Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Our social entanglements have not changed much, despite the passing of a century

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” one of George Bernard Shaw’s most popular plays, was performed at the McCarter Theatre of Princeton University this past January and February. Written in 1893, the play carries themes of women’s rights in a patriarchal society that even today remain controversial. The playbill includes two double-page spreads with photos of the Victorian Age and quotes, one of which reads, “The truest test of a nation’s moral conditions is the sanctity or profanity of its treatment of women.” The play focuses on the strained relationship between Mrs. Warren and her daughter Vivie while also addressing the immorality of our society for abandoning poor women to wretchedness.

Women’s work rights—still being fought over these days—are outlined in this play by the struggle of lower class women, like Mrs. Warren and her sister Liz, whose only choice was to go into prostitution when they couldn’t stand backbreaking, demeaning, underpaid and filthy labor any longer. In the playbill, the director (Emily Mann) included a short narrative on the original production of the play, pointing out that its frank discussion of prostitution kept it from being performed for years after it was written, and that everyone involved in the first American public performance of the play was arrested by the New York City Police Department in 1905. Mann states, “In a nation scandalized by our politicians’ dalliances with prostitutes and an international community overwhelmed by stories of the brutal exploitation of women in the sex trade, we still fail to examine the economic and social realities that force many women into the oldest of industries.”

In Act One, we are introduced to Vivie (played by Madeleine Hutchins), a young Cambridge-educated woman who spent her whole life learning proper Victorian respectability in boarding schools. Vivie is a pragmatist, enjoying nothing more than a day of work, a hard chair and a cigar. The first scene illustrates her character in a comedic way: Mr. Praed (Edward Hibbert), an old friend of her mother’s, comes to visit and together they await the arrival of Mrs. Warren. At first glance, the two of them seem to be caricatures—his delicacy and flamboyant taste contrasts with her powerful handshake and firm mannerisms. He persists in upholding social etiquette, bringing out the ways in which she’s “unconventionally conventional.” His dizzy surprise at her impatience with frivolous gallantry, beauty and romance is reflective of our patriarchal society’s qualms with rational, tough, independent businesswomen.

By Act Two, Vivie develops affection and camaraderie for her single, well-to-do mother based on several shared qualities. These unconventional women both believe in the gospel of work as they both like to be comfortable, self-reliant and respected. Mrs. Warren (played by the dynamic Suzanne Bertish) explains her life story for the first time to her daughter and the audience in a surprisingly lengthy monologue. Vivie sits and listens intently, engaging in the discussion honestly and rationally. Mrs. Warren appears to be completely up-front about her past and here for the first time in the play the themes of prostitution and women’s work rights (which have been hinted at but never directly approached) are brought up. After seeing her two half-sisters die or be maimed by factory work, Mrs. Warren met her runaway full sister dressed lavishly and discovered that she had made a fortune as a sex worker. Forced to choose between mortal and moral peril, Mrs. Warren chose the latter, and never looked back with regret. Vivie takes this all in as a rational, educated woman, and is unable to find fault with it. “You were certainly quite justified—from the business point of view,” she says. Mrs. Warren replies to her well-off daughter, “If you took to it, you’d be a fool; but I should have been a fool if I’d taken to anything else.”

Then the insistent Vivie demands of her mother: “suppose we were both as poor as you were in those wretched old days, are you quite sure that you wouldn’t advise me to try the Waterloo bar, or marry a labourer, or even go into the factory?” Her mother answers sternly, “Of course not. What sort of mother do you take me for! How could you keep your self-respect in such starvation and slavery?” Mrs. Warren chose the lesser of two evils—which turns out to be a brothel—and in the process turns the moral world upside down. This line is directly related to Shaw’s intention as a playwright; according to a quote in the playbill, he stated, “though it is quite natural and right for Mrs. Warren to choose what is, according to her lights, the least immoral alternative, it is none the less infamous of society to offer such alternatives.” Meanwhile, this part of the play reveals Mrs. Warren’s clear-headed logic, business sense, and spirit of perseverance. In this way, Vivie is drawn to Mrs. Warren, and even starts to feel sympathy—the beginning of love—for her mother who was so often absent.

Unfortunately, Vivie’s affection doesn’t get the chance to grow into love. When she discovers Mrs. Warren continued her profession even after she had earned sufficient money, Vivie decides to shut her mother out of her life. Their differences are exposed in their last discussion, which proves to be a scene of catastrophe for Mrs. Warren, relief for Vivie, and heartbreaking intensity for the audience watching it unfold. One of the most painful moments—revealing the horrifying trap society has laid out for women—comes when Mrs. Warren laments, “Oh, the injustice of it! the injustice! the injustice! I always wanted to be a good woman. I tried honest work; and I was slave-driven until I cursed the day I ever heard of honest work. I was a good mother; and because I made my daughter a good woman she turns me out as if I were a leper. Oh, if I only had my life to live over again! I'd talk to that lying clergyman in the school. From this time forth, so help me Heaven in my last hour, I'll do wrong and nothing but wrong. And I'll prosper on it.”

I remember getting goosebumps when Mrs. Warren’s screamed at Vivie’s relentless spite. Mrs. Warren loved her daughter so much that she gave her the best the world had to offer—when she herself had no such offer at the same age—only to be rejected and literally cast out of Vivie’s life:

MRS WARREN ...But listen to this. Do you know what I would do with you if you were a baby again? aye, as sure as there's a Heaven above us.

VIVIE. Strangle me, perhaps.

MRS WARREN. No: I'd bring you up to be a real daughter to me, and not what you are now, with your pride and your prejudices and the college education you stole from me: yes, stole: deny it if you can: what was it but stealing? I'd bring you up in my own house, I would.

VIVIE [quietly] In one of your own houses.

MRS WARREN [screaming] Listen to her! listen to how she spits on her mother's grey hairs! Oh, may you live to have your own daughter tear and trample on you as you have trampled on me. And you will: you will. No woman ever had luck with a mother's curse on her.

After all the play’s grand exploration of social vices, the intimate relationship between parent and child still shines through. The end of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” hits us harder as we realize the real casualty of society’s corruption: the heartbreaking separation of a mother and her daughter.

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