Mrs. Warren's Profession
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The story centres on the relationship between Mrs Kitty Warren and her daughter, Vivie. Mrs. Warren, a former prostitute and current brothel owner, is described as "on the whole, a genial and fairly presentable old blackguard of a woman." Vivie, an intelligent and pragmatic young woman who just graduated from college, has come home to get acquainted with her mother for the first time in her life. The play focuses on how their relationship changes when Vivie learns what her mother does for a living. It explains why Mrs. Warren became a prostitute, condemns the hypocrisies relating to prostitution, and criticizes the limited employment opportunities available for women in Victorian Britain.
Vivie Warren, a thoroughly modern young woman, has just graduated from the University of Cambridge with honours in Mathematics (equal Third Wrangler), and is available for suitors. Her mother, Mrs. Warren (her name changed to hide her identity and give the impression that she is married), arranges for her to meet her friend Mr. Praed, a middle-aged, handsome architect, at the home where Vivie is staying. Mrs. Warren arrives with her business partner, Sir George Crofts, who is attracted to Vivie despite their 25-year age difference. Vivie is romantically involved with the youthful Frank Gardner, who sees her as his meal ticket. His father, the (married) Reverend Samuel Gardner, has a history with Vivie's mother. As we discover later, he may be Vivie's out-of-wedlock father, which would make Vivie and Frank half-siblings. Mrs. Warren successfully justifies to her daughter how she chose her particular profession in order to support her daughter and give her the opportunities she never had. She saved enough money to buy into the business with her sister, and she now owns (with Sir George) a chain of brothels across Europe. Vivie is, at first, horrified by the revelation, but then lauds her mother as a champion. However, the reconciliation ends when Vivie finds out that her mother continues to run the business even though she no longer needs to. Vivie takes an office job in the city and dumps Frank, vowing she will never marry. She disowns her mother, and Mrs. Warren is left heartbroken, having looked forward to growing old with her daughter.
- Mrs. Kitty Warren: An attractive, middle-aged businesswoman and former prostitute, made wealthy by running a string of brothels.
- Mr. Praed: A friend of Mrs. Warren, middle-aged and attractive, a good man.
- Sir George Crofts: Mrs. Warren's business partner. A middle-aged, stodgy, entitled member of the upper class.
- Reverend Samuel Gardner: A local minister and (possibly) Vivie's biological father.
- Vivie Warren: Mrs. Warren's daughter, recently graduated from University with honours.
- Frank Gardner: Youthful son of Reverend Gardner.
Shaw said he wrote the play "to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together."
He explained the source of the play in a letter to the Daily Chronicle on 28 April 1898:
Miss Janet Achurch [an actress and friend of Shaw’s] mentioned to me a novel by some French writer [Yvette by Guy de Maupassant] as having a dramatisable story in it. It being hopeless to get me to read anything, she told me the story... In the following autumn I was the guest of a lady [Beatrice Webb] of very distinguished ability—one whose knowledge of English social types is as remarkable as her command of industrial and political questions. She suggested that I should put on the stage a real modern lady of the governing class—not the sort of thing that theatrical and critical authorities imagine such a lady to be. I did so; and the result was Miss Vivie Warren ... Mrs. Warren herself was my version of the heroine of the romance narrated by Miss Achurch. The tremendously effective scene—which a baby could write if its sight were normal—in which she justifies herself, is only a paraphrase of a scene in a novel of my own, Cashel Byron's Profession (hence the title, Mrs Warren's Profession), in which a prize-fighter shows how he was driven into the ring exactly as Mrs. Warren was driven on the streets.
The play was originally banned by the Lord Chamberlain (Britain's official theatre censor) because of its frank discussion of prostitution, but was finally performed on Sunday, 5 January 1902, at London's New Lyric Club with the distinguished actor-manager Harley Granville-Barker as Frank, Fanny Brough as Mrs. Warren, George Goodhart as Sir George Crofts, Julius Knight as Praed, Madge McIntosh as Vivie and Cosmo Stuart as Rev. Samuel Gardner. Members-only clubs had been a device to avoid the eye of authority, but actors often also used the opportunity to invite their fellow-artists to a private showing of a play, usually on Sundays, when theatres were closed to the public. The first public performance in London took place in 1925.
A 1905 performance in New York, this time on a public stage, was interrupted by the police, who arrested the cast and crew for violating New York City's version of the Comstock laws. It was later held not to be in violation of the law, and has been revived on Broadway five times since. It was recently performed by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2012, and was so popular that the season was extended.
Adaptations and sequels
BBC Television produced a television version in 1972. Produced by Cedric Messina and directed by Herbert Wise, it stars Coral Browne in the title role, with Penelope Wilton as Vivie. Also in the cast are James Grout, Robert Powell, Richard Pearson and Derek Godfrey. The production was released on DVD in 2006.
The play was revived in 2010 in three separate venues:
- London's West End, at the Comedy Theatre with Felicity Kendal in the title role
- Washington, D.C., by the Shakespeare Theatre Company at Sidney Harman Hall, with Elizabeth Ashley in the title role
- Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company, with Cherry Jones as Kitty Warren and Sally Hawkins as Vivie
Vivie's character and the changing role of women
Men who could afford to get married in the Victorian era could make use of “laws that gave him total control of his wife's person—and her fortune”. Victorian women were expected to maintain a poised and dignified manner, and to obey their husbands. Vivie defies the Victorian expectations of an obedient woman: she is educated and entirely self-sufficient. She rejects two marriage proposals, reflecting her reliance on her work ethic and hard-headed approach to life. Shaw represents Vivie as the product of a type of gender reformation: a character who is asexual and "permanently unromantic".
Throughout the play, the boundary between sexual desires and proposed marriages is blurred. Frank flirts with both Mrs. Warren and Vivie; Mrs. Warren's companion Sir George Crofts proposes marriage to Vivie despite his relationship with her mother. Critic Petra Dierkes-Thrun argues that these examples illustrate the way in which Shaw
critiqued the ideological and economic system that produced her [Mrs. Warren], attacking the problematic double standard of male privilege and the deeply entrenched objectification of women, which Shaw saw pervading all levels of Victorian society down to its most basic nuclear element, the family.
- Shaw, George Bernard (1902). "Mrs. Warren's Profession". Retrieved 2011-02-07.
- Powell, Kerry (2004). The Cambridge companion to Victorian and Edwardian theatre. Cambridge University Press. p. 229. ISBN 978-0-521-79536-4.
- "Mrs. Warren's Profession Study Guide". Guthrie Theater. 2003. pp. 25–26. Retrieved 2008-08-14.
- Mrs. Warren's Profession: a Play in Four Acts By Bernard Shaw
- "Arnold Daley Held for his Shaw Play". The New York Times. November 15, 1905. Retrieved 2012-05-21.
- "The Court Approves Bernard Shaw's Play". The New York Times. July 7, 1906. Retrieved 2012-05-21.
- Laurence, Dan H. "Victorians Unveiled: Some Thoughts on Mrs. Warren’s Profession". Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 24 (2004): 40. Retrieved 2010-03-21.
- "Mrs. Warren's Profession", The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Twentieth Century and Beyond (eds. Joseph Black, et al.) Canada: Broadview, 2008
- Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920, Volume 49, Number 3, 2006, pp. 293–310 (Article)
- Mrs. Warren's Profession at Project Gutenberg
- Mrs. Warren's Profession on Open Library at the Internet Archive
- Mrs. Warren's Profession at the Internet Broadway Database