressing table. She is afraid to go but eventually goes.
Victoria returns very scared and tells that Grandpa is getting up. They are transfixed with amazement. The door opens and Grandfather, Abel Merryweather comes in. They cannot believe their eyes. He comes forward to shake hand with his son-in-law, Mr. Jordan. Mrs. Slater pokes him with her hand to see if he is solid. Only Victoria is glad that he is not dead. She snatches the slippers from her husband and gives them to Grandpa. Abel Merryweather asks them why they are in mourning clothes. Mrs. Slater invents an excuse and tells that Ben’s brother has died and they are going to his funeral.
Grandfather says, perhaps, they have been waiting for him. Then he tells them to sit down and take tea. He says there is nothing serious. Due to over-drinking he had become unconscious. Then he asks Mrs. Slater and Henry what they had been doing with his bureau. Elizabeth blames her sister for stealing. The two sisters start quarrelling. Their integrity is exposed. Grandpa comes to know the reality. He tells them that he would change his will. He would give his money and things to the one with whom he lives. Both the sisters try to persuade him to live with them but he says that it is a bit late. He declares that he will do three things on Monday next. He will go to the lawyer and change the will, pay the premium and get married to Mrs. John Shorrocks who keeps the Ring-o-Bells at St. Philips’ Church. He invites all of them to attend the ceremony.
Amelia Slater is an energetic and sharp woman. She is married to Henry Slater and has a ten year old daughter, Victoria. She is a very dominating person by nature and makes sure that all things happen according to her own will. She makes her husband do all she wants. She can talk her way through any argument. She is a cunning and sharp person and cares only for the material world. She is a tart and biting person when it comes to her own gain. She is never contended or sated with what she already has. There is always a need for more in her. She wants a major part of her father’s inheritance and tries to get so by unfair means. She is a pretentious person who worries about what people will think about her mourning and therefore she sheds fake tears. She feels no true sorrow for her dead father. In the end when it comes to winning Abel Merryweather’s favour, she alters completely just to get hold of her money. Thus, Mrs. Slater is a pivotal character of the story who is a materialistic and dominating woman.
Henry Slater is a man who has no will of his own and no say in the house. He does what his wife tells him to do. Although, he’s not as bad and greedy in nature like his wife Amelia, he helps her in hiding some things of Grandpa before the arrival of Amelia’s sister. He also wears his dead father-in-law’s slippers because his wife asks him to do it.
Mrs. Jordon is a stout and complacent woman. She is impassive and always has an irritating air around her. She is very witty and sharp. She holds the capacity to drive a hard bargain over things to gain possession. She too is a greedy person just like her sister who takes every opportunity to criticise the Slaters and finally decides to take her father with her just for the sake of money.
Ben is surely a practical man and a very big hypocrite in the play. He is practical when he says that everyone has got to die someday. This shows that he is not at all mournful of the fact that Abel passed away. Ben called Abel Merry Weather ‘the drunken old beggar’ because the latter had not paid the premium for his insurance. This meant that none of the family members would be able to get his insurance money. This angered and disgusted everyone in their family. This incidence shows that Ben was very logical, and very materialistic. He did not believe in the importance of relationships.
Abel Merryweather is an old widower. Since the death of his wife, he has been living in turns, with his daughters Amelia Slater and Elizabeth Jordan. He is a fun-loving and jovial man, who loves to go to the pub and drink. He is quick-witted and too intelligent to be fooled by any show of affection by his daughters. He knows them too well. But, he lives with them because they are his daughters and he wanted to leave something to them in his will. But when he discovered how they behaved, believing him to be dead, he decides to change his will, and marry a widow, Mrs. John Shorrocks, the keeper of ‘’Ring – O – Bells’. He is a likeable old man, much better than his daughters.
The lesson ‘Dear Departed’ focuses on the family values that are dwindling fast in the society. Materialism has affected the modern man’s life so much that even the respectful relationship between father and daughter has become tainted with it. The lesson highlights this aspect of the relationship with unmatched craftsmanship by weaving a wonderful and absorbing sequence of events. The poetic justice at the end is the real mastery of the playwright. Abel’s vengeful response to the selfish daughters leaves them stupefied and stunned. They are left regretful for their meanness. Thus the theme of the play quite interesting and edifying.
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