Produced by An Anonymous Volunteer
YOU NEVER CAN TELL
By George Bernard Shaw
In a dentist's operating room on a fine August morning in 1896. Not the
usual tiny London den, but the best sitting room of a furnished lodging
in a terrace on the sea front at a fashionable watering place. The
operating chair, with a gas pump and cylinder beside it, is half way
between the centre of the room and one of the corners. If you look into
the room through the window which lights it, you will see the fireplace
in the middle of the wall opposite you, with the door beside it to your
left; an M.R.C.S. diploma in a frame hung on the chimneypiece; an easy
chair covered in black leather on the hearth; a neat stool and bench,
with vice, tools, and a mortar and pestle in the corner to the right.
Near this bench stands a slender machine like a whip provided with a
stand, a pedal, and an exaggerated winch. Recognising this as a dental
drill, you shudder and look away to your left, where you can see another
window, underneath which stands a writing table, with a blotter and a
diary on it, and a chair. Next the writing table, towards the door, is
a leather covered sofa. The opposite wall, close on your right, is
occupied mostly by a bookcase. The operating chair is under your nose,
facing you, with the cabinet of instruments handy to it on your left.
You observe that the professional furniture and apparatus are new,
and that the wall paper, designed, with the taste of an undertaker,
in festoons and urns, the carpet with its symmetrical plans of rich,
cabbagy nosegays, the glass gasalier with lustres; the ornamental gilt
rimmed blue candlesticks on the ends of the mantelshelf, also glass
draped with lustres, and the ormolu clock under a glass-cover in the
middle between them, its uselessness emphasized by a cheap American
clock disrespectfully placed beside it and now indicating 12 o'clock
noon, all combine with the black marble which gives the fireplace the
air of a miniature family vault, to suggest early Victorian commercial
respectability, belief in money, Bible fetichism, fear of hell always at
war with fear of poverty, instinctive horror of the passionate character
of art, love and Roman Catholic religion, and all the first fruits of
plutocracy in the early generations of the industrial revolution.
There is no shadow of this on the two persons who are occupying the room
just now. One of them, a very pretty woman in miniature, her tiny figure
dressed with the daintiest gaiety, is of a later generation, being
hardly eighteen yet. This darling little creature clearly does not
belong to the room, or even to the country; for her complexion, though
very delicate, has been burnt biscuit color by some warmer sun than
England's; and yet there is, for a very subtle observer, a link between
them. For she has a glass of water in her hand, and a rapidly clearing
cloud of Spartan obstinacy on her tiny firm set mouth and quaintly
squared eyebrows. If the least line of conscience could be traced
between those eyebrows, an Evangelical might cherish some faint hope
of finding her a sheep in wolf's clothing - for her frock is recklessly
pretty - but as the cloud vanishes it leaves her frontal sinus as
smoothly free from conviction of sin as a kitten's.
The dentist, contemplating her with the self-satisfaction of a
successful operator, is a young man of thirty or thereabouts. He does
not give the impression of being much of a workman: his professional
manner evidently strikes him as being a joke, and is underlain by a
thoughtless pleasantry which betrays the young gentleman still unsettled
and in search of amusing adventures, behind the newly set-up dentist
in search of patients. He is not without gravity of demeanor; but the
strained nostrils stamp it as the gravity of the humorist. His eyes are
clear, alert, of sceptically moderate size, and yet a little rash; his
forehead is an excellent one, with plenty of room behind it; his nose
and chin cavalierly handsome. On the whole, an attractive, noticeable
beginner, of whose prospects a man of business might form a tolerably
THE YOUNG LADY (handing him the glass). Thank you. (In spite of the
biscuit complexion she has not the slightest foreign accent.)
THE DENTIST (putting it down on the ledge of his cabinet of
instruments). That was my first tooth.
THE YOUNG LADY (aghast). Your first! Do you mean to say that you began
practising on me?
THE DENTIST. Every dentist has to begin on somebody.
THE YOUNG LADY. Yes: somebody in a hospital, not people who pay.
THE DENTIST (laughing). Oh, the hospital doesn't count. I only meant my
first tooth in private practice. Why didn't you let me give you gas?
THE YOUNG LADY. Because you said it would be five shillings extra.
THE DENTIST (shocked). Oh, don't say that. It makes me feel as if I had
hurt you for the sake of five shillings.
THE YOUNG LADY (with cool insolence). Well, so you have! (She gets up.)
Why shouldn't you? it's your business to hurt people. (It amuses him to
be treated in this fashion: he chuckles secretly as he proceeds to clean
and replace his instruments. She shakes her dress into order; looks
inquisitively about her; and goes to the window.) You have a good view
of the sea from these rooms! Are they expensive?
THE DENTIST. Yes.
THE YOUNG LADY. You don't own the whole house, do you?
THE DENTIST. No.
THE YOUNG LADY (taking the chair which stands at the writing-table
and looking critically at it as she spins it round on one leg.) Your
furniture isn't quite the latest thing, is it?
THE DENTIST. It's my landlord's.
THE YOUNG LADY. Does he own that nice comfortable Bath chair? (pointing
to the operating chair.)
THE DENTIST. No: I have that on the hire-purchase system.
THE YOUNG LADY (disparagingly). I thought so. (Looking about her again
in search of further conclusions.) I suppose you haven't been here long?
THE DENTIST. Six weeks. Is there anything else you would like to know?
THE YOUNG LADY (the hint quite lost on her). Any family?
THE DENTIST. I am not married.
THE YOUNG LADY. Of course not: anybody can see that. I meant sisters and
mother and that sort of thing.
THE DENTIST. Not on the premises.
THE YOUNG LADY. Hm! If you've been here six weeks, and mine was your
first tooth, the practice can't be very large, can it?
THE DENTIST. Not as yet. (He shuts the cabinet, having tidied up
THE YOUNG LADY. Well, good luck! (She takes our her purse.) Five
shillings, you said it would be?
THE DENTIST. Five shillings.
THE YOUNG LADY (producing a crown piece). Do you charge five shillings
THE DENTIST. Yes.
THE YOUNG LADY. Why?
THE DENTIST. It's my system. I'm what's called a five shilling dentist.
THE YOUNG LADY. How nice! Well, here! (holding up the crown piece) a
nice new five shilling piece! your first fee! Make a hole in it with the
thing you drill people's teeth with and wear it on your watch-chain.
THE DENTIST. Thank you.
THE PARLOR MAID (appearing at the door). The young lady's brother, sir.
A handsome man in miniature, obviously the young lady's twin, comes
in eagerly. He wears a suit of terra-cotta cashmere, the elegantly cut
frock coat lined in brown silk, and carries in his hand a brown tall
hat and tan gloves to match. He has his sister's delicate biscuit
complexion, and is built on the same small scale; but he is elastic
and strong in muscle, decisive in movement, unexpectedly deeptoned and
trenchant in speech, and with perfect manners and a finished personal
style which might be envied by a man twice his age. Suavity and
self-possession are points of honor with him; and though this, rightly
considered, is only the modern mode of boyish self-consciousness,
its effect is none the less staggering to his elders, and would be
insufferable in a less prepossessing youth. He is promptitude itself,
and has a question ready the moment he enters.
THE YOUNG GENTLEMAN. Am I on time?
THE YOUNG LADY. No: it's all over.
THE YOUNG GENTLEMAN. Did you howl?
THE YOUNG LADY. Oh, something awful. Mr. Valentine: this is my brother
Phil. Phil: this is Mr. Valentine, our new dentist. (Valentine and Phil
bow to one another. She proceeds, all in one breath.) He's only been
here six weeks; and he's a bachelor. The house isn't his; and the
furniture is the landlord's; but the professional plant is hired. He
got my tooth out beautifully at the first go; and he and I are great
PHILIP. Been asking a lot of questions?
THE YOUNG LADY (as if incapable of doing such a thing). Oh, no.
PHILIP. Glad to hear it. (To Valentine.) So good of you not to mind us,
Mr. Valentine. The fact is, we've never been in England before; and our
mother tells us that the people here simply won't stand us. Come and
lunch with us. (Valentine, bewildered by the leaps and bounds with which
their acquaintanceship is proceeding, gasps; but he has no opportunity
of speaking, as the conversation of the twins is swift and continuous.)
THE YOUNG LADY. Oh, do, Mr. Valentine.
PHILIP. At the Marine Hotel - half past one.
THE YOUNG LADY. We shall be able to tell mamma that a respectable
Englishman has promised to lunch with us.
PHILIP. Say no more, Mr. Valentine: you'll come.
VALENTINE. Say no more! I haven't said anything. May I ask whom I have
the pleasure of entertaining? It's really quite impossible for me to
lunch at the Marine Hotel with two perfect strangers.
THE YOUNG LADY (flippantly). Ooooh! what bosh! One patient in six weeks!
What difference does it make to you?
PHILIP (maturely). No, Dolly: my knowledge of human nature confirms
Mr. Valentine's judgment. He is right. Let me introduce Miss Dorothy
Clandon, commonly called Dolly. (Valentine bows to Dolly. She nods to
him.) I'm Philip Clandon. We're from Madeira, but perfectly respectable,
VALENTINE. Clandon! Are you related to -
DOLLY (unexpectedly crying out in despair). Yes, we are.
VALENTINE (astonished). I beg your pardon?
DOLLY. Oh, we are, we are. It's all over, Phil: they know all about us
in England. (To Valentine.) Oh, you can't think how maddening it is to
be related to a celebrated person, and never be valued anywhere for our
VALENTINE. But excuse me: the gentleman I was thinking of is not
DOLLY (staring at him). Gentleman! (Phil is also puzzled.)
VALENTINE. Yes. I was going to ask whether you were by any chance a
daughter of Mr. Densmore Clandon of Newbury Hall.
DOLLY (vacantly). No.
PHILIP. Well come, Dolly: how do you know you're not?
DOLLY (cheered). Oh, I forgot. Of course. Perhaps I am.
VALENTINE. Don't you know?
PHILIP. Not in the least.
DOLLY. It's a wise child -
PHILIP (cutting her short). Sh! (Valentine starts nervously; for the
sound made by Philip, though but momentary, is like cutting a sheet of
silk in two with a flash of lightning. It is the result of long practice
in checking Dolly's indiscretions.) The fact is, Mr. Valentine, we are
the children of the celebrated Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon, an authoress of
great repute - in Madeira. No household is complete without her works.
We came to England to get away from them. The are called the Twentieth
DOLLY. Twentieth Century Cooking.
PHILIP. Twentieth Century Creeds.
DOLLY. Twentieth Century Clothing.
PHILIP. Twentieth Century Conduct.
DOLLY. Twentieth Century Children.
PHILIP. Twentieth Century Parents.
DOLLY. Cloth limp, half a dollar.
PHILIP. Or mounted on linen for hard family use, two dollars. No family
should be without them. Read them, Mr. Valentine: they'll improve your
DOLLY. But not till we've gone, please.
PHILIP. Quite so: we prefer people with unimproved minds. Our own minds
are in that fresh and unspoiled condition.
VALENTINE (dubiously). Hm!
DOLLY (echoing him inquiringly). Hm? Phil: he prefers people whose minds
PHILIP. In that case we shall have to introduce him to the other member
of the family: the Woman of the Twentieth Century; our sister Gloria!
DOLLY (dithyrambically). Nature's masterpiece!
PHILIP. Learning's daughter!
DOLLY. Madeira's pride!
PHILIP. Beauty's paragon!
DOLLY (suddenly descending to prose). Bosh! No complexion.
VALENTINE (desperately). May I have a word?
PHILIP (politely). Excuse us. Go ahead.
DOLLY (very nicely). So sorry.
VALENTINE (attempting to take them paternally). I really must give a
hint to you young people -
DOLLY (breaking out again). Oh, come: I like that. How old are you?
PHILIP. Over thirty.
DOLLY. He's not.
PHILIP (confidently). He is.
DOLLY (emphatically). Twenty-seven.
PHILIP (imperturbably). Thirty-three.
PHILIP (to Valentine). I appeal to you, Mr. Valentine.
VALENTINE (remonstrating). Well, really - (resigning himself.)
PHILIP (to Dolly). You were wrong.
DOLLY. So were you.
PHILIP (suddenly conscientious). We're forgetting our manners, Dolly.
DOLLY (remorseful). Yes, so we are.
PHILIP (apologetic). We interrupted you, Mr. Valentine.
DOLLY. You were going to improve our minds, I think.
VALENTINE. The fact is, your -
PHILIP (anticipating him). Our appearance?
DOLLY. Our manners?
VALENTINE (ad misericordiam). Oh, do let me speak.
DOLLY. The old story. We talk too much.
PHILIP. We do. Shut up, both. (He seats himself on the arm of the
DOLLY. Mum! (She sits down in the writing-table chair, and closes her
lips tight with the tips of her fingers.)
VALENTINE. Thank you. (He brings the stool from the bench in the corner;
places it between them; and sits down with a judicial air. They attend
to him with extreme gravity. He addresses himself first to Dolly.)
Now may I ask, to begin with, have you ever been in an English seaside
resort before? (She shakes her head slowly and solemnly. He turns to
Phil, who shakes his head quickly and expressively.) I thought so. Well,
Mr. Clandon, our acquaintance has been short; but it has been voluble;
and I have gathered enough to convince me that you are neither of you
capable of conceiving what life in an English seaside resort is. Believe
me, it's not a question of manners and appearance. In those respects we
enjoy a freedom unknown in Madeira. (Dolly shakes her head
vehemently.) Oh, yes, I assure you. Lord de Cresci's sister bicycles in
knickerbockers; and the rector's wife advocates dress reform and wears
hygienic boots. (Dolly furtively looks at her own shoe: Valentine
catches her in the act, and deftly adds) No, that's not the sort of boot
I mean. (Dolly's shoe vanishes.) We don't bother much about dress and
manners in England, because, as a nation we don't dress well and we've
no manners. But - and now will you excuse my frankness? (They nod.) Thank
you. Well, in a seaside resort there's one thing you must have before
anybody can afford to be seen going about with you; and that's a father,
alive or dead. (He looks at them alternately, with emphasis. They
meet his gaze like martyrs.) Am I to infer that you have omitted that
indispensable part of your social equipment? (They confirm him by
melancholy nods.) Them I'm sorry to say that if you are going to stay
here for any length of time, it will be impossible for me to accept
your kind invitation to lunch. (He rises with an air of finality, and
replaces the stool by the bench.)
PHILIP (rising with grave politeness). Come, Dolly. (He gives her his
DOLLY. Good morning. (They go together to the door with perfect
VALENTINE (overwhelmed with remorse). Oh, stop, stop. (They halt and
turn, arm in arm.) You make me feel a perfect beast.
DOLLY. That's your conscience: not us.
VALENTINE (energetically, throwing off all pretence of a professional
manner). My conscience! My conscience has been my ruin. Listen to me.
Twice before I have set up as a respectable medical practitioner in
various parts of England. On both occasions I acted conscientiously, and
told my patients the brute truth instead of what they wanted to be told.
Result, ruin. Now I've set up as a dentist, a five shilling dentist; and
I've done with conscience forever. This is my last chance. I spent my
last sovereign on moving in; and I haven't paid a shilling of rent yet.
I'm eating and drinking on credit; my landlord is as rich as a Jew and
as hard as nails; and I've made five shillings in six weeks. If I
swerve by a hair's breadth from the straight line of the most rigid
respectability, I'm done for. Under such a circumstance, is it fair to
ask me to lunch with you when you don't know your own father?
DOLLY. After all, our grandfather is a canon of Lincoln Cathedral.
VALENTINE (like a castaway mariner who sees a sail on the horizon).
What! Have you a grandfather?
DOLLY. Only one.
VALENTINE. My dear, good young friends, why on earth didn't you tell me
that before? A cannon of Lincoln! That makes it all right, of course.
Just excuse me while I change my coat. (He reaches the door in a bound
and vanishes. Dolly and Phil stare after him, and then stare at one
another. Missing their audience, they droop and become commonplace at
PHILIP (throwing away Dolly's arm and coming ill-humoredly towards
the operating chair). That wretched bankrupt ivory snatcher makes a
compliment of allowing us to stand him a lunch - probably the first
square meal he has had for months. (He gives the chair a kick, as if it
DOLLY. It's too beastly. I won't stand it any longer, Phil. Here in
England everybody asks whether you have a father the very first thing.
PHILIP. I won't stand it either. Mamma must tell us who he was.
DOLLY. Or who he is. He may be alive.
PHILIP. I hope not. No man alive shall father me.
DOLLY. He might have a lot of money, though.
PHILIP. I doubt it. My knowledge of human nature leads me to believe
that if he had a lot of money he wouldn't have got rid of his
affectionate family so easily. Anyhow, let's look at the bright side of
things. Depend on it, he's dead. (He goes to the hearth and stands with
his back to the fireplace, spreading himself. The parlor maid appears.
The twins, under observation, instantly shine out again with their
THE PARLOR MAID. Two ladies for you, miss. Your mother and sister, miss,
Mrs. Clandon and Gloria come in. Mrs. Clandon is between forty and
fifty, with a slight tendency to soft, sedentary fat, and a fair
remainder of good looks, none the worse preserved because she has
evidently followed the old tribal matronly fashion of making no
pretension in that direction after her marriage, and might almost be
suspected of wearing a cap at home. She carries herself artificially
well, as women were taught to do as a part of good manners by dancing
masters and reclining boards before these were superseded by the modern
artistic cult of beauty and health. Her hair, a flaxen hazel fading into
white, is crimped, and parted in the middle with the ends plaited and
made into a knot, from which observant people of a certain age infer
that Mrs. Clandon had sufficient individuality and good taste to stand
out resolutely against the now forgotten chignon in her girlhood. In
short, she is distinctly old fashioned for her age in dress and manners.
But she belongs to the forefront of her own period (say 1860-80) in a
jealously assertive attitude of character and intellect, and in being
a woman of cultivated interests rather than passionately developed
personal affections. Her voice and ways are entirely kindly and humane;
and she lends herself conscientiously to the occasional demonstrations
of fondness by which her children mark their esteem for her; but
displays of personal sentiment secretly embarrass her: passion in her
is humanitarian rather than human: she feels strongly about social
questions and principles, not about persons. Only, one observes that
this reasonableness and intense personal privacy, which leaves her
relations with Gloria and Phil much as they might be between her and the
children of any other woman, breaks down in the case of Dolly. Though
almost every word she addresses to her is necessarily in the nature of a
remonstrance for some breach of decorum, the tenderness in her voice is
unmistakable; and it is not surprising that years of such remonstrance
have left Dolly hopelessly spoiled.
Gloria, who is hardly past twenty, is a much more formidable person than
her mother. She is the incarnation of haughty highmindedness, raging
with the impatience of an impetuous, dominative character paralyzed by
the impotence of her youth, and unwillingly disciplined by the constant
danger of ridicule from her lighter-handed juniors. Unlike her mother,
she is all passion; and the conflict of her passion with her obstinate
pride and intense fastidiousness results in a freezing coldness of
manner. In an ugly woman all this would be repulsive; but Gloria is
an attractive woman. Her deep chestnut hair, olive brown skin, long
eyelashes, shaded grey eyes that often flash like stars, delicately
turned full lips, and compact and supple, but muscularly plump figure
appeal with disdainful frankness to the senses and imagination. A very
dangerous girl, one would say, if the moral passions were not also
marked, and even nobly marked, in a fine brow. Her tailor-made
skirt-and-jacket dress of saffron brown cloth, seems conventional when
her back is turned; but it displays in front a blouse of sea-green silk
which upsets its conventionality with one stroke, and sets her apart as
effectually as the twins from the ordinary run of fashionable seaside
Mrs. Clandon comes a little way into the room, looking round to see
who is present. Gloria, who studiously avoids encouraging the twins by
betraying any interest in them, wanders to the window and looks out with
her thoughts far away. The parlor maid, instead of withdrawing, shuts
the door and waits at it.
MRS. CLANDON. Well, children? How is the toothache, Dolly?
DOLLY. Cured, thank Heaven. I've had it out. (She sits down on the step
of the operating chair. Mrs. Clandon takes the writing-table chair.)
PHILIP (striking in gravely from the hearth). And the dentist, a
first-rate professional man of the highest standing, is coming to lunch
MRS. CLANDON (looking round apprehensively at the servant). Phil!
THE PARLOR MAID. Beg pardon, ma'am. I'm waiting for Mr. Valentine. I
have a message for him.
DOLLY. Who from?
MRS. CLANDON (shocked). Dolly! (Dolly catches her lips with her finger
tips, suppressing a little splutter of mirth.)
THE PARLOR MAID. Only the landlord, ma'am.
Valentine, in a blue serge suit, with a straw hat in his hand, comes
back in high spirits, out of breath with the haste he has made. Gloria
turns from the window and studies him with freezing attention.
PHILIP. Let me introduce you, Mr. Valentine. My mother, Mrs. Lanfrey
Clandon. (Mrs. Clandon bows. Valentine bows, self-possessed and quite
equal to the occasion.) My sister Gloria. (Gloria bows with cold dignity
and sits down on the sofa. Valentine falls in love at first sight and
is miserably confused. He fingers his hat nervously, and makes her a
MRS. CLANDON. I understand that we are to have the pleasure of seeing
you at luncheon to-day, Mr. Valentine.
VALENTINE. Thank you - er - if you don't mind - I mean if you will be so
kind - (to the parlor maid testily) What is it?
THE PARLOR MAID. The landlord, sir, wishes to speak to you before you go
VALENTINE. Oh, tell him I have four patients here. (The Clandons look
surprised, except Phil, who is imperturbable.) If he wouldn't mind
waiting just two minutes, I - I'll slip down and see him for a moment.
(Throwing himself confidentially on her sense of the position.) Say I'm
busy, but that I want to see him.
THE PARLOR MAID (reassuringly). Yes, sir. (She goes.)
MRS. CLANDON (on the point of rising). We are detaining you, I am
VALENTINE. Not at all, not at all. Your presence here will be the
greatest help to me. The fact is, I owe six week's rent; and I've had
no patients until to-day. My interview with my landlord will be
considerably smoothed by the apparent boom in my business.
DOLLY (vexed). Oh, how tiresome of you to let it all out! And we've
just been pretending that you were a respectable professional man in a
MRS. CLANDON (horrified). Oh, Dolly, Dolly! My dearest, how can you be
so rude? (To Valentine.) Will you excuse these barbarian children of