The play begins with an extensive description of the setting. It is after dinner in January 1906 in the library in Lady Britomart Undershaft’s house in Wilton Crescent. A large settee is in the middle of the room and it is vacant at present. Lady Britomart is sat at the writing table and is ‘busy at it’. There is a smaller writing table behind the settee; a window with a window seat on the left of the settee and an armchair is close by.
Lady Britomart is a woman of 50 or thereabouts. She is well-dressed yet careless about her appearance. She is also well-mannered, but ‘appallingly outspoken and indifferent to the opinion of her interlocutors’. She conceives of the universe ‘exactly as if it were a large house in Wilton Crescent’. She is also described as ‘quite enlightened and liberal’ as her books, art and music testify.
Her son, Stephen, enters and is described as ‘a gravely correct young man under 25’ and is still in ‘some awe’ of his mother. When he enters, he asks her what the matter is, but she clearly does not want to be disturbed. He begins to read a newspaper and she asks him not to as she will require all of his attention.
She comes over to the settee and asks him to bring her a cushion. She tells him not to fiddle with his tie. He stops, begs her pardon and fiddles with his watch chain instead. She says she is going to speak to him ‘very seriously’ and so needs much more than his ‘everyday matter-of-course attention’. He asks if he has annoyed her and she replies ‘nonsense’. She then asks, ‘how soon you intend to realize that you are a grown-up man, and that I am only a woman’. He is amazed, but she goes on to explain that he must ‘learn to face life seriously’ and she ‘cannot bear the whole burden of our family affairs any longer!’ He has studied at Harrow and Cambridge and has travelled to India and Japan and so, she claims, he is old enough and experienced enough to help.
She says he is old enough now to be in her confidence, at the age of 24, and can help her deal with his father ‘about the girls’. Both her daughters, Sarah and Barbara, are engaged, but both have limited access to money. She explains that Sarah’s match (Charles Lomax) will not be a millionaire until he is 35 in 10 years time.
She then talks about Barbara and she thought she would have the best career of all of them. Instead, she joined the Salvation Army, discharged her maid and lives on a pound a week. She also walked in one evening with a professor of Greek and he is only pretending to be a Salvationist according to Lady Britomart. She thinks he only plays the big drum in public for the Salvation Army because he loves Barbara.
Stephen says he was also surprised to hear Barbara was engaged to (Adolphus) Cusins, but thinks he is a ‘very nice fellow’ and nobody would guess he was born in Australia. His mother interrupts and says he will make her a good husband and her family are Whigs and believe in liberty. However, she thinks such ‘quiet, simple, refined, poetic people’ as Cusins are more extravagant than others. She adds that she also wants Stephen to marry soon and is trying to arrange somebody for him, which he finds objectionable.
He asks what this has to do with his father and she points out that this is where the money is to come from. Although her father is the Earl of Stevenage, he has barely £7,000 a year now and Stephen’s father must be fabulously wealthy ‘because there is always a war going on somewhere’. Stephen agrees and says he does not need reminding. He has hardly ever opened a newspaper in his life without seeing ‘the Undershaft torpedo! The Undershaft quick firers! The Undershaft ten inch’.
His mother says it is not just the arms but the war loans that Lazarus (Undershaft’s partner) arranges ‘under cover of giving credit for cannons’. She argues that Undershaft and Lazarus ‘positively have Europe under their thumbs’ and Stephen’s father behaves as though he is above the law. She has asked Gladstone, The Times and the Lord Chamberlain to take it up, but they would not: ‘….it was like asking them to declare war on the Sultan.’ Stephen argues that it would not be possible to act against him anyway as he does not actually break the law.
In these early stages of Act I, there is an introduction to the Undershaft family and Lady Britomart’s financial concerns. Through the references to her lineage, this family is depicted as aristocratic; however, her husband, Andrew Undershaft is seen to be ‘fabulously wealthy’ through his involvement in the manufacturing of arms.
A critique of Lady Britomart’s position in society is brought about with her characterization as she commands the space on stage as well as her son. Undershaft and the business of trading in arms are criticized through her words as she explains he is beyond the law. It is possible to see, then, a socialist influence on the text as the English class system and capitalism are used as themes and questioned.