Written in 1893, this was a relatively early work of Shaw’s, and came to be known as one of his problem plays. Not because its content was obscure; it was in fact quite the opposite, dealing plainly with the admittedly complex morality of a thriving commercial practice of the day: prostitution. It was the issue itself that was the problem.
The Lord Chamberlain of the day – in effect the nation’s censor of publicly available material – took a dim view of the author’s characteristically serious comedy, and a further thirty-two years had to pass before London was deemed ready for a public performance. New York had given it an outing in 1905, but this was broken up by the police for being in breach of the nation’s obscenity laws.
No such problems today in Richmond – Surrey rather than Virginia – where the six-strong cast deliver Shaw’s elegant dissection of late Victorian England’s tangle over the literal business, or businesses, of sex and marriage. Here is the Mrs. W of the title, who is not actually married. She has a twenty-five-year-old daughter, Vivie, just down from Cambridge with a maths degree, and a business partner, Sir George Crofts. He is drawn to Vivie, despite or rather because of the age gap. She is unavailable, being involved with young Frank Gardner. In a drama preoccupied with the commerce of relationships, Frank sniffs a likely passport to affluence.
The problem, or at least one of them, at the heart of the matter is this. Frank’s father, the Rev Samuel Gardner has history with Mrs. Warren, and might well be the father of her daughter of Vivie, making Frank her half-brother.
Played with a louche grandeur by Caroline Quentin, this Mrs. W. can be seen as a prototypical feminist through applying business acumen to the always guaranteed demand for success, or else as a plain Madame. In this production, Quentin leaves us in little doubt that Shaw favoured the former interpretation.
Indeed, her dominant rendering of the title role reinforces Shaw’s stated aim of highlighting “the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together.’’
In 1898, explaining the origins of the play, he drew comparisons between it and his novel, Cashel Byron’s Profession, which tells of a boxer being driven forcedly towards his trade for reasons similar to those which forced Mrs. Warren towards hers.
Director Anthony Banks draws performances of high moral and intellectual conviction from his cast, not least from Rose Quentin, who plays Vivie and is Caroline’s daughter. The fierce exchanges between the two over the ethical dilemmas which dog rival claims of trade and virtue are the highlight of the production, and emphasise the continuing relevance of Shaw’s deliberations.
Richmond’s audience clearly gripped, and never more loudly amused than when the dialogue concerns outings to Richmond and the theatre there.
Review by Alan Franks
George Bernard Shaw’s acid test of a mother-daughter relationship is one of his wittiest and most provocative plays. Written in 1894 but banned for thirty years by a Lord Chamberlain who found it “immoral and improper”, Mrs Warren’s Profession is a ripe attack on English hypocrisy and its “fashionable morality”.
What is Mrs Warren’s profession?
Mrs Warren’s daughter Vivie has never really known much about her mother. A sensible young woman, she has enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, a Cambridge education, a generous monthly allowance and now has ambitions to go into Law. Is it conceivable that her privilege and respectability has been financed from the profits of the world’s oldest profession? How will Vivie react when she finds out the startling truth about her mother’s business empire and that freedom comes at an emotional price?
Tue 22 Nov – Sat 26 Nov 2022