The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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....

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

In the late nineteenth century, playwrights turned away from what they considered the artificiality of melodrama and the...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Dramatic Structure
The ‘‘well-made’’ play was the typical form employed by playwrights in the second half of the...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

Late Nineteenth Century: The Married Woman’s Property Act passes in England, granting women several important rights.


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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Compare and contrast the strong-willed heroines in Shaw’s Major Barbara and Mrs. Warren’s Profession.


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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

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

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Awakening (1899) is Kate Chopin’s masterful novel of a young woman who struggles to find self-knowledge and inevitably suffers...

(The entire section is 90 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Bentley, Eric, ‘‘Foreword,’’ in Plays, by George Bernard Shaw, New American Library, 1960, pp....

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.