Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Mrs. Warren's Profession - the Royal George Theatre - Shaw Festival

Shaw Throws Rocks at the Glass Ceiling

Director Eda Holmes offers us a fascinating look at the world's oldest profession aka Mrs. Warren's Profession, through an appropriate setting thanks to Patrick Clark, Designer and Kimberly Purtell, Lighting, a male-dominant private members club and her two leading characters, both female, Mrs. Warren (Nicole Underhay) and her daughter Vivie (Jennifer Dzialoszynski) whose battle of wills in the final scene evokes an explosive reading of 7.0 on the Richter scale.

Thom Marriott, Nicole Underhay, Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Vivie Warren, Shawn Wright as Reverend Samuel Gardner and Wade Bogert-O'Brien as Frank Gardner  Photo by David Cooper
Thom Marriott, Nicole Underhay, Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Vivie Warren, Shawn Wright as Reverend Samuel Gardner and Wade Bogert-O'Brien as Frank Gardner
Photo by David Cooper

Prior to the play's start, Holmes has four overly-pleased-with-themselves males - Thom Marriott (Sir George Crofts), Gray Powell (Praed), Wade Bogert-O'Brien (Frank Gardner), and Shawn Wright (Rev. Samuel Gardner) lounge in the Royal George set which exudes testosterone - the men outfitted in tweed jackets, a large leather couch and dark wood paneling. They banter about with the crowd, and Marriott takes group selfies with his cell phone.

We are inside the New Lyric Gentlemen's Club mirroring the fact that Shaw's play was censored and had to be first performed in a similar club in 1902. The gentlemen remind the audience that women are merely "guests" and subject to many club rules, indicating that men are very much in charge, something that ultimately forced Underhay and her sister into the lucrative business of prostitution. However, words such as whore, prostitute, bordello, etc. are never uttered aloud in this play but merely suggested. Shaw angered critics and censors so much with this work that it was banned in England for many years and actors were arrested at its first performance in New York.

Jennifer Dzialoszynski, outfitted in tight jeans, is the no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip Vivie, a recent Oxford University grad, soon to engage in one of her infrequent encounters with mama. She does not pick up on the innuendos from the men, and soon learns from her mother herself, the true source of the money that has paid for her boarding-school education and made Underhay a rich woman.

Mrs Warrens Profession Underhay explains why she got into the trade and argues that instead of being slowly poisoned like other women inside a huge factory setting, she has become a business woman, utilizing her body as her prime resource. Mother and daughter are immediately reconciled, Dzialoszynski hugs her mother, but later, this scenario dramatically changes, thanks primarily to the coercive Marriott who tries to woo Vivie, and when rebuffed, suggests that Mrs. Warren and he currently remain business partners in a chain of European brothels from Budapest to Vienna to London.

The impoverished would-be lover, Wade Bogert-O'Brien is also rebuffed by Vivie and his father, Shawn Wright's Reverend Gardner is no help to anyone having been a former Warren client. One male only, a family friend named Praed (Gray Powell) seems sincere, but he is caught up in the romance of Italy, and he constantly initiates rancorous debate. The biggest conflict occurs near the end when Vivie learns that her mother is still at it, and despite the fact that she owes her entire education to Warren, she immediately exorcizes her mother from her life, determined to start her own business. Determined to be an actuary, she sits at her desk, opens up a set of plans and Holmes in a nice touch, has the four men slowly draw closer and closer to see exactly what Vivie is working on.

The audience is left to decide if Vivie has made the right choice in abandoning her mother, and sadly, despite Justin Trudeau's "Because it's 2016," response to a balanced male/female cabinet, we know that even now, a century later, women still suffer from economic unfairness and inequality in the workplace.

The Shaw cast is solid as usual. The male parts are minor but well handled by Powell, Bogert-O'Brien, Marriott and Wright. Dzialoszynski and Underhay are formidable, two determined, powerful women intent on getting their own way. Society and it's rules, cleverly enunciated by Holmes at the start of the play, remains their only impediment.

Running time is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission. Mrs. Warren's Profession, by Bernard Shaw. Directed by Eda Holmes. At the Royal George Theatre until Oct. 16.

The program notes are always enriching at Shaw and are as follows-

Plus ça change... by Leonard Conolly
It was the French critic and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr who coined the phrase (in 1849) "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" ("The more things change, the more they stay the same"). It's a very useful epigram to keep in mind when thinking about Shaw. It's too easy to dismiss the issues raised in plays written a century ago as no longer relevant today; we have, after all, progressed, we know better. Have we? Do we? Take, for example, Shaw's first three plays. His first, Widowers' Houses, completed in 1892, exposes the slum landlords of London and the corrupt property deals that sustain them. It shows landlords, protected by a veneer of "middle-class respectability," says Shaw, "fattening on the poverty of the slum as flies fatten on filth." His second play, The Philanderer, completed in 1893, lays bare, as Shaw puts it, "the grotesque sexual compacts made by men and women" under outdated, restrictive, and (particularly from a woman's point of view) oppressive marriage and divorce laws. And his third play, Mrs Warren's Profession (also 1893) uncovers the root causes of one of the scourges of late Victorian society: prostitution (though the word itself is never uttered in the play). Turning conventional Victorian morality on its head, Shaw refuses to condemn Mrs Warren for becoming a prostitute (and subsequently a successful international brothel entrepreneur), and puts the responsibility squarely on society as a whole for tolerating an economic and social structure that is so biased against women that prostitution is one of the few viable ways they have of gaining some semblance of independent financial security.

Gray Powell as Praed and Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Vivie Warren in Mrs Warren's Profession. Photo by David Cooper  Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Vivie Warren and Nicole Underhay as Mrs Warren in Mrs Warren's Profession. Photo by David Cooper  Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Vivie Warren and Nicole Underhay as Mrs Warren in Mrs Warren's Profession. Photo by David Cooper  Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Vivie Warren and Wade Bogert-O'Brien as Frank Gardner in Mrs Warren's Profession. Photo by Emily Cooper  Nicole Underhay as Mrs Warren in Mrs Warren's Profession. Photo by David Cooper

Has the housing problem in London (and many other cities in the world) been solved? Hardly. If anything, it's getting worse. A recent report (in The Guardian, January 1, 2016) revealed the extent to which inflated house prices have created a critical shortage of affordable homes, forcing thousands of people to sleep on the streets (7,500 a night, according to the Guardian report - that's about half the population of Niagara-on-the-Lake). Have marriage laws become more liberal than those denounced by Shaw? Yes, they have - but not universally. Even Shaw would have been amazed (and delighted) that same-sex marriage, for example, is now legal in much of Europe and North America. But cultural and religious practices in many parts of the world still condone forced marriages and oppose a woman's right to escape marriage, however unbearable it has become.

As for prostitution, women's opportunities to shape their own lives (professional and personal) and so eschew prostitution as a livelihood have, thank goodness, markedly improved since Shaw wrote Mrs Warren's Profession (an improvement for which Shaw, an indefatigable advocate of women's rights, can take some credit). But that's not true for all women, of course. Certainly not for those thousands of women - mostly migrant Europeans - who now work in London's sex trade. A controversial 2008 study by the Poppy Project (an organization that supported trafficked women, since closed because of withdrawal of government funding) identified 921 brothels in London (masquerading as massage parlours, saunas, and so on), run by a sordid menagerie of pimps and procurers; 33 of the brothels were located in Westminster, close to the Houses of Parliament.

In 1898 Shaw published his first three plays in a volume he called Plays Unpleasant. He chose that title, he said, simply because the plays deal with "unpleasant facts" that he wanted his audiences to face. Perhaps some attention might then, he optimistically thought, be given to dealing with those facts. Drama and the fine arts were, after all, Shaw believed, "the subtlest, the most seductive, the most effective instruments of moral propaganda in the world." Thus audiences, having seen Widowers' Houses, could, if they wished, have turned their minds to ways of eliminating the disease, malnutrition, crime, child mortality, and squalor of the slums of White chapel (Jack the Ripper territory), Spitafields, Bethnal Green, and other areas of East London; or, having seen The Philanderer, might have agitated for reform of laws that caused the social and psychological traumas inherent in failed but unbreakable marriages (perhaps even their own). And if audiences had seen Mrs Warren's Profession they might at least have considered joining forces with the growing number of proponents of women's rights. But audiences were denied the stimulation of Shaw's radical insights into prostitution by a 27-year government ban on public performances of Mrs Warren's Profession.

The government official responsible for licensing plays for performance in Great Britain (the licensing system was in place until 1968) agreed with Shaw on the importance of the play's subject matter, but was adamant that the theatre "is not the place" to discuss it. The ban did not apply outside of Great Britain, but American and Canadian authorities had their own way of protecting audiences from the unpleasant subject of prostitution. In New Haven, where Mrs Warren's Profession had its North American premiere at the Hyperion Theatre on October 27, 1905, the mayor, without having seen the play (but he'd read the reviews of this "repulsive" and "immoral" work) withdrew the Hyperion's license and closed the theatre. A few days later the play opened in New York and received equally hostile reviews ("wholly immoral and degenerate"; "the only way successfully to expurgate Mrs Warren's Profession is to cut the whole play out. You cannot have a clean pig sty"). Not content with shutting the play down, New York's Police Commissioner, aided and abetted by the notorious vice-stalker Anthony Comstock, had the cast arrested and charged with "offending public decency." The charge was subsequently dropped and the aborted New York production went on to tour America unmolested. A different touring company in Canada, however, was run out of the play's Canadian premiere in Winnipeg in April 1907, one critic excelling himself in grasping for imagery that reflected his visceral reaction to the play: "the bitter sewer-like flavour one carries away in the mouth," and how tainted it all was, he said, "like fly-blown meat."

When Shaw was a young man walking through the streets of London he was once harassed by a prostitute. To get rid of her, he had to empty his pockets to show that he hadn't enough money for his bus fare, let alone the cost of her services. Prostitutes were a common sight in London in the 1800s. Some estimates put their number at around 100,000, out of a population of four million. Until the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, the age of consent was 13 and still only 16 under the new legislation. Underage girls were commonly sold into prostitution by their parents or guardians (the money helped cope with life in the slums). And, of course, all prostitutes, young and old, routinely faced moral condemnation by polite society (from whence came many of their clients, of course).

It was that hypocritical self-righteousness that angered Shaw. And so he gives Mrs Warren some of the most powerful speeches he ever wrote to explain to her skeptical daughter that prostitution is not a moral issue, it's an economic issue. The Cambridge-educated Vivie (costs, unbeknownst to Vivie, courtesy of her mother's earnings) takes a bit of convincing, but eventually comes round to her mother's way of thinking ("You are a wonderful woman: you are stronger than all England"). Or does she? As in all Shaw, there are many points of view in Mrs Warren's Profession. Shaw doesn't make it easy for us. Despite what he says, he's not a propagandist, he's a playwright. He always puts social, political and economic issues in a human context. The brilliant ending to Mrs Warren's Profession throws us all for a loop. Maybe Vivie gets it right after all. Or could it be that rather than taking sides in a family quarrel we should heed the advice that Shaw himself gives in the preface to the play: the truth is, he says, "that in Mrs Warren's Profession, Society, and not any individual, is the villain of the piece." That's us, isn't it?

Leonard Conolly is a corresponding scholar of the Shaw festival and literary adviser to the Shaw estate. His most recent book is a critical edition of The Philanderer (2015), and he is currently preparing an anthology of Shaw's political writings.

Director's Notes By Eda Holmes

The first production of Mrs Warren's Profession occurred in 1902 in a private club in London. The Lord Chamberlain would not grant the play a permit for a public performance in a theatre because it was about an unrepentant prostitute. The club was called the New Lyric. There is not much information about the club because it did not last, but looking into it led me to other clubs in London around the same time. They were mainly gentlemen's clubs like Boodles, White's, Athenaeum and the Garrick. They are still going strong today and are places where judges and politicians drink and smoke cigars together. The Garrick had a referendum last summer on a motion to allow women to become members - it was defeated.

The play itself is a remarkably contemporary conversation between Vivie and her mother, Kitty Warren, about a woman's worth. Kitty argues from her own very particular experience where men define the worth of a woman, while Vivie believes that her intelligence and willingness to work hard will allow her to decide for herself - a radical notion in 1902. And yet today, women continue to struggle to be paid equally for the same work as men. One of the few industries here women's pay outpaces men's is pornography. And while men are allowed to age and become more vital in the public eye, women are not permitted the same handicap on wrinkles and gray hair. Why is that? Could it be that despite all the progress that feminism has brought to the lives and well-being of women today, it is still true that we are defined primarily by our gender and our potential as wives and mothers and not by our specific human capacities?

I have set this production in a fictitious contemporary men's club in order to examine Vivie and Kitty's conversation in the context of male privilege. When Shaw wrote the play, no one questioned whether or not men ruled the world, particularly in terms of business. Women didn't even have the vote at that point. We certainly have the vote now but how much have things really changed? And what have we had to give up in order to join the club? As always, Shaw gets you thinking...


The people behind the curtain - photos courtesy Shaw Festival
Eda Holmes
Eda Holmes
Patrick Clark
Patrick Clark
Kimberly Purtell"
Kimberly Purtell
Lighting Designer
Diane Konkin
Diane Konkin
Stage Manager
Susanne Lankin
Susanne Lankin
Assistant Stage Manager

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