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The play is immediately kicked into high gear in the first act with the introduction of characters and interactions that are both functional and energetic. First, Roebuck Ramsden and Octavius Robinson discuss the death of Mr. Whitefield and the governance of his daughter Ann. The conversation establishes the personalities of both Ramsden and Octavius. Ramsden, according to Shaw, "has always classed himself as an advanced thinker and fearless reformer." Later, Shaw says "Roebuck believes in the fine arts with all the earnestness of a man who does not understand them." He is well meaning, but his ideas and beliefs are ill informed and outdated. He is one of those affectionately drawn characters who prides himself on his progressive nature without realizing his ideas ceased to be progressive at least a decade before.
Ramsden is first and foremost cast in the role of guardian, and for that he must be portrayed as both older and influential; he comes across as an important and respected figure. He is proud of his newly appointed position as guardian to Whitefieldís young daughters and begins at once (barely after the funeral) to match Ann to Octavius, a young artist. Octavius, for his part, is easily characterized as what he is: a dreamy, pensive young man with no amount of aggression whatsoever. Shy and self-effacing, Octavius immediately disqualifies himself as a suitable match for Ann because he lacks ambition. At the same time, however, he is hopelessly drawn to Ann. It is clear that Octavius is "a nice young man," but not much else. Although he is good-looking and gentlemanly, he lacks promise and seems unworthy of Ann.
It is not surprising that Mr. Roebuck Ramsden dislikes young John Tanner, who is neither conventional nor outdated; in fact, the two men are complete opposites in most ways. Although Tanner is the friend of Octavius, Ramsden finds him much too bold. His aggressive progressiveness is a threat to Ramsdenís outdated sense of liberality; and Tannerís book, Revolutionistís Handbook, is almost heresy to Ramsden.
Tanner talks about Ann, whom he has known since childhood, and says she will not be an easy charge. His description of her is not flattering, for he sees her as a strong, aggressive woman who is determined to get the man she chooses. Octavius realizes that Ann is in pursuit of Tanner. Even Ramsden has realized that there may be some attraction between Ann and Tanner, a thought that horrifies him. Oblivious to Annís manipulative skills, Ramsden fools himself into believing that Tanner is pursuing her and worries about his influence on Ann.
Ann enters the room with her mother. She is the picture of loveliness and liveliness, charming to everyone who knows her. Both Tanner and Ramsden appeal to her to decide on one of them to be her guardian; neither man can stand the though of sharing the duty with the other. Ann, however, insists both men must share the guardianship, just as her father has instructed, for she wants to be dutiful and obedient.