Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mrs. Warren's Profession by George Bernard Shaw

Edition: Mrs. Warren's profession
George Bernard Shaw finished writing Mrs. Warren's Profession in 1893, but it was not produced on stage until 1903. Not surprisingly for its subject matter at the time, the play was met with controversy and unkind reviews labeling the work as immoral.

Act I:
Mr. Praed, a friend of Mrs. Kitty Warren's, arrives at a cottage garden and finds Vivie Warren, Mrs. Warren's 22-year old daughter reading books in a hammock. He informs her that Mrs. Warren has promised him a meeting with her and that she will also be presently arriving. Vivie shocks Praed with her firm masculine handshake, practical desire to be a law clerk, and her claim that she won a prize at Cambridge only because her mother promised her 50 pounds for it. Indeed, Praed finds that Vivie acts out the part of a young professional man: she affirms, "I like working and getting paid for it. When I'm tired of working, I like a comfortable chair, a cigar, a little whisky, and a novel with a good detective story in it." Soon, Mrs. Warren arrives, with another older man who is her friend, George Crofts. In a private conversation with one another, the somewhat sleazy Crofts tells Praed that he thinks he might be Vivie's father and he is worried because he is attracted to her. Meanwhile, Frank Gardner, a young and sporty young man arrives at the cottage as well. He is the son to a clergyman who tries to be an authoritative figure but thoroughly fails to do so, and a suitor to Vivie. When Mrs. Warren sees the Reverend Gardner, it is revealed that she is well-acquainted with him.

Act II:
Inside the cottage, Crofts and the Reverend counsel Frank against marrying Vivie (ostensibly because they all know Mrs. Warren's "profession"). When Vivie and Praed return from a walk together, it seems that she may have learned of her mother's profession from him. She tries to get Frank alone to talk to him, but his flippant flirtatiousness leads to her giving up having a serious conversation with him. Crofts, meanwhile, tells Mrs. Warren that it might be best if he marry Vivie, because then they could keep the secret of her profession within the family. Mrs. Warren resents Crofts's sleaziness. When Vivie and Mrs. Warren have a moment alone, Mrs. Warren finally explains her profession to her daughter, offering a compelling story that her circumstances led to there being no other option. Both Mrs. Warren and her sister Liz decided to capitalize on their appearances, indignantly refusing to "let other people trade in [their] good looks by employing [them] as shopgirls, or barmaids, or waitresses, when [they] could trade in them [them]selves and get all the profits instead of starvation wages." Vivie comes to understand her mother's position as a result of the limited options offered to women and admits: "My dear mother: you are a wonderful woman: you are stronger than all England." Thus, mother and daughter reconcile, Vivie feeling that they are both unconventional, independent women.

Act III:
The act opens the next morning at the Reverend's place. Praed and Crofts have stayed with him overnight, and apparently in his drunken state the previous evening, the Reverend had suggested inviring Mrs. Warren and her daughter over. This will be displeasing to the Reverend's wife, Frank's mother, for Mrs. Warren is not a "nice" woman (even if his wife may not know of his previous liaisons with Mrs. Warren). The wife decides to go out of town. When Vivie and her mother arrive, she has a chance to speak with Frank and to tell him that she has come to an understanding with her mother. Vivie also speaks with Crofts, who offers a marriage proposal which she naturally rejects, Crofts's offers of money and security not being particularly attractive to a person like Vivie who wants to hold her own. Vengefully, Crofts reveals to Vivie that her mother is still involved in the business of prostitution, trafficking other girls for profits. Moreover, Crofts was her business partner. He also reveals to Vivie and Frank that they are half sibilings, the Reverend being Vivie's father. Frank raises his rifle to shoot Crofts, but Vivie stops him. Vivie runs out and decides to seek work at Honoria Fraser's chambers as a kind of escape.

Act IV:
Frank eventually goes to the chancery after Vivie. There, he finds that she has become a partner at the firm. He tries to convince her to go out with him for a Saturday afternoon so that they may talk, but she refuses. Praed also shows up at the chancery, and together, Frank and Praed try to convince Vivie that she wants something more than the practical life she has chosen, but she resists both of their attempts to make her more "romantic" than she really is: "There are two subjects I want dropped, if you don't mind. One of them [to Frank] is love's young dream in any shape or form: the other [to Praed] is the romance and beauty of life, espcially Ostend and the gaiety of Brussels...If we three are to remain friends, I must be treated as a woman of business." Subsequently, Vivie reveals to the two of them what has happened and what her mother's profession has been and continues to be. The men are shocked, and leave off only to find that Mrs. Warren has arrived. Since Vivie has run off for a moment, the men try to convince Mrs. Warren to cancel her visit, but she decides to stay. When Vivie meets with her mother, she berates her for continuing her business, and lets her know that she wants nothing to do with her money. It isn't because of the profession's taint, Vivie says, but because her mother's continuance in the business reveals her to be a "conventional woman at heart" who desires the same trappings as any rich woman might desire: a life of leisure, nice clothes, operas, and diamonds. Vivie disowns her mother, and turns back to her work.

While George Bernard Shaw wrote in his 1902 preface that "Mrs. Warren's Profession was written in 1894 to draw attention to 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," it is clear that this isn't all that the play reveals. Mrs. Warren doesn't turn out to be the heroine who only engages in prostitution because she is pressed by circumstances (Augusta Webster's "castaway" is, by contrast). Mrs. Warren may have started her profession because circumstances allowed her no other way of maintaining as much freedom as possible, but later on she continues in the business of prostitution in order to live a conventional life of leisure. In valuing the trappings of a lady of leisure, Mrs. Warren has entrapped herself and lost her freedom.

Vivie might come closest to being the heroine of the story, in that she is able to reject the conventions  of living as a lady of leisure. However, Shaw seems to suggest that the only other alternative is yet another trap: Vivie ends up "trapped" in the capitalist (masculine) economy of working "to make more money than I spend." In that sense, Vivie acknowledges that she is like her mother, only that her mother cares more for spending than she does. Vivie seems completely absorbed in the task of working and money making for the sake of the task itself. There is something very unsatisfying about Vivie's final, "matter-of-fact" behavior--is this machine-like state truly the only sort of radical freedom available?

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