Criticism: Mrs. Warren's Profession (1902)

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SOURCE: Berst, Charles A. “Propaganda and Art in Mrs. Warren's Profession.ELH 33, no. 3 (September 1966): 390-404.

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[In the following essay, Berst calls Mrs. Warren's Profession one of Shaw's most didactic plays and maintains that “an examination of its achievement as art should prove helpful in assessing the extent to which Shaw's role as a dramatic propagandist limits his accomplishment as an artist.”]

Since Mrs Warren's Profession is one of the most openly didactic of Shaw's plays, an examination of its achievement as art should prove helpful in assessing the extent to which Shaw's role as a dramatic propagandist limits his accomplishment as an artist. Few critics nowadays would agree with Percival P. Howe that the preface to Mrs Warren's Profession renders the play unnecessary,1 or would go so far as Alick West and analyze it in terms of a Marxist tract,2 but there is a decided tendency, not unencouraged by Shaw, to generalize about his productions first in terms of their message and only second in terms of their esthetic texture. Such is certainly the case with this early play. Commentators have made three major points, all having to do with the play's message: (1) Shaw's intention is to reveal that the guilt for prostitution lies more upon society than upon immoral women; (2) Shaw's premise, that prostitutes are forced into their profession by social deprivation and not by natural inclination, is inaccurate; and (3) contrary to scandalized contemporary reaction, the play is highly moral.

The first of these points is clear and self-evident from the preface, the play, and Shaw's socialistic background. In the preface, Shaw emphasizes that Mrs. Warren's girlhood choice was between wretched poverty without prostitution or comfort and luxuries with it. The blame for the fact that she is offered such squalid alternatives falls squarely onto society: “Though it is quite natural and right for Mrs Warren to choose what is, according to her lights, the least immoral alternative, it is none the less infamous of society to offer such alternatives. For the alternatives offered are not morality and immorality, but two sorts of immorality.”3 In the play, the society of Sir George Crofts is clearly the villain. It is the society of the well-to-do which derives its luxuries from the suppressed lower classes and maintains its self respect because it “doesnt ask any inconvenient questions” (p. 84). The cure is implicit and obvious: change the society, raise the standard of living of the lower classes to give them greater freedom and opportunity; in short, turn to socialism.

The second recurring critical point seeks to refute Shaw's central premise, not on grounds that society is uncorrupt, but that it is less responsible for prostitutes' corruption than the prostitutes themselves.4 Shaw boldly begins his preface with a statement of his intention: “Mrs Warren's Profession was written in 1894 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” (p. 3). Such an assertion, say the skeptics, simply is not true—prostitution has survived into relatively affluent times, indicating that the motive behind it is at least as much personal as it is economic.

The third point, that the play is highly moral, is no doubt a critical counter-reaction to the Victorian shock which greeted it in its early years. In Britain, censorship prevented its public performance for over three decades, and in New York the cast of the first production was arrested, the press describing the play in such colorful terms as “illuminated gangrene,” “gross sensation,” and “wholly immoral and degenerate.”5 The...

(The entire section contains 6355 words.)

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