Mrs. Warren’s Profession was first published in Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898). It was George Bernard Shaw’s third “unpleasant” play, following Widowers’ Houses (pr. 1892, pb. 1893), which dealt with the problem of slum landlords, and The Philanderer (pb. 1898, pr. 1905), about marriage and the restrictions it imposed on women. The plays were described as “unpleasant” because they attack existing social conditions in a way that forces the audience to question their own basic assumptions. “I must . . . warn my readers that my attacks are directed against themselves, not against my stage figures,” Shaw wrote in his preface.
There are similarities between Widowers’ Houses and Mrs. Warren’s Profession. In the earlier play, Harry Trench hears that his independent income is in fact derived directly from the profits made by Sartorius, the slum landlord, his prospective father-in-law. This puts him in a situation similar to that of Vivie Warren. Later in Widowers’ Houses, it transpires that Sartorius’s mother had been an exploited washerwoman—an explanation in part for his later attitudes, just as Mrs. Warren’s profession resulted (in her opinion) from her early experiences as a victim of an unjust system. Mrs. Warren’s Profession, however, is a more powerful drama than the earlier play, particularly in the skill with which Shaw handles the two confrontations between Vivie and Mrs. Warren in acts 2 and 4.
Because Mrs. Warren’s Profession deals with prostitution and hints at incest, it was for many years banned from public theaters. It was first performed in 1902 by the Stage Society, a private club that gave a performance for its own members and so escaped the censorship imposed by the Lord Chamberlain. The play was performed in New York in 1905 but was closed down immediately by the police; the producer and the entire company were arrested, although they were later acquitted and the play was allowed to continue. It was not until 1925 that the play received its first legal public performance in England, at the Regent Theatre in London. As late as 1955, the play was banned in Paris because it was considered “amoral.”