Mrs. Warren's Profession  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Mrs Warren's Profession is a play written by G. Bernard Shaw in 1893. The story centers on the relationship between Mrs Warren, a prostitute, described by Shaw as "on the whole, a genial and fairly presentable old blackguard of a woman," and her "prudish" daughter, Vivie. Mrs Warren is a middle-aged woman whose Cambridge-educated daughter, Vivie, is horrified to discover that her mother's fortune was made managing high-class whorehouses. The two strong women make a brief reconciliation when Mrs Warren explains her impoverished youth, which originally led her into "white slavery". Vivie forgives her mother until learning that the highly profitable business remains in operation.

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 shamefuly that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together." But despite Shaw's claims and its title, the play barely touches the theme of prostitution. Rather, it focuses on the conflicts related to the "new women" of the Victorian era — issues arising because middle-class girls wanted greater social independence in work and education. Other themes include criticism of the sexual triteness of the times and a want for greater social sexual awareness along with equality in the workplace for working women.

Shaw 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. (Guthrie Theater Study Guide, 24-25)

The play was originally banned by the Lord Chamberlain (Britain's official theatre censor) because of its frank discussion and portrayal of prostitution, but was finally first performed on Sunday, January 5th, 1902, at London's New Lyric Club with the distinguished actor-manager, Harley Granville-Barker among the cast. (Members-only clubs have always been a device to avoid the eye of authority, but actors often also use it to invite their fellow-artists to a private showing of a play, usually on Sundays, when theatres are closed to the public.) There was another performance, this time on the public stage, in New York City in 1905. The New York police arrested everyone concerned, cast and crew, but it seems only the house manager of the theatre was actually charged.

That the play speaks of prostitution, per se, probably would not have shocked a Victorian audience. All references to the "profession" within the play are couched in euphemism. What was truly shocking was the play's whole-hearted attack on the domestic imprisonment of women by the male-dominated culture of the period. Perhaps even more shocking was the suggestion that Mrs Warren not only survived prostitution, but actually prospered from it in very real ways. And then, adding fuel to the fire of controversy, there was the sub-text of incest in Vivie and Frank's romance.

It became possible in England to mount a public showing of "Mrs Warren's Profession" for the first time only in 1925, after ordinary women had tasted the freedom — and faced the deadly danger — of working in munition factories during World War I.

Together with Pygmalion, "Mrs Warren's Profession" remains one of Shaw's most frequently revived works, particularly because it is a great deal shorter than most of his other plays.



Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Mrs. Warren's Profession" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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