The play begins outside Mrs. Alison's home in Haslemere, where Vivie Warren is staying. Mr. Praed approaches her and they shake hands; he introduces himself as a friend of her mother, but Vivie reveals that she has requested him to visit. He suggests going to the train station to meet her mother, who will be arriving shortly, but Vivie doesn't think it is necessary, so they sit outside the house and chat.
Praed remarks that Vivie is obviously not conventional, and he finds this pleasing because he despises authority and is a self-described anarchist. He seems to patronize her in his exclamation of delight that she is so "modern" (33), causing her to silently judge him as rather dull and annoying.
Vivie describes her education to Praed, especially how hard she needed to study to pass her mathematics tripos at Cambridge. He is appalled since he believes this kind of hard work must make it impossible for her to enjoy cultural pursuits. To the contrary, Vivie assures him that she loves to work hard, and had only objected to her education in that it was so expensive and not necessarily practical.
Praed expresses disbelief that Vivie should prefer a life without art or culture, assuming that she hasn't yet had the opportunity to enjoy it. However, she explains that she recently attended the National Gallery, the opera, and a classical music concert with a friend from Newnham, and did not enjoy a moment of it. She much prefers to work without any distractions at her friend and colleague, Honoria Fraser's, office on Chancery Lane in London.
Praed says her mother might be disappointed to know that she does not enjoy cultural activities, and Vivie states that she wouldn't know what her mother expects, since she has seen very little of her over her entire life. Mrs. Warren, her mother, put Vivie in school in England at an early age while she lived in Brussels or Vienna and did not allow her daughter to visit.
In his attempt to change the subject away from Mrs. Warren, Praed reveals his discomfort in discussing her profession. Vivie notices and declares that since her mother obviously has a secret, she will use it to manipulate her later. Praed begs her not to, but insists he cannot reveal the secret to her. Vivie agrees to drop the subject, which seems to prompt Praed to change his mind.
But before he can tell Vivie what her mother's secret is, Mrs. Warren appears at the gate with Sir George Crofts. In contrast to her daughter, Mrs. Warren is dressed quite conventionally; Crofts, too, is dressed fashionably and well. Vivie greets them at the gate, and Crofts has to request to shake her hand. She gives him a strong, manly handshake just as she did for Praed, then goes inside to get more chairs for them.
The setting of Act I, Haslemere, refers to a city located an hour south of London. The 1859 opening of a railway allowed many artists, writers, and thinkers - including George Bernard Shaw - to travel easily to Haslemere to get out of the city for a bit.
Shaw's description of Vivie immediately marks her as unconventional, an example of "New Womanhood" even in her dress, which is "plan" and "business-like" (32). She has an incredibly strong handshake, nearly injuring Praed's hand when she greets him. Her Cambridge education and ability to be paid for work in London also characterizes her as mannish for her time, as well as her description to Praed of how she spends her time after work: "I like a comfortable chair, a cigar, a little whiskey, and a novel with a good detective story in it" (35).
Praed's praise of Vivie confirms that she projects this "New Womanhood" to the other characters upon first meeting them: he immediately comments that she is, to his delight, rather unconventional. This theme of convention appears throughout the play as a point of tension among the characters, which are all unconventional in varying ways. Demonstrating his male privilege, Praed comments upon Vivie's demeanor rather patronizingly, as if he finds it adorable because she is a woman.
The theme of sentimentality vs. practicality emerges immediately in the characters of Praed and Vivie, respectively. Praed is appalled when Vivie describes her life of studying mathematics to him, since he sees it as "destroying all that makes womanhood beautiful!" (35). In contrast, Vivie enjoys the work; assuring Praed that she much prefers a life without any cultural distractions.
Vivie makes note of her former tutor while at Newnham. Newnham was one of two colleges for women that were established at Cambridge (Newnham in 1870 and the other, Girton, in 1869) to prepare students for the tripos examinations. Newnham tailored the curriculum and program of study to its female students, while Girton took the approach of providing its students with the same material male students were studying at Cambridge. The first examination that included women was in 1882; before that, each female student had to negotiate individual to sit for an exam. Women were not admitted as full members of the university until 1947.
It is noteworthy that one of the places Mrs. Warren has lived, and not allowed Vivie to visit her, is Brussels, the capital of Belgium. In 1879, it was discovered that the state brothels of Belgium were holding British women against their wills; in some cases, it was children who were forced into prostitution there. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 strengthened laws against child prostitution, one year after Shaw completed Mrs. Warren's Profession.