‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession,’ by George Bernard Shaw at Theatre Row, a Must-See
The Gingold Theatrical Group once again reminds us of the greatness of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession currently at Theatre Row. It is one of his earliest plays that was banned in London, produced in a private club in 1902 and finally received a public airing in 1925. When it was produced in the US in 1905, the entire cast was arrested via the New York version of the Comstock Law. They were released immediately afterward. Naturally, the controversy created the PR to pack the auditorium for the remainder of the run.
What was the fuss and furor? Shaw, an activist-playwright in addition to his many other talents (journalist, poet, politician, critic) wrote conflict plays exposing egregious social ills, hypocrisies and oppressive institutional class structures contrary to what the culture expected at the time. For example, plays could be about conventional prostitutes “with hearts of gold” who sacrificed themselves for the good of others or who died of consumption.
But God help you if you revealed the corrupt, capitalistic institutions that forced women to starve as factory workers and use their bodies to supplement their below living wages to make it to the next day. Shaw portrays the antithesis of the conventional prostitution accepted by church and decent society, by contriving a Madam for the ages, Mrs. Warren (the superb Haren Ziemba). She has bested the patriarchy and exploited it for her own advantage with the help of Sir George Crofts (the always excellent Robert Cuccioli) a clever exploiter who exploits her and his fellow men supplementing his finances and keeping his Baronet station with all propriety (wink, wink).
The problem is that Mrs. Warren has done this in the name of seeking the conventional-respectable for her daughter in order to purify herself. This is a blindness in Shaw’s astute hands. Indeed, Mrs. Warren’s Profession has as its conflict a mother-daughter disagreement over the conventional unconventional. Miss Vivie (the spot-on Nicole King) disagrees with her mother’s insistence that she receive money the rest of her life instead of Vivie making her own way from her own source of income which she has prepared for at Cambridge.
Shaw humorously reveals Vivie’s unconventionality when she rejects her mother’s largesse. Contrary to the usual mother-daughter relationships, she will not take care of her mother in her old age. By degrees we understand the backstory and ironies. Mrs. Kitty Warren also rejected her mother’s influence and domination. She made something of herself, transforming her low social station to one of wealth, culture and status, ably hobnobbing with the best of society.
The two women are admirably similar in getting over the patriarchy’s dominion. However, their professions are different and indeed, Mrs. Warren’s exploitation of lower class women’s horrific situation is a triumph of selfishness if not an expose of the corruption and hypocrisy of the patriarchal, colonial class system that applauds her surreptitiously for doing this. Of course, Shaw’s truthfulness in revealing the appalling conditions women faced at the time was an outrage to Shaw’s critics and commentators (backed by fat capitalists, most probably).
Mrs. Warren has worked her way up to moneyed respectability entrepreneurially by running high class hotels in various parts of Europe with her partner and friend the Baronet Sir George Crofts. Her “rags to riches” story speaks to the ambition and grit of a self-made woman. The most thrilling fact is that she has done this as a Madam which Shaw could only infer in his play in keeping with the hypocritical, judgmental Victorian Age mores which he twits from start to finish in this play. Mrs. Warren has taken life by the top hat and tails and exploited her beauty instead of allowing other men to exploit her and pay her nothing for it. She has worked out a special deal with Crofts taking the lion’s share of the profits. And she loves the work; it has made her self-sufficient and the gowns and lifestyle and being somebody is just grand.
Vivie, supported by her mother’s funds, unlike most woman of the time who could ill afford a college education, has found a useful career in an industry requiring her skills and education. Thus, she has achieved her own autonomy and refuses to be pinned down to the social prison and folkways of “respectability,” marriage, and being the little lady to some great philandering husband.
Like Kitty Warren, Vivie defines herself. This empowerment reveals a strong character undergirded by disallowing the patriarchy to demean and control her. Nor will she allow women entrapped by the patriarchy (her mother) to belittle her own self-achievement.
The initial scenes open on this conflict when Mrs. Warren comes to visit daughter Vivie to pave the way for her to be brought under her wing and into the fold of her grand, elegant lifestyle with Crofts. The women know little of each other and couldn’t be more disparate. When they discover each other with the help of Kitty’s friends and neighbors, Praed (Alvin Keith in a fine performance of the dandy) Frank (David Lee Huynh, Vivie’s energetic suitor) and Reverend Gardner (the fine Raphael Nash Thompson) the chaos mounts until the jig is up.
Shaw’s sardonic humor and irony is in the situation and the conflict between mother and daughter. Modern audiences will find humor that Vivie stands up to her mother who is appalled that her daughter eschews men, luxury, money and the gaudy cultural life. Instead, she prizes work, work, work. Vivie’s austerity and her rejection of everything that smacks of hypocrisy is downright Puritanical and actually uplifting to see on the one hand, but frightful on the other. Shaw’s depiction of her as a “modern,” young woman is ironic.
Shaw twits all his characters and has fun with them. Crofts’ cheap caddishness as one of the landed gentry is humorous as are Praed’s and Frank’s notions of womanhood and “how it should be.” Shaw twits the Reverend who joins the clergy after sewing his wild oats. He is so devoted to his congregation, he pays for his sermons to be written.
The production is well handled and a superb revelation of Shaw’s work because of the direction (David Staller), on point ensemble, and creative teams’ enhancement of the play’s timeless themes. I did enjoy the monochromatic set’s conceptualization. See this wonderful production to appreciate this master playwright whose currency so appeals. For tickets and times go to their website: https://gingoldgroup.org/mrs-warrens-profession/