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Mrs. Warren's Profession

by George Bernard Shaw

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Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession

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After Lady Windermere’s Fan was first performed on 20 February 1892, Oscar Wilde found himself a famous playwright. At the time, George Bernard Shaw was struggling to establish himself on the British stage after having failed as a novelist. Mrs. Warren’s Profession, his third play, was written in late 1893 and early 1894. Shaw’s play is a Shavian reworking of Wilde’s, an attempt to squarely face the issues that Wilde sidestepped. In a nutshell, it is Lady Windermere’s Fan intellectualized.

The situations of the two plays are remarkably similar, both built around confrontation between a bad mother and an innocent daughter. In both plays, the mother lives on the Continent and the daughter in England, and in both the daughter knows little about her mother and indeed harbors illusions about her. Both daughters confront the danger of becom- ing like their mothers, and both withdraw from the precipice after a brief period of confusion. In both plays, society is presented as corrupt, and morally innocent individuals are out of place.

In Wilde’s play, after leaving her husband and daughter, Mrs. Erlynne spends 20 years on the Continent with no visible means of support except her good looks. Lord Windermere calls her ‘‘a divorced woman, going about under an assumed name, a bad woman preying upon life.’’ We are never told how she lived, but the assumption is that she seduced rich men like Lord Augustus and took their money. Certainly, she is presented as an accomplished seductress in the play, but Wilde bows to Victorian morality and leaves this aspect of her life obscure. A question forms in the reader’s or viewer’s mind: What did Mrs. Erlynne do during her 20 years on the Continent? Shaw picks up the question and answers it mercilessly in the figure of Mrs. Warren, who also uses an assumed name Miss Vavasour. Shaw bluntly unmasks Mrs. Warren as a prostitute who made a fortune in her profession.

Maupassant’s tale Yvette and Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray are often cited as sources of Shaw’s play, and rightly so, but the chief and hitherto unrecognized source is Lady Windermere’s Fan. Toward the end of 1893 Wilde was taking the London stage by storm (his second social comedy, A Woman of No Importance, was first produced on 19 April 1893, and was also successful); the struggling Shaw must have felt a tinge of envy. The suspicion of envy is reinforced by Shaw’s negative review of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 and his attempt some years later to re-create Lady Bracknell in the figure of Lady Britomart, Major Barbara’s mother. His reaction, then, in 1893–94 was to attempt to remold Lady Windermere’s Fan along Shavian lines.

There are many parallels and counterpoints between Lady Windermere and Vivie Warren. At the beginning of their respective plays, both women are innocents with a corrupt mother in the background whose corruption they are unaware of, and both have a strict set of morals. Lady Windermere’s values, however, are presented as too rigid, and as the play unfolds she becomes more lenient and forgiving. Vivie moves in the same direction, and by the end of act 2 she has forgiven her mother and accepted her as a persecuted woman who defeated terrible poverty in the only manner open to her. But Vivie soon realizes that her mother was wrong, reasserts her own values, and prefers isolation and poverty to Mrs. Warren’s tainted money. By the end of the play, Vivie is if anything more puritanical than at the beginning. Nor does Lady Windermere ever realize how corrupt...

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her society is, whereas Vivie comes to realize ‘‘that fashionable morality is all a pretence’’ in capitalist Britain.

Finally, in both plays, society as a whole is presented as corrupt. ‘‘I will have no one in my house about whom there is any scandal,’’ asserts Lady Windermere, but when we meet her guests, it is clear that they are all immoral, from Cecil Graham, to Dumby, to Lady Plymdale and the others.

Whereas Lady Windermere’s Fan defines morality in primarily sexual terms, in Mrs. Warren’s Profession sexual corruption is part of the economic corruption that permeates every corner of British society and that only Fabian socialism can uproot. Money is a concern in both plays, but Wilde never questions the origins of Lord Windermere’s or anybody else’s fortune, whereas Shaw makes the origin of all fortunes his chief concern.

Given all these similarities and counterpoints between the two plays, then, it is fair to assert that Shaw’s play is a direct response to Wilde’s.

Source: Christopher Nassaar, ‘‘Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession,’’ in Explicator, Vol. 56, No. 3, Spring 1998, pp. 137–38.

A Shavian Whodunit: The Mysterious Mrs. Warren

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Kitty Warren soldiers on. At age 107 she flourishes, despite the unpromising start of her career. When I teach Bernard Shaw’s third play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, that feminist landmark, students in the introductory class, The Art of the Theatre, consist mostly of Latinas in their twenties and thirties; a number are single mothers. They work during the day and take night classes at Lehman College, New York’s public university in the Bronx. They know deprivation, but little about the slums of late-Victorian London, in which Kitty grew up. Reading the play, they’ve learned that she stooped to conquer her origins, to soar upscale, hobnob with the rich and titled, dress in fashionable gowns and furs, and shelter Vivie from the sources of her prosperity.

Vivie has also worked a self-transformation. An orphan of sorts brought up by strangers, having a mother she seldom met and a father of whose identity she was unaware, she graduated from a Cambridge college as a ‘‘third wrangler,’’ with honors in math, a rare feat for a young woman in the 19th century. Her mother paid her way, but Vivie has become a fierce, independent early feminist, and in this outcome we see a strong similarity between mother and daughter who, between them, dominate the drama.

Before the class discusses how today’s directors and actors might work with the play on stage, I sometimes ask the students to write a short paper on whether they think Kitty was a good mother. The overall verdict comes in mixed, every time—mixed but tilted—and it launches some boisterous disagreements. What surprises me is the high proportion of positive responses. Most of the students generally feel that Mrs. W. did what she could on her daughter’s behalf by not stinting on the expenses. Her generosity counts for a lot; so does her reticence in keeping out of Vivie’s life. She meant well when she kept her distance from Vivie at first, they say, because she felt ashamed of herself and didn’t know how else to repent.

Not all students who praise the mother admire the daughter’s forceful characteristics. They argue that when Vivie learns that her mother has stopped being a prostitute—though only in order to take over a chain of six ‘‘hotels’’ and promote herself from a magdalene to a madam—she ought to display gratitude and understanding, not walk out on her parent, as she does in the last act, to take up the actuarial partnership with a college chum. Some of them see her as a lesbian-by-choice, rebelling against the straight life.

Does good ever sprout from evil? Yes. But evil also sprouts from evil. Those students who frown on Kitty—many with a religious upbringing—may allow her credit for being a kind provider. But as two evil outgrowths of that goodness, she wants to call in the debts: she expects Vivie to love her when she, Kitty, has given Vivie only money, nothing of herself. One student (a sociology major) called her an ‘‘emotional miser.’’ At the same time, by not bestowing affection she became a defective mother who accidentally helped Vivie grow into an inde pendent human being, now wholly independent of her, too. Kitty didn’t sink maternal claws into Vivie, as often happens with close, even quarrelsome families, in which a child grows to feel despairingly obligated to mother and father, to respond almost like a puppet to every call they put out. Vivie can be friendly—with her business partner, Honoria Fraser, say, juggling numbers—but she doesn’t offer or accept love any more than her mother does. Without the overt motherly love, Vivie has turned into a cool customer, if not a cold fish.

No, cold fish are smelly. Let’s choose a more decorous worn image: marble. Vivie possibly has too ready a taste for abstraction, such as digits on a page. She can be callous in her regard for herself. She may at times turn inhuman. Is that marble-like quality her fault? Or Kitty’s? When Kitty says tearfully that she thought this daughter would, like an animate investment, ‘‘pay off’’ in the long run by caring for her and comforting her in her dotage, she counted those blessings too early. In keeping her child ignorant of her profession, she kept her out of her life.

Now that Mrs. Warren’s Profession has a secure reputation as a work of art and as a historic document, the students are astounded to hear that after Shaw wrote it in 1893, not only his foes but also his friends belabored it with an assortment of such adjectives as filthy and disgusting. In 1898, when he published it together with three other early social comedies and titled the bundle Unpleasant Plays, as if to warn readers that these works looked at life at the other end of the scale from most plays of the time that called themselves comedies, readers took the warning to heart. No British producer optioned Mrs. Warren—not even J.T. Grein, who’d put on Shaw’s earlier plays. The Stage Society in London allowed it two private performances for ‘‘club members’’ almost a decade after Shaw started to show it around. Nobody else would touch it until in October 1905 Arnold Daly ventured on a showing in New Haven, then another in New York. Reams of grubby gossip ensured that each city would ban it after one night. Indignant noises poured out of the mayor of New Haven; the mayor and police commissioner of New York; the infamous pride of the prudes, Anthony Comstock, secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Vice; and similar cherishers of public morality who lavished more abuse on the play, such as ordure and illuminated gangrene. Shaw himself may have lost heart over the vilification. More than 20 years after Daly’s two brave stabs at the play, Shaw advised troupes in London, Birmingham, and Paris to drop their plans. ‘‘Better never than late,’’ he told them, but did not withhold permission.

The students never comprehend why critics and audiences were so vitriolic, so spiteful. Is there an answer? Many people in the opening years of the century must have been shocked by Kitty’s defense not of prostitution as a practice, but of her reason for going into it—to break free of poverty. Others doubtless squirmed at the direct blame the play lays on the flush segments of society for their lucrative investments in brothels. Many men and a number of women who’d neither seen nor read the play, as well as those who had, condemned its implicit challenge: the assertion that Kitty, in her disreputable trade, could raise an exceptional daughter with no help from a husband. Except for a few supporters led by Mary Shaw, the actress who played Mrs. Warren in Daly’s production and went on like a disciple to tour the U.S. and talk about Mrs. Warren and its implications, critics and public alike did not grasp that the play explains; it doesn’t justify. It proclaims not what should have been, but what was. And is.

Shaw recognized the explosive nature of his subject matter at the time, long before the repugnant objections crashed down on him. He avoided a crude confrontation with Victorian puritanism by shunning words and expressions that could be construed as sexually explicit or untoward. He didn’t use the word prostitution or resort to any of its cognates or to a euphemism like Ladies of pleasure or women of the night. Instead, he simply called it by a legal term that denotes an international crime, ‘‘white slavery.’’ Could Britons and Americans have been offended, the students speculate, by Vivie’s being a bastard—if, that is, Kitty wasn’t married when she gave birth? The word bastard doesn’t appear in the text, and Kitty never refers to a marriage or names a sexual partner. Does the playwright mean us to take the ‘‘Mrs.’’ for real? And here comes Kitty’s most serious fault, which even the single mothers who find Kitty ‘‘good’’ think compromises her. It’s not that she did well in prostitution and then made a mint as a proprietor. They can’t figure out why she will not identify Vivie’s father. Nor can Vivie herself. She bluntly asks, ‘‘Who was my father?’’ Kitty replies, ‘‘You don’t know what you’re asking. I can’t tell you. . . ?’’ Why not? Could she have had so many affairs or taken on so many johns that she no longer remembers who sired her daughter? These students don’t believe it. If the man was a deadbeat dad, she ought to say so. The playwright himself leaves Vivie’s paternity up in the air. That annoys them. More than being scandalized by a play, spectators resent not understanding exactly what has happened. Did they miss something? Is the playwright tricking them?

Shaw does include in the dramatis personae three figures who are of an age to be Vivie’s father. One is her mother’s business partner, Sir George Crofts, a counselor-shareholder-pimp. The second is an architect friend of Kitty’s who is referred to simply as Praed. The third is the Reverend Samuel Gardner. He’s named as the father of Vivie’s admirer, Frank. Frank calls The Rev. Sam ‘‘the Roman father,’’ whatever that wording connotes—conceivably that father and son are not simpatici or that this man of the cloth has elected to live a sexually frugal life. The Rev. Sam, however, long respectably married, may have had a full-blown affair with Kitty Warren many years ago. He wrote her confessional letters that she now refuses to give back. Crofts, a lout, makes advances to Vivie, who spurns him, whereupon Crofts startles her out of her coolness by saying she and Frank are half-sister and -brother— both being the children of Kitty and the Rev. Sam. The latter therefore appears to be the most likely candidate for Vivie’s father. Since nobody in the play directly challenges Crofts, the students, like most other spectators who take lines at face value, accept this assumption on the unspoken and unproven grounds that roles, unlike people, are permitted to lie only when the lie is subsequently exposed. Vivie seems to be fond of Frank, but he looks like an unsuitable partner for this tough young lady, what with her dismissal of verbose talk, her impatience with sloth, his weakness for effusions like ‘‘ever so much’’ and ‘‘ever such’’ and his choice not to work for a living. Crofts could certainly be lying or mistaken, but in case he is right, Vivie suddenly sees herself as a possible victim of her mother’s profligacy. She will shut Frank out of her life. Incest is another word that doesn’t appear in the text. But some criticism comments that a hint, a mere sniff of it in the play’s given circumstances, overlaps the boundary of the forbidden, which had been laid down a century and a half earlier by the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. A mere allusion to incest would have goaded the Lord Chamberlain into censorious action.

When the students first posed this question about Vivie’s father, I didn’t recall seeing any serious (or frivolous) attention paid to it in published writings about the play. The mystery man, the hypothetical Mr. Warren, connects with a handful of smaller mysteries, such as: Did Kitty already practice as a prostitute by the time she met the Rev. Sam, or did she take up the profession only after she gave birth to Vivie? Did she truly send Vivie away to spare her any familiarity with that ‘‘oldest profession,’’ or did she not want to bother with bringing up a child? That is, did she hope to use the earnings to support her baby, or was Vivie an ‘‘error’’ in the first place, a burden accidentally conceived during working hours? Did ‘‘Mr. Warren’’ quit and run? Had Kitty married him? Why does she say she can’t tell Vivie the identity of her father? What stops her?

It seems to me that Shaw was not playing coy. He could never include certain details in the dialogue or stage directions when he wrote the play in 1893 without piling more ammunition into the censor’s blunderbuss. But a larger and more encompassing mystery lurks in the play, and the longer one probes it, the less it lurks and the more it looms. Despite Shaw’s reputation among chastisers, who say they dislike him as an author for running off at the typewriter, he is an economical playmaker. If he doesn’t need to bring roles on stage, he keeps them off and lets them be spoken about or quoted. As examples in this play, we have Mrs. Gardner, the Rev. Sam’s wife and the mother—we assume—of Frank, along with other offstage figures alluded to several times: Honoria Fraser, Vivie’s business partner, and Liz, Mrs. W.’s older sister who prospered from prostitution, introduced Kitty to it, and married into respectability in the cathedral town of Winchester.

By contrast, if certain roles appear on stage frequently or for long spells, Shaw means them to have dramatic weight. Such a one is Praed (no given first name), who ‘‘comes into sight’’ at the opening of Act One. A stage direction calls him ‘‘hardly past middle age with something of the artist about him’’ and remarks that he ‘‘seems not certain of his way.’’ In the preface, Shaw refers to him as ‘‘the sentimental artist (fool that I was not to make him a theatre critic instead of an architect!).’’ As it turns out, Praed is the only role, apart from the three principals (Kitty, Vivie, and Frank), who appears in all four acts. Yet he remains curiously passive compared to the other three and to Crofts, the ‘‘heavy,’’ and the clownish Reverend Sam. Critics find him hardly worthy of notice in print or on stage, one exception being the playwright St. John Ervine in his biography Bernard Shaw:

Praed is the single character in the play who is not accounted for. How did he become acquainted with Mrs. Warren? What bond, if any, was between them? He reminds Crofts that he has never had anything to do with ‘‘that side of Mrs. Warren’s life,’’ but as it is the only side of life she had shown the world since her flight from the factory in the East End of London, where, as a young, nubile girl, she was employed, it is hard to understand how he came to know her, apart altogether from working with her in a considerable degree of intimacy?

Shaw himself adds little about Praed’s offstage existence. In his preface he calls Praed an ‘‘amiable devotee of romance and beauty.’’ And in a letter he again calls Praed ‘‘amiable’’—‘‘an amiable old bachelor.’’

The name ‘‘Praed’’ is unusual. I took it to be Irish, and checked out the bulky Irish listings in a number of phone directories of large cities, but didn’t come across it. Michael Holroyd in his gigantic biography points out that ‘‘all the characters . . . have names associated with the earth: Gardner, Warren, Crofts, even Praed which, taken from Praed Street [in Paddington, London], is derived from ‘praedial’ meaning ‘landed.’’’

What is Praed’s function in the drama? Anything but clear. Students view him—if they take account of him at all—as one of Mrs. Warren’s hangers-on, an adornment. Maybe she keeps him, financially and otherwise, for the sake of showing off an educated or artsy pet. Praed does seem to dwell at the main plot’s margins. He looks reputable, behaves tactfully, dresses ‘‘unconventionally but carefully,’’ and serves as a foil for Crofts, the other hanger-on. Crofts might be regarded as a snapping pitbull while Praed is her toy poodle. He creates a number of impressions of being effete, what with his repeated gush to Vivie about love and romance, and such exclamations as: ‘‘It was so charming of you to say you were disposed to be friends with me! You modern young ladies are splendid—perfectly splendid!’’ As an apostle of ‘‘The Gospel of Art,’’ he cries out to Vivie, ‘‘You haven’t discovered yet what a wonderful world art can open up to you.’’ He might also personify the less-than-virile men Kitty keeps about her, although one or two students in the past have craftily pointed out in class that Crofts the blusterer already serves this purpose. The other three principals and Crofts are in places outspoken; Praed is withdrawn and seems easily shocked.

When he meets Vivie he tells her that her mother ‘‘arranged . . . that I was to come over from Horsham to be introduced to you.’’ Now, Kitty may have intended her daughter to think highly of this gentlemanly but culture-crazy friend. Besides, he lives not far away, in Horsham—lying just over 20 miles to the east of Haslemere, the site of Kitty’s cottage. If Kitty means to meet her daughter in Haslemere to describe and defend her professional life, the arrival of Praed will counteract that life’s vulgar intimations and win Vivie’s respect.

Or Kitty could have some cloudier motive.

Praed also happens to be acquainted with Frank, who regards Vivie with what Frank himself might call ‘‘ever so much adoration.’’ Praed already knows Frank well enough to recall that the young man engaged in a ‘‘folly’’ with a ‘‘barmaid at Redhill.’’ He appears to be an older confidant of Frank’s. Frank is friendly enough with Praed to call him by a nickname, ‘‘Praddy’’—by a further coincidence the same nickname Kitty uses, though she and Frank, like Praed and Vivie, were unacquainted before Act I.

Readers will by now have realized where this Praed talk is leading. When I suggest to students that Vivie is the daughter of Kitty Warren and Praed, I advise them to take note of lines that could undercut the suggestion. Crofts even asks Praed straight out if he’s Vivie’s father. Praed ‘‘meets the question with an indignant stare; then recovers himself with an effort and answers gently and gravely, ‘I have nothing to do with that side of Mrs. Warren’s life, and never had.’’’ He doesn’t say outright that he is not Vivie’s father, only, as Ervine notices, that he had ‘‘nothing to do with that side of Mrs. Warren’s life,’’ and that they have never spoken about ‘‘it,’’ her activity in the brothels. Probably true: too crass a topic of conversation for Praed’s refined palate. And yet, as an architect he might well have undertaken (or helped her with) the design of her ‘‘hotels’’ or ‘‘houses’’—two in Brussels, one in Ostend, one in Vienna, and two in Budapest—even if he has no idea—hard to believe—what use she and Crofts put the structures to. He looks ‘‘puzzled’’ when Vivie speaks of Brussels.

Is Praed as guileless as he appears and as everyone else (except Crofts) takes for granted? Crofts twice accuses Kitty of fearing Praed, as if the man had some sort of hold over her. The students quickly remind me of how wimpish he is, too soft to attract a Kitty Warren, and Crofts’s accusation does seem absurd. I ask them whether Praed could be impish, rather than wimpish. He might, for instance, resemble Wycherley’s hero in The Country Wife, Horner (who also has no first name). Could Crofts suspect Praed of being a secret lecher like Horner? Horner’s impotent pose makes him seem like a safe bet to act as watchdog over pretty wives in 17thcentury London society. He invites the married damsels to come home with him and take a look at his ‘‘china.’’ Meanwhile, he secures from their aged husbands sitter’s fees for purporting to keep the young matrons out of mischief. (Shaw happens to mention Wycherley in the preface to Mrs. Warren, but unfavorably.) Unlike Horner, Praed doesn’t proclaim his impotence: he’d never dream of discussing it. But he does live in the expressively named Horsham, a name that could amount to a double word play, as could a word he frequently resorts to. The students often ask what pray means when it’s part of a request or question and why it crops up so often. I answer that it’s an old-fashioned way of saying ‘‘please’’ or ‘‘please tell me.’’ Although Praed keeps saying ‘‘pray’’ with him it’s a verbal habit like you know or I mean or basically— other roles pick up the word. You might say the text is liberally ‘‘prayed.’’

The action throws off further complications. Frank, who is sarcastic about the Rev. Sam, even revolted by the thought of him as his father, says Praed is his ideal and wishes Praed were his father: Frank’s nickname for Praed, ‘‘Praddy,’’ does rhyme with ‘‘daddy.’’ Kitty, the only one who could know what role Praed has played in her life and Vivie’s, grows alarmed when she hears that Vivie has gone out walking with Praed. In her own fashion, Kitty craves respectability as greedily as her sister Liz and the middle-class spectators at whom Shaw aimed his drama. At the same time, Kitty doesn’t seem to care much one way or the other whether Vivie marries Crofts: a hint that Crofts is not Vivie’s father. She also has no objection to a marriage between Vivie and Frank, although the Rev. Sam does (‘‘It’s out of the question’’). She is ‘‘nettled’’ when she demands, ‘‘Isn’t my daughter good enough for your son?’’ That seems to put a cap on the question of incest.
Out of these odd clues, true and false—but who can say exactly which is which?—I felt I owed it to the students to put together a deconstruction of the background to the play, after warning them that it was inconclusive. It goes as follows. Equation one: Kitty + Praed = Vivie. (Mrs. W. may not have realized when Vivie was conceived that Praed could be a potent pre-Viagra man.) Equation two: Praed + Mrs. Gardner = Frank. That would mean that Praed is Frank’s father, as well as Vivie’s. And the Rev. Sam Gardner is a cuckold. His wife has known Praed, in the biblical sense, for a long time, but Praed never let on to Kitty about this liaison. Frank casually reports a) that Praed and Mrs. Gardner ‘‘took to each other’’ immediately when they met; b) that Mrs. Gardner left the house when she heard that her husband had invited Kitty Warren over; and c) that Praed drove Mrs. Gardner and her daughter to the train station. If the equations give us the paternal truth, Frank and Vivie are half-siblings, but not in the way Crofts thought when he set out to frighten them. Incest remains a below-the-surface theme. In a colloquy with Praed, Crofts observes that ‘‘there’s no resemblance between [Vivie] and her mother that I can see.’’ But there is a distinct resemblance, which may not be visible. These two strong-willed women both resolve to earn their own futures in their own ways. A resemblance also becomes detectable between Praed and Frank, two men with some outwardly effeminate manners or characteristics. With this speculative shuffling of the background material, the play gives us a family of two tough women and two gentle men. The opening act pulls this family together for the first time—papa, mama, boy, girl—while the closing act, in which Vivie leaves Kitty, Praed, and Frank for her own career and world, marks the family’s breakup.

Shaw himself had two ‘‘fathers’’ in his life. George Carr Shaw, the man he took his name from, the husband of Bessie, his mother, was a drunk. For years his mother boarded a music teacher, George John Vandeleur Lee, in her Dublin house. After Lee left for London, she went to join him. George Bernard came to suspect that George John, not George Carr, might have been his actual father. Fathers play considerable—sometimes debatable— parts in other plays by Shaw. In this work, he gives us a father who is not absent but concealed.

Recently, when I told the Art of the Theatre class about my intuitive theory, I argued that as in detective stories, and as in life, sometimes an unobtrusive figure turns into a leading player. I wanted Mrs. Warren’s Profession to illustrate to the students that a statement in the dialogue of this—or any—play is not necessarily reliable information; it may be no more than questionable evidence or evidence that’s wilfully delusive, depending on who utters the words under what personal pressure. Why believe Crofts, who’s a scoundrel? Why believe Kitty Warren, who’s a madam with a habit of concealing the unpleasant in her life? They were skeptical. I added that Shaw hated the commercial practice of manipulating audiences; instead, he dropped hints. I admitted that my proof remained incomplete. The theory about Praed needed a clincher, which I could not come up with. The students smiled in courteous disbelief.

But one undergraduate, Sarah Velez, murmured something I’m ashamed to say I’d never noticed, and it’s a clue that, for me at least, settles the paternity suit: ‘‘Your father thing could make sense, of course,’’ said clever Sarah. ‘‘That funny name ‘Praed’ is an anagram of padre.’’

Source: Albert Bermel, ‘‘A Shavian Whodunit: The Mysterious Mrs. Warren,’’ in Independent Shavian, Vol. 38, No. 1–2, 2000, pp. 6–15.

Shaw's Views on Prostitution and Society in Britain in the Late 18th Century

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A committed socialist, Shaw held the firm but controversial belief that prostitution is not the result of moral laxity on the part of women who sell their bodies. He maintained instead that the problem resulted from a political and economic system that allowed much of Britain’s population to live in abject poverty. To win others over to his position, Shaw penned this play, which served as a sort of four-act argument. He explains his purpose in an essay appearing in Bernard Shaw Complete Plays with Prefaces.

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.

In writing this play, Shaw is not defending prostitution as a moral profession. Rather, the play’s thrust is based on the notion that a society that allows masses of people to endure miserable lives filled with poverty is every bit as immoral as any particular vice.

In his preface to this play, Shaw notes that ‘‘starvation, overwork, dirt, and disease are as antisocial as prostitution—that they are the vices and crimes of a nation, and not merely its misfortunes.’’ In the play, this point of view is poignantly expressed by Mrs. Warren when she tries explaining to her daughter, Vivie, how she became a prostitute. She describes the fate of a half-sister who, in an attempt to follow the path of respectability, found the type of brutal factory job available to poor women. The sister, says Mrs. Warren, died of lead poisoning as a result. Instead of working herself to death only to have someone else enjoy the profits of her labor, Mrs. Warren chooses instead to become part of what was known at that time as the White Slave Trade. She asks Vivie: ‘‘Do you think I did what I did because I like it, or thought it right, or wouldn’t have rather gone to college and been a lady if I’d had the chance?’’ Shaw strengthens his argument by portraying Mrs. Warren as an essentially decent person with many admirable qualities. She has a strong character and worked hard to ensure her daughter could enjoy opportunities that were never within her reach. Because of Mrs Warren’s prostitution, Vivie is able to attend university and pursue a legitimate career.

When Vivie accuses her mother of trying to escape responsibility for her actions by blaming ‘‘circumstances,’’ Mrs. Warren quickly sets her straight. ‘‘It’s not work that any woman would do for pleasure,’’ she explains. The work, however, allowed Mrs. Warren not only to survive, but also to thrive and pass on the benefits to Vivie. Vivie was offered a future much brighter than any that was ever available to her mother. It would have been easy for Shaw to demonize Mrs. Warren—something that undoubtedly would have made this play more popular among the masses—but portraying her as evil would have undermined the point he wants the play to make. As Shaw writes in the preface, ‘‘Nothing would please the sanctimonious British public more than to throw the whole guilt of Mrs Warren’s profession on Mrs Warren herself.’’ Presenting her as he does makes it more difficult for the audience to condemn Mrs. Warren as an abjectly immoral person while exposing them to the idea that society truly is at fault.

Shaw uses the character of Mrs. Warren to make another significant point as she defends herself against Vivie’s castigation. It concerns the choices women in general are often forced to make and the hypocrisy of society in deeming one virtuous and the other immoral. Mrs. Warren contends that there is no real difference between a woman who prostitutes herself and one who marries not for love but to secure a safe financial future for herself. Mrs. Warren rails at the injustice, saying ‘‘as if a marriage ceremony could make any difference in the right or wrong of the thing!’’ Then, she utters what is a crucial line: ‘‘Oh, the hypocrisy of the world makes me sick!’’ The line is important because it highlights what seems to be an underlying theme. This is a play populated by hypocrites, and Shaw seems to take great glee in skewering them.

The Reverend Samuel Gardner is among several characters who reveal themselves to be a hypocrite, meaning someone who puts on a pious or upstanding face in public and then acts much differently in private. This is demonstrated when the clergyman is asked to put up Mr. Praed for the night and hesitates, saying his role as reverend requires him to make certain that anyone staying at his house must have the requisite social standing. The truth is that the reverend is anything but a pillar of morality. He gets drunk. Instead of writing the sermons he gives on Sundays, as he pretends to, he buys them. In addition, it is disclosed that he made use of Mrs. Warren’s professional services when both were younger. In fact, Reverend Gardner might even be Vivie’s father. His son is hardly better. Though charming, Frank seeks to secure his place in the world by marrying a wealthy woman. He ridicules his father, but continues to depend upon him for an allowance, which is another kind of hypocrisy. Toward the end of the play, having learned the truth about Mrs. Warren, Frank states that he ‘‘cant bring myself to touch the old woman’s money now.’’ The hypocrisy in that, only a few pages before, he had proudly displayed to Vivie the gold coins he obtained, not through honest work but by gambling, which itself is a vice.

Even more unlikable is the character Sir George Crofts, a man who, despite his lofty title, is anything but noble. In a sense, Shaw uses Crofts to represent society at its most hypocritical. By all appearances, Crofts is completely respectable, carrying a title bestowed upon knights of the realm. In reality, he is little more than a pimp. He bankrolled Mrs. Warren’s business and shares in its considerable profits, all the while moving among the upper crust of society, his white gloves never sullied by the dirty business he keeps at arm’s length. In fact, Crofts is so morally bereft that he woos Vivie without, apparently, knowing for certain whether she is his daughter. When finally confronted by Vivie about the way he earns his money, Crofts defends himself by offering up an indictment of society as a whole. ‘‘If you are going to pick and choose your acquaintances on moral principles,’’ he advises her, ‘‘Youd better clear out of this country, unless you want to cut yourself out of all decent society.’’ In other words, Crofts is saying that he is really no worse than the rest of his peers. He tells Vivie how even the church has bar owners and other sinners among its tenants, happily collecting part of their ill-gotten gain each month as rent. Then there are those who enjoy a fat return on investments in factories where girls labor for starvation wages. What makes all this possible, explains Crofts, is a culture that accepts this kind of despicable behavior as long as it is kept hidden. Speaking through Crofts, Shaw expresses his belief this way: ‘‘As long as you dont fly openly in the face of society, society doesnt ask any inconvenient questions; and it makes precious short work of the cads who do.’’ It is interesting to note that Shaw is just such a ‘‘cad’’ who asks extremely inconvenient questions in a manner that is anything but subtle. This play’s focus on the true nature of morality proved so inconvenient that government censors prohibited its production for many years.

Just as official Britain shunned this play, Vivie drives her mother away, saying she cannot tolerate associating with someone who earns her living from prostitution. She does so knowing this rebuke will break Mrs. Warren’s heart. In the end, Vivie’s failure is not that she is a hypocrite but is small-minded and unforgiving. It would not be surprising to hear Shaw apply that same description to much of his audience. Rather than admiring Vivie for taking what would conventionally be considered an upright and moral posture, the playwright intends for this young woman to be perceived as priggish and cold hearted. ‘‘Mrs Warren is not a whit a worse woman than the reputable daughter who cannot endure her,’’ Shaw writes in his preface to the play. The message is clear: Instead of railing against the social and economic system that forced her mother into a life of prostitution, Vivie is content to go to work at an office job, showing no sign whatsoever that her social conscience has been awakened by the lessons inherent in her mothers plight. Like the mass of people Shaw attempted to reach through his play, Vivie makes what he considers to be the narrow-minded mistake of blaming and punishing the individual.

Source: Curt Guyette, Critical Essay on Mrs. Warren’s Profession, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2004.

Concept of the New Woman

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At the close of the nineteenth century, feminist thinkers began to engage in a rigorous investigation of female identity as it related to all aspects of a woman’s life. Any woman who questioned traditional female roles was tagged a ‘‘New Woman,’’ a term attributed to novelist Sarah Grand, whose 1894 article in the North American Review identified an emergent group of women, influenced by J. S. Mill and other champions of individualism who supported and campaigned for women’s rights. A dialogue resulted among these women that incorporated radical as well as conservative points of view.

The most radical thinkers in this group declared the institution of marriage to be a form of slavery and thus recommended its abolition. They rejected the notion that motherhood should be the ultimate goal of all women. The more conservative feminists of this age considered marriage and motherhood acceptable roles only if guidelines were set in order to prevent a woman from assuming an Showbill cover from the 1985 production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, performed at the Roundabout Theatre Company inferior position to her husband in any area of their life together. This group felt that a woman granted equality in marriage would serve as an exemplary role model for her children by encouraging the development of an independent spirit. Mrs. Warren’s Profession enters into this dialogue, as it examines a woman’s place in traditional and nontraditional roles. Both Mrs. Warren and Vivie explore the possibilities and the impediments for the New Woman at the end of the nineteenth century, which was at the heart of the debates among many of Shaw’s contemporaries.

Young Kitty Warren found herself in a traditional position for a woman in Victorian England. She and her three sisters struggled to break out of the stranglehold of poverty, but there were few options afforded to them. One sister died of lead poisoning as a result of her work in a factory, and another married an alcoholic. After her sister Liz disappeared, Kitty took on a series of jobs that wore out her health and her looks ‘‘for other people’s profit.’’ When Liz reappeared, dressed in fur with money in her pocket, she convinced her sister to help her run a brothel, a business that would place Kitty in both a traditional and nontraditional role.

Prostitution was seen by many young British women as their only option for survival. As Shaw explains in his ‘‘Author’s Apology’’ to the play, many women during this time ‘‘remain so poor, so dependent, so well aware that the drudgeries of such honest work . . . are likely enough to lead them eventually to lung disease, premature death, and domestic desertion or brutality’’ that they would often choose the life of a prostitute over a more virtuous path, since both ‘‘lead to the same end, in poverty and overwork.’’

The traditional role that Mrs. Warren felt compelled to adopt ironically affords her the opportunity to gain independence in her patriarchal world. Mrs. Warren notes this irony when she advises Vivie, ‘‘The only way for a woman to provide for herself decently is for her to be good to some man that can afford to be good to her.’’ As she became a successful businesswoman by exploiting the image of female as sexual object, she gained a position in society typically held exclusively by men. She also had the ability to raise her daughter by herself and provide her with an education, thereby granting Vivie opportunities that she herself never enjoyed.

After Mrs. Warren explains the circumstances involved in her decision to enter into prostitution, Vivie celebrates her mother as a role model, insisting that she is ‘‘a wonderful woman . . . stronger than all England.’’ Mrs. Warren’s continued involvement in her profession, however, ultimately destroys her relationship with Vivie, who claims that her mother’s inability to give up her comfortable life proves that she, after all, is only ‘‘a conventional woman at heart.’’

Shaw presents Vivie as a model of the New Woman who refuses to adopt any conventionality. Her rejection of traditional notions of femininity emerges immediately at the beginning of the play when she meets Praed and addresses him ‘‘sharply,’’ which ‘‘daunts’’ him. He is also surprised by her firm handshake and her physical ease at rearranging furniture. When Mrs. Warren suggests Crofts help Vivie with the chairs, she ‘‘almost pitch[es] two into his arms.’’ Her independent spirit surfaces in her displeasure over her mother’s making arrangements that concern Vivie without her permission. She is clearly a woman in control of her own life and destiny.

In his characterization of Vivie, Shaw illustrates the fact that women who strive for success in a patriarchal system must adopt a more masculine sensibility. Vivie’s assumption of this sensibility becomes most apparent in her declaration to Praed that she does not care for beauty and romance, which bore her, and instead focuses on ‘‘working and getting paid for it.’’ She enjoys ‘‘a comfortable chair, a cigar, a little whisky, and a . . . good detective story.’’

Shaw, however, suggests that the pursuit of success in this system can inspire destructive behaviors. The New Woman could not allow herself to be swayed by emotion in romantic or familial relationships if it threatened to rob her of control. She also must acknowledge the power of money if she is to gain true independence. Vivie understands and faithfully follows these rules to the point where she sometimes appears quite heartless. Stanley Weintraub, in his article on Shaw in the Dictionary of Literary Biography insists that Vivie is a ‘‘coldblooded creature unlikely to look sentimentally for very long at daughterly duty or economic rationalizations.’’

Vivie displays a rather mercenary sentiment when she admits that she would not have put so much effort into winning prizes at school if she had known how so much work would gain her so little money. She also judges harshly any weaknesses she detects in others, as she does in Praed, who expresses an ‘‘anxiety to please her’’ when they first meet. Her severest judgment, however, is leveled against her mother. She mistrusts her motives, insisting that her mother ‘‘has rather a trick of taking me by surprise—to see how I behave myself when she’s away.’’ She will employ any means necessary to ensure that her mother gains no power over her, as she illustrates when she assumes that her mother has secrets and admits that she will ‘‘use that advantage over her if necessary.’’

As Vivie demands the truth from her mother, however, she displays a complex mixture of toughness and sensitivity, suggesting the difficulty a woman faces as she struggles to maintain her independence. Initially, she rejects any daughterly duty to her mother as she coldly assesses Mrs. Warren’s chosen profession, insisting that her mother has no right to determine Vivie’s future. Her lack of sympathy prompts her mother to declare, ‘‘my God, what sort of woman are you?’’ to which Vivie replies, ‘‘the sort the world is mostly made of, I should hope. Otherwise I don’t understand how it gets its business done.’’

As her mother describes the difficulties that drove her into prostitution, however, Vivie admits, ‘‘you were certainly quite justified—from the business point of view.’’ As Mrs. Warren pleads her case, Vivie cannot help but be deeply moved by the suffering she has endured, which causes Vivie to express a true daughterly devotion for her ‘‘dear old mother.’’ That devotion is short-lived, though, when Vivie discovers that her mother is still actively involved in her profession.

In their final scene together, Vivie displays a difficult combination of sympathy and steeliness as she determines that she will never see her mother again. She initially displays a cool indifference to Mrs. Warren’s affectionate intentions toward her, recognizing the ironic situation she finds herself in. Vivie insists that even though her mother’s money would afford her a measure of independence, she acknowledges that if she took it ‘‘and devoted the rest of [her] life to spending it fashionably,’’ she ‘‘might be as worthless and vicious as the silliest woman could possibly want to be.’’ Yet when her mother entreats her to do her ‘‘duty as a daughter,’’ she becomes ‘‘jarred and antagonized by the echo of the slums in her mother’s voice.’’ In an act of stoic self-preservation, Vivie ultimately determines that she must leave her mother because of Mrs. Warren’s ‘‘conventional’’ devotion to her comfortable life and live alone as an independent woman.

In his article on the play in ELH, Charles A. Berst argues that Vivie struggles ‘‘to make her intellectual talents and instinct for independence meaningful and remunerative in a man’s world.’’ As a result, ‘‘she is set upon by forces that seek to push her back into the more conventional role of womanhood.’’ One of those forces is her mother, who has had to endure harsher constraints as she fought for survival in the staunchly patriarchal system of Victorian England. In his penetrating study of these two complex women in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Shaw illuminates the difficulties inherent in a woman’s pursuit of selfhood.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Mrs. Warren’s Profession, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2004.

<i>Mrs. Warren’s Profession</i>: Art Over Didacticism

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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, or would go so far as Alick West and analyze it in terms of a Marxist tract, but the decided tendency to generalize about Shaw’s works first in terms of their message and only second in terms of their aesthetics is almost the rule 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 selfevident 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 nonetheless infamous of society to offer such alternatives. For the alternatives offered are not morality and immorality, but two sorts of immorality.’’ In the play, the society which brooks 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.’’ 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 not corrupt, but because it is less responsible for prostitutes’ corruption than the prostitutes themselves. 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.’’ 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 economic.

The third point, that the play is highly moral, is no doubt a critical counterreaction 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.’’ The Victorian conscience had been thumped on two of its most delicate spots: its purity and its sense of economic respectability. And so critics have gone out of their way to assert that the play is, to the contrary, quite moral, its motivation being to enlighten and reform a hypocritical, corrupt society.

These three points are interesting but obvious, and though they contain elements of truth, they do not fully come to terms with the play. Shaw may be a propagandist, but in practice, if not always in admission, his emphasis in his plays is on fine art to achieve his ends, and certainly the complexity and ambiguity of fine art qualifies, modifies, and even at times contradicts simple, overarching propagandistic conclusions. An art form which grasps the vital realities of life has more potential as propaganda than a discourse which concentrates on intellectual verities. Thus Shaw remarks: ‘‘I am convinced that fine art is the subtlest, the most seductive, the most effective instrument of moral propaganda in the world. . . .’’ However, the propaganda which emerges from fine art is certainly far different from propaganda of the journalistic variety which is too often glibly attributed to Shaw. Shaw comments: ‘‘Mrs Warren’s Profession is an economic exposure of the White Slave traffic as well as a melodrama. . . . But would anyone but a buffleheaded idiot of a university professor, half crazy with correcting examination papers, infer that all my plays were written as economic essays, and not as plays of life, character, and human destiny like those of Shakespear or Euripides?’’ So although it may appear in terms of the preface that Shaw puts the blame for prostitution on an economic basis, and although it may similarly seem that his motives are basically moral, when these attitudes are subjected to art they become qualified, and consequently considerably more real and effective. Thus in the play Mrs. Warren has an inner vitality and drive which keep her in the profession despite economic independence, and thus Shaw can throw back the question of morality with the remark: ‘‘It is a profoundly immoral play, exceedingly so; more so than many of the people who have written about it really imagine. . . . The play is a conscientiously immoral play.’’

In sum, the preface is far less consequential regarding the play than critics have assumed it to be. It offers a fine display of Shavian style and conviction—it roundly blasts the censor, who actually had objected only to the suggestion of incestual interest between Vivie and Frank; it condemns society alone for prostitution, condemnation which the play reveals to be only half justified; and it comments on the irony of corrupt New York suppressing the play. But the real substance of the matter is left to the play itself, and here true dimension develops. The play evolves on three levels with a high degree of success. First, a moral allegory polarizes around Vivie, providing both thesis and action with much of the archetypal energy of a morality play. Second, a firm realistic level polarizes around Mrs. Warren, developing the problem of the individual’s adjustment to society. And third, a deep-seated comic-ironic perspective emerges through the adventure of the morality play and beneath the tragedy of the realism, leavening both and putting them in greater touch with reality.

As a moral allegory, the play might well have been entitled The Battle for the Soul of Vivie Warren. Throughout, as in a morality, Vivie is confronted with successive temptations, to some of which she temporarily succumbs, but all of which she at last transcends, achieving ultimate salvation in the fervent pursuit of her particular religion. A correlation can be drawn between Vivie and Shaw: Vivie pursues independent habits in her cigars and whiskey, as did Shaw in his teetotalism and vegetarianism; Vivie hates holidays and wasters precisely as did Shaw; Vivie has Shaw’s boundless energy, vehemence, and almost ascetic dedication to work. Though it is not explicit in the play, Vivie is much like a young Fabian socialist being tested by the vanities and vicissitudes of the wayward world. In fact, she had a Fabian counterpart, Arabella Susan Lawrence, a cigar-smoking, monocle-wearing Cambridge mathematics graduate who later was to become chairman of the Labour party. Vivie is not Everywoman, but she is probably Every Woman who tries to make her intellectual talents and instinct for independence meaningful and remunerative in a man’s world. As such, she is set upon by forces which seek to push her back into the more conventional role of womanhood. Repressive elements of Victorian society test her one by one.

The temptations which beset Vivie, like those of a morality play, appeal to the most basic human desires, each symbolized by one figure. That this is to be no conventional morality is established in the very beginning, however. The Reverend Samuel Gardner, as the voice of the Church, provides merely the plaintive bleat of atrophied religion and is immediately and almost incidentally thrown over as being too petty and inconsequential for serious consideration. The divine goal of the play is obviously not to be in terms of the Christian tradition. Vivie’s rejection of it is implicit in Act I. The Church, in the image of Samuel Gardner, has capitulated to intellectual bankruptcy and social ambition. It has become a fit receptacle for the stupid sons of large families. Regarding Vivie, Frank remarks to his father: ‘‘Ever so intellectual. Took a higher degree than you did; so why should she go to hear you preach?’’ And Gardner’s concern over social position indicates that the world is dragging the Church behind it, rather than the Church offering dynamic leadership. The progressive modern woman, such as Vivie, has passed beyond the crustiness of conventional religion by the sheer power and advancement of her intellect. Religion need scarcely be thrown over, since it tends to drop of its own dead weight. A final blow is delivered in Act II when Mrs. Warren tells of her church-school training. The foolish clergyman of the church school had predicted that sister Liz, lost in sin, would jump off Waterloo Bridge. Instead, Liz prospered in prostitution. Rather than have the girls attain a good living and a respectable retirement, the clergyman, in the name of Church and society, would have had them scrubbing floors for one and sixpence a day, coming to their end in a workhouse infirmary. As a vital temptation for a truly intelligent person in the modern age the Church is thus represented as a negligible factor, and this theme fades out in Act III with Vivie scarcely considering it at all.

Sir George Crofts offers Vivie a more tangible, generally far more popular temptation than religion. He offers her an exalted social position, backed up by money. The price is also the reward—to become Lady Crofts. In a parody of Victorian marriage transactions, he seeks virtually to buy Vivie from Mrs. Warren, dangling not only money but his death and a wealthy widowhood as bait. As Gardner represents the emptiness, pompousness, and hypocrisy of a Church incapacitated by its worldly representatives, Crofts represents the immorality, avariciousness, and hypocrisy of a society which gilds its licentiousness, greed, and corruption with money and social prestige. Thus Crofts may equate himself with the most elite—with a duke whose rents are earned in odd ways, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, or with his brother, an M.P. and factory- owner who underpays his girl employees so that they are forced to supplement their income as best, or as questionably, as they can. All society from top to bottom is compromised in its unwillingness to ask embarrassing questions about its economic base and in its persecution of those who do. Mrs. Warren recognizes that the transition from irresponsible, promiscuous young spark to lecherous, dirty old man is merely one of age. Vivie, with more clarity, sees that to sell her soul to conventional Victorian prestige and monetary respectability would be to sell it far too cheaply. It would be to sell oneself to the fundamental corruption of an entire social system.

Far more subtle is the temptation of Mr. Praed, who offers Vivie the allurements of travel and aesthetics, or, as he specifically repeats, romance, beauty, and art. The offer is made all the more tempting by the attractiveness of Praed’s character, which is gentlemanly in its responses, gently modulated, and perceptive. Similar to the other characters, and in true morality play fashion, he is a walking exemplification of the way of life he proposes. He is a believer in the eternal youth and creativity of art, feeling himself born a boy—in contrast with Crofts, the manifestation of aging society, who was born old. But Vivie rejects this temptation as basically foreign to her character. Three days of art in London, of the National Gal lery, the Opera, and music hall were enough for her, causing her to fly to Honoria Fraser and actuarial calculations. A fundamental difference of temperament is involved. To Praed, aesthetics are the true reality; to Vivie, as her eyes are opened to the corruption of the world, aesthetics are merely a deceptive froth concealing the brothels of Ostend, Brussels, and Vienna. Praed at last explains that his is the Gospel of Art and Vivie’s is the Gospel of Getting On. The situation is a precursor of the argument in ‘‘Don Juan in Hell,’’ with Vivie foreshadowing Don Juan’s part and Praed foreshadowing the Devil’s. Vivie’s character is one of action, of steering the ship; Praed’s is one of inaction, of drifting. As attractive as the romance and beauty of the latter may be, there is implicit self-deception in it as far as Vivie is concerned, a constant danger that the ship may end on the rocks. The temptation of art, of Praed and Italy is overshadowed by the reality of social hypocrisy, of Crofts and Brussels, and it is consequently rejected as not substantial or effectual.

Love’s young dream, conventionally the greatest temptation to an unmarried woman of twentytwo, is offered Vivie in the person of Frank Gardner. An affair has apparently been going on for some time; the jarring lover’s baby-talk of Act III is but a retrogressive manifestation of it. Frank, however, has not the Gospel of Getting On. He is a drifter, consciously immersed in the waywardness of society, too lazy to come to terms with it in any positive way. Vivie recognizes early in the play that she will eventually have to get rid of him. Without a disposition to work, he is potentially a Crofts. Signifi- cantly, the possibility that he is her half-brother is less important to Vivie than that he is intrinsically worthless, and though feminine instinct momentarily causes her to relapse into lover’s cooing, her dynamic mental discipline tells her that romantic love is an illusive puff. It will not get the world’s business done.

Mrs. Warren tempts Vivie with a life of independent luxury, a fulfillment of all the material and social desires of a young woman. This offer has the prime advantage that it is not encumbered by a Sir George Crofts. All it calls for is a nominal amount of filial affection, or at least filial endurance. But Vivie is not willing to pay even this price. At first she is willing to grant filial fondness, even slipping toward sentimentality, when she learns of her mother’s dynamic, albeit unorthodox rise to economic security. Her mother’s story appeals to her own instincts of work and enterprise. But what would have been for Vivie a means to an end of greater freedom has been for Mrs. Warren a fascinating occupation, an end in itself, and financial independence has led not to better things but only to further involvement in the corruption of society. The staunchness and vision required for the struggle up through the slime have not led to fresh air, but rather to a diving back into the filth. At the discovery of her mother’s continued involvement in the business, Vivie’s admiration and daughterly compassion evaporate. Were she now to accept support, knowing its source, she herself would be tainted; further, her instincts are all for freedom unencumbered by the vanities her mother offers as bait. She must be an unnatural daughter in order to escape both the clinging Victorian bonds of duty to one’s parent and the whole pollution of a society in which money can float brainless young creatures on a smooth river of vanity and luxury. As a saleswoman of such things, there could be no more effective advocate than an experienced procuress such as Mrs. Warren, but the wares she has to sell are too cheap for a third wrangler, idealist, and New Woman.

As the protagonist in a morality play, then, Vivie starts out in comparative ignorance of the world and progresses through a series of temptations which educate her, clarifying and purifying her vision, leaving her at the end in a state of selfknowledge, purgation, and peace with herself, constituting salvation. The religion of the philistines, encrusted with social servility, is rejected in the person of the Reverend Gardner. The traditional Victorian impulse to raise one’s social standingthrough marriage is thrown over in the person of Crofts. The world of aesthetics and romance, with its inaction and passive concealment of foul reality, is allowed to go to Italy with Praed. Love’s young dream, the idealism and passion of youthful marriage, is scrutinized by pragmatic intellect and dismissed, since Frank Gardner in his coasting, idle way is its advocate. Luxury and filial affection are resolutely rejected in the form of Mrs. Warren when their attachments to social corruption become clear. The common denominator of all the temptations is that they have become mired with the thoughtless, squalid, inactive, and hypocritical elements of worldly existence. Each in its way is a dodge from reality, and Reality is the goal of the morality play and of Vivie. The morality finds it in God; but God has vanished somewhere in the Industrial Revolution, the social revolution, and modern rationalism. Vivie finds it in as near a set of absolutes as she can determine—in facts, in hard, cold mind, and in work, work, work. The active mind dealing in tangibles becomes the basis of salvation.

Thus in morality terms Mrs Warren’s Profession develops coherently and effectively, the action evolving into a spiritual triumph for the protagonist. On a realistic level, however, the ending amounts to a tragedy, and although temporal tragedy tends to be involved in many spiritual triumphs, the inevitable irony is especially strong here since the realism is heavily weighted and since Vivie’s spiritual goal is a relatively modest one—infused with spiritual vigor, it is true, but diminished by an intrinsic mundanity. The moral allegory may be the structural idea behind the play, but each of the characters functions nearly as well in life as in allegory, and the two levels act as sounding-boards for each other, creating the greater depth and reality of a synthesis.

The element of greatest interest, revealing the highest dramaturgical skill on the realistic level, is the conflict between Vivie and her mother. On this level the focus shifts away from Vivie and onto the vital difficulties and ironies of the conflict in a manner which ultimately gains the sympathetic upper hand for Mrs. Warren. Obvious flaws elsewhere in the dramaturgy tend to fade out in the total kinetic effect. Characters who have nearly equal independence and importance in an allegorical sense are, in their realistic sense, unevenly subordinated to the major conflict, although they still carry an echo of their allegorical significance. The Reverend Gardner is a puffy, foolish man, ineffectual as a father and a misfit as a clergyman, a pathetic picture of what twenty years of playing a clergyman’s role will effect in a stupid gay young blade who was shunted into the Church for lack of a better place. Sir George Crofts’s moral emptiness and greed are products of his younger days and are an indication of the society which endured him. In age this moral bankruptcy emerges in the form of a worn-out lecher, leeringly wanting to settle down with a young wife, offering the security of money as a substitute for the virility of youth. His lechery, cynicism, and temper are briefly and adroitly set forth in Act II in an exchange with Mrs. Warren regarding Vivie—‘‘Theres no harm in looking at her, is there? . . . And a baronet isnt to be picked up every day. No other man in my position would put up with you for a mother-in-law. Why shouldnt she marry me? . . . If you want a cheque for yourself on the wedding day, you can name any figure you like—in reason’’—all of which, when Mrs. Warren cuts him down, is erased with a savage ‘‘Damn you!.’’ Rotten respectability, sustained both by money and family, weave his character into the fabric of the social system, yet the leering, brutal bulldog has independent force.

Praed is less an individual than a representative of cultured society and a sounding-board for the other characters. As an architect he is naturally apprehensive about the Reverend Gardner’s church restoration; he gets along famously, offstage, with cultured Mrs. Gardner, and he offers Vivie the broadening aesthetic opportunity of art and travel. He is more a gentle pressure than a positive force in the scene, respected by all but scarcely understood by them—the artist in a philistine world. Frank Gardner combines a chronic irresponsibility with a sensitive, flexible appreciation of his own and others’ worth. His lack of self-deception, his insolent boldness, and his adaptability to circumstance create a vital character sketch deeper than that of a mere shallow youth, a category in which he could be easily dismissed. His poignant remark to his father about Vivie—‘‘Took a higher degree than you did; so why should she go to hear you preach?’’—would be insolent and shallow were it not so insolent and true. When at last Frank gives up Vivie, he does so with some genuine realism and nobility—‘‘I shall be on short allowance for the next twenty years. No short allowance for Viv, if I can help it’’—to which Praed responds—‘‘But must you never see her again?’’—and he piquantly answers: ‘‘Never see her again! Hang it all, be reasonable. I shall come along as often as possible, and be her brother. I can not understand the absurd consequences you romantic people expect from the most ordinary transactions.’’ On three separate occasions Frank extols the virtue of character, a quality he has seemingly abrogated but one which he must by implication possess to some degree in order to be able properly to respect its superiority in others. His perception of Vivie’s true relationship with her mother is instinctive, accurate, and penetrating.

It is the irony of Vivie’s evolution and a special element of the effectiveness of the play that, as she ascends through illusion to reality on an allegorical level, she descends from ignorance to illusion on a realistic level. In the meantime, her mother’s great vitality and unconventionality unfold with increasing emotional power throughout the play, forcing a collision of principles which approximates tragedy at the end. When early in Act I Praed admires Vivie’s outstanding record in mathematics at Cambridge, she disclaims its value as ‘‘grind, grind, grind,’’ asserting that it has left her ignorant of everything but mathematics. From this basis of ignorance she is suddenly thrust into a complex moral position which for any balanced judgment requires substantial knowledge of the world. Naturally she turns to the tools she has at hand, which are mental and analytical. In her emotional world she wavers into sentimentalism toward her mother and baby talk with Frank, but invariably she catches herself short, because to her stringent mental nature this is an area of retreat, of uncertainty, of hazardous loss of self-control. Since the various temptations she encounters all require that she give up pure rationalism and self-control to some extent, she repulses them through fear of a loss of reasonable order. She recoils from the worlds of religion, marriage, art, and her mother, less because she knows their nature truly and intrinsically than because they are foreign to her and she instinctively does not like them. Her antipathy is based on ignorance and temperament, not on knowledge. She can perceive them intellectually, and on these grounds she passes judgment, but she can in no sense trust herself to know them emotionally. She claims that she is prepared to take life as it is, as a woman of business, permanently single, unromantic, with no illusions. In truth, when the moral complexity of her mother confronts her, she finally falls in line with Victorian moral principles and rejects it. She denies herself emotional involvement with her mother or Frank, turning to work and mathematics as a young nun turns to devotion and God. Her Gospel of Getting On is a rejection of life as illusory, an avoidance of that sensitive immersion in life which is conducive to a knowledgeable absorption of it, of that first step which is necessary for a true transcendence.

Mrs. Warren says that Vivie has been taught wrong on purpose, that she has been instilled with a false view of life which is quite removed from reality. This is manifestly true, and Vivie’s awakening is too abrupt for her to absorb the world, so she rejects the beauties of Ostend and Brussels merely because there are ‘‘private hotels’’ in those cities. The brothels of society distort her perspective. In facts, figures, and morals she can draw sure lines, but in affairs of the heart she is uncertain, weak, and distrustful of herself. Like Don Juan in Man and Superman, she equates the sentimental world with hell and illusion, seeking a purer life in the mind. But, less like Don Juan, there is a sterility and loss in her retreat, an evasion of the difficulties and ambiguities of existence. Whereas on an allegorical level she finds her soul in mind and work, on the level of the world she loses her soul to cold calculations and a negation of human emotion, inflicting ascetic contraction upon her own personality and cruelty upon others. She thus is a near saint and very foolish girl at the same time, interestingly (and ironically) not unlike Saint Joan, but without Joan’s bold vision, warmth, strong compassion—and without Joan’s God.

The passages in Acts II and IV in which Mrs. Warren reveals herself to Vivie are two of the most notable instances where Shaw transcends verisimilitude to powerful effect. By giving Mrs. Warren heightened insight and eloquence, he achieves a brilliant and penetrating portrayal of a vital human character impressing itself upon the putty of society. Early in Act II Vivie had accused her mother of being among wasters and without character. This misconception is speedily demolished, and Mrs. Warren emerges as the most dynamic individual in the play, a true ‘‘career woman’’ antedating Vivie by at least twenty-five years. It would seem in Act II that Shaw’s preface regarding the social causes of prostitution is borne out: rather than the whitelead factory, the scullery, the bar, or even a jump off Waterloo Bridge, the most sensible course for a poor and pretty woman is prostitution. There is more self-respect in selling oneself, saving the proceeds, and living to a comfortable old age than in starvation and slavery. But by Act IV the premise is modified if not quite refuted. It becomes apparent that Mrs. Warren likes her work and pursues it with much the same devotion and absorption with which Vivie pursues hers. Thus natural inclination emerges as nearly as much a motive as economics—perhaps less sexual than some commentators would have it, but surely as deeply tied to a psychological need.

Vivie’s shocked reaction to the discovery that her mother is still in the business, and her rejection of her, ultimately takes two courses. On the one hand, she claims not to object to the fact that Mrs. Warren must work in the line which destiny has thrown her way—each person has his own occupation to follow—but, on the other, Vivie would not have lived one life and believed in another. Her mother is conventional at heart, and that is why Vivie is leaving her. But both reasons are only halftruths, and they reveal Vivie’s actual eclipse into irrationality. First, it is quite clear, when she learns from Crofts that her mother is still a procuress par excellence, that she experiences a revulsion close to Victorian priggishness. In Act IV she clearly does blame her mother for continuing the trade: ‘‘Tell me why you continue your business now that you are independent of it.’’ There are all sorts of traditional moral compunctions vibrating on the fringes of her reasoning. Second, it is clear that indeed Mrs. Warren is not a conventional woman at heart. She does cluck over Vivie like a Victorian mother hen, worrying about sunburn, marriage prospects, and daughterly duty, but the foundation behind all this is scarcely conventionality. Mrs. Warren has beaten the Victorian system at its own game, and she knows it. She has chosen an anti-social, anti-religious path and has thrived on it in a ‘‘virtuous’’ society. The society, rather than repudiating her, sells itself to her—prestige, comfort, and luxury are all to be had for a price. And Mrs. Warren has bought them for Vivie. A mother’s affection in this context is less conventional than biological. The woman conventional at heart may be Aunt Liz, who sold out and went into respectable retirement. Perceptively, Mrs. Warren likens Vivie to Liz—she has the air of a lady. Certainly if anyone is conventional at heart it is Vivie. Mrs. Warren admits that she herself is too much of a vulgarian, too honest, too imbued with the excitement of her work—in essence, she admits that she is less able to play the hypocritical role which society demands as the price of respectability. Ultimately, on this realistic level, she triumphs over Vivie, calling the cards quite accurately, albeit overemotionally: ‘‘Oh, I know the sort you are . . . I can tell the pious, canting, hard, selfish woman when I meet her. . . . I was a good mother; and because I made my daughter a good woman she turns me out as if I was a leper.’’ Both emotionally and rationally the power of Mrs. Warren is felt after she has left the stage. The justice of the case, if not the triumph, has been hers.

Shaw has filled Mrs Warren’s Profession with cohesive parallels and themes which give the fabric of the play artistic tightness. For example, the parallels between Mrs. Warren and Vivie tie the two together in a fine web of paradoxes and ironies. Both hate wasters, admire character, and have a compulsion to work; both have romantic illusions, Mrs. Warren in motherhood, Vivie at first in Frank, later in the purity of her work; both desire to tell the truth about prostitution; both condemn hypocrisy— and each sees it in the other. Recurrent themes of social and philosophical import reverberate throughout: the theme of who has character and who has not—Frank attributing it to Vivie, Vivie denying it to Mrs. Warren, Mrs. Warren denying it to common prostitutes; the theme of who has choice and who has not—Crofts corrupt because he had a choice to invest in the profession or not, Mrs. Warren exonerated because she had no choice; the theme of the profit of youth by the death of elders—Frank by the death of the Reverend Gardner, Vivie by the death of potential husband Sir George, then by the death of her mother; and, finally, the frequently recurring distinction between workers and wasters. Both the structural unity and intellectual and aesthetic harmony of the play are enhanced by Shaw’s attention to such detail.

Permeating and subliminally compromising both the morality play and the realistic level is a strong comic element. G. K. Chesterton called the play ‘‘pure tragedy,’’ but this is only a very partial view. The comic potential of incongruity is rife throughout: the Reverend Gardner is the absurd contradiction of a mindless young blade grotesquely metamorphosed into an old clergyman; Crofts is a patheticcomic representation of an old lecher seeking to retrieve vestiges of youth in a young bride, much like Chaucer’s January in The Merchant’s Tale; Mrs. Warren is a vigorous whore in the autumn of life pursuing the ideal of Victorian motherhood with as much tenacity as she pursues her lucrative business; and Aunt Liz, a wealthy procuress, is now a respected lady of Winchester, living near the cathedral, entrusted to chaperone girls at the county ball. The comic element of repetition occurs with wryness in a number of instances: Crofts is backed into cursing ‘‘Damn you’’ at Mrs. Warren in Act II and again at Vivie in Act III; on learning in Act III that Vivie knows about the business of the ‘‘private hotels’’ from her mother, Crofts mutters, ‘‘The old—,’’ to which Vivie responds, ‘‘Just so,’’ and the same pattern is repeated with Mrs. Warren and Vivie in Act IV. The bandying of the terms ‘‘wasters’’ and character in different contexts, achieving fine ironic ramifications, has been noted, and Vivie’s perception that her mother is trying to entice her into a life of luxury with the same arguments she uses to allure young girls as a procuress produces a lethal sense of contrast, incongruity, wry humor, and horror all at the same time. Humor also appears when humans are likened to animals or inanimate objects, such as in the repeated references to Crofts’s dog-like appearance, to Mrs. Warren as a sparrow, and to Vivie as a steam-roller. The sparrow, it will be remembered, carries connotations of lechery.

Most comically telling and important is a sense of the humorous which revolves around Vivie, compromising the seriousness of her quest. Vivie is comical in a Bergsonian manner as she avoids a full, flexible contact with life and takes on the qualities of an automaton. Vivie has vitality, and in this there is a degree of growth and seriousness. But her quest is ultimately more one of mental fixation than of spiritual expansion, and this fixation tends to reduce her image with comic aspects throughout the play, permitting the dynamic emotional transcendence of her mother at the end. From the first she is the New Woman with a vengeance, loving nothing better than a chair, whiskey, cigars, and a detective story for her leisure, when she is not ardently engaged in actuarial calculations. Her hard handshake and her tough, uncompromising, unaesthetic attitudes make Frank’s Act IV image of her as a steam-roller seem remarkably apt. In writing a novel as a sequel to Mrs Warren’s Profession, Sir Harry Johnston felt it necessary to make Vivie more Human by repudiating her whiskey and cigars for tea and cigarettes. And if a steam-roller can roll over Crofts, Frank, and Praed, what chance has a poor lecherous little sparrow? Mrs. Warren is comical in adopting the ill- fitting convention of a Victorian parent, but there are warmth, frailty, and humanity in her which tremble in the end at the rumble of the mighty machine. Vivie rolls on to the conclusion with her mental integrity scarcely braised and her emotional integrity remarkably insular. In one sense this makes her the victor. But it is a machine-like victory, and fundamentally absurd in a young lady. Mrs. Warren, with her more flexible and adaptable vitality, ultimately evokes the greatest sympathy, her dynamics being more human and more relevant to life.

Each of the three levels of moral allegory, realism, and comedy in Mrs Warren’s Profession has its own integrity and consistency while it compromises and qualifies the others. The nobility and purity of the morality element elevates the realism and the comedy, giving allegorical scope to the action, while at the same time the realism and comedy pull it down to life. The tragedy on the realistic level gains a good part of its poignancy through the relatively blind triumph of the allegory, yet both are mollified and given perspective by contrapuntal comic sensitivity. The comedy has a life of its own, but it is given a considerable degree of pain by the pathos of the realism and by its contrast with the allegory—a pain which perhaps brings it closer to sympathy. The scope and depth of Shaw’s artistic achievement, the play’s final effect, lies in the aesthetic tension of these divergent forces.

Source: Charles A. Berst, ‘‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession: Art over Didacticism,’’ in Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama, University of Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 3–19.


Critical Context


Critical Overview