Mrs. Warren's Profession
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Mrs Warren's Profession is a play by G. Bernard Shaw. The story centers on the relationship between Mrs Warren, a prostitute that is described by Shaw as "on the whole, a genial and fairly presentable old blackguard of a woman," and her "prudish" daughter, Vivie . Mrs Warren is a middle-aged woman whose Cambridge-educated daughter, Vivie, is horrified to discover that her mother's fortune was made managing high-class whore houses. The two strong women make a brief reconciliation when Mrs Warren explains her impoverished youth, which originally led her into prostitution. Vivie forgives her mother until learning that the highly profitable business remains in operation.
The play explores the conflicts of the "new woman" of the Victorian times — the middle-class girls who wanted greater social independence in work and education — more than it does prostitution. Other themes include criticism of the sexual triteness of the times and a want for greater social sexual awareness along with equality in the workplace for working women. Shaw said that he wrote the play "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 shamefuly that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together."
Shaw was a member of the Fabian Society (founded 1884) which included other leftward thinkers like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, H.G. Wells and the great women's suffrage campaigner, Emmeline Pankhurst. It is possibly that her influence on him which may have sown the seed for "Mrs Warren's Profession" and probably the revolutionary New Zealand decision to grant women the vote which was a world first in 1893 and brought the idea of women's suffrage into full bloom.
Written in 1893, the play was originally banned by the Lord Chamberlain (Britain's official censor) because of its frank discussion and portrayal of prostitution, but was finally first performed on Sunday, January 5th, 1902, at London's New Lyric Club with the distinguished actor-manager, Harley Granville-Barker among the cast. (Members-only clubs have always been a device to avoid the eye of authority, but actors often also use it to invite their fellow-artists to a private showing of a play, usually on Sundays, when theatres are closed to the public.) There was another performance, this time on the public stage, in New York City in 1905. The New York police issued warrants for everybody concerned, cast and crew, but it seems that only the house manager of the theatre actually got arrested.
Mrs Warren's Profession probably would not have shocked a Victorian audience provided that it were couched in euphemisms. What was truly shocking was that it was a whole-hearted attack on the domestic imprisonment of women by the male-dominated culture of the period. Perhaps even more shocking was the suggestion that she not only survived but actually prospered in very real way.
It was only after The Great War, when ordinary women had tasted freedom for the first time but often in the deadly danger of munition factories, that it became possible to mount a public showing (in 1925) of "Mrs Warren's Profession." The play continued to make audiences and critics uncomfortable then and does to a limited extent even to this day. Part of the reason for this is that incest is an important sub-text (in relation to Vivie and Frank's romance).
Together with Pygmalion, it remains one of Shaw's most frequently revived works, particularly because it is a great deal shorter than most of his other plays.
The playscript is freely available on many web sites. An extensive study guide (including currency values updated from 1902) is available for download at .
The play was published in Shaw's book Plays Unpleasant, 1898, along with The Philanderer and Widowers' Houses.