Shaw wrote to Lillian MacCarthy, for whom he created the role of Ann Whitefield: "Don't have any blue ribbon and muslin: use violet or purple. . . . There should be a certain pomegranate splendour lurking in the effect." And in the stage directions, he calls her "one of the vital geniuses," adding that she is not oversexed, which would be a "vital defect, not a true excess." Although Shaw also states that whether or not she is good-looking depends upon individual taste, in different ways she fascinates such different individuals as Ramsden, Octavius, and Tanner.
To the gullible Ramsden, whom with the suggestion of both genuine affection and slight contempt she calls "Granny," she is "a wonderfully dutiful girl." He is unable to remember any time when she expressed her own wishes as a reason for doing something or not doing it. She would always say, "Father wished me to" or "Mother wouldn't like it." It has, apparently, always been her selflessness and her keen sense of duty which have motivated her conduct. Even in childhood she had broken up the experimental love affair between Jack Tanner and "a girl named Rachael Rosetree" because she felt it was her duty to do so. This is the role she plays so successfully for the Ramsdens and Tavies of the world. She is full of sweet sentiments; she is daintily coy and appealingly helpless; she even swoons in the presence of young men as is expected of the feminine, well-bred young Victorian Womanly Woman.
Octavius the innocent is easily deceived by her. When Jack trying to enlighten him and vehemently exclaims, "Vitality in a woman is a blind fury of creation. She sacrifices herself to it: do you think she will hesitate to sacrifice you?" Tavy rushes to the defense of his goddess: "Why it is just because she is self-sacrificing that she will not sacrifice those she loves." He remains incredulous when Jack tells him that it "is the self-sacrificing woman that sacrifices others most recklessly."
If Ann is to Octavius the "reality of romance," she is nothing of the kind to her mother or certainly to Jack Tanner. In the stage directions, Shaw sums up an important aspect of her character in these words: "She inspires confidence as a person who will do nothing she does not mean to do; also some fear, perhaps, as a woman will probably do everything she means to do without taking more account of other people than may be necessary and what she calls right. In short, what the weaker of her own sex sometimes call a cat." Her analysis of Violet is a frank tribute of one expert on getting what she wants to another expert who uses a different technique. To Octavius, whom she is trying to let down easily, she says: "You are softhearted! It's queer that you should be so different from Violet. Violet's hard as nails." When Octavius protests that his sister is "thoroughly womanly at heart," Ann replies with some impatience: "Why do you say that? Is it unwomanly to be thoughtful and business-like and sensible? Do you want Violet to be an idiot — or something worse like me?" She concludes that she has great respect for Violet because Violet always gets her way.
It is the Ann who always intends to get her way who nearly terrifies Jack Tanner. The latter describes her as a liar, a bully, a hypocrite — as one who is utterly unscrupulous in using her personal fascination to make men give her what she wants. To him, she is "something for which there is no polite name." In the course of the play, one does see her "bully" people into doing what she wants; one does hear her tell lies — and being caught in a big one. She is indeed depicted in bold strokes. One can understand why Mr. Eric Bentley sees her as a black widow spider out to trap the male, use him for her purposes, and then devour him. She is anything but the thoroughly average woman at heart, and her methods are more virile than feminine.
Of course, Shaw was a man with a thesis and a program in this comedy which is also a philosophy. Ann is the archetype of the Vital Woman. If Jack preaches vitality, it is Ann who practices it. Unlike Violet, she has no need to seek out a rich husband; she is already well-to-do. The great mission in her life is to find the right father for her children. Driven by instinct, she knows herself to be the instrument towards creating the superior race of the future. In the last analysis, nothing else matters to her. So, fascinating as even her severest critic, Jack Tanner, finds her to be, she is a kind of female Machiavellian, using any and all means to fulfill her destiny.
Ann Whitefield plays her role beautifully so that one can understand why most of the other characters in the play are deceived by her. Apparently her delicate sensibilities have been cruelly shocked by her mother's crass reference to Mr. Whitefield's death, and she hastily leaves the room to conceal her emotions. But we know that she had been looking for an excuse to leave anyway. When Jack speaks of her insatiable curiosity leading her to tempt boys, she is again shocked: "All timid women are conventional, Jack, or else we are so cruelly, so vilely misunderstood." So dedicated is she in her role of the Vital Woman with a mission of overwhelming importance that she has no interest in Jack's Revolutionist's Handbook. When he tries to explain that his goal in life is to "shatter creeds and demolish idols," she is merely bored. "I am afraid I am too feminine to see any sense in destruction." If this does not deflate him, Ann adds: "I don't mind your queer opinions one little bit."
In terms of the theory of creative evolution which informs this play, then, Ann actually is unselfish; it is the future of the race which is at stake, not the fortunes of the individual caught in present time.