Mrs. Warren's Profession

By George Bernard Shaw
At The Lyric Stage, Boston through October 1995

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

In the most notorious scene of this play (which G.B. Shaw wrote in 1893), a mother who has grown wealthy through brothel-keeping and her respectably raised daughter clash head-on, and thrash though the terms on which a woman may earn a measure of independence and self respect. The mother has the best arguments:
" You think that the way you were taught at school to think right and proper is the way things really are. But it's not. it's all only a pretense, to keep the cowardly, slavish, common run of people quiet. The big people, the clever people, the managing people, all know it. They do as I do, and think as I think. ('Morality' means being ) a mere drudge, toiling and moiling early and late for your bare living and two cheap dresses a year."
This scene, and the play, were so shocking that "Mrs. Warren's Profession" was forbidden by the King's censor. When a private performance was finally arranged in 1902, the scandal rocked the London theatre. It was, according to the testimony of the author, an
" earthquake shock to the foundations of morality which sends a pallid crowd of critics into the street shrieking that the pillars of society are cracking and the ruin of the state at hand"

George Bernard Shaw is the Lyric Theatre's staple playwright, and the company is expert at mapping the comic turns of plot and clarifying the ideological acrobatics that are the impish Irishman's a stock in trade. Over the years the Lyric has evolved a production style that is admirably suited to plays such as "Mrs. Warren's Profession". In place of the ponderous proscenium-arch naturalism of the author's own descriptions, Emmett Aiello, the Lyric's designer, lays out on the three-quarter thrust stage economical sketches : each handsome and executed with period flair, each containing the bare minimum of "things" necessary to define the background of the action. Costume designer Katherine Baldwin fills in Aiello's background with graceful, wearable clothes that define the status and temperament of each character. The cast, and especially the veteran performers who take the smaller roles (Ron Ritchell, James Bodge, Michael Bradshaw) , supply rounded characters--- but they outline them with the sharp edge that gives Shaw even at his most serious and preachy the brisk astringency of farce, and they let no opportunity for a comic "take" or an effective exit slip by them.

Alas that this production, in so many ways admirable, is in one central way aberrant to the point of perversity. Mrs. Warren's profession is "the oldest", prostitution, and the woman herself has a positive gift for harlotry. Shaw uses prostitution as an instance of capitalist "professionalism" in general, to point up contradictions in aristocratic, bourgeois and socialist moral codes. But Shaw is also dealing with libidinal force as a constant of human nature, and the distortions of character that result when it is repressed, denied, or sentimentalized. As the author says in his preface to the play, "the instinct on which (the prostitute's profession ) is founded is a vital one." And that's the one, central, thing that's wrong with this production of Mrs. Warren's Profession. There is no sex in it.

In Alison Weller the Lyric has an ideal Vivie Warren. Weller's broad brow, full cheeks and firm chin lend themselves perfectly to Vivie's alternation between childish vulnerability and rigid rationality. One of the masterful strokes of Shavian characterization in this play is the way the very young "modern" young people patronize their elders. Weller looks a convincing twenty-two -- Vivie's age according to the script-- and when Vivie cuts her mother down with a worldly bit of cynicism, the actress' baby face both undercuts and underlines the irony. How much she has yet to learn, this overeducated, embryonic New Woman! Frank ( Liam Sullivan), too, is a mere child: younger even than Vivie, and in Sullivan's performance there is a puppyish charm that renders Frank's absence of anything that could charitably be called principle engaging. This Frank is right in his instinct to pursue the supracompetent Vivie Warren, a woman with whom he has nothing in common except a sensual attraction and the fact that when they are together they share a willful determination to say whatever pops into their heads. If it were possible for these two young people to form a true partnership, their combined deficiencies and virtues might very well add up to a marriage greater than the sum of its parts.

Mrs. Warren is played by Patricia Pellows, a performer of great skill and subtlety, with a technique that is the product of long years of experience. What a pleasure it is to track the tonal gradations of Pellows' rich contralto as the actress peels layers of genteel veneer off Mrs. Warren's speech! Under stress, the sound of fishwife and floozy flashes out in her 'aitches like the iridescent sheen of rotting flesh. Most of the threads of Warren' s tangled circumstance are drawn out beautifully -- the impoverished background, the managerial flair, the quick social perception; impatience with pretense combined with a healthy respect for keeping up appearances. But the scarlet thread, the natural and practiced voluptuousness that is the base of her temperament, is missing.

Frank Gardner is just the sort of morsel who has nourished Mrs. Warren's unusually successful career. He is an upper-class sensualist who has had no opportunity to indulge his natural urges among the respectable women in his own social circle. Naturally, he turns to the professional for initiation. His innocence makes him particularly attractive -- youngsters like Frank are likely to be free from the dangers of disease; to be harmless, undemanding, and grateful for instruction. In the script, Mrs. Warren no sooner sets eyes on her daughter's young man than she begins sending out the lures that prompt Frank to invite her to run off to Vienna with him. This is scandalous, and funny -- but not implausible.

Successful courtesans who have made it their business to embody male fantasy may manage to do so well into middle age-- although at some point the siren's performance of her own seductiveness turns camp, and becomes a kind of female impersonation.

This is apparently not a risk either Pellows, or director Ron Ritchell, was willing to take.

It's not that the elders in the cast are too old, exactly -- although they are, ranging in physical impression from fifteen to thirty years beyond the ages they declare themselves to be in the lines they speak. But they all seem determined to escape the shock and ridicule with which the young regard lust in the overweight and over-the-hill. They are above all that--- or beyond it, or something. This turns poor Vivie into a worse specimen than she really is, the "pious, hard, canting, selfish woman" of her mother's accusations.

But poor Vivie is appalled by her mother's sensuality, and by her partner and pimp Crofts'----not by their commercial exploitation of it. Vivie repudiates all these old rips, with their sloppy sentiments and their disgusting physicality. It's not the fact that she and Frank are probably brother and sister that appalls her, but her recognition that the animal comfort and playful sympathy she felt in their relationship was based in sensuality, the sensuality that is her mother's stock in trade: sensuality that Vivie is determined to suppress in her own character. A "Mrs. Warren" without sensuality is still witty and charming, and its economic argument is cogent as ever in these days of capitalism triumphant -- but it is hardly the play that called down on Shaw's head all the forces of outraged morality.