illustration of a woman standing in a corset with a large scarf wrapped around her neck

Mrs. Warren's Profession

by George Bernard Shaw

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The Play

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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 wrote some compromising letters to a woman; he warns Frank not to fall into the same trap. The act ends when the Rev. Gardner meets Mrs. Warren, who, to his great embarrassment, recalls him enthusiastically from days gone by.

Act 2 begins that evening in the cottage. There is a dispute over Frank’s wish to marry Vivie, which is opposed by his father (partly because he fears that he may be her father) and by Crofts. Mrs. Warren rebukes Crofts for his interest in Vivie and rules out Frank’s suit when she discovers that he has no money. Frank, however, is undaunted by her refusal. The climax of the act is a long discussion between Mrs. Warren and her daughter. Vivie declares her intention of earning her own living, but she wants to know about her mother’s occupation and who her father is. Mrs. Warren denies that her father is Crofts, but in a manner that does not reassure Vivie. Vivie’s attitude is dispassionate and indifferent, refusing to acknowledge her mother’s authority over her. Mrs. Warren talks about her own upbringing. She had been a scullery maid and a waitress, until she and her sister Liz became partners and operated a brothel in Brussels. Mrs. Warren justifies herself; her work was not pleasant, but the women were better treated in the brothel than they would have been in a factory. It is not possible, she argues, to maintain self-respect in starvation and slavery (one of her sisters had worked for many years at “respectable” jobs that barely paid a living wage). Mrs. Warren is proud of the independence she has won and the fact that she had been able to give her daughter a good education. After these revelations, Vivie regards her mother with new respect, although she is disturbed by what she has heard.

Act 3 takes place the following morning. Crofts proposes marriage to Vivie, but she immediately rejects him. He counters by explaining how much Mrs. Warren owes him: He had put forty thousand pounds into her business. Then he reveals that the business is still in existence...

(This entire section contains 1008 words.)

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and yields an excellent profit. Vivie, who thought that the business had been wound up, is horrified, and she surprises Crofts by her knowledge of what the business is. Pointing out that the proceeds have paid for her education, he justifies his investments by saying that everyone makes money in a tainted way—from the Church of England, which allows some of its properties to be used for questionable purposes, to those who make money from employing people at starvation wages in factories. Vivie is shaken; she insults Crofts and he is furious. Frank appears with a rifle and taunts Crofts. Crofts hits back by saying that Vivie is Frank’s half sister. Frank aims his rifle at the retreating figure of Crofts; Vivie grabs the muzzle and turns it against herself, and Frank drops the gun immediately. She pushes Frank away and goes off to work in the legal offices of her friend Honaria Fraser in Chancery Lane, London.

In the final act, Frank calls on Vivie in London. He declares once more his romantic feelings for her and also says that he does not believe they are related. Vivie agrees with this, but does not return his love. She tells both Frank and Praed, who is on his way to Italy and has called to say good-bye, what her mother’s profession is. Praed is amazed but declares his respect for Vivie; Frank says that he cannot now marry her, because he could not use her money and he is incapable of making any himself.

Mrs. Warren enters, distraught, and tries to win Vivie back. Vivie announces that she intends to support herself in the future. Mrs. Warren attempts to persuade her that she is throwing away her chances for no good reason; she does not realize the hypocritical way the world operates. Vivie says that she would feel bored and worthless if she took her mother’s money and asks her mother why she does not leave her business behind her, as her sister Liz had done. Mrs. Warren replies that she needs work and excitement; she is suited to the life. Vivie, unmoved, says they must part, and she gets Mrs. Warren reluctantly to acknowledge that her decision is the correct one. Mrs. Warren leaves angrily, and Vivie is relieved. She tears up a note which Frank had left, turns to her work, and is soon absorbed in it.

Dramatic Devices

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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.”

This sudden eruption of deeply felt emotion has considerable force. It shifts the sympathies of the audience in the direction of Mrs. Warren, and when her spirited defense of herself follows immediately after, the audience is less sure of its own moral positions. The effect is compounded by the next stage direction, in which Vivie, moved by her mother’s explosion of true feeling, is to sit “down with a shrug, no longer confident; for her replies, which have sounded sensible and strong to her so far, now begin to ring rather woodenly and even priggishly against the new tone of her mother.” Having established some measure of equilibrium in the tension between opposing views, and broken down some of the prejudices of the audience, Shaw can then drive the wedge in further in the remainder of the play, as he continues to expose the many layers of hypocrisy on which he believed capitalist society rested.

Historical Context

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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 play. Characters in tradi tional dramas acted according to audience’s expectations rather than from any internal motivation. Shaw’s characters were innovative because, as Bentley notes, ‘‘they made decisions which affected the course of events, and they made them on the basis of their own nature, not of the spectator’s.’’

The Fabian Society
In 1884, the Fabian Society, an outgrowth of the Fellowship of the New Life, founded by Thomas Davidson, was established in England by Frank Podmore and Edward Pease. George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb soon joined this British socialist organization and became its most active proponents. The society gained recognition with the publication of its Fabian Essays in 1889, to which Shaw had contributed. Their manifesto, outlined in these essays, rejected Marxism in favor of a natural, progressive development of socialism based on social and political reforms. They insisted that violent protest was detrimental to their goals, and so initially they did not become involved in labor movements. Later, however, when Beatrice Potter joined the group, the society became more focused on workers’ rights. As a result, the Fabians helped form, in 1900, the unified Labour Representation committee, later evolving into Britain’s Labour Party, which adopted the main tenets of the Fabian Society.

Literary Style

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Dramatic Structure
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 play’s end. In Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the complexity of the two main characters, Vivie and Mrs. Warren, causes the audience to shift its sympathies, first to Mrs. Warren, who appears to be treated harshly by her daughter, then to Vivie when she discovers her mother’s true profession, then to Mrs. Warren when she tells the story of her difficult life, and finally back to Vivie when she discovers that her mother is incapable of giving up her profession. By the conclusion, however, sympathy is split between the rejected mother and the independent daughter.

Compare and Contrast

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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 parenting caused a furor in the early 1990s when then Vice President Quayle criticized the television character Murphy Brown for deciding not to marry her baby’s father. Today, however, single parenting has become more widely accepted.

Media Adaptations

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Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1972) was produced for television by the BBC. It was directed by Herbert Wise and starred Coral Browne as Mrs. Warren and Penelope Wilton as Vivie.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Further Reading
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 Press, 1969. Carpenter examines Shaw’s political themes in his early plays, including Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

Meisel, Martin, Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Theater, Princeton University Press, 1963. This study places Shaw’s plays, including Mrs. Warren’s Profession, in their social and literary contexts.

Rao, Valli, ‘‘Vivie Warren in the Blakean World of Experience,’’ in Shaw Review, Vol. 22, 1979, pp. 123–34. Rao traces Vivie’s evolution from innocence to experience, using a Blakean model.

Turco, Alfred, Shaw’s Moral Vision: The Self and Salvation, Cornell University Press, 1976. This study examines moral themes in Shaw’s plays, including Mrs. Warren’s Profession.


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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.




Critical Essays