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A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

It’s the way he tells them

George Bernard Shaw and the scandal of Mrs Warren’s Profession

George Bernard Shaw: he’s the old man in 1920s theatrical all-star photos with the tweed knickerbocker suit and the bushy beard. He’s in the photos even then because he was a survivor, a giant of the late-Victorian and Edwardian stage. But that’s not all: he was very influential in Left politics, at a time when the dominant political ideas were not Left, but Liberal or Conservative. The Labour Party, and socialism in general, was in its infancy when Shaw was active, so when he wrote about issues that concerned Labour in his plays, using the stage as a political pulpit, he was Mr Seriously Radical.

Mrs Warren’s Profession was published for the first time in 1898 in Plays Unpleasant, a volume of three Shaw plays which were expected to offend and cause objections. This particular play was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, but was finally performed for the first time in 1902, at a private members’ club in front of an invited audience (a common ruse to get around the law on the performance of obscene material).

What was the problem? Simply that Shaw was presenting a story that showed how women could earn a safe and secure living as prostitutes. Mrs Warren is the prostitute, an established madam of a chain of Brussels brothels, who has been supporting her well-brought-up daughter Vivie at a distance from her earnings. But Vivie knows nothing of the source of her mother’s income: instead, she has high and equally radical ideals about earning her own living and being independent, since her expensive education has given her good training (though not a degree) from Cambridge, and she fully intends to make money from it as an actuary.

If you cast your mind back to the late-Victorian drawing-room plays of Oscar Wilde and Arthur Wing Pinero, their heroines did not expect to earn their own livings: they got married. They were also very unlikely to have studied, or to wish to make money. In Mrs Warren’s Profession, Shaw crashes about in the ruins of the innocent Edwardian dream, as far as it pertained to women’s lives, because he was a radical Socialist determined to drag the wool away from the eyes of the complacent play-going public, and show them a bit of reality. His trick was to deliberately mislead the audience into agreeing with a position presented on stage, and then reverse the ethics of that position by revealing new information, thus leaving the audience high and dry on a pinnacle of unethical belief, round about the end of the second act. From this point the audience has to work to remove itself from (ie think about) the subject, and change its position.  The effect with Mrs Warren’s Profession was to give the audience the very uncomfortable choice of approving of a young woman leaving her mother’s protection for an independent life, or approving of prostitution as a career choice.

Mrs Warren’s Profession is the strongest play in Shaw’s works for ‘raw, anticapitalistic power’. Shaw said, some years after he had finished it, ‘When I wrote that, I had some nerve’. He wanted to produce reactions in his audience that questioned their ethical position. He wanted to destroy their ideals (ideals that he thought were misguided and sentimental, as well as ethically wrong). So he begins by setting the audience against the arrogant and forthright Vivie, who is adamant that she will have an independent life. The audience are led by the hand to think that Vivie is wrong in rejecting her mother by living on her own. But, when it is revealed that Mrs Warren’s income and way of life is based on prostitution, the audience have to lurch frantically away from their previous position, and approve Vivie’s intentions of cutting herself off from her mother completely, and earning an honest living without exploiting others. And here the audience end up in a heap of shattered ideals, because Shaw will not let them escape from thinking about how late-Victorian women earned their living. He shows how prostitution is safer and more healthy than working in a blacking factory, and dying from lead poisoning and penury. Shaw said: ‘Nothing would please our sanctimonious British public more than to throw the whole guilt of Mrs Warren’s profession on Mrs Warren herself. Now, the whole aim of my play is to throw that guilt on the British public itself. […] The notion that prostitution is created by the wickedness of Mrs Warren is as silly as the notion … that drunkenness is created by the wickedness of the publican’

So this play is a didactic play, rather than a mimetic one. It instructs through exaggerated example, rather than reflecting life as it is. However, to get Shaw’s message to the people, the plays had to be popular enough, and conventional enough, to be financed by a producer, and to be seen by a willing and paying audience. Thus Shaw needed to sweeten the pill, by adapting popular forms of drama. He uses the country-house drawing-room set and staging, where people come into and out of rooms and gardens through doors and windows. He sets the play in Haslemere, Victorian commuter country, and wraps the action up with sparky young actors and a nice selection of older characters who symbolise varying degrees of corruption. He uses melodrama and farce, but never once lets the audience off the hook: they have to take a position, and they have to justify it. No wonder they couldn’t cope with this play in public until 1925.

As well as making her Flemish students read Eng lit plays and poems aloud in class, Kate podcasts weekly on books that she really really likes, on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

6 comments on “It’s the way he tells them

  1. kirstyjane
    October 5, 2012

    Simply fantastic — thank you so, so much for this. Shaw is someone I ought to have read a great deal, but really haven’t read enough!

  2. Kate
    October 5, 2012

    Oooh ta! He’s very readable, but can also be a bit of a grind. Candida is simply dull dull dull, but Getting Married is a scream. And Mrs W is of course a cracking good play.

  3. CFisher
    October 5, 2012

    Damn, this was good! Taught me more about Shaw and play writing than a month of Sundays of Radio 3 programmes.

  4. Jackie
    October 5, 2012

    I’ve never read this play, so I was really interested in learning about it. You did a great job in not only telling us about the play, but society and aims of the author, too and all in your highly entertaining way. Really terrific post!

  5. Kate
    October 6, 2012

    *blush* thanks!

  6. Hilary
    October 8, 2012

    Joining the chorus of approval – thank you, Kate! Delighted to be reminded of GBS, who has dropped completely off my radar (except that i thought of him only a few days ago, as i laced up my walking boots before a route march through the Ducal Palavpce at Urbino – I’ve always been grateful for is advice to wear hiking boots for museum and gallery visiting). What a fearless chap he was!

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This entry was posted on October 5, 2012 by in Banned Books, Entries by Kate, Fiction: 19th century, Fiction: women's, Film and Television, Plays.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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