Mrs. Warren's Profession
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 17, 2005
George Bernard Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession is about a young woman named Vivie who has been raised in relative affluence, even receiving a college education at a time (1894) when few young ladies did; she wants to be an actuary, but even more than that, she wants to be financially independent. At the moment, though, she is quite dependent—on her mother, the Mrs. Warren of the title, a woman she barely knows, having grown up in boarding schools and the like while her mother tended to mysterious "business" in places like Brussels and Vienna.
As the play begins, a mother-daughter reunion is about to occur. Mrs. Warren is back home and ready to meet her grown-up girl, and perhaps also to let her know a little about where the money that has allowed her to be brought up so nicely came from. In a discussion where authentic bonding takes place, Mrs. Warren reveals to Vivie that she made her living as a prostitute, because no other alternatives available to her at that time were as viable: "Do you think we were such fools," she asks her economically rational daughter, "as to let other people trade in our good looks by employing us as shopgirls, or barmaids, or waitresses, when we could trade in them ourselves and get all the profits instead of starvation wages?"
(Let me insert here that the exact nature of Mrs. Warren's work is stated with admirable delicacy—you've really got to be listening carefully to understand precisely what she's alluding to.)
Vivie of course is completely sympathetic to her mother's plight and is ready to become her staunchest champion. And then, the other shoe drops in Act Three: a business partner of Mrs. Warren's, a slimy gentleman by the name of Sir George Crofts, informs Vivie that Mrs. Warren has never left her original trade, that with his invested capital she manages a string of brothels across Europe that are enormously profitable. (Again, the language is oblique as can be.)
This time, Vivie is shocked. It's one thing to sell yourself when that's the best you can do to survive, but another to sell others and realize a handsome return in the process—that's essentially her line of thought. She escapes to London. Will a reconciliation between mother and daughter be possible now?
As that's the one surprise in Mrs. Warren's Profession, I won't give it away here. Shaw raises interesting issues in this play, the most compelling of which deal with economic necessity and social hypocrisy—in other words, much the same territory as his most famous work Pygmalion. Morality almost doesn't enter into it at all—it is entirely possible to view Vivie's objection to her mother's profession as being rooted solely in its exploitation of workers (though perhaps that stretches the playwright's intention just a bit).
It is the subject of intention that most interested me after seeing Irish Repertory Theatre's production of this piece. What does Shaw want to persuade us of here—are we supposed to be on Vivie's side or Mrs. Warren's? Under Charlotte Moore's indifferent direction, I was hard-pressed to decide. On the one hand, we have the splendid Dana Ivey, doing justice and more to Shaw's words as the pragmatic matriarch/businesswoman (but never entirely convincing as a woman whose beauty and charm apparently dazzled England and the continent). On the other hand, we have Laura Odeh's priggish and remote Vivie, a woman who seems incapable of connecting with any other human being (or is that just Moore's blocking, which oddly has characters talking out to the audience instead of to one another). In the end, I didn't really believe in either one; indeed the truest words I heard on stage were these (spoken by the villain of the piece, Sir George, played with overwrought bombast by Sam Tsoutsouvas, except that he toned himself down perfectly to get this message out):
Why the devil shouldn't I invest my money that way? I take the interest on my capital like other people: I hope you dont think I dirty my own hands with the work. Come! you wouldn't refuse the acquaintance of my mother's cousin the Duke of Belgravia because some of the rents he gets are earned in queer ways. You wouldnt cut the Archbishop of Canterbury, I suppose, because the Ecclesiastical Commissioners have a few publicans and sinners among their tenants. Do you remember your Crofts scholarship at Newnham? Well, that was founded by my brother the M.P. He gets his 22 per cent out of a factory with 600 girls in it, and not one of them getting wages enough to live on. How d'ye suppose they manage when they have no family to fall back on. Ask your mother. And do you expect me to turn my back on 35 per cent, when all the rest are pocketing what they can, like sensible men? No such fool! If youre going to pick and choose your acquaintances on moral principles, youd better clear out of this country, unless you want to cut yourself out of decent society.
Now that last bit, especially, feels awfully darned timely and resonant to me. Shaw understood the human race, no doubt about it.
I wish the present production did better by the play. There are a couple of performances that did impress me—Kevin Collins makes quite a lot of Frank Gardner, the young man who is besotted with Vivie (or at least her fortune), and Kenneth Garner nicely conveys the bottled-up hypocrisy of Frank's father, a country reverend who was once involved with Mrs. Warren himself. Dan Kochar's set ingeniously depicts several different locales on the tiny Irish Rep stage, but David Toser's costumes are unflattering to both Ivey and Odeh. All that said, I'm glad to have seen the play, mainly because it's one that doesn't get done so often. It's worth taking in.