The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Act 1 begins on a summer afternoon in a cottage garden near Haslemere, Surrey, not far from London. Vivie Warren, a middle-class, well-educated young woman, sits on a hammock reading and writing, with a pile of serious-looking books nearby. Praed, a friend of her mother, arrives and tells Vivie that her mother is coming down from London. Vivie hardly knows her mother, who lived abroad while the girl was sent away to school and college in England. Through the ensuing conversation, the audience learns of Vivie’s success in gaining a high mathematics degree at the University of Cambridge, and that she intends to use her expertise by securing employment in London, as either an actuary or an assistant to a barrister. Praed expresses regret that she appears not to have any romance or beauty in her life. She replies that she does not care for either.
Mrs. Warren arrives with her longtime companion, Sir George Crofts, a successful businessman. Immediately attracted to Vivie, Crofts asks Praed who her father is, but Praed does not know. Crofts is concerned that he may himself be her father. Young Frank Gardner, a charming but idle young man who is also keen on Vivie, joins the group and then sidles off to engage in some disrespectful banter with his clergyman father, the Rev. Samuel Gardner, a bustling, seemingly important man who is, however, incapable of winning anyone’s respect. It is revealed that Frank’s father was something of a rake in his youth and...
(The entire section is 1008 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Following the model of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whom George Bernard Shaw admired, Shaw attempted to create plays in which the central interest lay in dialogue rather than action. He thought that the dialogue should revolve around ideas, in such a way that the audience would have their habitual opinions and attitudes challenged. Shaw achieves the effect he wanted primarily in the two confrontations between Mrs. Warren and Vivie, which conclude acts 2 and 4. He does this even while making concessions to the stage conventions of the day: Progressive revelations about guilty pasts and shady associations, as well as hints of incest and some odd coincidences, keep the action moving and satisfy the audience’s need for surprises, although the facts that unfold are anything but conventional.
The emotional center of the play is reached at the end of act 2. In the early stages of the discussion between Vivie and her mother, it appears that Vivie’s view will easily prevail. Her rational assurance seems to carry moral authority with it. In two significant stage directions, however, Shaw suddenly shifts the balance of the argument. After chiding Vivie for her heartlessness, Mrs. Warren “suddenly breaks out vehemently in her natural tongue—the dialect of a woman of the people—with all her affectations of maternal authority and conventional manners gone, and an overwhelming inspiration of true conviction and scorn in her.”
(The entire section is 387 words.)
In the late nineteenth century, playwrights turned away from what they considered the artificiality of melodrama and the contrived structure of ‘‘the wellmade play,’’ with its slavish devotion to plot and lack of character development, to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. They rejected the flat characterizations and unmotivated actions typical of these earlier forms. Their work, along with much of the experimental fiction written during that period, adopts the tenets of realism, a new literary movement that took a serious look at believable characters and their sometimes- problematic interactions with society. In order to accomplish this goal, realistic drama focuses on the commonplace and eliminates the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism of melodrama. Dramatists like Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw discard traditional sentimental theatrical forms as they chronicle the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult social problems, like the restrictive conventions under which nineteenth-century women suffered. Writers who embrace realism use settings and props that reflect their characters’ daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.
Eric Bentley, in his foreword to Signet Classics’s collection of Shaw’s plays, argues that Shaw throws ‘‘the monkey wrench of character’’ into the structure of the well-made...
(The entire section is 414 words.)
The ‘‘well-made’’ play was the typical form employed by playwrights in the second half of the nineteenth century. These plays adopted the Aristotelian primacy of plot, which often overshadowed characterization. Well-made comedies depended on accident rather than character development to achieve the inevitable happy ending. Shaw refused to follow what he considered to be the artificial form of the well-made play, insisting that they bore little resemblance to real-life situations. In Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the action is character driven with little plot development, unfolding through conversations that shift back and forth among the players. The conclusion of the play also breaks with tradition. Shaw frustrated the audience’s expectation that comedies end with all conflicts resolved. Vivie, his main character, does appear happy at the end of the play as she turns ‘‘buoyantly’’ to her work, which soon gains her full attention. Her conflict with her mother, however, has not been resolved. Mrs. Warren leaves Vivie’s office after refusing to shake hands with her. While Vivie appears momentarily relieved, Shaw suggests through his characterization of her that she may later regret her treatment of her mother.
Shaw’s characters were much more complex, and thus more realistic, than those in well-made plays, which prevented his plays from arriving at a neat closure at...
(The entire section is 315 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Late Nineteenth Century: The Married Woman’s Property Act passes in England, granting women several important rights.
Today: In England, women are guaranteed equal rights under the law.
Late Nineteenth Century: In the latter part of the nineteenth century, realism becomes the dominant literary movement in the Western world. In the last decade of the century, symbolism and naturalism emerge as important new movements.
Today: Musicals, like The Producers, and reality- based plays, like Rent, dominate Broadway.
Late Nineteenth Century: A new term, the ‘‘New Woman,’’ comes to describe women who challenge traditional notions of a woman’s place, especially the privileged role of wife and mother. These challenges are seen as a threat to the fabric of the American family.
Today: Women have the opportunity to work inside or outside of the home or both. However, those who choose to have children and a career face difficult time-management choices due to inflexible work and promotion schedules.
Late Nineteenth Century: Feminist Victoria Woodhull embarks on a lecture tour in 1871, espousing a free-love philosophy, which reflects the women’s movement’s growing willingness to discuss sexual issues.
Today: Women have the freedom to engage in premarital sex and to have children out of wedlock. The issue of single...
(The entire section is 244 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Compare and contrast the strong-willed heroines in Shaw’s Major Barbara and Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
Investigate the status of women in Victorian England. What were their employment opportunities and working conditions?
Research the rise of the New Woman in Britain and America. What obstacles did they face in their push for equality for women?
Write a plot outline of the play, placing it in modern-day America. What elements would you keep the same and what would you need to alter?
(The entire section is 81 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
The Awakening (1899) is Kate Chopin’s masterful novel of a young woman who struggles to find self-knowledge and inevitably suffers the consequences of trying to establish herself as an independent spirit.
In the play A Doll’s House (1879), Henrik Ibsen examines a woman’s restricted role in the nineteenth century and the disastrous effects those limitations have on her marriage.
Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1969) studies the history and dynamics of feminism.
Shaw’s Major Barbara (1905) focuses on political and social themes similar to those of Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
(The entire section is 90 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bentley, Eric, ‘‘Foreword,’’ in Plays, by George Bernard Shaw, New American Library, 1960, pp. vii–xxx.
Berst, Charles A., ‘‘Propaganda and Art in Mrs. Warren’s Profession,’’ in ELH, Vol. 33, No. 3, September 1966, pp. 390–404.
Shaw, George Bernard, ‘‘The Author’s Apology,’’ in Plays, by George Bernard Shaw, Penguin, 1960.
———, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, in Plays, by George Bernard Shaw, Penguin, 1960, pp. 31–115.
———, Preface to Mrs Warren’s Profession, in Complete Plays with Prefaces, by George Bernard Shaw, Vol. 3, Dodd, Mead, 1962, pp. 3, 22–23.
Weintraub, Stanley, ‘‘George Bernard Shaw,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 10, Modern British Dramatists, 1900–1945, edited by Stanley Weintraub, Gale Research, 1982, pp. 129–48.
Wellwarth, George E., ‘‘Mrs. Warren Comes to America; or, the Blue-Noses, the Politicians and the Procurers,’’ Shaw Review, Vol. 2, May, p. 12.
Berst, Charles A., Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama, University of Illinois Press, 1973. Berst studies Shaw’s dramatic method and argues that he reworks traditional forms in his plays.
Carpenter, Charles A., Bernard Shaw and the Art of Destroying Ideals: The Early Plays, University of Wisconsin...
(The entire section is 267 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Bertolini, John. The Playwriting Self of George Bernard Shaw. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
Bloom, Harold. George Bernard Shaw. Broomall, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1987.
Davis, Tracy. George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Ervine, St. John. Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work, and Friends. New York: Morrow, 1956.
Greene, Nicholas. Bernard Shaw: A Critical View. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw. New York: Random House, 1988.
Hugo, Leon. Bernard Shaw: Playwright and Preacher. London: Methuen, 1971.
Page, Malcolm, and Margery Morgan. File on Shaw. London: Methuen, 1989.
(The entire section is 89 words.)